You Can’t Eat Just One

A little boy holds a bag of Lay’s potato chips and grins at NFL quarterback Dan Marino. "Betcha can’t eat just one," the little boy says. Marino snorts with indignation. Of course he can eat just one. He’s a highly disciplined athlete, who’s spent thousands of hours on the practice field. But the next thing we see is an empty Lay’s bag. The commercial is amusing, and it’s probably selling a lot of potato chips. But it’s also selling something a lot less tasty—a philosophy that celebrates unrestrained self-indulgence. Lay’s isn’t alone in promoting this philosophy. Television ads for the soft drink Sprite carry a punch line that says: " Thirst is everything. Obey your thirst." And consider a recent ad for Lee jeans. A young man follows a woman across the entire country after glimpsing her wearing a snug pair of Lee jeans. The not-so-subtle promise is: Pull on a pair of Lees, and men will be reduced to drooling idiots, governed by their glands. Ads like these are pitching a philosophy of hedonism—the idea that pleasure is the highest good. Go ahead and indulge, these ads whisper. Indulgence will make you happy. But the truth is, hedonism is a dead end. When we emphasize pleasure in the here and now, we’re denying that our lives have an eternal purpose. It’s a philosophy that implicitly suggests a deep despair. "Eat, drink and be merry" contains the hidden premise that "tomorrow we die." As theologian R. C. Sproul puts it, at its root, hedonism is a "philosophy [that] reflects a deep-seated sense of hopelessness"—one from which we need an escape. After all, Sproul says, "If my life… has no eternal significance, then why not grab whatever pleasure I can?" But we Christians know we do have an eternal purpose. We shouldn’t let ourselves be caught in the trap of the here and now, because we have a higher horizon. Scripture teaches that true fulfillment comes, not through pandering to our desires, but through directing them according to God’s higher purposes. The Christian ethic tells us just the opposite of what commercials tell us: that self-denial can yield true fulfillment. That’s why ads like the ones for Lay’s potato chips are so harmful: The problem is not that these ads imply that pleasure is good. The problem is that they teach a philosophy that just isn’t true: that unrestrained self-indulgence is the purpose of life, and that living this way will make us happy. You and I need to be aware of the underlying messages commercials contain and learn to resist them. And we ought to teach our children to do the same: to look for the philosophy lesson lurking behind the soft drinks and potato chips. The idea that we can and should resist temptation might make advertising executives break out in hives. But we need to teach our kids that with God’s help, we can eat just one potato chip… or maybe, none at all.


Chuck Colson


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