I’m a closet ascetic. Well, I like to tell myself that, at least. At one point it was true, too. I may have never taken a vow of poverty, but I certainly didn’t own much, nor did I care to. Just as an example, when my freshman roommate and I moved into our college dorm room, we discovered they had booked two people into a single-person room. As such, we only had a single desk, a single five-drawer chest, and a single closet rack. After stowing our gear, we still had space on the rack and an entirely empty chest drawer. That’s how much stuff we didn’t bring with us.
Flash forward twelve years. I just moved again, and it took a 20′ Uhaul. I’m not married. I filled a twenty-foot-long truck (and my car, and my mom’s SUV) with just my stuff.
I would love to say I have things I can easily discard, but that’s just not true. Do I need everything I own in order to survive? No. There are a few luxuries I allow myself (primarily books — my latest tally is a nice, round 555), but otherwise, I use it all. I have no surplus of unidentifiable kitchen utensils; I wear every article of clothing I own; and my (admittedly few) guests tend to appreciate having a couch to sit upon during their stay. Yet my life seems cluttered, and that clutter calls out for its own. I find myself increasingly falling prey to the notion that if I could get my hands on just this one other thing, I wouldn’t need to bring anything else into my life. This isn’t a problem I used to wrestle with, and yet it’s popping up with alarming frequency.
I hadn’t realized how bad this had gotten until a couple of weeks ago. As you probably figured out, I’m a book hoarder. It’s difficult for me to pass up a book, and once I’ve read it, I’ll keep it even if I know I’ll never crack open the spine again. I wasn’t really aware of that problem until I received an offer in the mail for a free book: Kitchen and Food Safety for Ministries. A certain part of my brain whispered Free book! to my heart, and the battle was almost lost. Then the more reasonable part of my brain chimed in. Hang on a minute. Why would we ever need this? You don’t run a church kitchen. You can barely feed yourself. There’s no conceivable situation in which you will ever need or read this book, so maybe we should just give it a miss this time, free-ness notwithstanding. Luckily, that side won the day, and I passed on the chance to get a totally free, totally unnecessary book.
Perhaps we all have things like that. Something’s out there which immediately triggers the I need this right now instinct in us. Or maybe it doesn’t even require a trigger; we just naturally want to go on accumulating things like a mammalian magpie bringing shinies back to our nests. We don’t need those things, and we may never even open the boxes after we buy them, but we’re still driven to get them, to claim them, to call them . . . precious.
To me, that speaks of a soul issue. Instead of filling our lives with the One who gives us life, we fill them with stuff and things. Instead of decluttering our hearts so we can see the Savior waiting for take up his abode with us, we create little mountains of junk which block our view so we don’t have to look at him as he pleads with us to make room for him. We consume and consume without ever making or mending. We make sacrifices to have more stuff instead of sacrificing the stuff to have more life. And when Christ said he came to give us a more abundant life (John 10:10), he wasn’t talking about giving us everything thing on our Christmas lists (and oh, the irony of calling them that). Instead our abundant life comes with a warning: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24).
Your stuff in the living room may not be money in the bank, but it was still money, wealth, possessions. And really, if you think about, all that stuff represents hours of your life. When you work, you get paid. That money is reimbursement for the hours you spent working (hence the idea of the hourly wage). If you make $10 an hour and buy a $100 item, it took ten hours of your life to pay for that purchase. How much is your time with your family worth? Time with friends? At church? Serving God in other ways? If you spend all your time working to get money to get stuff, then that stuff is your master. It rules you, demands you devote your life to acquiring and maintaining it instead of using that time elsewhere. Like in service of God.
Maybe we don’t need, truly need, as much as we all think we do. Maybe there are things we can do without in order to break the chains they’ve wrapped around our souls. Maybe a simple life is the best life, one lived without thought to the next Big Thing which promises to make us finally, truly happy — and which never can, never will, because the only Person which can do that is God Almighty.