Now that Christmas is behind us, it is time to talk about stuff. Americans, for the most part, have a lot of stuff. I know I have a lot of stuff. And if you live in Santa Barbara and are reading this, most likely you have a lot of belongings too. We live in an affluent society where consumerism is one of the driving cultural forces that we all must grapple with. Keep reading. This is not intended as a guilt-inducing harangue against the materialism that surrounds us and possibly infects you. This article is an offering to Christians to think about our possessions a bit more carefully.
Of course most of us don’t think we have all that much stuff because when we look around at our friends and neighbors we can always find someone who has more stuff than we do. Unfortunately, comparisons can cause us to rationalize the truth about ourselves. Consider some facts. In the average American home there are more televisions than people. America has more shopping malls than high schools. And while only 3% of the world’s children live in the United States, we purchase a whopping 40% of the toys sold worldwide. The average American family carries over $16,000 in credit card debt mostly from our consumer pleasures.
And then there is my life. I own 35 pairs of shoes. There, I have confessed it and I feel better for doing so. While this hardly makes me the Imelda Marcos of SBCC it does seem a bit excessive. You may remember that Imelda Marcos, the wife of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, gained some notoriety in the ‘80s for a shoe collection that topped 3,000 pairs! When Ferdinand was driven from power in a 1986 rebellion, Imelda left behind 1,220 shoes. But I actually need my all of my 35 pairs. You see, I love my shoes. And even though I rarely wear most of these shoes, they are important to me. My shoe collection is not really excessive.
I also have collected some sports equipment. There is a lot of it. Surfboards (4), snowboards (3), backpacks (5), bikes (2), tennis racquets (4), and rock climbing gear, now rarely used, that I can’t seem to part with. (I also have 14 Bibles, but they don’t count for the purposes of this article.) I really like my stuff, and when honest, my only regret is that I don’t have more.
I am trying to live a simple life. For example, every year I donate 3 or 4 large bags of clothing to charity. The problem is that I still don’t have room in my walk-in closet for all my clothes. I could continue with this self-deprecating diatribe but I think everyone gets the point. I have stuff. You have stuff.
Christians know that Jesus warned his followers about accumulating treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal (Matthew 6:19). We know that Jesus said we can’t serve two masters and that our lives do not consist in the abundance of our possessions (Luke 12:15). But a careful reading of the Bible and understanding of the Christian life also teaches us that God created us with the capacity for pleasure. And our possessions bring us pleasure. Therefore, can our stuff really be all that bad?
My concern is not so much with stuff itself, but with the role these possessions play in my life. It is not just that I have a lot, but that what I have takes on an inordinate place of importance in my life. Lying just underneath my possessions, almost imperceptibly, is idolatry. My stuff means too much to me. Possessions, good as they may be, can become objects of worship where I find significance and emotional satisfaction. I can subtly validate my worth when I purchase the latest tech gadget, designer clothes item, sports gear, car, or…
When we consume and gorge ourselves on stuff we inadvertently devour our souls. The Bible is full of warnings about idolatry. Idolatry is vacuous and a poor substitute for what our souls long for. Idolatry is looking for satisfaction in all the wrong places. Idolatry is dumb. The Psalmist mockingly warns God’s people.
The idols of the nations are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see. They have ears, but cannot hear, nor is there breath in their mouths. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them. (Psalm 135:15-18)
So whatever became of the 1,220 pairs of shoes that Imelda Marcos left behind in the Philippines when she fled the country? Well, Imelda’s shoes, along with a staggering amount of clothing and art objects abandoned in her now vacant palace, were all eventually destroyed by termites, mold and water damage. It makes me think of what will become of my shoes, and my surfboards, and my…. Along with Imelda’s shoes, my possessions will one day go to the ash heap (at least my collection of Patagonia gear can be recycled).
So Christians should be careful about stuff because we know, as James says, Your riches have rotted and garments are moth-eaten (James 5:2). Your riches will not last and ultimately they will not satisfy. If we satiate our souls with the abundance of our possessions there will be no hunger or room for God in our lives. The 19th century British preacher Charles Spurgeon wisely reminds us, Nothing teaches us about the preciousness of the Creator as much as when we learn the emptiness of everything else.
Are you as I am? Do you have too much stuff and are your possessions a threat to your soul as they are to mine? I invite you to join me in taking inventory. As a starting place for thinking about your stuff in 2018 try asking yourself these questions:
What role do my possessions play in my life? How much do I value them? Has my stuff become an idol?
Can you picture your stuff in the future assigned to the trash heap, destroyed by mold, termites or fire? Do you understand that all your belongings will be eventually be given to charity or a family member who probably won’t even want them?
How does my stuff affect my spiritual life?