I’m in the process of moving my study up into the loft. No, this isn’t an attempt to put Proverbs 25:24 into practice. It’s simply a matter of room. When we knew that John was on the way, we realised that we would need extra space for our growing family. So I consulted the other office-bearers and they gave me the go-ahead for a loft conversion. We hoped it would be finished well before John was born. It didn’t work out quite like that. In fact, more than six months on from his birth, the builders still have to come back to sort out odds and ends. But the bulk of the work’s done, the walls are painted, the carpet is down, and I’ve begun the job of building shelves and deciding what goes where.
There’s probably as much floor space as in my old study. But of course, the walls are much lower. So there’s far less room for shelves, filing cabinets and cupboards. Which means that I’ve got to get rid of a lot of the junk that’s built up over the past fifteen years or so. It’s a daunting and yet strangely exhilarating task. For the moment, everything’s just piled up in the smallest of our bedrooms. Each day, I try to spend half an hour, sorting through it all, throwing out everything I don’t need, carrying what’s left up to the new study, allocating a definite place to each item. What wisdom there was in the old housekeeping adage: A place for everything; everything in its place!
I’m trying to be ruthless. Again and again I hesitate, reluctant to throw out a pile of old magazines, a file of newspaper cuttings, a tatty school dictionary, a broken slide viewer (who knows? I may be able to use some of the components one day to repair something else…). But I’ve fixed three rules in my head – or three questions.
1. Have I needed this book, magazine, whatever it might be? In all the years since I acquired it, have I ever needed to consult it? Or has it just gathered dust there on the top shelf?
2. Would I miss it? Alright, while I’m holding it in my hand, I feel reluctant to throw it out. But if Anne had just thrown it out for me without my knowing, would I ever have noticed it had gone?
3. If I were moving into a smaller house (say a retirement home) or if I were emigrating and had to ship everything, say to New Zealand or South Africa, could I live without this item?
Weighed in those balances, so many of my possessions are found wanting. I’m forced to admit that they’re simply not needed. And when finally I nerve myself to do the deed, and drop some long-hoarded object into the bin bag, I feel a strange sense of relief. I feel almost physically lighter, as if I’ve broken off a weight that was dragging on me. I feel a new sense of freedom.
Possessions do tie us down. That’s why Jesus warned, ‘Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven… for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.’
Treasures don’t have to be gold or silver. Jesus is simply forbidding us to store up things we don’t use and don’t need. And he warns us that if we do, they will simply become a source of frustration and anxiety.
If they are valuable, we worry in case somebody steals them, or in case they get damaged. We have to insure them, polish them, make sure they’re kept in the best possible conditions. Each time we add to our collection, we tell ourselves that our new possession will bring satisfaction and pleasure. But in fact, each one brings added work and added worry.
If our treasures are valueless, we probably won’t worry about burglars stealing them. But they can still become a fearful bondage. They need dusting or mending. They make it difficult to work efficiently. (How many of us can work properly when we’ve got clutter all around us?) They take up space and stop us finding the things we really need. How often I’ve not been able to lay my hands on some vital piece of paper, because it’s buried among the thousand unnecessary bits of paper that are piled up on my desk! And quite simply, they make our homes less comfortable.
Hanging on to unnecessary possessions can become an addiction. In some folk it may reach frightening proportions. I remember visiting a house where a lady had lived alone for many years. She couldn’t bring herself to throw out anything. The cupboards were filled with rusted cans of food that she had stored up before the Second World War. The hallway was stacked with piles of magazines and newspapers accumulated over sixty years. But most frightening of all was her bedroom. Each morning she made herself a cup of tea in her room and boiled herself an egg before coming downstairs. Now, after her death, I saw her bedroom, knee deep in eggshells, teabags and milk-bottle tops. She was an educated and wealthy woman, yet her inability to throw out rubbish had turned her home into a stinking garbage heap.
Well, you say, that was clearly an extreme case. She had become mentally unbalanced. But how different is the Christian woman who told me in all seriousness that she couldn’t throw out anything that had been part of her children’s life? Every picture they had ever brought home from school, every garment they had ever worn, every birthday card or broken toy – all piled up in her home. As she and the family moved from one house to another, the mountain moved with them. Some of the boxes hadn’t been opened since they were packed for the last house-move but two.
And how different am I, hanging on for fifteen years to a newspaper cutting that I might want to quote one day? Or to a magazine that I might want to read again some time? Or to the torn wall-map of Europe that I might one day use to illustrate a missionary talk?
The compulsion to own things can take many forms. It can show itself as impulse buying. It can show itself as collector’s mania. It can show itself as the urge constantly to upgrade our possessions. So often, we buy because we feel that having this extra book or picture or CD or computer add-on will satisfy us. One more possession and we’ll find contentment at last.
It all springs from idolatry – treating the things of this world as if they were gods, believing they can make us happy. If we’re not happy with God alone, then we won’t be happy however many possessions we buy. Paul, that penniless wanderer could cheerfully say: ‘If we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content..’ For him it was enough if God gave him the bare necessities of life day by day.
And the desire to hang on to things we don’t need is another form of the same idolatry. Why do I find it so hard to throw out bits of paper I’ve not looked at in fifteen years? Or gadgets I’ve never used? Is it because they make me feel secure? Do I need them in order to reassure myself that my memories are real? Would I feel lost without them?
A Christian should be able to say, ‘If my home were burned down tonight and everything I owned were destroyed, I could still be happy. My security is in God alone. I don’t need my photos, I don’t need my old school reports, I don’t need my mementoes, I don’t need the clothes that are hanging in the wardrobe. If I have God, he is enough’.
In the end, none of the ‘treasures’ we’ve accumulated in this world will survive. Many of those items you’ve hoarded so lovingly will go in the skip when you die. Your children or grandchildren will have no use for them. And every human treasure will vanish in the Great Day when this world with all it holds is melted down in the fire of God’s judgement. Treasures in heaven last for ever. Earth’s treasures at best may last a few brief years.
All for now. There’s another boxful waiting to be sorted before tea.