How much STUFF can a person have?
I teased my parents about being “hoarders” when I was in college because they used to have lots of stuff around the house. At one point, my dad had a whole box of Dennison’s chili in his bedroom closet because there wasn’t room for it in the pantry, or the kitchen, or even the dining room. But after watching the show Hoarders and other shows like it, my parents seem to be the model of cleanliness. Hoarding, otherwise known as disposophobia, is real and some have even postulated it is a result of our obsession with STUFF. I don’t generally watch CSI but there was an episode about hoarding and at the end of the episode, two of the characters, Ray and Nick, are talking. Ray tells Nick that the philosopher Erich Fromm forecasted a society obsessed with possessions. “Fromm said people had two basic orientations, ‘having’ and ‘being.’ A ‘having’ orientation seeks to acquire or possess things, property, even people. But a person with a ‘being’ orientation derives meaning from the experiences in life. Unfortunately, Fromm concluded that a culture driven by commercialism like the one we live in today is doomed to the ‘having’ orientation, which leads to dissatisfaction and emptiness.” Ray continued, “When you consider in 1960 there was no such thing as public storage in America. Today there are over 2 billion square feet dedicated to it. Makes you think he had a point.” Can you imagine that? 2 billion square feet for more of our STUFF. Did you know the word “stuff” literally means “to fill up.” The real question is, “What we are filling up our lives with and why?”
I can’t help but think of the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman.
He meets this woman at the well near where she lives and after getting into a discussion with her, Jesus says, “Everyone who drinks this water (meaning the water from the well) will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” So the question is, are you filling up on well water or living water? We like to think we are filling up on living water, but most of us are probably filling up on well water. We get stuck in the grind of daily living and we become convinced that our problems will be solved with STUFF. Whether that STUFF is money or power or likes on Instagram, we crave the accumulation of things, hoping that it will solve all our problems, but in the end, we are always thirsty for more. Because what Jesus said is true. Only when we drink of the living water, only when we live a life in Christ, and realize the impermanence of this place will our thirst be quenched. What we need to do is change what we drink, not drink more of what we have. We need living water.
We have always struggled with the balance between God and STUFF.
Our reading this morning in one of Paul’s letter to Timothy he talks about this exact issue. Although there are many instances where people write similar stories or letters about the challenge of giving, Paul offers a reason beyond simply telling us “because you should.” He offers a concrete difference between people who make giving a priority and those who don’t. And he explains why it’s better to give. I believe that whenever God tells us to do something it’s always for our benefit and not necessarily for God’s. God doesn’t need anything from us, he wants something FOR us. And when we listen to God, our lives become better, even if we can’t see it at the time. That’s why God wants for us to become detached from STUFF and develop a heart for giving. Sometimes it seems counterintuitive that giving up our abundance will somehow make us more wealthy, but we find out how in Paul’s letter to Timothy.
3 If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, 4 they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions 5 and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.
6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. – 1 Timothy 6:3-9
Paul basically invented the saying, “You can’t take it with you.”
He writes to Timothy, “For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” No matter how much STUFF we have at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. We can’t take it with us. The guy who wrote the saying, “He who dies with the most toys wins” didn’t know what he was talking about. Paul tells us our goal should be “godliness with contentment”; to live a Christ-like life which brings a peace that only God can give. It’s why he writes, “…godliness with contentment is great gain,” because that peace is not something you can buy, but a gift from God for living the kind of life that honors him. But Paul also warns against people with corrupt minds, the kind that uses “godliness (as) a means to financial gain.” He warns that the person who “acts Christian” to get more money, more possessions, more STUFF is disconnected from the life God wants for us all. We get so focused on these unimportant things we don’t even consider whether or not it will really bring us the joy and peace we all crave.
Let me give you a non-monetary example.
When I was in 4th grade, I had a crush on a girl named Karleen Boyle. I don’t know how it started, but everyday after school I would chase her out the door. Kind of a foolish way to tell a girl you like her. Go and chase her down. Pretty soon it became almost a daily competition. Sometimes her friends would join in. She had this Jabberjaw lunch pail that I got to know real well, because she would swing it at me if I got too close. There was some sort of unwritten rule that if she made it to the parking lot she won. And even though I lost every day, I was undeterred. I would chase her and every day she escaped. Until one day, she swung that Jabberjaw lunch pail and missed. I reached out as it passed by me and grabbed her by the arm. She just looked at me as a triumphant grin spread across my face and she asked, “So what are you going to do now?” Honestly, I didn’t know. So I let her go. I had become so focused on getting her, I never really thought what I would do once I did. Sometimes we’re like that about the material things in our life. We become so focused on it, on more money, more things, more recognition – we become so focused on filling our lives with STUFF, that we don’t often think about what happens after we get it. We’re sure that once we get whatever it is we are after, life will be so great! But there’s always more money to grab, more things to own, and more fame to have. When will it be enough? When we realize the STUFF of this world will never give us the peace we crave.
What holds us back from giving more of our time, talent, and gifts is this obsession with STUFF.
Hoarding is just an extreme example of it, but each of us struggles with letting go. When we do give, we often become focused on what we get out of it. But we forget ultimately giving is about living. We give to live. Because giving is an attitude. Giving is a spiritual discipline. When we remember that it isn’t ours to begin with and that it all belongs to God, we become more grateful for what we have and we become less worried about what happens to our gift. When we have an attitude of giving we draw closer to God. And giving has some lifelong benefits, too. Like the fact that 80% of people who tithe have no credit card debt compared to the national average of 61%. 74% have no car payments compared to the $750 billion in loans out there today. 48% have no mortgage. But as one analyst said, the tither looks at these statistics and says his life got better for giving. The doubter looks at the same stats and says to himself the tither is able to tithe because his life started off better. For all of the evidence I can share with you, it still comes down to a personal decision to do it – to give more. God wants us to give, not because he needs anything, but because when we let go of all the STUFF in our lives, our lives become better. One of my favorite pieces of Scripture is from Malachi. I like to think of it as the God Challenge where God tells the people of Israel, “’Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.’” That image of God telling us, his people, to test him and see the abundance of blessing that will come from your giving. “See if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it!” That’s the kind of life God wants for you. A life of abundance. Abundance in peace. Abundance in life. Abundance of love. The things that are most important. But again, as in all things, this is a choice. You have to eventually trust that God’s system works and try it for yourself. Don’t get me wrong. I like STUFF too. I’m not saying having stuff is a sin. I’m not advocating for living like John the Baptist on honey and locusts. But I am advocating that what Ray told Nick in that CSI episode is true. The trick is to not let the STUFF get in the way. I want to challenge you during this time of Lent to give more. More of your time, more of your talents, more of your gifts. Take the God challenge and see if making this a regular part of your life doesn’t make your entire life better. You would be surprised at the difference it can make. Take a drink of the living water and see how refreshing it can be.