My daughter-in-law recently shared a scenario I remember occurring with my own children. Her son, my grandson, accidentally broke something and was upset. In an effort to comfort him, his parents assured him it was all right, it was just a thing, it could be replaced.
Then the next time something broke, he nonchalantly said, “It’s okay, we can get another one.”
It’s been a couple of decades since my own were very young, and I can’t remember how I handled this with them. I think over time and experience, they learned that accidents are ok, but deliberate destruction is not; some things can be replaced easily, some things cannot.
I’m not prone to watch talk shows, but I caught part of one years ago in which a child said that when he got into trouble for jumping on the couch, it made him feel like his parents loved the couch more than him. I remember thinking, “It’s not unloving to teach a child to take care of property.” But perhaps the way the situation was handled added fuel to the fire. I remember a song my parents used to listen to told a story about a man getting after his daughter about not messing up the grass in the yard that he had worked so hard to maintain. Now he had a beautiful yard, but he was estranged from his daughter.
It’s possible to love our “stuff” more than we love people, or at least to give them the impression that we do. But teaching a child to take care of things in itself is not putting the things above the child. I’ve known adults with an “Oh, well” attitude towards things which they probably think is non-materialistic, but which seems careless.
How do we find that balance between not esteeming things too highly or too carelessly?
Here are some principles that help me.
Everything we have belongs to God. We don’t have anything that didn’t ultimately come from God. We’re just stewards of our possessions.
“The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).
Who has first given to me, that I should repay him? Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine. (Job 41:11)
“All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made” (John 1:3). Even if we grew, carved, crafted, or assembled something, the raw materials as well as the ability to do anything with them came from God.
We can’t take it with us. “As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand (Ecclesiastes 5:15). Ecclesiastes speaks often of the vanity of working for things and then leaving them behind to someone else.
We’re accountable for what we do with our things. “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?” (Luke 16:10-12). “Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy” (1 Corinthians 4:2).
Good stewardship includes careful use of things. This verse always convicts me, and I like the way the KJV puts it: “The slothful man roasteth not that which he took in hunting: but the substance of a diligent man is precious (Proverbs 12:27). According to the Pulpit Commentary at the bottom of this page, this could refer to someone who caught game but was too lazy to roast it, so it went bad (that’s the part that convicts me when I clean rotted stuff out of the refrigerator), or someone who catches game but then doesn’t attend to it, so it escapes. Either way, the slothful, or lazy person, doesn’t attend to what he has, but “the substance of a diligent man is precious” (some translations say “prized.”)
I hate to see people throw out perfectly good items just because they don’t need or want them anymore. Sometimes people will come by and take for themselves anything you have on the streets to be thrown out. Some people like to “dumpster dive” for treasures. So maybe people who take their unwanted stuff to dumps figure someone might find it there. But our local recycling and trash center doesn’t allow anything to be taken out, probably for safety purposes. I don’t like to mess with sales, but I like to take any unused items in good condition to the local thrift store.
Possessions are not wrong. I fear that some in the minimalist camp equate what they consider excess as sin. There’s nothing in the Bible that says we have to live as starkly as possible. We shouldn’t be covetous, and we have to understand that things cost money and take up space and time to maintain. But different people have different tolerance levels for “stuff.” I used to wonder whether it was wrong to want to wear pretty clothes or decorate my home. But I realized that God could have made the world just utilitarian, yet He didn’t. He created a wonderful variety of vibrant colors, animals, flora, etc. Edith Schaeffer made a strong case for this in a chapter on Interior Decorating in The Hidden Art of Homemaking. One of her quotes there:
If you have been afraid that your love of beautiful flowers and the flickering flame of the candle is somehow less spiritual than living in starkness and ugliness, remember that He who created you to be creative gave you the things with which to make beauty and the sensitivity to appreciate and respond to His creation (p. 109).
Possessions are temporary. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.(Matthew 6:19-21).
Possessions can be idols. Jesus called one man who laid up many goods but did not prepare for eternity a “rich fool.” He reminded His listeners “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). The “rich young ruler” came to Jesus once to ask what he needed to do to get to heaven. Jesus told him to sell all he had and give it to the poor. Note: this is not something He says to everyone, but He knew that this man’s riches were an idol to him. The man “went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Matthew 19:22). Jesus went onto say that it is “only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:23). Paul writes to Timothy:
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:17-19).
Possessions can be a distraction. Amy Carmichael told of a woman she was trying to share the gospel with in Japan. The weather was cold and Amy suffered from neuralgia, so she wore some fur-lined gloves. The women listened and seemed to be just about to turn to God when she noticed Amy’s gloves and asked about them.
She was old and ill and easily distracted. I cannot remember whether or not we were able to recall her to what mattered so much more than gloves. But this I do remember. I went home, took off my English clothes, put on my Japanese kimono, and never again, I trust, risked so much for the sake of so little (Frank Houghton, Amy Carmichael of Dohnavur, p. 59).
Similarly, in Isobel Kuhn‘s early ministry in China, she was a newlywed taking joy in setting up housekeeping. When a couple of Chinese women came to visit, she was thrilled to receive them. They were among the poorest people, and their culture was very different. One of the women blew her nose in her hands and wiped them on Isobel’s rug. The other held her child apart from her while the child wet on the rug. The women had dirt floors in their homes, so they were unaware they had done anything “wrong.” Isobel “managed to remain courteous” while the women were there. But once they left, “Hot resentment rose in my heart, and then there followed my first battle over things.” She concluded:
If your finery hinders your testimony throw it out. In our Lord’s own words, if thine hand offend thee, cut it off; He was not against our possessing hands, but against our using
them to hold on to sinful or hindering things.
So I faced my choice. In our first home—what was to come first? An attractive sitting-room just for ourselves? Or a room suited to share with the local Chinese?
Our engagement motto hung silently on the wall—God first. Mentally I offered that pretty rattan furniture to the Lord to be wrecked by the country peasants if they chose (Isobel Kuhn, Whom God Has Joined, pp. 21-22).
When they moved to their next station, she sold these items and bought easily washable furnishings like the Chinese had.
We’re commanded to be generous. It’s easy to look at millionaires and think, “Yeah, those rich people need to be generous!” But the Macedonians were commended for giving “according to their means” out of “extreme poverty” (2 Corinthians 8:1-5). We’re all richer than someone. What’s considered poor these days would be considered quite rich by people in some other countries or by people from a hundred years ago.
We only give back to God what is His. David and other leaders donated materials for Solomon to build the temple. David prayed before the assembly, acknowledging “all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours” (1 Chronicles 29:11-13)(See point 1). Then he said:
But who am I, and what is my people, that we should be able thus to offer willingly? For all things come from you, and of your own have we given you . . . O Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a house for your holy name comes from your hand and is all your own. (1 Chronicles 29:14, 16)
We hold possessions loosely. Rosalind and Jonathan Goforth’s lost nearly everything not once, but four times in their missionary experience: through fire, flood, the Boxer rebellion when they fled for their lives, and damage when they were on furlough and others moved their things to a leaky storage shed. Rosalind found this fourth loss “the hardest to bear,” possibly since it came about “because ‘someone had blundered'” (Rosalind Goforth, Goforth of China, p. 210).
When, in the privacy of their own room, the “weaker vessel” broke down and wept bitter, rebellious tears, Goforth sought to comfort her by saying, “My dear, after all, they’re only things and the Word say, ‘Take joyfully the spoiling of your goods!’ Cheer up, we’ll get along somehow” (p. 211).
Jonathan quotes there from Hebrews 10:32-35, where the writer recalls some of the sufferings the Hebrews had endured:
But recall the former days when, after you were enlightened, you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction, and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward.
We trust God for things we need. “Daily bread” is one of the things Jesus instructs us to pray for (Matthew 6:11). He also said, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25). He pointed out the birds and flowers that our heavenly Father feeds and cares for. Then He reminded His listeners, “Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (verses 32b-33).
God often provides through honest work: Proverbs and Ecclesiastes say much about diligence, hard work, and reward. The New Testament condemns “idleness” (2 Thessalonians 3:6-10) and commends work:
If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:10-12)
We not only work for our needs, but to provide for our families. In the context of the church providing for destitute widows, Paul writes, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).
So, though God usually meets our needs through providing opportunity and strength to work, when no work is available, or it’s not enough for the needs, we’re not to worry. We seek Him and trust Him to provide. I heard one preacher say that when his car had a problem and he didn’t have the money to fix it, remembering that all we have belongs to God, he prayed, “God, Your car needs work.”
It seems the more I search, the more I find in the Bible concerning how we should think about things. Other aspects include not stealing other people’s things, covetousness, and contentment.
But these prevailing truths help me. Everything we have comes from God and belongs to Him. Some day we’ll give an account of how we handled what He gave us. Therefore we take care of them, use them wisely, hold them loosely, give generously to others, and trust Him to provide. He “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). It’s okay to enjoy the material blessings He provides. But we don’t set our hearts on them or esteem them more highly than we should. We understand that God, people, and eternal truths are more important.
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