How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Stuff

It’s Wednesday, recycling day. The day in my neighborhood where red bins overstuffed with Amazon boxes line the curb. I should know — my bin looks the same. It seems none of us can resist two-day shipping.

I’ve read enough about minimalism, tidying up, and the Christian discipline of simplicity to know this should make me guilty. And it does. Sometimes. But I don’t want a white-walled home with no comfortable seating. I want piles of books laying around and old cross-stitches from my family on my walls and too many photos of my kids.

In a world where we hear conflicting messages that we are defined by our stuff (consumerism) and that our stuff doesn’t define us (minimalism), what does a healthy relationship with stuff look like? Why do we care so much about our stuff? Why does stuff matter? Should stuff matter?

I don’t know about you, but I need some help here — like a theology of stuff to help guide my thinking and decision-making. Fortunately, Albert Mohler laid out this very thing in a recent episode of The Briefing podcast. Below are my extrapolations on his thoughts and some rules to help you develop a healthy relationship with stuff.

The Value of Stuff

Christians understand that the most important reality is spiritual. Our battles are not against “against flesh and blood, but … against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). The Bible teaches that we should value the life of the spirit over the life of the flesh (John 6:63). Believers understand that everything we see in the material world is eventually going to disappear or be forgotten.

The Old and New Testaments explain why we value stuff. It’s because stuff carries with it meaning. We accumulate stuff because we might make that stuff, or someone gave us that stuff, or we know a need for that stuff. In short, we accumulate stuff because it means something to us.

Our things trigger memories. We remember exactly when that family heirloom came into our lives, who gave it to us, and why it matters. This is why we collect stuff that once belonged to our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents. That kind of stuff is more than just stuff. It’s important to us because it represents human beings whom we love, cherish, and value.

Sometimes we value stuff not because it is meaningful but because it is useful. We create, design, invent, purchase, and sell stuff that makes life possible or that makes life easier. Think of something as simple as a shovel or as complex as an X-RAY machine. This kind of stuff makes possible things we value, and therefore the stuff itself becomes valuable.

Now, the Bible doesn’t allow the worship of stuff, no matter how meaningful or how useful. It doesn’t allow us to cling too tightly to our belongings. But the Bible does explain why we as human beings tend to surround ourselves with stuff and why that stuff matters to us.

Stuff in the Bible

Scripture gives grave warnings against materialism, against valuing stuff too much (Matthew 6:19-21; 1 Timothy 6:7-10; Hebrews 13:5; Luke 12:15, 33). But Scripture also validates stuff, including and owning, giving, and receiving stuff. Think of how the wise men honored Jesus at his birth. They brought stuff in the form of gifts. 

When Jesus sent his disciples out on their first evangelistic mission, he told them to carry very little stuff. Stuff can weight you down. The stuff you own can end up owning you. Christians are not to be hindered by stuff.

While the Bible validates stuff in some ways, it warns us against allowing our stuff to have an outsize influence in our lives and desires. Stuff can tempt us to give in to materialism, consumerism, greed, and coveting. The Bible is clear that these are sins. It’s also clear that stealing someone’s stuff is a sin.

Early Christians demonstrated their love for one another by sharing their stuff. Their stuff became an avenue for blessing instead of sin because of how they used it and refused to hold on to it. 

How to Have a Healthy Relationship with Stuff

I do not have a healthy relationship with stuff. I want things, buy too many things, covet things, chase things. I pray almost daily that God would make me not love the world or the things of the world (1 John 2:15). 

As I’ve tried to rid myself of materialism, I’ve found Richard Foster’s 10 rules for simplicity to be helpful. Your mileage may vary, but if you want to crucify your desire for stuff, you have to have a plan. Without a plan, you’ll be discipled by the marketers who know how your brain and heart work far better than you do.

Here are Foster’s 10 rules for simplicity:

  1. Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status.
  2. Reject anything that is producing an addiction in you.
  3. Develop a habit of giving things away.
  4. Refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry.
  5. Learn to enjoy things without owning them.
  6. Develop a deeper appreciation for the creation.
  7. Look with a healthy skepticism at all “buy now, pay later” schemes.
  8. Obey Jesus’ instructions about plain, honest speech (Matt. 5:37).
  9. Reject anything that breeds the oppression of others.
  10. Shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the kingdom of God.

If you want to read more about these rules, read the chapter on simplicty in Foster’s book The Celebration of the Disciplines or the shorter article on which the chapter was based. For a deep dive, read Foster’s book devoted to the subject called Freedom of Simplicity

Why the Church Must Think Deeply About Technology

The year 2007 is now thought to be one of the defining years in history. A moment where everything after was different.

Much like 1440, when Gutenberg’s printing press changed the world forever, 2007 left the world a different place because of the Internet.

The Internet wasn’t invented in 2007, but it was made highly accessible and personal on a mass scale through the release of Apple’s first iPhone and the rise of social media.

It seems difficult at times to remember the world before 2007. Think back to that time.

Before 2007

In 2006, there was no iPhone or Twitter. Facebook was in its infancy, confined to college campuses. Most people had what we now call dumbphones, meaning phones without full internet access.

Most of us were still texting on a number pad (remember T9?), though a few of us, mostly business professionals, had Blackberry’s with a full, physical keyboard.

We were just coming out of the dial-up Internet phase and had finally stopped receiving those AOL update CDs in the mail. The Internet was largely something you accessed at home or at work, not something that went with you when you left.

Can you believe that was just 12 years ago?

Rapid Change

The rate of technological change today makes it hard to keep up with all that’s happening, let alone reflect on how technology is shaping us. Change is nothing new, though. Even technological change. Since the beginning of time, life has continued to increase in complexity at a more rapid pace. But complexity requires wisdom.

Each societal, cultural, or technological change in our world requires wisdom to navigate the new, more complex world. We used to have decades or centuries to develop a base of wisdom through living and thinking deeply, but that world no longer exists.

Sociologist Zygmunt Bauman calls this phenomenon of rapid change “liquid modernity.” Bauman says we used to live in an age of “solid modernity”—a period of social change that was fairly predictable and manageable—but now we live in “liquid modernity”—in which change is so rapid that no social institutions have time to solidify.

Rod Dreher writes in The Benedict Option, which David Brooks of the New York Times has called the most discussed and important religious book of the decade,

The most radical, disruptive, and transformative technology ever created is the Internet. It is the ultimate facilitator of liquid modernity because it conditions the way we experience life and frames all our experiences.

Perhaps more dangerous than the speed of technological change is that we can become used to the rate of change and no longer wait to evaluate whether or not a new development actually delivers on its promises.

Andy Crouch writes in his book The Tech-Wise Family, “We are stuffing our lives with technology’s new promises, with no clear sense of whether technology will help us keep the promises we’ve already made.”

After 2007

There is no doubting that technology has changed the world since 2007, particularly through the digital revolution, which includes things like the mass adoption of smartphones and social media, along with the almost ubiquitous access to Wi-Fi.

And there is no doubting that technology has made our lives far easier in many ways. At the same time, there are many who are concerned with the effects of our increased reliance on technology.

I don’t know a single parent who isn’t asking questions about screen time or when to allow kids to have a smartphone. We’ve all heard the reports about the negative effects of too much time spent on social media or seen entire families out to eat in total silence because they are all glued to their phones.

But we haven’t all heard the church talking about technology in terms of discipleship, or how it changes (for better or worse) spiritual formation.

Technology in the Bible?

Since technology is always new and changing, many in the church don’t think the Bible has direct wisdom to offer in this area, but that’s not true. The Bible has some very interesting things to say about technology, as I’ll explain in a future post.

This assumption that the Bible doesn’t address technological concerns might be why most of the Christians I talk to have spent very little, if any, time thinking deeply about technology through a theological framework.

But we must.

Outside of God himself, there is nothing shaping our world more than technology right now.

To help us think about technology through a theological framework, some future posts will cover things like:

  • The Good, the bad, and the ugly of technology
  • Biblical considerations of technology
  • What should we do? (where I’ll suggest a framework for thinking through decisions about technology)

Where Persecution in America Comes From

“Where does persecution in America come from? Because I can’t figure it out.” The man, a lifelong missionary only recently driven home by health concerns, glared at the class, his eyes piercing students’ hearts.

He had just lamented the increasingly weak witness of the American church after recounting stories of persecuted believers — the ones being tortured, dragged from their homes, or thrown in prison — who can’t imagine giving up their witness.

The only answers he got were blank stares. I certainly didn’t have an answer.

Why is our witness so weak when we have easy access to reach our neighbors with the gospel? What stops us from walking across the street or going into the unreached parts of our towns and cities? If our brothers and sisters are risking their necks to do it around the world, why aren’t we doing it here?

These questions haunt me.

But I may have figured out the answer (or at least part of it) to where American persecution comes from.

Where Persecution in America Comes From

Where does persecution in America come from? Nowhere.

Let me explain by looking at the effects on believers of living with and without persecution.

Persecution causes would-be believers to count the cost before following Jesus. The knowledge that you’ll likely lose your home, family, and job because you were baptized into the Christian faith makes you think more than twice about pledging allegiance to the cross.

But when there don’t appear to be any real costs to following Jesus, as is the case in America, what’s the big deal in saying you believe? This is changing in America, to some extent, but the odds of a professing believer losing their job or family because of their belief are very slim compared to other parts of the world. Without counting the cost, the odds of being choked out by the cares and riches of the world (Matthew 13:22) are much, much greater. This is one big reason why American Christianity is filled with so-called Christians who no longer practice the faith.

Persecution results in suffering that can catalyze sanctification. This is why the church is called to rejoice in its suffering, because “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:3-5). Christians are called to count it a joy when they meet trials of various kinds, because the testing of our faith produces steadfastness. And when steadfastness reaches its full effect, we will be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing (James 1:2-4).

But without persecution, the drive for sanctification has to come from inside believers. Sanctification requires self-control, or self-discipline. Without self-control, there will be little sanctification. There has never been a freer society than modern America. Yet for all our freedom, I doubt anyone would say Americans are among the most self-controlled people to have lived. In fact, we might say the opposite.

Persecution forces Christians to focus on what’s important and to band together to thrive. You’re not too concerned about your brother or sister’s views of the end times when you know you’ll be dragged off to prison if the wrong person stops by your house church. This leads to a great deal of unity, which was chief among Christ’s concerns for his church (see John 17).

Without persecution, the church is at peace. Every solider knows that in-fighting happens during times of peace, not times of war. Divisions can grow like wildfire when there is no common interest or sustaining cause. Christians in the U.S. are as divided as any group of believers has ever been.

America looks more like a country without persecution. We can incorrectly identify the pressures on American believers as persecution if we assume society is always persecuting Christians. But persecution is not the real problem in America. Assimilation is.

When Persecution Gives Way to Assimilation

Babylon, the great and terrible symbol of corrupt society in Scripture, didn’t burn Christians and throw them to the lions like Rome. Babylonians noticed that persecution of religious or ethnic minorities led to unrest and political instability, so they decided to try something new. Babylonian kings told those they conquered that they were welcome to keep their gods and customs — so long as they conformed to the Babylonian way of life. As long as they kept their culture and religion to themselves, they would be fine.

When persecution gives way to assimilation, the witness of the church dulls. It doesn’t have to, but it almost always does. Cultural assimilation, the particular brand of assimilation most effective at rendering the church impotent, allows worldly beliefs to seep into the heart, mind, and soul of the believer, slowly taking over until they don’t even know they’ve been overtaken.

J.D. Greear often says, “Distraction has sent more people to hell than doubt and disbelief ever have.” Assimilation is cooridnated cultural distraction. It is the coordinated, ongoing effort to so blend the beliefs of its subjects that they can no longer taste the individual ingredients.

How to Survive Assimilation

The Bible tells of four men who successfully resisted assimilation into the great Babylonian empire: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The latter three you’ll recognize by their Babylonian names, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Their pagan names were the first step in Babylon’s attempted assimilation of these men and their fellow Jews.

But time and time again, Daniel and his companions withstood the mounting pressure to be absorbed into the fray. How did they do it? I’ve written previously about three postures Daniel assumed to faithfully engage his culture so I won’t recount those here. Instead, it’s crucial to point out what quality these four Hebrews had in common that bolstered their spirits against assimilation: self-control.

Read through the first six chapters of Daniel and you’ll see the four men resist the Babylonian diet that would be unclean according to Jewish law (ch. 1); Daniel remain steadfast under threat of death (ch. 2); Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego resisting to bow down and worship a false God (ch. 3); and Daniel sticking to his regular practice of praying three times a day with his windows open towards Jerusalem (ch. 6).

How were they able to hold strong against all these pressures, most of which were life-threatening? Self-control, or perhaps more appropriately, self-discipline. They were disciplined not to lose their Jewishness despite their exile. They did not cede that which made them strong in the faith. Without formative practices like adhering to the food laws and practicing regular prayer, they would not have kept the faith.

When we lack the discipline to exercise our faith in the world and aren’t willing to endure suffering, we will never be all that God has in store for us. Persecution provides the means for sanctification and the impetus for mission. If there is no (real) persecution, you need disciplined, determined believers who understand that complacency isn’t an option.

Training for Godliness

Paul understood that complacency in the face of assimilation was a death sentence for a believer and for the gospel. That’s why he told young Timothy, who was facing cultural pressure to conform to Ephesian ways,

Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come. —1 Timothy 4:7-8

It takes self-discipline to train one’s self. Without self-discipline, an athlete won’t achieve their desired prize. Without self-discipline, a believer won’t achieve their desired crown.

What does it mean to “train yourself for godliness”? It means to institute the use of spiritual disciplines in your life. For thousands of years, the church has identified and employed the use of certain practices which, when pursued with pure motives, are ideal for forming heart, mind, and soul into the image of Christ. These “spiritual” disciplines include fasting, reading Scripture, prayer, silence, solitude, and celebration, among other practices.

In his comments on fasting that can be applied to each of the disciplines or the disciplines taken together, C.S. Lewis wrote,

Fasting asserts the will against the appetite — the reward being self-mastery and the danger pride. … But the redemptive effect of suffering lies chiefly in its tendency to reduce the rebel will. Ascetic practices [or spiritual disciplines], which in themselves strengthen the will, are only useful in so far as they enable the will to put its own house (the passions) in order, as a preparation for offering the whole man to God.

The disciplines are necessary if a believer is going to assert his will against his desires, thereby reducing the power of his desires over time. This he is to do in preparation for offering himself up to God as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1).

The persecution in America comes from nowhere. Rather, persecution has given way to assimilation, a more formidable foe. The only way believers in America will be able to withstand assimilation is by dedicating themselves to the ancient spiritual disciplines that saw Daniel and his friends through the pressure to assimilate.

Will we in the American church train ourselves for godliness?

The Biggest Threat to Discipleship Today

The biggest threat to discipleship in the church today is in your hand right now. If not in your hand, it may be in your pocket or somewhere near you. At the very least, you know where it is.

It craves your attention and promises satisfaction. Its sleek lines and subtle curves lure your heart. You gaze into its glowing portal hundreds of times a day — swiping, tapping, thumbing your way down an infinite spiral of information and entertainment.

Yes, your phone is the biggest threat to discipleship today.

What Your Phone Knows About You

Think I’m overplaying the threat, making too much of too little a thing as an iPhone? Consider that your phone is in many ways your most intimate companion. It knows what you think, when you sleep, where you go, and what you long for.

Your search history reveals your innermost thoughts. Your Amazon orders reveal your idols. Your social media posts reveal your heart.

Like most adults, you’re probably waking your phone an average of 150 times a day. Smartphones have become seemingly essential to modern life, which is why many of us spend two or more hours per day on them.

The Technological Discipleship Gap

While people in churches have joined the broader culture in rapidly adopting new technology, churches themselves have been slow to address our new digital reality.

“There is a technology discipleship gap between the importance of technology in our daily lives and how effective Christian leaders are at discipling their people in proper technology usage,” says Ed Stetzer. Teasing out this theme, Stetzer writes in his new book,

Christians often have the same bad habits as everyone else, practices that damage not only their well-being and relationships, but also their spiritual vitality and witness. Despite these dangers, when was the last time your church taught on social media or proper media consumption? Substantive, disciple-making teaching on how Christians can develop godly technology habits? Aside from youth pastors warning of cyberbullying, when have messages touched on the way technology is shaping our lives or how our online behavior relates to our faith? I have heard plenty of sermons that address the problem of pornography, but I can count on one hand the number of times a pastor or Sunday school teacher discussed a more comprehensive online discipleship.

Technology seems to move at such a rapid pace that we barely have time to keep up with it all, let alone determine how best to use it. But instead of trying to develop wisdom around the topic, many Christians and churches have been too distracted to notice or, unwilling to make “blanket statements” about technology use, have decided to say nothing (I’m grateful that my church asked me and others to teach on the topic during one of our classes).

But our technological culture isn’t silent, which is why so many believers are being discipled by Apple and Google instead of pastors and elders.

The Need for Technological Discipleship

Unsurprisingly, our churches are filled with people whose tech habits largely mirror those of their unbelieving neighbors. Stetzer writes,

We found that technology and online habits of evangelicals largely mirror those of the general public, if not slightly exceeding them.

Your Facebook newsfeed probably attests to the fact that evangelicals like their social media, maybe a little much. Social media and technology are not all bad, however. “Our new digital technologies and social media platforms have untold potential to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Stetzer reminds us. But

At the same time, they can utterly lay waste to people, churches, and communities.

This is where discipleship is needed. With the rapid and almost unflinching adoption of smartphones and other technologies, Christians are in desperate need of shepherding, whether they know it or not. How can we not address the one thing that consumes slightly less of Christians’ waking hours than their jobs?

Effective Technological Discipleship

Technology is a discipleship issue. So what does effective technological discipleship look like? Stetzer:

Effective discipleship helps Christians to bend these tools in service to Christ rather than to become slaves to their destructive power. … At the same time, I encourage Christians to view local ministry within your community and through your church as the primary mission field of the believer. At a time where technology is making communication more isolating and distant, engaging our neighbors with the gospel has become counter-cultural.

What Stetzer outlines above is a thin outline of what effective technological discipleship might look like (he says he gives fuller suggestions in his book). But much more is needed.

I’ll be outlining a fuller approach in the days ahead here, along with explaining more about technology and its effects. Because, as Stetzer writes,

It’s a new world, one fraught with division and anger with the unforeseen capacity to bring them into our living rooms and church pews. Christians need to think carefully on how they can live and engage in this new world to the glory of Christ and the furtherance of his Kingdom.

3 Principles for Passing on the Gospel

Their stricken faces said it all. The men and women of the U.S. Olympic 400-meter relay teams were disqualified and in disbelief.

The U.S. had owned the 400 relay in years past. Now, in 2008, the teams hadn’t even qualified.

In just a thirty-minute span, both teams’ hopes were dashed at the fumbling of the third and final baton handoff. When you’re running a relay, the handoff is critical. Runners take extra care to ensure a smooth handoff because when they drop the baton, they don’t finish the race.

Christians have an even more important handoff to make: passing the gospel on to the next generation. Paul, arguably the most skilled believer aside from Christ to ever hand off the gospel, once instructed his young protégé Timothy in how to pass it on well, saying, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2).

Paul is challenging Timothy to pass on what he has heard to faithful men and women who also are able to pass it on. What has Timothy heard from Paul? The gospel. The truth of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

By this time in their relationship, Timothy would have seen Paul testify to this gospel hundreds of times. He also would have seen Paul pass it on hundreds of times. Paul understood the gospel does the next generation no good if it never receives it. The gospel is like a relay race; we’re either fumbling the handoff or ensuring it’s passed on with care.

In 2 Timothy 2:2, Paul summarizes his most critical advice for passing on the gospel in three principles.

Read the rest of my article at Gospel-Centered Discipleship