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