You’ve probably done it yourself before. Packing up to travel home after all of the Christmas festivities and generous gifts of relatives who—like God—love to give good gifts, you reach an embarrassing problem. How are we gonna get all this stuff home? And then, What do we do with it when we get there?
It can be a bloated, even gluttonous feeling. And when materialism is a nagging battle over the hearts of your family, it’s a serious weight. I trudged around in my in-laws’ home last Thursday, packing up and contemplating the newly acquired loot (note: this included a ballerina Barbie which my daughter has named Cecil, and her baby doll who she calls Turkey. I think I may need to weigh in on naming my grandchildren). Even with strategies in place—like giving “experiences” rather than gifts; giving one child’s name to their aunts and uncles rather than receiving gifts from all of them; expanding on their current toys rather than getting new ones; giving to a cause rather than gifts to each other; giving away less-used toys before Christmas—there was still plenty to go around.
Hefting a laundry basket on my hip, I mentioned my struggle to my father-in-law, with whom I have a great relationship. But his candid thoughts delivered with a smile humbled me, and honestly, embarrassed me more than a little: “Trying to avoid materialism—and the amount of toys your kids have—don’t really go together.”
It’s a good thing that God has been tackling my defensiveness head-on lately, because at least I was prepared to pray through the accuracy of his statement (as a people-pleaser, I kept being sucked in toward how I was perceived and comparing us to other families rather than the actual condition of my heart or how God was leading me). We’re actually a lower-middle-class family, and probably have an average—if not less-than-average—amount of toys. We purge regularly, and do a lot of things throughout the year to not only avoid the gimmies but instead focus on treasures elsewhere. But as my husband and I talked it through on the long drive home, he said it well: “We could all probably stand to purge a little more.”
So last night, to kick off the new year, I went through our closets again…but this time, with laser focus. It wasn’t about keeping us from having too much pleasure. After all, it’s God who “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Timothy 6:17). In truth, materialism—a disproportionate focus on earthly stuff and needs—can happen to the poorest of the poor.
The purge was targeted at the stupor that comes from stuff. As I thought about it, it was like keeping my kids from snacking before dinner or having McDonald’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I don’t want them to get filled up by nibbling on what isn’t good for them—“junk” that’s not real and lasting and truly nourishing, and can even damage them in excess. I want to train their tastes and appetites toward higher things. And we all needed our grip loosened on the stuff “down here”, some idols that were adding gravity to our house, hopefully making our souls trimmer, leaner, more fit for whatever God had for us in the future. I didn’t need to do it out of guilt, which God’s freed me from anyway; instead, I needed to do it from the joy that comes from pursuing something better. Like C.S. Lewis says,
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are…like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (The Weight of Glory, 1949, emphasis mine)
As I sifted through my kids’ closets, then my own, I followed a few guidelines that friends had given me, like giving away anything not worn in a year (or just stuff I always had some excuse not to wear). We also wanted to give our stuff to places that would give people Jesus—real Bread—too. Duplicates also went into our growing mega-pile, part of the whole “I’ve got two shirts, you’ve got none” thing. (Ballerina Cecil and Baby Turkey are safe.)
I talked to my kids about the things I suggested they give away (I figure that doing it behind their backs increases their distrust and doesn’t accomplish heart change anyway)—and their willingness was confirmation of either a healthy heart or that I chose the right stuff! And to tell the truth, we’re all feeling a little lighter.
What do you do to avoid stuff-itis? (Feel free to chime in with weird doll names too. I had one named Frenchy.)
Janel Breitenstein graduated summa cum laude from John Brown University and began her career with NavPress, where she worked on The Message Bible. After having four children she resumed her professional career (around her momlife) by serving as a writer for FamilyLife. In January of 2012 Janel and her husband, John, packed up their family of six and moved to Uganda to serve with Engineering Ministries International (eMi), an organization that focuses on poverty relief and development, providing structural design and construction management for Christian organizations in the third world. Join us as we all learn first hand, through Janel’s posts, what it’s like to go from suburban America, to answer God’s call in Africa!