Why do I pay for 1,450 square feet of space to live in? I think about that frequently, and I don’t have a good answer. I live alone, with just the cats and a dog to keep me company. (They mostly hang out close to wherever I am.) I basically need a desk for my computer, a place to sleep and a bathroom. So why do I waste the money on space that could house four or five families in some parts of the world?
I’ve been thinking about this more and more lately. That makes it sound as though it’s just a rational thought, but it’s more than that. I’ve been feeling something I can only call a compulsion in my heart to get rid of almost everything I own and move to a much smaller place.
Do we really own the things we own? Or do they own us? I don’t have a tremendous amount of stuff — certainly not compared to most people I know — but the stuff I do have is making me feel weighed down. I don’t know why. I just know I don’t like it.
We live in a society with certain expectations of what’s acceptable, especially for those of us in the middle class or higher. We’re supposed to have a home that looks a certain way. We’re supposed to fill it with socially acceptable furniture. We’re supposed to care what other people think about what we have. We’re supposed to want the things that other people have. And most people believe they do want those things.
I don’t think I want those things. They seem like sad things to chase, and they seem to alter a person’s values, justifying doing whatever he needs to do in order to keep making the money to keep buying his trinkets and his expensive space. What if you’d rather get off the treadmill and have a simpler life instead? The world doesn’t seem set up to accommodate those who don’t want the typical home and lifestyle that represents “the American Dream.”
If you look for someplace cheap and small to live, you’ll find shacks and dumps. (I know. I’ve looked.) Aren’t there at least some other people who’d like to live more simply? Who’d like to live in a safe neighborhood with other people who are trying to live a more simple and less stressful life? And if there are, why does no one build housing for that niche? Are there really so few that it’s not worth catering to?
When I think about getting rid of things and living more simply, I can’t help but think of the story of Jesus and the rich young man, which is recounted in several of the Gospels. In Mark 10:17-31, for instance, we read of a rich young man who comes and asks Jesus how he can be saved.
Jesus first lists some moral commands the man should follow, but the man says he’s done all those things. Then comes this famous part of the story:
And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
Some people have used this passage to claim that Jesus told all of His followers to sell everything and give the money away, but I think it says something much more important. I think Jesus knew that the man was a slave to his possessions, and He knew the possessions were keeping the man from being whatever he needed to be. Is that the real lesson of this story — that we need to get rid of anything that is so important to us that it owns us. Since the rich young man “went away sorrowful,” it sounds to me as though his possessions were more important than whatever salvation he understood himself to need.
Some people look at the lesson of Jesus and the rich man and think it can’t have any applicability to them, because they’re not rich. By world standards, anybody who survives in this country is rich. Someone I know who recently returned from Cambodia told me that a salary of $80 or $90 a month made someone quite prosperous over there. Most of us spend that much every month on soft drinks or hamburgers or tacos. By world standards, we’re wealthy — and our wealth owns us.
Honestly, I have no idea what I’m going to do about this. Maybe nothing. But it’s also possible that this will be the time I decide to do something very different and quit letting pride dictate whether I have the kind of place to live that’s socially acceptable. Maybe I’ll go live in a small, cheap place and save the money I’m paying for this place. Maybe I’ll go live in a trailer — if I want to really test whether I’m finished with pride.
Why do I keep feeling this compulsion to get lighter, to get more free of “stuff”? I can’t say for sure. But it’s become something of a compulsion for me lately. I’m not sure I can keep ignoring it, because it doesn’t seem to want to let go of me until I do something about it.
Note: If you’re interested in a much more serious treatment of this issue from a Christian perspective, I highly recommend a book by my pastor, David Platt, that’s become a bestseller. It’s called “Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream.” The book grew out of an experiment that we started talking about and participating in at my church several years back called The Radical Experiment. Here’s something that he wrote for CNN about 18 months ago about our church’s experience.