What Keeps Us from God? Does Stuff Keep Us From God?

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Today’s guest blogger is Allison Vesterfelt, who writes today about the role that our possessions play (or don’t play) in keeping us from God:

 

This idea that stuff keeps us from God is really prevalent in the Christian community.

And you would think that I, a woman who quit her full-time job at twenty-six, moved out of her apartment, and sold all of her "stuff" to go on a road trip across the United States — a woman who just finished writing a book called Packing Light: Thoughts on Living Life with Less Baggage (Moody, 2013) would be on the "stuff is bad" bandwagon. But I’m not.

Or at least I don’t think I am. You tell me.

A few years ago a friend asked me this question: "What would you do with your life if you didn’t have to worry about anything — money, what other people thought about you, whether or not it was all going to "work out" in the end — what would you do? My answer was that I would quit my job, travel around the country, and write a book about it. She asked me what exactly was stopping me from doing those things, and immediately, a list came to my mind.

It was stupid stuff, really. Stuff like a car payment and a house full of appliances and furniture I wasn’t exactly sure where I would put if I took off on some kind of whimsical journey across the country. 

But in addition to the silly things, there were also legitimate concerns. I had student loans, first of all, that constituted a pretty hefty chunk of my monthly paycheck. I had a full-time job, one with decent pay and benefits, not something to turn your nose up at in the current economy. And then there was wondering how my parents would feel about the whole thing. I was an adult, and I could make my own decisions, but there was always this question in the back of my mind:

If I don’t take success seriously, am I compromising the legacy they worked to leave for me?

During the whole decision-making process I was really inspired by the story of the Rich Young Ruler. I’m guessing you’re familiar with the story, but the gist of it is this: A wealthy young man comes to Jesus and says (my paraphrase): Look, I’ve done everything I’m supposed to do in order to be a good Christian and citizen, but it feels like my life is missing something. What should I do now?

Jesus tells the man to sell everything he owns, and give it to the poor. The passage says the man walked away sad, because he was a man of great wealth.

I have to be honest. At twenty-six, I felt very much like the Rich Young Ruler.

I had done all the "right" stuff to be a good Christian and contributing citizen. And for all outside appearances, it seemed like I was doing pretty well. But it also felt like I was missing something. I had a nice car, a great job, and had just been approved for a home loan, but the whole thing felt sort of — I don’t know — empty. The suggestion of selling all my things and giving it to the "poor" felt to me about how it did to the Young Ruler.

But I was also feeling desperate.

I was ready to try anything to feel alive again.

So I did it. I quit my job. So did my friend. We both sold our stuff, and we lived in my car for six months as we visited all 50 States. Over the course of that time, we experienced what it feels like to go without, but we also experienced a richness we didn’t even know what was possible. I’m not talking about a spiritual richness (although we experienced that too).

I’m talking about gifts. Physical, tangible ones.

I’m talking about meals beyond our wildest imaginations and beds more comfortable than we had ever slept in, and I’m also talking about sleeping on floors and under the stars, eating chili out of tupperware containers.

I’m talking about how God was merciful enough to teach us to live with out, and generous enough to give us good gifts.

The story of the Rich Young Ruler is followed in the gospels by the verse that so many Christians like to use as evidence that "rich" people have a harder time getting into heaven. It says, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (Matt 19:24). I’m not a Bible scholar, but when I weigh this passage with my experience, I don’t think it means that people with money have a hard time getting into "heaven…"

That’s not how I see heaven, or God, or nice things.

What I think it means is that my experience of God’s Kingdom, the place where justice is served and things are put right because He sits on His throne, the place that I believe exists both here on Earth, and in an eternal sense, is largely dependent on understanding my need for him. The more I know I need him, the more I experience the realities of His Kingdom.

It makes very simple sense, if you think about it. Our need for Him points us to His existence.

So yes, I wrote a book called Packing Light, and I’ll tell you all day long how letting go of physical things have helped to point me to the realities of Jesus. But I don’t think Jesus hates our stuff, or that stuff keeps us from God. I think that gives our stuff too much credit.

What do you think? Does stuff keep us from God?

About Today’s Guest Blogger

Allison is a writer, managing editor of Prodigal Magazine and author of Packing Light: Thoughts on Living Life with Less Baggage (Moody, 2013). She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota with her husband Darrell. You can follow her daily on Twitter or Facebook.

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14 thoughts on “What Keeps Us from God? Does Stuff Keep Us From God?

  1. Mia

    Hi Allison
    I see the stuff of the rich young man in a more spiritual sense. He listed everything he has done to earn his right standing with Gid. But although he was rich in what he thought “good stuff”, he nevertheless could not understand that one can only enter into the life of our Lord with empty hands. It is either our ” stuff” or grace! I hope I make sense!!
    Much love
    Mia

    1. Allison Vesterfelt

      Mia — Makes perfect sense! I totally agree. That’s what I discovered in my journey. Sometimes letting go of emotional/spiritual baggage is more difficult than letting go of physical baggage.

  2. Jim Fisher

    Interestingly the accounts in Mark and Matthew do not say give ALL to the poor, only to give. Jesus told him to sell his stuff, thus converting into it all into money. He is still rich at that point. But money will fall through our fingers to those in need more easily than the BMW in the garage.

    Only in Luke is there an implication of selling all. A literal translation (NASB) says to sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor. The “it” can be interpreted several ways.

    I also find it interesting that in all three accounts, Jesus leaves out one commandment that the ruler would have known. That omission (do not covet) can speak volumes, if we allow it to.

  3. Allison Vesterfelt

    Jim, thank you for adding that to the conversation. Good stuff.

    I wonder if the reason Matthew and Mark don’t use the word “all” is because they understand that this is really more of a heart position than a literal selling of “all” possessions.

    I’ve learned in my personal journey that when I recognize “all” I own is a gift from God I am more likely to feel thankful for what I do have, and less likely to feel resentful for what I have to “give up.”

    1. Jim Fisher

      Heart position … love that. I just re-read these passages picturing Jesus with a teasing smirk listing the commandments, purposely leaving the “covet” one out. He pauses. The ruler says, “Yup. I did all that.” And Jesus smiles and nods in agreement. Exactly! Then Jesus nails the ruler with the omitted one in a hyperbolic thrust … and the hyperbole is extended in the subsequent “camel” comparison.

      I feel the freedom that comes from not wanting what our neighbors have and holding what we do have very loosely. Sounds like a heart position to me.

  4. D.L. Mayfield

    I agree that the Rich Young Ruler might really be about the things we cling to that keep us from following God–which could be a wide variety of issues in our world today.

    That being said, I feel like capitalism and materialism have enslaved people to certain standards of life and expectations, taking away both the freedom and the creativity to pursue the crazy upside-down kingdom that Jesus was always talking about.

    And while this one passage might not be about earthly riches, the Bible is full of admonitions (and “Woes”) for the materially rich who live in a time where there are others in need and don’t do anything about it. Looking at scripture in a holistic way, I do get the sense that riches (and “stuff”) and the way we use them play a very important role in the life of the believer.

    1. Allison Vesterfelt

      I totally agree with you. I guess I am just trying to balance the conversation which, the way I grew up, was very slanted toward this idea that, “if you’re poor, you’re closer to god.”

      That theology has prevented me from receiving good gifts when God gives them, and also from desiring the kind of lifestyle where I have resources to give generously.

      I want to be the kind of person who is quick to receive blessings, and also quick to give them.

      I guess my point is this: I know rich people who are obscenely generous, and I know poor people who are obscenely generous. And when I think about “rich” and “poor” as relative terms, it reminds me that regardless of where I fall on the spectrum, I have a responsibility to offer all of what I have to God for his purpose and good.

      Does that make sense?

      Thank you for adding your thoughts. Really appreciate the conversation.

  5. Nathan

    Wow Allison, loved this post. My wife & I just celebrated 10 years this past December, we have 2 little boys, one’s almost 4, the other’s almost 4 months. We’re just at that stage in life where we’re just surviving and some days it’s like I just can’t see God. I know most of it is just the stage we’re in, but another part of me can very much relate to the rich, young ruler. We’re just “comfortable”… if that makes any sense. I want to see God at work in our lives but and that’s been my prayer of late, that he would show me his will for my life. Maybe it’s just to sit still for awhile – it’s a little more difficult to “pack light” and pick up and go somewhere with 2 little ones… so I don’t know what He has in store for us as a family or me as the leader of it, but I can’t help but think there’s something just around the corner. Kinda scary and exciting at the same time. Just wanted to thank you for this post – really encouraged me today.

    1. Allison Vesterfelt

      Nathan, I’m so glad! That’s exactly what I was hoping for, to encourage people to let go of whatever it is that’s holding them back from fully embracing God’s kingdom here on earth.

      I will say this: I don’t have kids, so I can’t identify with your position completely, but I know when God called me to go on a 50-state road trip, I was terrified for my own reasons. It must be extra scary to take risks when you have to support and lead a family, but there will always be reasons to be scared of those risks. When you feel called to “pack light” in your own way, don’t hesitate.

      You won’t regret it.

  6. Jen

    Hi. I have seen this writ large in our very affluent community. Stuff isn’t bad, and neither is being financially successful. What ties us is the constant battle for more, bigger, better, and our reliance on those things to make us somehow happier, better, more…something. It’s pretty simple, as you say. Have the things become a security blamket? Have we bowed low before gods of our own purchasing?

  7. Katie Axelson

    Hey, Ally, I’ve been really convicted about this in the last few weeks. It started a few days after your piano post when I lost my winter jacket (it’s been found again: in my friend’s car. Except his car has been stolen since then so it’s lost again). Later my necklace chain broke and my baptismal ring disappeared for a few hours (thank you, kitty cat, for finding it). A few days after that, I lost my favorite pen in the crevices of someone else’s couch. Now I’ve been looking at things and can’t help but wonder, “If the Lord asked me to give that up, would I?” Last month I would have said, “Yeah, sure! Even my computer since everything’s on Dropbox.” But now I’m not so sure… I’m thinking Packing Light needs to get here soon is really what I’m thinking. ;)

  8. Dan Bennett

    Allison -

    I think you’re right. God is more concerned with our hearts than he is our stuff. But at the same time, it’s really hard to fully see how dependent we are on our stuff until we go without it (in some way, shape or form) and gain some perspective, much like what happened to you on with your trip.

    Sure we can gain perspective without losing it all, but if your anything like me, in order learn something, I need to be beat over the head repeatedly with it.

    But you are right. Stuff doesn’t keep us from God, only our own hearts do. And for most of us, the only way they will get closer to God is if we learn to die to the things we hold tightly. Sometimes that death will come from catastrophe. Sometimes it comes from hardship. And other times it comes from good old-fashioned discipline and awareness.

    Life is a paradox. Say thanks and keep walking. ;)

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