April 2, 2008

Kelly is constantly thinking of stuff she doesn't have. A pastor's wife, Kelly lives on an income that's far tighter than she would like. She regularly reminds her husband of what a painful sacrifice it is for her to live on their income, and she often window-shops for things she would like to own.

Kelly feels guilty about secretly buying lottery tickets, and even more guilty about resenting the members of her congregation who live in large houses filled with more stuff than she has in her small townhouse.

Mike is always thinking about the stuff he has. He worked and saved for years to acquire things he dreamed of owning -- a Porshe in his garage, a big-screen television in his living room, an extensive collection of suits in his bedroom. Mike can't bring himself to get rid of all his stuff, but he frequently worries about whether it's demanding too much of his time and money.

He and his wife sense a calling to start a family someday, but Mike doesn't see how he can make the necessary sacrifices. Then there's giving to their church. Mike never manages to drop more than a few dollars into the collection plate each week, despite knowing he should contribute much more. When he finds himself feeling badly about it, he takes a ride in his Porsche, which never fails to put him in a better mood.

You may think you have either too little or too much stuff. But what truly matters is how you use the stuff you have. Here are five principles for using your stuff as tools to grow closer to Christ:

1. Don't give greater priority - as measured by your time and attention - to your stuff than you do to your relationship with Christ. It's often the case that the more possessions you have, the more they possess you. Buying, maintaining, insuring, fixing, cleaning, and storing your stuff can eat up a considerable amount of time. Do you really need that Oriental rug that requires you to take off your shoes every time you walk in your house? Do you need to get a wax job for your car every other week, or can you skip it?

More importantly, time you don't spend taking care of your stuff can be spent in prayer or reading the Bible. Take an inventory, not of your stuff, but of the time you spend dealing with your stuff. How does that compare with the time you spend with Christ? If the former number is out of balance with the latter, you'll do well to simplify.

Jesus said, "No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money" (Matthew 6:24).

2. Your attitude toward stuff should bless others. In all things - including dealing with stuff - an attitude of love should rule your actions.

It's not enough just to decide to get rid of extra stuff you already own and decide not to buy more. You can sanctimoniously congratulate yourself on not wanting or owning a lot of stuff, but still end up sinning if you fall into the traps of ingratitude or miserliness.

For example, if friends or family members present you with gifts that cost more than you think they should, don't criticize their generosity by judging how they spent their money. Remember that just because a gift is expensive doesn't make it bad. As long as the gift-givers are sincerely expressing love through their gifts and not trying to manipulate you through them, you should accept graciously and cheerfully.

Don't feel pressured to reciprocate with expensive gifts of your own if God doesn't lead you to do so. But whenever you have stuff that you don't truly need - and that other people could use - be willing to be generous yourself. Acts 2:45 records that early Christians sold their possessions, giving "to anyone as he had need." They knew that material things are merely tools to express Christ's love and grow closer to Him.