The movers had packed everything. Everything. We realized this as we began searching for the coffee maker amid the sea of unhelpfully labeled boxes.
We unwrapped mason jars filled with rusty nails and bent shuffleboard cues left in our shed by the previous owner. We burrowed through stacks of out-of-date magazines, unopened wedding gifts, and at least one empty toilet paper roll.
Our first move as a clergy family taught us that clutter happens. We unwittingly accumulate and stockpile things. Nostalgia attaches to our children’s grade-school art projects and to collars of long-departed pets. Old costumes remind us of Halloweens past. It’s hard to let such things go.
Clutter happens. So much so that articles about decluttering populate the internet, entrepreneurs pitch decluttering methods, and spiritual guides promise to walk you along the path of simplicity.
In other words, we cling reflexively. Without even thinking about it. Letting go? Not so much. We begin to associate our life with our stuff. More stuff. Bigger stuff. New stuff. We pursue more, bigger, newer stuff as a way to have greater life.
We yearn for larger life. What Scripture calls eternal life. And many of us respond to what is in essence a holy longing in a variety of misguided ways. Jesus addresses many of them. But he expends a lot of energy freeing us from our distorted relationship to stuff. The problem, you see, isn’t actually the stuff.
Consider Jesus’s conversation with an earnest spiritual seeker. The man chases Jesus down, kneels at his feet, and asks, “What do I have to do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17-31)
Jesus gets people. He does more than listen to our words and read our posture and facial expressions. He intuitively discerns the patterns and the struggles of our inner lives. And Jesus recognized in this man a genuine longing to please God. He also identified the man’s chief spiritual obstacle.
Jesus said, “You know the commandments, don’t you?”
“Oh yes,” the man responded. “I keep them all. I always have.”
Mark tells us that Jesus loved him. The man was so sincere. And so misguided.
Jesus came to change our mind about God and about eternal life. In Jesus we see God’s desire for loving union with us. A loving union that begins already here on planet Earth and stretches into eternity. That’s what Jesus meant by eternal life.
Jesus wants the man—wants us—to ask a question that I adapted from Barbra Brown Taylor’s work. What is saving you now? In what do you find the “why” of your existence? What would, if absent, make your life no longer worth living?
We cling most fiercely to what we take to be our “why.” And Jesus wants to help us see that anything short of God will ultimately let us down. We yearn for a life pulsing with eternal, infinite meaning. No amount of money or privilege can heal our sorrow, mend our deepest wounds, reconcile our shattered relationships, remove our shame, or raise us from the dead.
Letting go may be our chief spiritual challenge. And, crucially, it’s the way to union with God. Meister Eckhart said: “God is not found in the soul by any kind of addition, but by a process of subtraction.” Jesus put it this way. You’ve got to give your life away to have a life.
It’s tempting to spiritualize what Jesus says about letting go. In other words, we can narrow Jesus’s teaching to the attitude we take toward our stuff. But the spirit and the body are so intricately braided together that our attitudes and our beliefs only become real when they animate our hands and our feet.
Jesus teaches us to to cultivate the habitual practice of giving our stuff away. That’s a central way that followers of Jesus guard against our tendency to let our stuff and our privilege become our why. The way of Jesus is a way of letting go. The way of decluttering.
Decluttering can be very hard work. But in the end, it will infinitely lighten our load.