The Thing Trap
By Sarah Onderdonk
Overcoming Unhealthy Give & Take
I received a special gift once. I remember reaching deep into a cake-size blue box and working through clouds of white tissue paper. My fingers landed on cold metal. I remember audibly taking in some air as I retrieved a lovely antique silver box covered in textured swirls and bygone metal loops. I touched my hand to my heart and said “It’s just beautiful… thank you.” To which the gift giver quietly but purposefully relayed a condition around which the gift could be kept.
So I had just opened and accepted a gift that was not really a gift. But a strange loan of sorts. I could feel the blood swoosh from my feet to my head as I contemplated the deeper meaning behind the gift and what it said about the giver's feelings toward me.
Many years have passed and the sting of that incident has faded. What’s more, this unusual present would ultimately become one of life’s most special gifts. Because it would begin for me an uncomfortable but spiritually essential journey to a place of discernment about the things in life that really matter.
A Biblical Perspective on Things
The Bible tells us this: “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.” (Mark 10:25) This is one of those passages that makes you sit up a little straighter in your chair! But is the Lord reflecting upon the evil nature of wealth in and of itself? In Proverbs, we are told that “The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, and He adds no trouble to it.” (Proverbs 10:22) If God thought that things were evil, certainly He wouldn’t reward people with the wealth to acquire them!
Instead, the verse about the camel and the needle speaks to the way in which people can be altered and corrupted by money. Wealth exposes people to a world of options. Before long, we find ourselves in a looping pursuit to acquire and upgrade. Wealth can make us proud and vain. It distances us from the poor whom Jesus tells us to know and help. And wealth exposes us to the snares of temptation. These are the problems with things.
Consider the rise and fall of Solomon. A man divinely blessed with wisdom and riches who imploded when he turned from the Hand that fed him.
So it is not the things that bring us down. It is our relationship with those things that gets us into trouble.
Unhealthy Give & Take: The Things That Poison Our Soul
A gift can reveal a lot about the giver if we look closely for clues to the motivation behind the gift. And while most gifts are a healthy expression of celebration and love, there are times when the things we give to others and the things we buy for ourselves have a darker underlying basis. It’s helpful to look at the unhealthy relationships in terms of the giver or taker and his or her motivations.
• The Puppeteer
She is the gift giver with a hidden agenda. The generous and often costly items bestowed upon you by The Puppeteer appear to be coming from a big loving heart. But if you get beyond the surface to her motivations, you will see that her gifts are not coming from a healthy place. They are used as tools to control and manipulate. The Puppeteer is trying to buy you. She wants to be pulling the strings. The Puppeteer has a core-deep need for external validation and she mistakenly equates gifts with love.
. Bestows gifts frequently and for “no reason”
. Selects gifts that are often intimate in nature (e.g., home furnishings)
. Reminds recipient of gifts given in the past and inquires about their use
. Leverages generosity to create a “debt” to invade boundaries
• The Squirrel
She is the hoarder. The nuts in her cheek are the shoes in her closet, the 17 jars of peanut butter in her pantry, and the stuff that’s spilling out of cracks and crevices all over her house. The Squirrel amasses things to create an earthly cocoon of security. Clothing and accessories and an exploding pantry help insulate her from uncertainty and fear of the unknown.
. Not a “cheerful giver”
. Has things and “back-up” to things (e.g., four pairs of the same shoe)
. Worries about her things (e.g., plastic protectors are still on the lamps)
. Selfish and often a poor listener
• The Peacock
He uses things to puff himself up and cultivate an identity that masks his low self-esteem. The Peacock likes expensive clothes and jewelry. He drives a late model car and likes to flaunt his financial prowess. His zip code and upper-tier associates are important to him. He lets you know he’s in the money.
. Brags a lot
. Flaunts expensive clothes and accessories
. Likes to compete with other peacocks
. Full of unsolicited advice
• The Junkie
She needs to acquire things to get a “feel-good” high. Instead of turning to God, she goes to Saks. The high from a shopping fix feels real good. But she’s going to come down hard and fast. When she does, she’s depressed. Then she’s off to Nordstrom’s…
. Shops ‘til she drops – often!
. Prone to extreme highs and lows
. May be deeply in debt
. Often feels helpless and out of control (except when she’s shopping)
Coming Soon: Five Steps to Liberation from the Thing Trap
And so it was, at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, "Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is meditating, or he is busy or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened." (1 Kings 18:27)
I don't know whether to laugh or cry at the image of someone beckoning a concocted god to wake up. While the verse above conveys the unvarnished futility of idol worship, it's no laughing matter when we contemplate the eternal destiny of those who've pinned their hopes and dreams and souls on cold, hard artifice.
Lest any of us become smug in our salvation, however, we're wise to consider whether or not we as Christians are guilty of our own adhesion to "false gods" in daily living. Maybe we don't bow down to rocks or connect-the-dot patterns in the night sky, but if we are chiefly defined by something other than our faith in Christ and love for one another, we might be chasing after idols, as well.
Do you carry debt beyond life's more practical needs (e.g., mortgage and car payments, school loans, medical bills, etc.) for frivolous things that you simply desire?
Is there something you own that you think about continually and worry about protecting?
Is there something of a material nature that you want so badly, you can't stop thinking about it?
When you get a pay raise or bonus, do you go out right away and start upgrading your lifestyle?
Answering "yes" to any the questions above doesn't make you a bad person! But it could indicate that you need to reflect upon how you oversee your budget and possessions to avoid being owned by your things.
Five Steps to Liberation from Things:
Confess to God (1 John 1:9) that you have an unhealthy relationship with things and pray that He will help purify your motives and shine a light on areas of weakness. Have faith that He will answer your prayers and seek guidance and comfort in the Word!
. Remember that God is in control
Control issues underwrite many problems associated with our attachment to things. When you have an internalized understanding that God is in control, you will relinquish your cares and troubles to Him. Because you will trust in Him. You won't need to micro-manage the lives of others. You won't have unnecessary worries or fear about the future. You won't need earthly emotional comforts or “fixes.” You will surrender to God and He will carry you.
. Serve a higher purpose
We can smother under the weight of our own troubles when we dwell on them to excess. The surest way to get some fresh air and boost our spirits is by serving the needs of others. When we find a person or a group in need—someone or something that fuels our passion—and we set out to help them, we benefit spiritually and emotionally.
. Scrutinize your motives
Think about why you buy things for yourself and others and take a “time-out” before making big purchases. Do you really need that new car for cargo space? Or, do you want to turn some heads in the neighborhood? What about that new designer dress? Does your wardrobe really need a lift? Or, are you trying to outshine Mary Jane at the office "holiday" party? Are your motives worthy? Or are they coming from a state of emptiness that only God can fill? Pray to God that He will help you discern the difference.
. Inspire people
Get out of the vain game! Stop competing with the people around you and this will neutralize their desire to compete with you. Seek, instead, to become a Christian role model for others and a woman of inspiration. Maybe you have a talent for music or crafts. Perhaps you are a good listener or God has given you the ability to easily comfort those who are troubled. Perhaps you are a joyful person whose cheer can brighten a room. Maybe you are cool under pressure and have the ability to help others navigate storms. God has given you gifts! Perhaps you don’t even realize the full extent of the power you have in Christ! Use your gifts and shine for God!
A few months ago, I came across an old book I’d been given as a child. I opened it in the middle and an old pressed cloverleaf fell to the ground. Then a memory came to me. I was a little girl living in Colorado Springs when I came across a four-leaf clover in a patch of velvet green summer grass. I remember thinking I would keep it forever.
Flash forward more than 30 years and, staring at that small dried leaf, my head was flooded with grainy sweet memories from childhood. I remembered the snow-topped mountains and hot dogs roasting over white coals. I thought about bouncing on the bed with footed pajamas and the smell of fresh baked cinnamon apples. I remembered the rabbit ears wrapped in tin foil that sat atop a black and white television and the spotty images of a man on the moon. I thought about Love's Baby Soft perfume and pots of frosted peppermint lip-gloss. Mom and Dad were young and healthy. My brothers made me laugh until I cried. There was no sickness or sadness or hurt. And it was all right there beaming at me in memories from that old pressed cloverleaf.
Then I thought about that old silver box. A box I couldn’t bear to look at for years. It struck me now as the perfect home for my special clover and all those warm gauzy memories. Two gifts from God, indeed.
Onderdonk, Sarah, Little Sins, Big Problems (AMG Publishers: 2003).
The NIV Study Bible, (Zondervan: 1985).