It all started with a coffee table.
At the time John and I had been married for about three years. While my other friends were coming to a place in life when they were buying homes, cars and new furniture, still I felt like we were living in a college dorm. The only two pieces of furniture that were not “hand me downs” were our bed and the baby’s crib. Others were picking out kitchen cabinets and styling their houses as they chose; my home donned the past style of whatever someone else was tired of.
For me the epitome of where we were was our 30-year-old coffee table. The same coffee table my husband grew up sitting at while he did homework in front of the television as a child. While the sentimentality was sweet, I had found a new one I really liked in the LL Bean catalogue. It wasn’t a lot of money. However, it was too much money for us.
The Lord had called us into full-time paid youth ministry. Both of us. This was our source of income. While we were “making” a fair wage, as they say, it was still less than many others in our peer set. On top of that the Lord blessed us with three babies in 2 1/2 years. I was pregnant with # 1 just four months after we got married. So here we were, five of us, living in a two-bedroom apartment. I got jealous; I focused entirely on what I didn’t have.
So one day in a women’s Bible study I lamented, “Is it so wrong just to want one new coffee table?” That’s when someone quipped, “Well, this is the life you chose, so now you have to just accept that this is the way that it is.”
Ouch. Yes, I knew that we wouldn’t be “rich” by any standard, but honestly I was unprepared for how much we would struggle financially. I never realized what I would “go without,” or more honestly how much I would wish I had.
Going home I licked my wounds. I had wanted those women to join in my struggles. It wasn’t just about the furniture. Christmas was around the corner and I didn’t know how presents would get under the tree. The car had broken down that week and I wasn’t sure how it would get fixed. I wanted them to see that I was unprepared that it never seemed to get any “better.” One paid bill was replaced with another unpaid one.
That was the day that the Lord started me on a lifelong adventure of wants, needs, and choices.
Fast forward many, many years and our finances are in the same predicament. Our mini van got hit in the middle of the night last week and has a huge dent in it, and we can’t afford to fix it. Fourteen years into marriage and while the furniture has changed we have never purchased anything new. They are nice hand-me-downs, but I didn’t pick them out. Still there is no coffee table. As a matter of fact my bed now dons a bedspread that I hate, but it was free. By ministry standards we’re paid pretty well. Yet, money is not falling off the tree. By the world’s standards you cann’t really measure our success. There is no awesome SUV. We do not have fashionable clothes. Honestly, there isn’t even a 401K. My friends who have “real jobs” (as I am told they are called), have gotten nicer cars, bigger homes, and taken vacations we will never take.
Can I be honest? I want to keep looking at them in envious glances. It doesn’t feel all that “noble” to be staring down the barrel of yet another Christmas that will look sparse to the kids. (Yes, I know that isn’t what the holiday is about, but my love language is gifts and I love to shower people with them.)
I know I don’t NEED those things. But, boy do I WANT them.
I WANT an iPad 2. I WANT a new bedspread. I WANT a coffee table. At this point I just want to not sweat the bills anymore. All I have to do is to turn on my 20-year-old television that gets three channels (literally) to see what I “deserve.” There are vehicles and meals and trips and jewelry.
Then one day someone helped change my perspective. The reality is that I did choose to follow the Lord’s voice. When I did, there were consequences. It meant that some things in this life might be uncomfortable. It meant no coffee table.
I can know the difference between wants and needs and still hold bitterness. My needs might be met but I deserve my wants. After all I give my life in service. I’m owed it right?
I do have a choice of how I look at this. Every time I am looking at the “stuff” I forget that this is about Jesus. In the shadow of who he is and what he has done, this is such a small price to pay. It is the secret to Philippians 4:12 and 13, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
Choice is the secret to contentment. We have to remove the idea of what we can and can’t have from our vocabulary and begin to say, “I choose to live this way.” In other words, “I choose to pick up my cross daily in this way. It’s more about HIM than ME.”
I could choose debt and have more stuff. Living simply comes with the territory of God’s calling for this family.
Truth is that I don’t know if our finances will ever change.
I can make some choices to:
1. Remember it is the Lord who takes care of us (see Matthew 6:19-34). When we do what he asks it means we are declaring that HE is our master and he won’t let us fall apart. Through the years we have gotten unexpected financial gifts. Sometimes from people we don’t know. I’ve had free dental work done on more than one occasion—a lot of it. (I have bad teeth; it’s genetic.) We’ve had people step up and pay our bills or send us on vacation. There’s never been anything that we genuinely couldn’t live without that the Lord hasn’t provided. He does it. Not our paycheck. Sometimes we even get those “wants” in the mix. There has never been once that the Lord hasn’t definitively taken care of this family.
2. Stop saying, “I can’t have that.” We also stopped using the verbiage, “We can’t afford it,” with our kids. It has been powerful in helping them to not resent when their friends have things they don’t get. For example we might not be able to afford ice cream and fast food in the same weekend. Let’s say the Lord blessed us to afford one. We would ask our kids, “We can choose one. Ice cream or fast food. I know we would like both, but we need to choose one. Which would you like?” We also say, “We choose to walk with Jesus in what he asked us to do. That means sometimes we don’t get all the “stuff” we want, but he always takes care of us.” See, we switched perspective.
3. Stop visiting furniture stores. I live outside of a wealthy area. My kids have friends who live in what we call “McMansions.” I can’t avoid going to those homes. When I do, I prepare my heart for that green monster that will arise by praying first. I would like to say he never visits. He does. What I CAN avoid is going “window shopping.” I can’t handle it. I look around at what I really want and get cranky when I leave the store without it. For you it might not be housewares. It might be technology or the latest phone or even a gaming system. If you can’t afford it… Don’t go there. Avoid the internet sites. Put blinders on as you pass the Apple Store (I have to avoid there as well).
4. Celebrate the calling. I wouldn’t choose any other life. This is where the Lord placed me, and my family. When I have the honor to see a kid “get” Jesus for the first time, that is what brings me joy. That moment when they understand who they belong to, that is the moment I live for. Every mismatched chair and old pair of shoes blends into the back ground. We keep a huge jar of rocks in our front room. Every time the Lord shows up in a miraculous way in our life we write the event and date on a stone, and place it in the jar. When we are feeling low as a family, we sit down together and take the rocks out and go over them. It helps us remember what the Lord has done. He is faithful and he wants us to do this life this way.
5. Redefine Success. There may not be accolades. We may not “have” as the world does. However, all of heaven is throwing the party of the century each time a “lost one” comes “home.” I get to go out every day with the Shepherd looking for the wandering sheep. When we find one and bring them home. That is success.
I am not going to claim it’s always easy. There are others that actually like living simply. Truthfully, I don’t always. Actually, I can have the tendency to be a big fat whiner. Then I remember the power of Philemon 4:13. We pull that verse out and throw it around. It follows a verse on contentment. It means I can be content to see the world through HIS eyes with HIS strength.
Who knows…one day I might even get that coffee table. Although these days, I would much rather get the bedspread.