8. Fighting the Lesser Gods: Having a Thirst for Living Water

For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.–Hebrews 3:4

December, 2013

We spent too much on a kitchen faucet two weeks ago, and I am suffering from Buyer’s Remorse. I’ve been trying to excuse it. I have been rationalizing it by telling myself that we have saved so much money on so much else for the kitchen by buying at restores, redoing old stuff, and repurposing other stuff. Hmm, the key words here are much and stuff…

I’ve been telling myself that it is a quality faucet, and it will last forever. After all, it has a ceramic cartridge; it is made of stainless steel; and it won’t rust. Hmm, the key words here are quality and forever.

It’s difficult to be rehabbing a kitchen and trying to fight that impulse of materialism. The two just don’t go together. I can get caught up in the look I want; the colors I want; the type of flooring I want. The key words here are pretty obvious…I want.

I want much quality stuff forever…

We’ve been trying to be thrifty and balanced — nothing outlandishly pricey or ostentatious. Simple even. After all, there are people living in tents in Haiti; in huts in Malawi; in tenements in this very city. (Remember those starving kids in China who would have eaten those peas I wouldn’t eat as a kid?)

Last week I was cleaning out my home library and found a yellow sticky note in my handwriting with this quote: Blessings are not safe to have until it is assured that you can serve God without them. I don’t know where it came from, but I saved it. And I found it again at a time when I needed to be reminded.

In this time of gross materialism (I’m thinking of December, but it could just as well be any time here in 21st century America) we all need to be reminded. It is not about stuff, even quality stuff, even quality stuff that lasts forever. Because as Jesus reminds us, the earthly treasures rust and get eaten by moths—yes, even stainless steel faucets. The forever treasures are what we need to want; those are what last; and those are what we need to give away, too.

God created us in His image, (Genesis 1:27) and he put eternity in our hearts. (Ecclesiastes 3:11) Scripture often compares the longing we have for God to a hunger or a thirst. Since this essay was inspired by a faucet, let’s concentrate on a few water images:

  • the Psalmist says “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When can I go and meet with God?” (Psalm 42:2);
  • Jesus tells the woman at the well that He has living water and whoever drinks it will never thirst again (John 4:1-42);
  • John writes in Revelation about the water of life flowing from the throne of God (Revelation 22:1);
  • nearly the last words of Revelation are “Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes let him take the free gift of the water of life.” (Revelation 22:17).
  • And though this last image isn’t technically about water, the adjectives remind me of a river or an ocean or a cup that runneth over: Paul prays for the Ephesians that they may “…grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge — that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:18-19)

God carefully created us to long for Him—to know His love that surpasses knowledge! There is a space in our human hearts that can only be filled by Him. And instead we fill it with stuff, work, family, lovers and mates, hobbies, eating, shopping, sports, even church—you pick one (or two or three…)

These things are not necessarily bad unless they become replacements for God — lesser gods. I don’t know about you, but I fight those lesser gods all the time. When I win, I can feel Jesus smiling on the person who struggles to be like Him and sometimes manages a shadow of His presence. When I lose, He gently reminds me how imperfect I am. And His gift of grace that covers me is the softest blanket on a cold night, a cool drink of living water in a scorching desert.

Yes, it is a beautiful faucet. We own it. I will be happy with it. I will touch it every day, and it will shine as a reminder of my imperfection. And in return, it will remind me to give graciously and joyfully to someone in need. I can’t make up for my greed; I can’t be vindicated for my materialistic sin, but every time I look at that faucet, I can remember.

It will remind me of my blessings. It will remind me that I have the ability to share those blessings. It will remind me that there are people without faucets, without clean water, without living water…and what am I going to do about it?

The simple answer is to cut down on our own materialism and give to others. The less we spend on our selves, the more we will have to give. It’s important–that giving–and is one of the marks of love for our neighbors. Think of all the good in the world that has been done by Christians setting up and donating to hospitals, educational non-profits, food organizations, shelter charities… the list goes on and on. To live simply, Richard Foster reminds us in Celebration of Discipline, brings freedom–freedom to share with others and freedom from anxiety. He writes,

“If what we have we receive as a gift, and if what we have is to be cared for by God, and if what we have is available to others, then we will possess freedom from anxiety…[and] freedom from anxiety is one of the inward evidences of seeking first the kingdom of God. The inward reality of simplicity involves a life of joyful unconcern for possessions.”

Did you catch that line about freedom from anxiety being one of the inward signs that we are seeking the kingdom? I think that is why that passage on worry in Matthew  (Matthew 6:19-34) strikes so many of our hearts–that the birds of the air are clothed and fed, and aren’t we as loved by God as those little birds? If he feeds them and dresses them so beautifully, why are we anxious about anything?

But the more difficult answer is that not only should I act confidently about sharing my blessings freely with those in need, but I must also go about sharing that water of life to the thirsty. The world is full of thirsty people who need Jesus, and I will be the first to admit that it isn’t easy for me to do. I would always rather help someone fix up their house, deliver a meal, or give away a box of food at the food pantry, than share the gospel story with them.

I want everyone to have the water of life to drink when they thirst. Oh, I can say, it’s not my gift: there are many others who have better words or better opportunities, but Jesus calls us all to share this living water–even as simply as the Woman at the Well did by saying, Come and See. This water of life, it’s free. And it will change your life.

Lord, help us all to say Come and See easily with freedom and enthusiasm. Let us give away the quality gift that really lasts forever…

For further reading, read John 4:1-42

Questions for thought:

  • The Woman at the Well is one of my favorite Jesus stories, perhaps because he interacts with a sinner-woman, or perhaps because there is just SO MUCH packed into these verses. But what really strikes me is that she, a Samaritan Woman, is one of the first missionaries–calling others to come and see. How unlikely! Yet how true of our amazing Savior–to use the least, the downtrodden, the sinful, to bring others to Him. Do you have a favorite part from this story?
  • In the passage above from Matthew, which verse is the most convicting to you?
  • What is the lesser god that you battle most often?
  • One of Richard Foster’s suggestions is to give away what you are attached to, just to prove it has no hold on you. Have you ever done that?
  • How could blessings get in the way of serving God?
  • If you read Five Vows for Spiritual Power by A.W. Tozer, that second point–Never own anything–almost seems so radical that we can just dismiss it out of hand. Yet Tozer makes such a good case for it; does it seem doable?
  • Luke 16:1-13 is another of Jesus’ parables on the dangers of wealth. One of my commentaries on this passage suggests: “Possessions are given to [us] by Him in trust, to be used as an expression of His concern for the needy. If one does not do this, it is clear that possessions, rather than God, are [our] Lord….The story does not condemn the rich just because they are rich. They are condemned purely because they fail to use their wealth in the service of God.”

(And can I just update this post with a Post-Script? In December of 2020, seven years after this essay was first written, we had to replace the ceramic cartridge in the hot water handle of this faucet unit. Proof of Jesus’ words that earthly treasures rust…)

1. The Gift of a House: Where Is Your Treasure?

December, 2012

Sometimes I wonder how we ended up with two houses. We still mostly live at the city house. It’s where work is. It’s where the mortgage is. It’s where old friends are. But it isn’t necessarily where the heart is.

I wonder about that because I miss seeing friends. We just resigned from our church–our life for eight years–because we are never there on weekends, and it is a loss. And neighbors–I’m never in the yard working with my flowers or in my garden, so I don’t see them anymore.

The city house is really much more beautiful than the country house. It’s a stone Tudor cottage with character; the wildish flower garden in the front yard was one of my joys. It was the house of my dreams when we bought it eight years ago. I still love it. But my heart isn’t there anymore.

The country house has a long, storied history. In the 1930s my grandfather wanted a house in the country where he could live on weekends with his family. During the week he was a county school superintendent in town; on the weekends he was a farmer with a cattle farm, a peach orchard, and an apple orchard. He built this humble two-room-cottage (with an outhouse in the back) on the edge of the apple orchard. It was a place where the family spent weekends in the summer; it was a place where the city cousins came to spend weekends in the country to work on the farm and in the orchards. 

Later after the orchard became established and successful, rooms were added here and there: a bathroom was carved out, a garage attached, a bedroom and partial basement added. My grandmother’s brother and his wife lived here for twenty years, caring for the orchard, selling apples, and raising their son. My sisters and I spent time here also, grading apples in the barns, selling cider, riding in the back of Pa’s pickup truck, and probably generally getting in the way. Though no one ever told us so. 

In the mid-seventies my not-yet-husband’s parents, Joe and Clara, bought the orchard from my grandfather who was eighty-two and wanted to officially retire from farming. They remodeled the house and lived here together until Joe died in 1995. Clara stayed on as a widow in a house that soon became too much for her, an older woman alone.

As Clara got older she couldn’t manage living in the country anymore, and the house sat vacant for several years. Her good neighbors kept an eye on the place and mowed the grass. When it seemed obvious that she would never go back to the house, it was set to be auctioned on July 12th to pay for her care. 

Clara died on Friday night, July 8th. (Some have thought that she died then so she wouldn’t have to hear about the house being sold.) On Saturday morning my now-husband and I sat up in bed, looked at each other, and simultaneously said, “We don’t have to sell the house anymore…” To cancel the auction we had to write the auctioneer a check for $5200 (that was a hard check to write…) but all in all, it was a small price to pay for a house with such a story. We buried Clara on the day that the auction was supposed to take place. I think she is smiling…

It’s an amazing story, really, and it has always seemed so to us, that this house—with connections to both of us—came to us in such a way. I can’t wait to move; yet the ties that bind me to my old city life are not yet cut.

I am fractured sometimes; split down the middle. Anxious to go, yet hesitant to make the move. We didn’t put up a Christmas tree this year. Where would we put it? The house where we are? Or the house where we aren’t? So I have pine at both houses… Yes, I pine at both houses.

Thankful for these blessings, I try to be mindful of them and not see any of it as burdensome. Yet the details are exhausting sometimes. We are always on the move, not here, not there. And we always forget something. Or two somethings. And often that tool, the piece of clothing, or that cooking pan we want is at the other house.

As I am reading this story about the beginnings of our adventure, I have the advantage of hindsight; this was originally written eight years ago. The city house has now been sold and we are years into living here full time at the cottage. We are settled, we have a new church, new friends… and rereading this is exhausting; yet something else jumps out at me.

I am reminded by Matthew that where my treasure is, there my heart will be. (Matthew 6:21—I checked the citation in my Bible and discovered it quickly; it was underlined in red pen.) But the beginning of this paragraph tells us: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19-20)

I never wanted to make an idol of this cottage. I’ve tried to guard against it from the beginning, and I haven’t always been successful. I love beauty, and I love surrounding myself with beauty, and that in itself is not a sin. After all God made this amazing world and filled it with beauty for us to enjoy. But when one is rehabbing a house, and the starting point is gutting almost every room (it was vacant for several years and very much in need) there’s a whole lot of money that has to be spent. And a whole lot of time deciding how much to spend. And what can be bought secondhand. And what can be splurged on. And…And…And…

Sometimes I just got caught up in the whole world of Houzz.com, decorating blogs, and Pinterest. (Thank goodness we never got the HGTV channel!) I un-followed blogs when I became disgusted at the materialism; yet at the same time, here I was spending hours trying to decide what color I wanted the kitchen to be painted. Beauty? Yes; a treasure on earth? Yes, to that as well. I fought the idol and sometimes I won. Sometimes I didn’t.

We bought all our kitchen cabinets at secondhand places; we sanded, primed, and painted them, and gave them new hardware.  The lighting was mostly secondhand too; we bought every old schoolhouse light globe we could find, as well as the metal hardware to go with them. We bought the cheapest flooring we could find (black and white Vinyl Composition Tile) and refinished the pine floors that were under layers of carpet and linoleum in the living room. Floor tiles and doors were purchased at the Habitat for Humanity ReStores. (We haunted them for several years on a weekly basis.) Our kitchen island was bought for $100 at an antique store, but we splurged on the kitchen countertops and the kitchen faucet. There’s a chapter in this book on the kitchen faucet. 

It’s a battle I am still fighting because our bathroom has not yet been redone. Oh, it works. There’s a toilet, a sink, a shower with plenty of hot water, a place to store our towels, hooks to hang our clothes, and a place to store toilet paper. What else do we need? It’s plenty more than most of the world has. But it is really ugly: chipped and cracked plaster walls of different colors where wallpaper has been peeled off; a seventies moulded plastic shower stall with moldy caulking that just won’t come clean; and a ceiling that sheds clumps of paint and plaster. It certainly isn’t a treasure on earth. 

All of us who live in the first world need to guard against making idols of our things. We have so much, and others have so little. How do we balance looking at our treasure as  gifts from God, yet easily let that same treasure go if necessary? That is probably why it is so difficult for us rich folk to get into heaven. (Matthew 19:23) We allow our stuff, our treasures, to become more important to us than God. Yet that same paragraph in Matthew ends with the disciples asking in discouragement, “Who then can be saved?” (Matthew 19:25)

Jesus answers with one of the most beautiful affirmations of grace in scripture—“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)

Richard Foster writes about the gifts of God in his chapter on Simplicity in Celebration of Discipline. He writes:

“The majority of western Christians have never seriously wrestled with the problem of simplicity, conveniently ignoring Jesus’ many words on the subject. The reason is simple: this discipline directly challenges our vested interests in an affluent life-style.”

I might add, it directly challenges what we treasure. Do we treasure our stuff, our idols, our worldly gifts? Or do we treasure God, his wisdom, his love? Jesus speaks over and over of our hearts, and how little God cares for show, for money, for human power. Instead the servant who gives all will be elevated over those who love things, pretense, and show. Jesus devalues money, and instead puts value on our hearts. Lord, make us willing to give and share and not care so much about those worldly treasures that moth and rust destroy…

For further study, read 1 Timothy 6:6-19 and Mark 12: 41-44

Questions to think about: 

  • Where is your treasure? I read once that if you think about what makes you happiest, what makes you angry, and what you fear the most, then where your answers intersect can point you toward your treasure or your idols. My own test is this: Lot’s wife was told to leave and not look back.  She failed. What would I have to take one last longing look at before I left it behind?
  • Our treasures can be things, but it can also be persons or family or fears and worries. What are you most prone to make an idol of? How do you fight it? (See Colossians 3:1-3)
  • How can we guard our hearts against the world’s temptations to lay up treasure for ourselves?
  • Our treasures occupy our heart (Let’s face it–God designed us that way, and every good and perfect gift is from Him) so how can we best submit our treasures to God to care for, instead of stubbornly keeping a tight grip on them?
  • It occurs to me that we can fight our idols by being willing to give them away–or as Richard Foster says, share them freely with others. Would this work for the particular idol you are wrestling with?
  • Paul writes to Timothy, “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.” This is much more specific than Matthew’s command to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…” Any thoughts?