Most of the inner workings of my house seem somewhat magical to me. I flip a switch and lights come on. I turn a faucet handle and clean water comes out. I flush a toilet and, well, I don’t really want to know what happens next, as long as it happens the way it’s supposed to (and when it doesn’t, as we experienced last December, it isn’t pretty). We all have certain expectations for our electrical, water, and sewage systems, and most of the time those systems perform as expected. Oh, there’s some maintenance required to ensure that everything continues to work, but in general we don’t think too much about what’s happening inside the walls and under the floor, where the pipes and wiring live. On the other side of the drywall is a dark and mysterious land where I don’t speak the language and am unfamiliar with the customs.
But I suspect that what goes on in secret is actually the important stuff. When everything works as it is supposed to, the result is that when I flip a switch I actually do get light (or heat, or whatever), and when I turn on the faucet I actually get water, and so on. And when something is wrong, whether it’s a leaky pipe or a broken wire or any of a number of things, I don’t get what I expect. Problems inside the walls are not easy to diagnose because they are hidden (and usually require the services of a professional to repair and are therefore costly). What happens in Vegas might stay in Vegas, but what happens behind the walls can manifest itself out in the open in a very significant way.
Scripture tells us that the hidden, or invisible, is important: “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18, NIV). We take this to mean that material things—our belongings, even our very bodies—are temporary because they can be damaged or even destroyed, whereas spiritual things—faith, hope, love, and so on—are eternal. We can’t see these eternal things but we can know them through their manifestation in the material world. When I think of the word love, I think of the people I care about and how they show their love to me as well as how I show my love to them, sometimes through material things like food or money but more effectively through my gifts of time, which is a more precious commodity than any material thing because it cannot be replaced once used.
Scripture also warns us not to waste time building up treasure in the material world because such treasure is subject to theft, decay, and destruction; rather, we are to build up treasure in heaven (Matthew 6:19-20), not because heaven is like a giant vault that will keep our treasure safe but because the kind of treasure Jesus means is not material wealth but the evidence, or manifestation, of how I’ve spent my time on earth. If I choose to dedicate my life to building up a stockpile of material things, when will I have the time to devote to caring for the poor or hungry, or visiting the sick or imprisoned (and I think this means not only the incarcerated but also people imprisoned by physical or mental illness), or even just serving those near me joyfully and generously? And why is this so important?
Jesus said that our Father, who is unseen, takes notice of what we do in secret, which I think can mean the things that do not produce a tangible outcome or product. God rewards us for having our priorities straight. I think that is very good news! Unfortunately, the world does not operate on the same principles that God does, and the world’s influence is very powerful. Our culture tries to program us from birth to want certain things, a certain standard of living, regardless of what it will take for us to get it and then sustain it. The other day I read a very interesting article about what our grandparents’ generation considered necessary, not only for survival but simply for a comfortable life, compared to our parents’ generation, my own, and our children’s. It really is surprising to realize how much of what we think is “need” is really just “want.” When I look at the way many people around the world live, I am pretty ashamed to turn my gaze back onto my own life and all the things I have surrounded myself with to ensure my own comfort. I wonder what I have done lately in secret that would please my Father.
Thinking about these things can bring us back to the kind of life we are called to live. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not condemning all material things, and I don’t believe Jesus requires us all to give away our belongings and start a big Christian commune (although the intentional community movement is growing in the United States—Google it if you’re curious). It’s simply a matter of priorities. When I ignore the unseen (easy to do because it’s, you know, invisible) in favor of the seen, my life is out of balance. Maybe I need to withdraw from the world a little bit, watch less TV, read fewer magazines, and instead spend more time in scripture, prayer, and serving.
Can a return to attention to the invisible instead of the material actually make me more grounded? Will pushing back against my culture’s pressure to buy stuff make me more content? It seems paradoxical, but then Jesus is the master of the paradox: you can save your life by losing it, really? Maybe it seems counterintuitive only because it’s counter-cultural, and culture exerts such a mighty influence on us. This is a battle I’ll have to wage daily, so I can begin each morning by praying:
God, please let me live for you today. Let your priorities be my priorities. Loosen my grip on the things of this world and open my eyes, my hands, and my heart to those who need to know you and experience your love and grace. Let my words and deeds be pleasing to you, and let this page of my life be written in your Story so that when I fail you I can be confident that you will give me other opportunities to live a day that brings you joy.