Why I Stopped Feeling Guilty for Wanting a Beautiful Home

I used to think it was unChristian of me to want the attractive, comfortable home of my daydreams. Now I’m grateful for my renovated kitchen.

For years, I pored over magazine spreads and home catalogs, made graph-paper renderings of kitchen plans, and daydreamed of white Shaker cabinets, the perfect sectional sofa, and a sun-drenched window seat. I felt guilty for my materialism, for how much I cared about such superficial things, because I believed that a good Christian shouldn’t (not guilty enough to give up the daydreaming, though).

Someone's idea of a perfect home.
Someone’s idea of a perfect home.

Forget the “prosperity gospel,” the (rightfully maligned) view that material wealth proves God’s favor. My progressive Christian circles espoused a “simplicity gospel,” whereby your faith could be measured in part by how little you cared about material things. In my 20s, I was the best-dressed person in my edgy coffeehouse church — not because I had money to spend on designer fashions (I didn’t), but because I was one of the few people who bought new clothes at all. In that church culture, new-and-expensive anything was spiritually suspect.

One friend regularly spoke, with bewildered embarrassment, of the $900 chair he had once bought, much as one might recall a teenaged shoplifting incident. “Detachment” was the name of the game; I recall a preacher speaking that word with such precision — de-TACH-ment — that she nearly embodied the unburdened single-mindedness with which we were to approach God, free of material distractions. I squirmed in my tailored black pantsuit and thought guiltily of my apartment, with the new sofabed and armchair that I so loved to look at, sit in, and offer to guests.

I wondered if I would ever love God enough to stop caring so much about things, to stop pining for the attractive, comfortable home of my daydreams.

Transforming this house from a dark, nearly dead eyesore to an inviting space for a growing family has been an experience of everyday resurrection.

Twenty years later, I am no longer pining for the home that I want and don’t have. Not because I’ve learned to love God more and care for things less, but because I now have the home I’ve always wanted. I have had Christian friends who seem perfectly content with mismatched, cheap furniture and kitchens and bathrooms so worn that they never really look clean. I spent years thinking they must inhabit some higher spiritual plane, but now I think they and I just have different tastes. I no longer assume that those who are naturally disinclined to care about the aesthetic of their homes must be closer to God.

Christianity is an incarnational faith, in which God loved and suffered with us in a human body. We encounter God through our hungry, tired, aching, growing, stretching, humming human bodies. An incarnational faith — in which God is not looking down on us from afar but is revealed in the literal stuff of life — requires the opposite of detachment.

In the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, a kindly restorer of antique furniture says, “What’s the nobility in patching up a bunch of old tables and chairs? Corrosive to the soul, quite possibly. I’ve seen too many estates not to know that. Idolatry! Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only — if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, doesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things — beautiful things — that they connect you to some larger beauty?”

I need things I can see and touch and hear and taste to begin to know the God who dwells beyond sense and sight.

Actually, I don’t quite have the home I’ve always wanted. I have a husband, three children, a dog and a cat. My dream home was suspiciously catalog-like, with sun streaming in through huge streak-free windows onto pristine wooden floors, free of spilled Cheerios and dog hair wafting into corners, where children always put their belongings away neatly into labeled bins. Learning to live peaceably with people (and animals) who have different priorities and ideas about how we should spend our time and order our space has been one long exercise in hospitality. I have, to my shame, seen how ugly things can get when I care more for what our home looks like and less for the people who live in it. I am still learning that what makes this house my dream house isn’t sparkling cleanliness or perfect order, but how it connects me to the larger beauties of life lived with other imperfect people and a generous God who wants all people to flourish.

My kitchen in all its glory.
My new kitchen with the table set for Easter dinner.

So I don’t have a catalog-ready showplace, but I do have a renovated kitchen, with several features designed just for me (I’m only 4 feet 8 inches tall), carefully selected wall colors, and rooms furnished with both comfort and beauty in mind. It took nearly eight years to get here from the uninhabitable wreck that we bought (holes in the roof, vermin living in the open with impunity). Transforming this house from a dark, nearly dead eyesore to an inviting space for a growing family has been an experience of everyday resurrection that points me, again and again, to a resurrection faith and a God capable of bringing life from death.

The material world isn’t a distraction. It’s where we encounter God.

I need things I can see and touch and hear and taste to begin to know the God who dwells beyond sense and sight. It took Yosemite’s overwhelming masses of rock to convince me of God’s unmovable, eternal power. My ridiculous delight in how sweetly my children’s toes line up helps me believe that God might delight in me — even when I’m not doing anything particularly brilliant or inspiring. And a home in which I experience so much visceral pleasure — in the feel of a soft wool rug underfoot and the dazzle of light on a cherry tabletop, in giving my children just-right places to hang their coats in the kitchen and read their books under a quilt on the sectional sofa, in a kitchen that accommodates my size and disability so I can more easily make the spaghetti sauce and chocolate cake my family adores — reinforces God’s presence in everything that is good, worthy, and beautiful.

Perhaps I should be more able to know these things about God from reading scripture and attending worship. But I need the things of this world — the mundane things of an imperfect but warm and well-functioning house, along with the feel of a communion wafer on my tongue, the heart-lifting strains of my children’s church choir singing — to help me seek the God who lives in and beyond all things.

  • Mary DeMuth

    This is so beautiful and so me and so needed. THANK YOU. I have always, always loved creating an inviting home, and have often felt guilty for my tastes. Thanks for sharing freedom.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      I love that this is helping people to feel less anxious about their own desire to create a lovely, warm home. Thanks for letting me know.

      • Stefatropolis

        It must be marvelous to spend your brief time on earth before going to your Heavenly reward in a comfortable environment worthy of Better Homes & Gardens. And here I thought you were supposed to emulating Christ, the most UNmaterialistic person who ever lived. The complacency of Christians today astounds me.

    • Stefatropolis

      Maybe you feel guilty because you’re not supposed to be a complacent, shallow Christian. Maybe you feel guilty because God wants you to do something more meaningful and challenging with your existence.

  • Briana

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. I’ve always felt guilty about making things pretty and wanting nice things. I really needed to read this.

    • Stefatropolis

      Maybe you feel guilty because you’re not supposed to be a complacent, shallow Christian. Maybe you feel guilty because God wants you to do something more meaningful and challenging with your life.

  • Stefatropolis

    I can’t believe that a Christian, after encountering The Gospels, could possibly interpret Jesus’ message to mean that they should have a lovely, modestly stylish home that is not only comfortable, but tasteful and aesthetically desirable. Jesus told the rich young man that if he wanted to be perfect in God’s sight….PERFECT….he should sell his belongings and go live among the poor. How in the world this author managed this bizarre rationalization for the superficiality of materialism is beyond me.

    • Pam Mathews

      I know you are warning about the dangers of materialism and over-spending on things that are not important, but Jesus did not tell the rich young man that he had to go and surround himself with ugliness, We need lots of people among us who seek to make the world a more beautiful place indoors or out, otherwise the world gets pretty dismal. Also, taste does not correlate with income; there are plenty of people who don’t have a lot of money who have excellent taste. I know that when I didn’t have any extra money, I used to love walking or running in neighborhoods or public spaces that others had invested in making beautiful. I still think about how much I appreciate the effort every time I pass a well-tended house and garden.

      • Stefatropolis

        Pam, I was a Born-Again Christian until my mid-twenties. I taught Sunday school at my church, was active in church plays, was on a leadership team on my college campus, did outreach, led a weekly Bible Study in my dorm and spent a summer training to be a missionary. All of this happened after being raised in a Christian household and being in a Christian youth group all through high school. Let’s say, therefore, for the sake of conversation, that I was an enthusiastic and committed Christian.
        So my question for you is this; WHAT do you think your purpose here on earth is during this brief, fleeting, “blink of an eye” life after accepting Christ as your personal savior and looking forward to residing in Heaven for an eternity of eternities?
        Is it to interior decorate and garden? Surround yourself with aesthetically pleasing objects while you walk through neighborhoods or contentedly make your way through your comfortable, tastefully designed home?
        Or is it to be a RADICAL example of Jesus by rejecting the comforts and trappings of this world, striving tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of the poor in whatever way you can and to spread the Gospel to as many souls as possible so that they too might achieve salvation?
        ALL Jesus taught was non-materialism of a radical nature. No, Jesus didn’t tell the man to “surround himself with ugliness”, he told him to SELL EVERYTHING he had and LIVE with the poor. You know what living with the poor is like?….ugliness. It’s dirty, seedy, and frankly dismal. I’m not going to quote Scripture to you Pam, but EVERYTHING Jesus taught involved giving up riches, comfort, and complacency on this earth so as to receive them spiritually in Heaven.
        Enjoy your Dwell magazine life, Pam.

        • Pam Mathews

          It’s funny because I actually work with and on behalf of young people in low income, challenged urban neighborhoods because of the whole wanting to follow Jesus thing and radically changing my career as a result. I really was just thinking God created beauty and so it might be Ok to appreciate it and even buy things you like on occasion. I have not had the experience you have had where the poor people I know are completely unable to have any experience of beauty. I certainly didn’t intend to offend you and your faith.

          • Stefatropolis

            I didn’t know that, Pam. I’m sorry I made that assumption and I hope you’ll forgive me. I get very riled up about what I see as Christian complacency and I unfairly directed that at you. Its just that in the 23 years since I left Christianity I’ve seen so, so many poor examples of emulators of Christ, and so many preposterous notions of what Christianity even IS. It’s so good that you work on behalf of the welfare of others and of course you deserve nice things. I shouldn’t have judged you that way. At least we agree on one thing; the world should be a beautiful place. It’s such a pity that it’s not.

          • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

            I’m glad to see your willingness to apologize to Pam for making assumptions about her. I would like to ask that you not also assume that you know everything about me–what I value, how I spend my time, how I earn and have earned a living, how I spend my money, how I am responding to God’s call on my life–based on 1,000 words addressing one relatively minor aspect of my life as a Christian. I stand by everything I wrote here. But my faith, and the God at its center, is far larger than the home I have created for my family.

          • Stefatropolis

            I’d be a troll if I couldn’t back up my views articulately and clearly, but I’m entirely capable of doing so, so let’s dispense with that accusation entirely. I hate to have to reiterate my sentiments, but I wrote what I wrote because you all DO strike me as shallow and complacent. I am an atheist and a Buddhist who lives, entirely by choice, in a tiny house on wheels. Perhaps you’re familiar with the movement? My home is an 8 1/2 foot by 14 foot space, built on a trailer and towed by a pick up. This is my home. I own virtually nothing. Why do I live this way? Because I realized some time ago that material objects are inherently meaningless and they only distract from what is meaningful and essential and spiritually real in this life. Now, you were saying something about my not judging you without actually knowing you. I know insist that you do the same.
            My reason for finding your article in bad taste is because I find virtually ALL Christians to be complacent and conventional people. You have this one life to make a difference in the world, advance God’s will and bring others to salvation, and you spend your time interior decorating so your life can feel cozy, well-ordered and comfortable. Why don’t ALL Christians renounce material items? Why don’t ALL Christians live with just the clothes on their back? Why don’t ALL Christians reject everything about American consumerism and materialism and live amongst the poor? Seriously, why?? Can you imagine what an amazing country this would be and how amazing the Biblical God would seem if ALL Christians literally took Jesus at his word and lived just like him? Imagine the MILLIONS of Christian Americans who would be changing this world for the better in a radical, courageous, amazing way! But this is NOT Christianity in America. In America, Christians treat this existence as a comfortable stop-over between birth and eternal salvation. I don’t care how sincere or earnest you or anyone on this thread are, you ALL fall embarrassingly short of the life Jesus clearly and concisely said His followers should lead. If you need anything, I’ll be here in my 8×14 space, not requiring material objects to sense or experience God in any way. Have a wonderful day.

          • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

            One of my writing colleagues said that she appreciated this post as a reminder that detachment is a Buddhist principle, not a Christian one. So there’s that. I guess it’s best that you’ve chosen a different path if you find all Christians to be complacent and conventional. I’m sorry to hear that.

          • Stefatropolis

            What do you or your friend mean by detachment?

          • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

            You can see how I defined it in the post above…. Within some of my Christian circles, there is an assumption that detachment from the material world (i.e., not caring about comfort or beauty or bodily needs or a zillion other things) is the goal of the Christian life. I don’t know enough about Buddhism to know how detachment is defined and practiced in your tradition.

          • Stefatropolis

            Buddhism doesn’t promote detachment at all. That’s a complete misperception. What Buddhism promotes is that materialism is a form of attachment and impermanent. Therefore it’s not what essential reality is comprised of. (You can call that “spiritual” or whatever you like.) Since a preoccupation with material things is an attachment, it’s good to let go of it so one can be more free, open, present and alive in the here and now. And since it’s impermanent, there’s no reason to invest one’s energies in it. You seem to think that because you don’t endorse rigid self-denial and extreme asceticism, the alternative available to you is kind of predilection for a kind of modest materialism. But again, I’m baffled by this in Christians, in that Jesus taught nothing of the kind. Jesus taught, demanded a life of extremes. This is most emphatically NOT how most all Christians in this country live.
            I can’t help but wonder; what do you think the point of human existence is, other than to become a Christian and live according to the Bible? Have a nice house? Raise a family? Cook nice meals and have memorable experiences with one’s family, grow older, have grandchildren, eventually die…so that everyone can re-convene in Heaven and essentially do the same thing? WHERE (not a rhetorical question) does Jesus say to do ANY of these things? Seriously, where in any of the Gospels does Jesus say, “I am the way, the Truth and the Light, no one comes to the father except through me….Now then, assuming you come to believe that and accept me as your personal savior, engage in a romantic relationship, get married, buy a nice house, tastefully decorate it, raise a family, have nice things, vacation regularly, enjoy wholesome family-oriented television, see the nature of God in manufactured goods made by impoverished people on the other side of the world whose only understanding of Christians is that they’re incredibly wealthy people compared to them, grow old and die, repeat.”
            Do you really think ANY of that is what Jesus taught? Again, not a rhetorical question; I’m asking you to provide me with what Jesus actually SAID about how a Christian is supposed to live. Please, show me those teachings, because I have yet to read them.

          • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

            Look: I explained, as much as one can explain in 1,000 words, why I no longer feel guilty about wanting and having a nice home, and why I think wanting and having a nice home are not, as some Christians believe and teach, antithetical to Christianity. I explained further in previous responses how considering my home and what it means in the context of my faith is just an example (one example of many) of how an incarnational faith takes the material world seriously (as opposed to the Gnostic vision of elevating the spiritual over the material) and sees the material world as both potentially redemptive and potentially redeemable. Just one example. In other ways and places, I’ve written about human bodies (particularly disabled ones like mine) and food and other ways in which the material world can point us toward God. I don’t think anyone reading this except you believes that I’m saying that Jesus taught us to want lovely homes. I do not believe the point of my existence is to become a Christian. It is to follow Jesus. Like all Christians, I’m figuring that out as best I can, and often doing a poor job of it. Following Jesus means loving God and neighbor, caring for the poor and sick and suffering, emulating Jesus’s example of sacrificial love, and so much more. This piece is about just the tiniest bit of how I am trying to live a faithful Christian life. I simply no longer believe that wanting and having a nice home is automatically and absolutely antithetical to the Christian life. Some Christians determine that to follow Jesus means to live in a way that sacrifices the beauty and comfort that I live with. I support that 100%. As far as I can figure, God has called me to make different kinds of sacrifices to follow Jesus–sacrifices that wouldn’t make sense for other Christians. For me, there are a few fundamentals of what it means to be a Christian, including some basic doctrinal stuff about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and care for the marginalized, which can take many forms and be done in many ways. I don’t know what else to say than that. You seem to have misunderstood my larger point and it’s feeling fruitless to continue explaining. Thank you for your explanation of detachment in Buddhism. I agree 100%–and it is consistent with a Christian world view–that a preoccupation with material things is unhealthy and misguided. That’s not what this is about.

          • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

            A whole other line of thought I originally wanted to include but didn’t have room for: Now that I have the home I’ve always wanted, I spend far less time and energy coveting and obsessing over what other people have. Again, I think Jesus’s warnings about wealth and possessions were largely about where we spend our energy and time (“Where your treasure is….”). I spend far less time and energy thinking about what I want and have and don’t have than I used to. I think that frees me to do the work God has given me to do–as a writer and a mom and some other things–better. It’s possible to covet your 8×14 tiny house and its possible to covet an impeccably restored Victorian and its possible to covet a minimalist NYC studio. Pining for what we don’t have and others do have is a pretty big distraction, and not what Jesus wants from us, and it can distract us whether we have a lot or a little, whether what we have is beautiful or not so much. (Also, it would be nice if you’d stop assuming I’ve furnished my home with discount goods made in Bangladesh.)

          • Stefatropolis

            First off, they’re not “discount goods” from Bangladesh, they’re goods sold at major department stores that happen to be made there. For high-end stores of all kinds. The only country that is a bigger exporter of American goods is China. I could just as well have used China as my example.
            Secondly, you’re admitting you’re not jealous or coveting other people’s things simply because your personal material and aesthetic needs have been met. You’ve also admitted, essentially, that were your personal material needs not met, you’d STILL be coveting. Of COURSE don’t think about such things; you HAVE them. You’re comfortable and content, so NOW you can be spiritual. WHERE is the actual spirituality in any of this?
            Third, you think I gave up possessions, clothes, furniture, and a comfortable apartment in order to live in an 8×14 space so as to covet LESS of those things? Seriously?
            Lastly, you seriously think God provided you with comfort and they material things you enjoy so you can more comfortably do His will and NOT get side-tracked by wanting material things instead? Guess what, not starving would free people up to do God’s will. Not being an impoverished clothing worker in Bangladesh would free people up to do God’s will. What kind of hermetically-sealed spiritual vending machine do you live in?
            I’d say I’m baffled but this kind of reasoning is what I experience from Christians all the time. Just amazing.
            Enjoy your walk with God.
            ..How could you not, right?

          • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

            I feel like there are two different people commenting under the same name–the one who is honestly curious and interested in conversation (above) and the person who reads layers and layers and layers of inaccurate stuff into what I’ve written and then throws it back in my face. I’m confused. And also, done!

          • Stefatropolis

            I hear what you’re saying and I can appreciate your exasperation. My question, however, is simple; where does Jesus teach a lifestyle consistent with the one you lead? I’m asking you to support your Christian lifestyle with Scripture. I, on the other hand, can find numerous examples of where Jesus specifically taught that Christians should lead lives of rigorous risk and sacrifice which require complete and utter trust and faith in him. So much so, that such a Christian lifestyle is literally “foolishly reckless” in nature, were it not for Jesus also teaching that God will always provide food and clothing, provided one simply fully trust Him. (For instance, you and I both know that Jesus taught to not worry about clothing or food in this life. At all. Because lilies of the field don’t worry about such things, nor do birds. Think about that. Lilies are plants, and birds forage for food, plants can’t worry, and birds sometimes actually DO. Now, I have to assume as someone living in today’s uncertain economy and with children, you worry about your loved-ones well-being as well as yours and their future. Putting food on the table, paying for health insurance, paying for their education, and on and on. Yet nonetheless, Jesus said not to worry because flowers don’t, and birds don’t. Jesus apparently didn’t realize homelessness and poverty today are evidence that worry are entirely appropriate states of being.) You see, what I’m getting at is an even larger issue; Jesus taught that Christians should live lives so risky, so uncertain, and so foolishly reckless, in the real world, they simply CAN’T. Thus, you decide to “discern” or “glean” God’s personal will or plan for your life, even though there’s no Scriptural basis for NOT living the incredibly challenging life Jesus was unequivocally clear on. Hence, there’s no Scriptural basis in favor of the lifestyle you’ve chosen, and an immense amount of Scripture that says, in the clear, unambiguous language of what Jesus clearly said and did, which is entirely antithetical to it.

          • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

            Well, sure, at face value none of us are doing what Jesus said if we’ve ever opened a savings account, paid an insurance bill, or made a note on the calendar that on Saturday I need to take the kids to buy new shoes. This is one of the stickiest sticking points of the Christian faith, I think….how to reconcile Jesus’s admonition not to worry and to trust that we will be cared for with rampant evidence that not planning for your and your family’s future generally leads to disaster. I certainly don’t have all the answers to that sticky wicket. Unlike some folk I’ve worshipped with over the years, I don’t think that Jesus having “nowhere to lay his head” means Christians should all actively choose a rootless, homeless life. I agree that Jesus advocated a “recklessly foolish” or “foolishly reckless” kind of life–which I have sometimes shunned (because I’m human and imperfect) and sometimes embraced (in decisions to do with my disability and having children and literally giving my bodily well-being for my kids). I think a big part of what makes Jesus’s vision a reasonable one is our realizing that we are called to care for one another–to be the hands of God for one another–so that someone who fails to plan for the future and is hit with a crisis isn’t left alone and homeless. I don’t think that my living as I do in the home that I have precludes me either from following Jesus’s “reckless foolishness” or from being God’s hands for other people. I think Jesus spoke in hyperbole to get people to listen. I think our vision of what the Christian life would look like would be vastly different if God had come as, say, a nursing mother instead of a single man. I think following Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean imitating him. I think you raise some excellent and difficult questions.

          • Pam Mathews

            Of course. I really appreciate the apology. I think it’s good that you challenge people around how we use our resources. I would just encourage you to think about how to best motivate people to think differently about these issues. Maybe ask questions of the writer? I’m sure Ellen would have enjoyed discussing how she puts the ideas in this blog together with Jesus’ words to the rich young man, for example, and the conversation could have kept people engaged and thinking about these issues. The good news is that you got me thinking a lot about my personal choices and not just my career choices — I have hardly given away everything I have and gone to live among the poor. And it also got me thinking about how this quest for “beauty” in all its forms plays out at every income level. Materialism and marketing both have such an impact. For example, some of the young people I know from work will do almost anything for the newest Nike shoes. Jewelry is also big. Lots to think about and challenge ourselves on.

  • http://copperjil.blogspot.com/ copperjil

    Ellen, I have been struggling to explain this to myself for months, since my (disabled) husband and I moved from city to north woods. The home is run down. My head swims with ideas. He is a self-admitted hoarder of clutter that “might come in handy”, trying to rise above. I have resisted the guilt of desiring lovely surroundings, yet grappling for words to justify the desire. As a writer I embrace your apt explanation. As a Christian I am rejoicing today. This may have to be included in the book I am working on, with your permission. City Mouse to Forest Mouse, tentatively, is a collection of reflections about this experience of being transplanted by God to a new culture and his work in me as a result. I would love to communicate with you privately.
    Janet McDonald

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      Thank you for this lovely reply. You can reach me through my web site (noted in the bio above.) I’d love to talk further.

  • Stefatropolis

    What is wrong with all of you Christians in this thread!! You’re supposed to be locked in a once in an eternity epic spiritual battle for the salvation of Mankind!! Not discussing throw pillows and accent rugs!!

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      No one is actually discussing throw pillow and accent rugs.

      • Stefatropolis

        No, of course not. Allow me to rephrase that; wool rugs and cherry tabletops. My apologies. Now that we’ve cleared that up, allow me to ask you this, then, since you “NEED the things of this world; the mundane things of an imperfect and well functioning house,” in order to “help you seek the God who lives in and beyond all things”; if you genuinely NEED such things in order to seek God, then how do you imagine adversely poor families, homeless people, refugees, prisoners, hurricane victims, children and adults in a dysfunctional home of abuse, etc., etc., are to be expected to seek God? How do you propose they do such a thing? It seems to me if God can reach them in such unstable circumstances, God could reach you as well. And if in fact you NEED a sectional sofa and a fresh chocolate cake in order to do so, then you’re saying God could not be found by people in dissimilar circumstances. I’m sorry, but in see nothing spiritual about you elevating your own good fortune and rare level of comfort in a world plagued by famine, disease, injustice and lack to the level of spiritual necessity. You’re unbelievably fortunate and you’ve decided to interpret that good fortune as some kind of spiritual requirement. This tells me you’re tremendously out of touch with the way the rest of the world really lives and you believe in a God for reasons having to do with a standard of living none of those millions of people will ever get to experience.
        Now then, what your article REALLY functions as, is an attempt to alleviate your vague sense of guilt by communicating this philosophy of yours to other Christians who feel the same way. And what has transpired (notwithstanding my response) is they’ve told you how much they agree with you and appreciate your journey. Thus, by enabling each other’s materialism and somewhat misplaced spiritual value system, you make each other feel okay about it. THAT’S what this article and its responses are REALLY about. You just didn’t count on someone like me taking the minority view and showing you what’s really going o

        • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

          An underlying theme of much of what I write, including this piece, is to push back against the subtle Gnosticism that creeps into so much of our Christian discourse–the heretical notion that the “spiritual” life is more valuable than physical life, that God is only revealed in high-minded spirituality and not in the mundane, complicated, needy, messy, beautiful world of the flesh. The incarnation–God taking on a human body–gives us definitive proof that God is and can be revealed in the material world. That’s the overall message of this piece. In the final paragraph, I give multiple examples of other ways in which God can be revealed through things (nature, sacraments, bodies), and/or how things can point us toward God. Nowhere am I saying that one must have a beautiful home to know God, only that assuming that one CAN’T have (and love and appreciate) a beautiful home and be a Christian is false. Yes, I NEED the things of this world. Right now, creating a beautiful (if imperfect and not always terribly clean) house for a growing family, rescuing a dead hulk of a house and restoring it to a warm shelter from life’s storms, is one way that I see how God can work in and through material things. The genuine pleasure that I and others get from this home is real and significant. It’s not absolute, however. “Pleasure” is not the same as “joy.” If tomorrow, I or my husband or one of my kids got a terminal diagnosis, it wouldn’t matter that I have a renovated kitchen. But I’d still be clinging to the things of this world–feeding my family around this cherry table, my 8-year-old falling asleep next to me in bed, making my famous chocolate cake–as conduits of love and joy and peace in a difficult time. I can know God with or without this house. Right now, living here and appreciating the daily bits of beauty and comfort that it provides for me, my family, and our guests is just one way that I try to know God.

          You seem to take a rather dim, paternalistic view toward people who are poor. They can appreciate beauty too. And chocolate cake.

          I expected some push back on this piece, and it requires some. I had 1,000 words. There’s an awful lot more to say about materialism, possessions, and Christianity. What makes the love of things become a form of idolatry? (I think it has something to do with whether the things enhance or detract from relationships, between people and between God and people.) What about those scriptures, about the rich young ruler, the eye of the needle, and where your treasure is? My first draft included discussion of that, but I had to cut it for length. Again, I think making good decisions about consumption and how we live has to do with priorities and relationships. I actually don’t agree that Jesus was the most unmaterialistic person ever. Jesus loved food–eating it and sharing it. Jesus got an oily foot massage from Mary. Jesus made stuff with wood. That said, obviously Jesus had lots to say about wealth and possessions and our need to look carefully, and critically, at how we value them vs. other people and God. I have made (am continuing to make) many missteps in that regard. But again, the point of this piece wasn’t to say, “Everyone needs to have wool rugs and cherry tables to know God!” but to push back against the idea that God somehow doesn’t give a hoot about things and bodies and comfort and beauty. Then there are the many practical questions about how we live in our homes–questions about how consumption affects the environment, about how and where and by whom our home goods are made. This piece is just one tiny bit in a larger conversation that needs to happen, and that I try to engage regularly through my writing, about a proper and good Christian relationship with the material world.

          God made cherry trees and sheep with woolly coats. God made people capable of taking those raw materials and making things of beauty. That’s something to celebrate.

          • Stefatropolis

            Wow. I could spend most of the day responding about how much of what you’ve just said is not only a profound rationalization but also Biblically unjustified, “Jesus was non-materialistic because he loved food”??, but instead let me just say this; your wool rug, linens, tablecloths and no doubt many of your clothes, come from Bangladesh, the hands-down textile capital of the world. A typical worker there who manufactures such goods, participates in a 19 billion a year industry. They work ten hours a day, six days a week, three hundred days a year, for the equivalent of 58 US dollars a month. Fifty-eight dollars. Such people, mostly women, impoverished for life, are part of a vast, exploited work force of of as many as 4 million people who live out their lives in this way; making goods for Americans like yourself to enjoy.
            ..But forgive me, you were talking about how God wants you to have those nice things from Bangladesh so you can better spiritually experience Him.
            Please continue.

          • Stefatropolis

            One more thing; I’m sorry, “The poor can appreciate beauty, too. And chocolate cake.”??
            Who are you, Marie Antoinette?

    • http://copperjil.blogspot.com/ copperjil

      Guest – It is dangerous to judge based on just a small visible portion. That is what sank the Titanic. Jesus said that the law and the prophets can be condensed into a greater law – to love God and to love people as much as you love yourself. The reason for His death was to remove the burden of sin that separates humans from His love, and the reason for his resurrection was to empower us to love others. That is the core of the gospel. It’s all about relationship. Our lifestyle does not change our call and ability to pass the wonderful message (good news) on. Whatever our station in life, that is the sphere of folks we should reach out to. The Father desires to give his children good things. It is the heart matters He is looking for. He gave Solomon amazing wealth because he asked for wisdom, not wealth. And Solomon was given the wisdom as well.

  • Gillian Marchenko

    “The material world isn’t a distraction. It’s where we encounter God.” Loved that. Thanks Ellen.

  • http://www.kewp.blogspot.com/ Katherine Willis Pershey

    Thanks for such a thoughtful and nuanced essay, Ellen, and helpful for me as I continue to live and serve in a context of affluence.

  • Jen Pollock Michel

    There’s a great commentary on Genesis (or rather, the Pentateuch) by John Sailhamer. He makes a strong argument that the “earth” of Genesis 1:1 is better translated the “land,” and he reminds his readers that the Pentateuch is composed right as the Israelites are getting ready to enter the land, the home God made for them. And God did it up right when he made this world (our home), didn’t he? It’s not simply functional but breathtakingly beautiful. So I think Ellen has made a sound argument in this piece to point us to a divine why behind aesthetic beauty: “And isn’t the whole point of things — beautiful things — that they connect you to some larger beauty?”

  • pastordt

    I LOVE THIS – thank you for putting words to my growing unease and guilt because I love my house and work to make it look welcoming. There are a number of writers out here whose writing I love and whose lifestyles I appreciate. But I am not they. Yes, I do want to simplify my life and de-clutter. Yes, I do. But that is not the same thing as relishing the restoration process, as making spaces that are comfortable and beautiful for me and for my family and guests. So well done, Ellen. Thanks so much.

  • Randy Hoagland

    Ellen, I’m an atheist, and I must say I enjoyed your article, and more importantly your responses to the comments, very much. There’s nothing quite like home. Chesterton once responded to some one who asked where he was going while watching him pack for a trip; he said he was going home. In the end, of course, that’s precisely where he would end up. There’s no other place quite like it and one should never feel guilty for prizing it as a refuge.

    As for the atheist/Buddhist who seems to have a bee in her bonnet about being too materialistic, she would have had an absolute fit over that expensive ointment that Mary poured on to the feet of Jesus. Just think about all those poor people he could have fed. Yikes! Puritanism I often find to be self-congratulatory and boorish. Similarly, I find, being relatively impoverished myself, that those who guilt themselves into some form of self-renunciation or other are rather weak-minded in that they simply *need* to sanctify themselves by emulating the poor. Tolstoy had a similar problem. It made his work seem disingenuous at worst and naive and overly romantic at best.

    I detest the laziness and entitlement of the ultra-rich in this country, but I will not despise someone for enjoying the very things that make life tolerable. Though I am no longer a Christian, the world would certainly be a better place indeed if more were to pay sufficient to those humble objects of home. If I recall correctly, Jesus said himself that he was going to prepare a place for us, (not me of course), but nonetheless, that’s sounds very much like he too was concerned about home-making. Good for you, Ellen.

    • http://ellenpainterdollar.com/ Ellen Painter Dollar

      Thank you for your reflections, Randy. You seem to understand the heart of this piece, which is about how the Christian faith celebrates and redeems the material world, not about thoughtlessly acquiring more and more things and lazing about on 800-thread-count sheets while my neighbors starve! I appreciate your careful reading and your thoughtful response.