A Bit on Compulsive Buying’s Distant Cousin
Before taking leave of this series on compulsive buying, I thought it might be helpful to share a few thoughts concerning compulsive buying’s distant cousin, hoarding, that tendency to stockpile possessions and that difficulty to let go of items that just might be useful if the right occasion arrives. I describe them as distant cousins because the two maladies share some basic family resemblance in terms of being about our relationship with material things, but fail to live like close relatives in the same house with the same daily routine.
Hoarders like compulsive buyers tend to view possessions as extensions of themselves. Unlike people without this trait, hoarders view their voluminous possessions as a wall of protection, a mighty fortress against anything and anyone that might cause them harm. In their article, “Treating Compulsive Hoarding”, authors Ancy E. Cherian and Randy O. Frost write “People who hoard may overestimate the probability of bad things happening to them and look to their possessions as signals of safety. Clients often describe their houses as ‘cocoons’ or ‘bunkers’ and their possessions as things that protect them. Removing these possessions can violate their feelings of safety.” Of course, a Christian can see right away that there is something spiritually amiss, for as the psalmist puts it, our rock and fortress should be our God (Psalm 31:3), not our things.
While hoarding has gained widespread media attention recently especially with people trying to get free of their clutter, the problem is as old as man himself. We see this issue in the Gospel parable:
“And he spake a parable unto them, saying, the ground of a certain rich man brought forth plentifully: And he thought within himself, saying, ‘What shall I do, because I have no room where to bestow my fruits?’ And he said, ‘This will I do: I will pull down my barns, and build greater; and there will I bestow all my fruits and my goods. And I will say to my soul, ‘Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry.’ But God said unto him, ‘Thou fool, this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall those things be, which thou hast provided?’ So is he that layeth up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
This parable of the rich man contains within it all the characteristic traits of a hoarder. Possessions are seen as signs of comfort, security, and self-reliance that give a false impression of control. The problem with the rich man is that he perceived these riches as his own possessions and not the blessing of a providential God. In his desire for security and safety, the rich man eagerly sought what is rightly proper only to God: self-sufficiency and a lack for nothing. In a sense, the rich man sought to be like the Uncreated rather than a created being reliant upon God’s mercy and providence. In our weakened, fallen state we tend to see dependence upon God for our needs as weakness and foolhardy. But Saint John Chrysostom reminds us of the ironic message of the Gospel, “Disperse what you have that you may not lose it; don’t keep your possessions that you may keep them; lay them out, that you may save them; spend them that you may gain them. If your treasures are to be hoarded, do not hoard them yourself, for you will surely cast them away. Rather, entrust them to God, for no man can rob them from Him…. Lend where there is no envy, no accusation, no evil design, nor fear. Lend unto Him who wants nothing, yet is in need for your sake; who feeds all, yet is hungry that you may not suffer famine; who is poor, that you may be rich. Lend there, where your return will not be death, but life instead.”
We might be tempted to say to ourselves, “Well this post isn’t really for me. I don’t have a stack of clutter and possessions. I have only what I need for me and my family.” However, the measure of the Gospel is quite different. We shouldn’t be so attached to any material possession that we would hesitate to part with it if our neighbor asked us for it. Our primary attachment should be God Whom we share with all. We may see in the parable of the prodigal son, a subtle version of a hoarding spirit. The elder son, by virtue of his loyalty and his integrity believes he has earned the right to all of his father’s possessions. When the prodigal returns, the elder son becomes indignant because he sees the prodigal as encroaching upon what he believes is rightly his possession, his security, and his life.
The Gospel calls us to a life in the Spirit in which there is no attachment to earthly things. We are to live our earthly life with all its material possessions as a loose garment, ready to part with them at the moment another requires them. Indeed, these things to which we hold fast are not ours but a blessing from the Lord to be used to glorify Him through generosity towards others and gratitude towards Him.