This time last year, I was in Chicago, staying downtown in a hotel on the waterfront with a friend who was attending a conference, then doing a reverse commute out to the suburbs every day to spend time with my brother and sister-in-law. It was about a 10 minute walk from the hotel to the train station, and twice a day, to and from, face hunkered down against the biting wind, I passed a giant banner on the corner of a building, one of those massive advertisements you couldn’t possibly not see. It had pictures of exquisitely dressed women with scads of jewelry draped in seductive poses over a number of pieces of furniture, and honestly, in my quick glance of annoyance twice a day, I had no idea what it was advertising. I didn’t really care to know, I guess.
In a collision of circumstances, I was at the same time reading the book Seven by Jen Hatmaker. Seven is the story of one woman’s attempt (in an extreme form, she readily admits) to dig deeply into the excess in her life by disciplining herself in one of seven areas for a month each. For a month she eats only seven foods, for a month she gives away seven items a day, for a month she wears only seven articles of clothing, and so on, all while documenting how the Lord is challenging and teaching her through it all.
I don’t know if it was the allure of a city, staying in the way-outside-my-budget hotel, rubbing up against people that were so far beyond my realm of a comparable life, reading Seven, or perhaps some combination of it all, but all of a sudden on one of those cold walks I realized I was wrestling inwardly with the frustratingly subconscious desire, having arisen without permission, for things I didn’t even really want. I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and looked up at that banner draped on the corner of the building. Studying it for a minute I finally realized it was an advertisement for the building itself, a set of luxury apartments, coming soon. But what made it so cryptic and yet so telling is that it wasn’t advertising apartments at all, it was advertising a lifestyle. Live here, it screamed, and you too can look like this, get someone who looks like this, have clothes and jewelry and furniture like this, and of course, (as isn’t this always the pitch?), somehow, in it, find true happiness. I lowered my head and walked on, tears smarting in my eyes as it all came rushing together in painful awareness.
I’m in a different city now, on the verge of another year’s holidays, the incessant din of advertising rising to a fevered pitch, but always the same message: without this, you’re incomplete. And of course the message lies not just in possessions, though that is one of the most outwardly accessible ways to communicate it. And simplicity is far, far deeper than the things we own, but it is most definitely a place to start. Interestingly enough, though, our most outward cultural artifacts are the last that anyone wants to talk about. Perhaps it is because it seems so innocuous, the least important thing to consider in a host of societal ills and personal sanctification. Or perhaps it is because we are so quick to judge our value by our appearance, especially as women, and so quick to judge the value of others by their possessions, especially as Americans, and so it simply hits far closer to home than we’d care to admit. That was the realization the Lord had for me that week in Chicago. While in one voice I may proclaim how little I care or how free I am from these traps, it is far from true. And there is something about the coming of another holiday season that makes my heart want to scream out against so much in our culture, my longing for simplicity and stillness intensified by the fact that these holidays carry inherent in their very existence the answers to true stillness, and everything in our culture plows that message over with ultimately unsatisfying alternatives. And most of all, wanting to scream out against my own heart, and that any part of me still believes in the satisfaction of the lies.
And so my thoughts keep returning back to these truths from the pages of my journal that day in Chicago, my heart echoing the same prayer:
I am not free from the susceptibility to comparison, nor the desire for a lifestyle the Lord has not allowed me and, in many ways, does not desire for any of His children. A lifestyle that feeds on the consumerism of our culture: the lies that it matters most how you look and what you wear and what you have. A lifestyle that spends recklessly, with access to a whole realm of options I do not have. A lifestyle of comfort in material terms, of alleged happiness that money can buy. All of a sudden I want, and I am not satisfied. But truly, I am rich. I am comfortable. I am beyond happy and it has nothing to do with money. I am privileged. I am cared for and provided for, first by a Heavenly Father who loves me, and then by the generosity of others. But clearly I am not free from the idol of money. I am not free from the sin of comparison. So I confess, and I accept and proclaim His truth to my heart:
I am not defined by my beauty, but by the beauty of your sacrifice.
I am not defined by my clothes, but by your robes of righteousness.
I am not defined by my worldly and cultural knowledge and awareness, but by my knowledge of you and awareness of your presence.
I am not defined by what I can buy, but by what I have been given, and what I can lose.
Are my clothes just a little wrong? A little outdated, a little worn? Enough to blend in but not enough to stand out? Thank you, Lord, for the opportunity to, neither by over-love or neglect, draw no more than needed time and attention to something so earth-bound. It is good to dress well – but I must not need to.
Will I never achieve the standards of beauty my culture upholds? Do I look in the mirror and see imperfection? Already wrinkles around the eyes and a thought that maybe I’ve passed the best days? Thank you, Lord, for the chance to remember that no man’s desire defines me, but Yours alone, and it is blind. No, actually, not blind, but rightly seeing. And it sees a beauty I can’t even dream of, because it’s Christ’s beauty. It is good to care for my physical body, while acknowledging its temporalness.
Do I not know the right songs, the right stores, the right shows, the right jokes? Do I not drink the right things, use the right words, or even hold the right dreams? Do I not fit in often with a crowd, and sometimes even believers? Thank you, Lord, that your wisdom looked foolish to the world, and all of the world’s wisdom is foolish to you. Thank you for the opportunity to sometimes have only you, to learn to need only you.
It is good to be relevant, but oh Father, protect us from being the same.