I’ve shared with you guys about some of the many ways that Jesus has reached into my life and healed me. In the summer of 2009, that reach extended into a serious “stuff” problem that had been accumulating under the surface for some time.
To back up, this stuff problem really started in my early twenties, when I started looking to things, whether it was stylish clothes, a cool music collection, or a well decorated apartment, to make me feel secure. I was out on my own, I was taking charge of my life, and I kind of believed that all the right things could bring me the happiness I was looking for. Until I ran smack dab into an expensive illness just a few years later, and all the pretty things I owned couldn’t change a thing.
So in the tail end of 2008, the church I was attending started a series on financial stewardship. And since my feelings on stuff were beginning to change and my medical bills were piling up, I made a commitment to change some of my ways. I told God that I didn’t want to find security in material things, and that I was willing to give up my stuff if I needed to. Then I set about selling everything I felt I wasn’t using regularly, cancelling my cable, and mentally promising not to purchase another new item of clothing for twelve months.
It felt really good, and I was super proud of myself for breaking my addiction to things. I told God that I’d turned a new corner in my life, and that I no longer cared about material possessions. Then I felt Him nudge me to give up my beautiful apartment. I’m not going to lie… The thought hurt a little. It was a large, newly renovated floor-through just off of one of New York City’s nicest parks. We had a big kitchen, large bedrooms, a backyard, a safe neighborhood, and an exposed brick wall that looked really cool. And we’d just signed a two and a half year lease. But I was on such a roll, that I figured why not, and my roommate and I came up with an ambitious plan to shave a couple hundred dollars a month off of our already “affordable” New York City rent.
We prayed like the dickens, scoured online apartment listings, and jumped up and down because we were doing it – we were really simplifying and changing our lives. Our price limit was ridiculously low, but we were certain that God would provide. And then lo and behold, we found it – a shoebox of an apartment on a main road in Brooklyn’s “hippest” neighborhood. It wasn’t much to look at, but it was owned by a sweet elderly Italian couple who were so excited at the prospect of us moving in that they promised to install new hardwood floors in place of the ratty carpet and folding doors to provide privacy in the sleeping alcoves, two spaces so small that each fit only our mattresses and a small plastic Ikea wardrobe. So we signed the lease, sold even more stuff, and took the plunge.
I have to admit, my roommate was such a good decorator that she made the place look like gold in less than 48 hours. Until things started to go haywire. The building was so small and poorly constructed that every time we cooked, the once sweet Italian couple would bang on our door and complain that they could smell food. A man living in the construction store beneath us fell asleep with his hot plate on and set the place on fire, filling our apartment with smoke that took days to air out. And finally after that the biggest nightmare of all – we discovered the building was infested with bed bugs.
Ok, so this was a common problem in New York City in 2009. Bed bugs tore through the city like a tornado in Kansas with no regard for neighborhood, class, or the cleanliness of the people living in the apartments they infiltrated. They just came, and almost everyone knew someone who was affected. We were two of those someones. And we freaked out.
You can imagine how I felt, spending hundreds to thousands of dollars a month on medical bills for an insect-borne illness, to find out our building had hundreds of equally as gross little bugs crawling around, pretty much invisible to the naked eye, and with the express aim of biting me. After several sleepless nights, arguments with our landlords about the seriousness of the issue, and two consultations with exterminators, it was clear the situation was bad. So bad that we were advised to leave everything we owned and run. The exterminators powdered the apartment with chemicals, lugged our mattresses to the curb as they were required to do, and warned us not to go to a friend’s house lest we bring a few stowaways there.
Cue another issue I used to struggle with: fear that God was allowing bad things to happen to me because I’d knowingly or unknowingly done something wrong. That had been my natural response for most of my life. It was only recently that I’d begun to understand God as the loving Father who wanted to help me through all things and protect me from destruction. However, this would have been the perfect time to revert back to old thought habits. Here I was, dedicating my finances to Him and sacrificing the beautiful apartment I loved, and things were still going about as haywire as they could go.
But as in all things, God used the situation for good and filled me with faith that He’s not out to get us, but He is there to catch us.
In the Bible, Jesus speaks to His disciples about some bad things that happened: a group of Jewish people was murdered by the Roman government while offering sacrifices, and then two towers collapsed, killing the people inside. Jesus’ disciples had the same question: did the towers fall and the people die because they’d done something wrong? They were so used to living under the Law that they couldn’t comprehend God’s grace. Not at all, Jesus responded. The towers fell because they fell. Sometimes in this broken world, bad things happen. What really mattered was whether the people in the towers knew God, because then they could experience eternal life with Him and they would never really perish.
In this case, a bad thing just happened. God wasn’t out to get us. We spent several nights shell shocked and in panic mode wondering how we were going to dig ourselves out of this mess. Not only had we lost several thousand dollars on the security deposit, moving fees, and the extermination bills, but we’d just lost what little furnishings we had left and pretty much everything else that couldn’t be tossed into a dryer on high for 120 minutes. It was at that moment, when we were sleeping on the kitchen floor with bath towels, feeling lowest of the low, and asking God to come in and work a miracle because we needed it, that He reached in and rescued us.
He did it first through the family members who donated money, then through friends who offered a couch to crash on, even with the risks that an invisible bug would catch a ride on our overnight bags. Then we found a beautiful Victorian apartment in our dream neighborhood, back by the park and down the street from several organic grocery stores and restaurants. It was not only within our price range but was probably three times as large as the tiny shoebox we were in, had a laundry room, was surrounded by beautiful tall trees, and had a backyard full of tomato, basil, blueberries, and pumpkins.
We moved in with only our clothes, dishes, and a few random items we’d salvaged, all stored in black plastic trash bags. Our landlord generously donated a nice couch and a microwave, even with no knowledge of our situation. Our pastor and his family shared furniture from their own apartment and Ikea gift cards to fill in the gaps. Our friends passed on curtains, a table, and other items to help us build a home (and additionally kept us well dressed with nice hand me downs for years to come). The CEO of my company, learning that we didn’t have an air conditioner in the height of summer, sent a top of the line window AC. And finally, after months of sleeping on the couch, another friend reached out and passed on a brand new pillow top Queen size bed.
I’m not going to say the situation wasn’t traumatic. Being assaulted by evil bugs and losing nearly everything I owned while going through a major illness was not something I would have signed up for. And it took me a while to recover. But something else happened through that experience as well. Jesus reached in and touched the wounds. He held me close, and He set me free of my need to find security in stuff. Suddenly all the things I’d been carrying around for so many years – literally and figuratively – were gone. As I lost all the things that I said I could never live without, I realized that all I really needed to live was God. It sounds hyper-spiritual, but it’s true. He provided everything we needed, and He did it through the amazing people in our lives.
Losing everything then also made it easier to give up my job later, even though for years I’d put my entire self worth into the position I held. It made it easier for me to reassess other parts of my life and to ask what I needed in my life and what I didn’t. And once the dust settled and the panic subsided, I was able to look back and see that my life wasn’t what I could build up around me but what I could give away, just as others had given to me. I was free.
Sometimes in life we’ll lose everything simply because bad things happen. Other times, we might lose things because we’re being pruned – cutting off the branches that aren’t bearing fruit to make way for new ones that will – and pruning involves severing, and severing hurts. But when we keep our eyes on Jesus, we can trust in Him even if we don’t understand at the time. We can trust that He’ll reach into our hard situations, that He’ll be there to rescue us, and that He can use even the hardest things for good.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. – Romans 8:28 (NIV)
Original photo of Woman On Coronado Beach by Bill Kuffrey. All text and embellishments added by us.
Linking up with Emily Wierenga’s Imperfect Prose on Thursdays