My friend and I had taken hours out of our weekend to clean Barb’s squalid, rundown house. But then, when she got home, she was angry—very angry. Now there was one thing I neglected to say about Barb. Beside her couch/bed was one of those Rubbermaid containers, the kind with several drawers. Each of these drawers contained an assortment of silk Hermes scarves. Each of these scarves, we later learned, had been bought for several hundred dollars and Barb had assembled them as a kind of savings account. She was convinced that each one was going to increase in value and eventually bring her great wealth. She considered them an investment. Little wonder that she slept right beside them and checked on them carefully every time she returned to her house. That was exactly what she did when she returned home this time. As soon as she saw that we had been touching her stuff, her precious stuff, she began to grumble and to mutter about how we were being careless and harsh (even though she had invited us to help her clean up). After running inside to count her Hermes scarves and ensure that we had not stolen any of them (she washed her hands before touching them), she began sorting through the garbage bags, looking to make sure we hadn’t thrown away anything of value. She also rummaged through the boxes of clothes we had marked as “sell,” remarking that she simply couldn’t get rid of those things, even though they were far too small for her. Barb was quite a big woman but wanted to lose weight. To motivate her weight loss program she had purchased an entire designer wardrobe in her desired size. A long time had elapsed since she had purchased her size six wardrobe and, though she had made no progress, she just knew that she would need these clothes before long. Eventually she agreed to allow us to sell a very few pairs of shoes and boots on her behalf (though upon later inspection we found that many of these, though they had never been worn, had been chewed upon or lived in by mice and were, thus, valueless).
At the end of the day we were tired and dirty but felt that we had done something to help Barb’s plight. The house was still a disgusting disaster, but we had brought some order to the chaos, at least in one of the rooms, and felt that the house was just a bit more livable than when we had arrived. I guess Barb disagreed because she never allowed us to return. In fact, she thanked our friends by beginning to throw trash over her fence and into their yard. Using eBay, we eventually sold the items she had allowed us to sell and brought her the money. She was livid and threatened to call the police, saying we had ripped her off. She was insistent that the clothes were worth more now than when she had purchased them—that clothes appreciated in value. She decided she was going to hold on to the rest of her things. Perhaps her money problems had eased by then.
It’s a sad story this one. It affected me deeply. It was a few years ago since it all happened but since then I’ve thought about it often. To me, Barb is a picture of slavery to sin. Sure there may be some mental illness involved, but what is this kind of mental illness if not captivity to one or more of the devil’s lies? She had slowly removed herself from the real world to live in a world of her stuff—a world that she perpetuated by collecting and accruing ever more stuff. She needed her stuff—her clothes, her books, her scarves. She loved them and coddled them, treasuring them like they were the children she never had. Her life was miserable and she sought solace in her growing mountain of possessions. The piles accumulated and became a mountain—a filthy, dusty, smelly mountain—but it was hers and she loved it. To the rest of us her house was unlivable. To her it was home. She seemed to know every pile of trash and regarded each piece of junk as treasure.
I thought of Barb the other day when considering the mountains of sin in my own heart. I had one of those days where I marveled at the reality of sin in my life, that after so many years of being a Christian, after so many years of following Christ, such sin could still live within me. And like Barb’s valueless junk, there is sin I love. I hold onto it, treasuring it, coddling it, babying it, clinging to it. I take refuge in this sin; I take comfort in it. Others surely see it for what it is; the Bible tells me exactly what it is. Yet it’s mine and I’ve grown quite fond of it over the years. These mountains of junk are my secret treasure.
There is a difference, though. Barb was enslaved by her sin. Mental illness; spiritual illness; I don’t know what it was. But I do know that she was entrapped and enslaved by it. In moments of lucidity she could see what she needed to do but so quickly she would come crawling back to her stuff like a dog returns to its vomit. But by the grace of God I’ve been set free from enslavement to my sin. There may be part of me that continues to love my sin, but there is a greater part of me that hates it and that fights it. Through Christ I’ve been given freedom, freedom to fight against that sin and, better still, to overcome it. Sin lives within me, but it no longer enslaves me. But only because of God’s amazing, immeasurable grace. Ephesians 2 describes me well, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Then comes the great conjunction of verse 4: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved…” By God’s mercy, I can overcome those mountains of garbage within.
I don’t know how Barb’s story ends. A year after we tried to help her out, her house went on the market and quickly sold. We knew that a developer must have bought the property for the land as the house was far beyond saving. But Barb reneged on the deal. A few months later it was on the market again and quickly sold. Our friends left the neighborhood shortly after when a developer bought all of the surrounding properties, planning to build a series of retirement condos. Barb must have left around the same time.
I’ve often wondered how Barb moved. Did she take all of her stuff with her? Or did she leave it all behind and just walk away? What did she do with all of the money from her property which must have fetched at least half a million dollars? Did moving from her house help her break free of what was clearly a serious addiction and a serious mental and spiritual problem? Or is she, even right now, sleeping on a couch with her Hermes scarves and other treasures piled all around her? Somehow I’m inclined to think she is. God help her.