Hoarding, Ekonomia and the Kingdom of God

We watched a program last night called “Hoarders.” It is about the intervention offered people with – what to call it? – possession disorders? Ownership obsessions? Of course, it was pretty awful for these poor people. They have completely ruined their lives, their relationships, and their finances by hoarding. Some buy things they don’t need and stash them in their houses and apartments. Others drag home trash finds, ostensibly to fix up and resell or use. Some just keep everything, mostly food container trash, that is normally thrown away. The rooms in their dwellings become filled to overflowing, and they have to navigate by narrow pathways through boxes and piles. Of course it’s unsanitary. Of course it’s ugly. Of course it’s even dangerous. But they keep doing it unless they get help. Many refuse the intervention and therapy; they don’t want to get well.

Maybe it is because I had a sheltered childhood or because I grew up in a poor community, but I don’t remember any hoarders from my young years. There would be a hushed word among the adults sometimes about someone having to go to the nursing home because they weren’t able to care for themselves, that they hadn’t cleaned or taken out trash, but it was attributed, I think, to old age and infirmity.

I realize that I have known many hoarders in recent years. Some were extreme – piles of moldering clothes and furniture, broken appliances, derelict cars full of junk and garbage. Some were more subtle – packed closets and spare rooms, tables covered with packaged food, stationery, hardware, but always an excuse as to why it was there and how long it would stay. I mean situations beyond the stack of books, the newspapers on the way to recycling, or the art supplies on the work table. That’s just a sign of a busy life. This goes beyond the string-saving habits of our depression-era grandparents – how many of us have found their kitchen drawers full of bread bags and aluminum foil, good enough to re-use? That’s just moderate hoarding. I think there has been a huge surge in major, out-of-control hoarding, just as there has been an upswing in compulsive shopping.

This is more than a displacement disorder, a psychological aberration. It is, I believe, an indication of a pervasive spiritual illness in our culture. Owning is emphasized; status is more important than relationship. We are what we have. Instead of seeking friendships and stable family situations, we are encouraged to buy, to surround ourselves with the fruits of the consumer culture, sterile and even dead. (You can’t plant a toaster and get a toast tree.) Instead of personality we have veneers of sophistication, and when someone senses that their veneer is inadequate, they seek to build it thicker with acquisitions. Clothes. Make-up. Jewelry. Furniture. Cars. Electronics. When a person is so left behind in acquiring status and sophistication that they feel their relationships are terribly inadequate, then they may develop an acquisitions disorder, turning to accumulation of possessions to compensate – “I am nothing, so I must have everything.” They literally build a thicker wall against the outside world that is so threatening.

Many people suffer this to some degree. It may get very focussed – buying only designer label clothes, for instance, or an obsession with collecting a category of item. These people are already overidentifying with objects, transferring their personalities to things. They lack essential relationships and in this, they lack trust of others. Even God can become a possession to them, as they acquire religious objects, Bibles, spiritual artifacts of many descriptions. They are too frightened to have a true, trusting relationship with their Saviour, so they sometimes try to own Him in small pieces. They will often fall for a prosperity preacher, expecting that God will provide more acquisitions as a reward for faithfulness.

Our culture does not emphasize generosity and true charity. The commonality of goods is refuted by most of the mainline denominations. Tithing is over-emphasized, as if ten percent is all that God could possibly expect of us. The ekonomia of the house of God is that we provide from our own substance for those in need, not just for the heating bill and the rector’s salary. It will take more than ten percent to make the world equitable. It will take everything.  We have to stop being hoarders.

The Lord left us the keys to the Kingdom. We don’t use them, though. We are locked out by lack of love, lack of warm charity, lack of relationship, lack of shalom, that peace which is the peace and wholeness of God.


11 thoughts on “Hoarding, Ekonomia and the Kingdom of God

  1. My grandmothers were hoarders. One worse than the other. Both were because of growing up in the Great Depression. You had to hoard when you had items because who know how long it would be available. They also stashed money. I’m told this is common of people who grew up during that time. Legitimate hoarding is a hard habit to break when it’s no longer necessary. Plus it can be passed on if you grew up with it. My mother and I are both hoarders to some extent. Hanging onto things longer than necessary “just in case”.

    When my one grandmother died, we found money stashed in all sorts of places like inside pens and under can labels. The other had a path through her house and garage. The rest was old clothes and crafting supplies plus miscellaneous junk that “may be useful someday to someone”. Someday never came. We were left to clean it up.

    • If anything, I’m the opposite of a hoarder. I get rid of stuff before I’m really done with it. The money hiding seems to go with the syndrome, certainly. People used to keep cash in the house in case the bank failed, and some never got over the fear they would be left with nothing. I find paper-hoarders most difficult to deal with; they cannot let go of a piece of paper, any piece of paper – grocery store receipts, handwritten notes, old school papers, newspaper clippings. It’s as if they will disappear if they don’t have enough documentation.

      Are we as Christians doing enough to help people move away from this cultural disorder? Are we fighting it within ourselves? Or have we bought into the cultural belief that there is never enough, to the point where some vulnerable souls fall into a terible, frightening, insecure trap of mental illness?

  2. Magdelaina,

    this is even more tragic when the hoarding behaviour becomes inculcated with one’s faith. I know well a fellow, a Christian, who is at the dangerous end of the hoarding spectrum; house full of old electricals, clothes, appliances, televisions etc, no hot water to house etc up to 15 old car bodies and goodness knows what else in his back yard – suburban block). Tragically, he believes it is vital to hold onto the stuff because it can be given, in his thinking, to Christian charities/op-shops who can then turn it into revenue for mission work and soul winning. On several occasions he’s been shipped out by friends (on one occasion sent from Australia to the US on holiday with family friends while those at home cleaned up the outside, anyway). he was furious when he returned; remember, this was not family airloom material of his, but junk. his cars that were going were also filled with junk half the time… its so sad. He can’t get rid of it because it would be waste; and even if he wanted to, he’s dug himself in so deeply it is too great a mess for one person alone to sort and he won’t allow anyone to help him inside the house.

    I fear he will go on like this without change. Also, these people tend to be generous to a fault with their own time and are often used by others, (unable to say ‘no’) which simply adds to the distress. a tragedy or life trauma that the person never recovers from psychologically can trigger this type of behaviour.

    It is a difficult thing that destroys life itself.

    • Yes; we are not meant to become attached to earthly things. They all belong to God and He disposes of them as He wishes. Which is why someone tying up recyclable materials such as steel by hoarding junk cars, stockpiling plastic and aluminum foil that could be made into new items, or squirreling away packets of food that wil only spoil before used is working counter to God’s purposes. I know these people are often terribly afraid that they will be without, but as one friend said years ago, “Hoarding means that you don’t trust God.” And I think that says it all!

      I don’t want to sound as if I am blaming the person who is ill; but it is a spiritual disease as well as a mental illness. Medications used for obsessive-compulsive disorders may help many people but getting them to a doctor for a diagnosis and prescription is almost impossible. Many don’t think they are wrong. The rest of us are wrong and foolish because we are not saving valuable things!

  3. My family are hoarders, but in a strange way. I grew up never really buying anything. We hoard what others throw away. “Dumpster Diving” is a quality hobby for us. Every so often (about every 5 years) we have to go through and weed out. I wouldn’t say it’s on the edge of inappropriate though. A few good things came out of the type of hoarding my parents do.

    1. We always had quality furniture. My step-father is a woodworker and could fix anything and build just about anything. It wasn’t until I went with my in-laws to buy my first dinning room table that I learned how shoddy furniture store work was.

    2. We were taught that new is not always best and throwing away isn’t for when you’re tired of an object and want something shiny and new.

    Oh…and I’ve been terribly busy (tired), so I’m catching up on your posts. Thank you for the one on penitence.

    • It’s not disfunctional hoarding if you have a use for it! I’ve seen barns full of old rescued furniture that did become refinished pieces for sale, and stacks of fabric that become quilts for emergency shelters. So just gathering stuff and and storing it until you can use it is not hoarding inappropriately. I admit to dumpster diving, and curb picking myself. When building sheep shelters and a shed on our place several years ago, we acquired all our building materials that way, including stovepipe and hinges. Have a look at the blog “The Non-Consumer Advocate” by Katy Wolk-Stanley. It is a gem on how to cut costs and live frugally without trauma to yourself and your family. Also, Kristen at “The Frugal Girl” writes a lovely Christian blog on frugality and living with a home-schooled family. They are both WordPress blogs, so should be easy to find.

  4. Magda, you would HATE me.My bedroom floor is a mess and my studio desk isn’t much better.I keep paper bags because they are excellent to draw on and I keep tickets and leaflets from holidays.I try to not be so messy, but it’s so hard.You see, I have more important things to be concerned with.

    But your opinions on the matter make me uncomfortable, as I DO have OCD and I feel judged by all these comments:

    1.All the items I keep either have memories attached or else are used in my art.

    2.Hoarding, collecting and general messiness are NOT a sign of mental illness.

    3.Most people with OCD do NOT hoard.

    4.I rarely buy anything but food and bus tickets.I am a poor student looking for work, so I don’t have the money for designer items.When I do have money, I buy books which I share with friends, family and fellow students.I actually last bought a book about in April/May.

    What may seem like mental illness to you may not be so to another person.For an example, there are atheists who believe that religious people have mental illness.Such is the ignorance about mental illness that people will tag the term mental illness to anything different.The ignorance from otherwise intelligent people about mental illness hurts.

    • Now, Lucy, I don’t hate anyone, and certainly not someone like you, good-natured and talented as you are! And I think you got my point backward. Artists are incredibly messy people, especially in the studio. Mine was always a disaster zone. Just to clarify: Hoarding can be a form of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. It is not a typical characteristic. I have worked with OCD patients with just the opposite symptom manifestation. Sorry, Lucy, but extreme hoarding is definitely a symptom of a mental illness, and I do not mean to stigmatize. I want to make it clear that it is an illness, and people who are unable to get help suffer greatly, as do their families. I am certainly not going to back down from saying that people who are ill need medcal treatment!

      But the collecting craze we see is a spiritual ailment in our society. We do not need most of what we buy; we buy and collect and acquire to fill a spiritual void. Some people cannot cope with the pressure, and become unstable or ill.

      Iam, in fact, very well-educated about metnal illness, having worked as chaplain in a mental health unit in a hospital.

    • Lucy, I love it! I used to do collage art, but got tired of the constant clean-up. My studio would look like a hurricane blew through. I must say your work is much more interesting than mine, which tended to bring out my dark side.

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