by Patrick Lafferty
"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal."
They might have been the nicest pair of shoes I’d ever worn—a hand-me-down pair from a friend, but with no evidence of wear and freshly resoled.
Problem was—they were about two sizes too small.
At first I would not be deterred. I muscled my feet into their incommodious space, hoping the struggle would loosen the seams just enough to make them more hospitable.
It was not to be. My metatarsals soon became claustrophobic. There in my office, as the premarital couple I was counseling perhaps wondered what distracted me, I mustered enough grace to ask if I might remove my shoes for the remainder of our time. My only consolation as I sat there unshod: the future wife of the couple was Japanese, who found my request entirely proper!
Affluence can expand what we experience in this world, and allow us to exercise our wills in ways deprivation cannot. But in dissuading us from laying up treasures on earth, Jesus is not just warning us of being entranced by the ephemeral; He’s admonishing us against adopting a cramped existence, like walking in a beautiful pair of shoes two sizes too small.
Cramped in what sense, though?
In C.S. Lewis’ final novel, Till We Have Faces, Orual, is the homely daughter of a hubristic king and narrator of the story. She has a tutor whom she affectionately refers to as “Grandfather,” a slave her father purchased so he wouldn’t be troubled with child-raising.
For dark, convoluted reasons, Orual’s younger half-sister, Psyche, (whom Orual loves like a daughter) is sacrificed to appease the god, Ungit, in hopes of restoring order to the kingdom beset with successive calamities. When Orual journeys to gather Psyche’s remains, she finds her quite alive, well, and convinced of the presence of divine and splendid realities around them that Orual, alas, cannot see—save one glimpse of something like a palace, which Psyche alludes to in her ecstasy. Conflicted, Orual briefly departs Psyche: is her sister mad or is she simply blind to what sounds so real and resplendent to Psyche?
Orual shares her dissonance with Grandfather, provoking this exchange:
“You don’t think,” Orual asks, “there might be things that are real though we can’t see them?”
“Certainly I do,” her tutor responds, “such things as Justice, Equality, the Soul, or musical notes.”
“Oh, Grandfather, I don’t mean things like that. If there are souls, could there not be soul-houses?”
(Orual here challenges her tutor’s Stoic conception of the soul as that which is deep and real in a person, but which does not persist beyond life.)
“After all these years, you have never begun to understand what the soul means,” he laments.
“I know well enough what you mean by it,” she retorts, “But do you, even you, know all? Are there no things—I mean things—but what we see?”
Lewis’ novel explores the struggle to believe in the soul and its corresponding unseen realities, but his characters mean for us, in the end, to embrace the truth of them, albeit by faith. It’s not a blind faith he recommends—for there are reasons for such—but the reasons aren’t enough to obviate the need for faith. Now what has this to do with Jesus’ words about treasures?
None would deny the affluent life presents astounding opportunity to benefit others. But it presents equivalent temptation to give no thought to the reality of those things that are, but are not seen—like the soul (Mt 10:28), the powers and principalities (Eph 6:12), and the coming Kingdom (Jn 3:3). Succumbing to that temptation means stepping into a cramped existence. Consider two examples.
For one, without the context of what is unseen we tend to make idols of what we do see. We can turn our children, as one example, into trophies of our own efforts rather than preparing them to become servants of the living God. For if they are only minds with bodies, and if they’re greatest joy is in this age only, then we shall (mis)shape them accordingly.
Furthermore, when calamity comes we corner ourselves in a suffocating space of despair if we only seek refuge in what is visible. For, as Paul says, “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. Therefore we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but what is unseen.” (2 Cor 4:17–18)
How would renewed belief in the reality of what is unseen adjust your investments today?
If the shoe cannot fit. . .