Cleanliness & Godlessness
Words by Lexy Sauvé // Image by Elizabeth Ferguson
It’s the New Year and I’m having to put aside the strong desire that always accompanies this time of year to organize closets, purge toys and old clothes, and paint a few rooms. It’s particularly tempting to me this year as we are anticipating the arrival of our third child in our new (to us) home.
Sometimes there’s absolutely nothing wrong with these pursuits and desires. These are simply the tasks meted out to many of us as we go about domestic life. But to others, myself included more often than not, these tasks become our rulers, the altars we sacrifice our time, energy, good moods, and family on in order to maintain our curated kingdoms.
We’ve all heard the phrase, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” But as I recently made my way through the book of Matthew, I realized that Jesus almost exclusively tied outer cleanliness to godlessness and inner neglect of the heart. He’d say things that would annoy the Pharisees like, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:27–28). Another time Jesus received complaints that his disciples were not following the traditions of ritual cleanliness the Pharisees deemed necessary (Matt. 15:2). Everywhere in the book of Matthew Jesus condemns these clean freaks for their decorations, their extravagant dress, and their neglect of the true things of God (Matt. 25).
This is offensive to the clean freaks out there. Even Martha, the sister who chose to stay with the work in the kitchen, was chastised by Jesus for not having chosen the better portion that her sister did when she began to complain about the work that others left for her to do.
As a mom and wife, I so often fall into the trap Martha did. I complain when a plate is spilled at dinner within minutes of sitting down, ruining the twenty minutes of slaving I put in to cleaning the dining room wood floors. I am irritated when I see toothpaste smeared across the bathroom sink that was clean just this morning. I fear mess. I resent those in my home who make messes.
I think there are a few problems with these thoughts. The first is that outward cleanliness in my home can be a heavy weight that I put on others to bear. The problem is that nobody is meant to carry these tasks. My one-year-old who absolutely loves painting simply won’t be able to hold up under that burden. He will be crushed by my anger when he decides to curiously paint his bare belly and the table instead of the paper. My husband will be crushed under ungodly expectations when my love and affection for him are tied directly to his remembrance of taking his shoes off, putting his dirty clothes in the hamper, or his offering to help with the dishes after dinner. Our neighbor will not feel loved and cared for if I am cold the entire time they are over for dinner, calculating the extra minutes I will have to stay up tonight in order to clean up after more hands and mouths.
The second problem is that cleaning the house is the easy and lazy task. It's easy to clean out the fridge while neglecting pastoral care of your grumpy toddler who is having a bad day. It's easy to put on eye shadow and lipstick for a date all the while harboring bitterness and unforgiveness towards your husband. It’s easy to curate a home worthy of being pinned online that you enjoy showing off to friends, all the while hiding the anger and screaming that happens too often within the walls of your home. These are what the bones of dead men do. The hard work is heart work.
As keepers of the home, we also must remember a few things about those living and visiting under our roofs:
They are creatures. Creatures do better in environments prepared for them by loving hands. This is what the Lord did in creating a garden for Adam and Eve. With a heart bent on glorifying God and loving others, cleaning up the bathroom and lighting some candles in anticipation of your spouse's return home or a visit from a few friends is not wrong.
But, creatures do not do well under constant criticism. Failures in God’s kingdom are covered by grace. Love overlooks offenses. Too often in our sterile kingdoms and homes, failures (messes) do not get grace, but harsh responses and unending reminders of failure. Love must seek to cover over these messes.
So, I offer you a better resolution this year before you dive in to all the New Year’s cleaning and organizing your friends will be discussing online. Declutter your heart first. Is it going to take away too much time from your family to complete the task? Simply put, you probably shouldn’t do it. You can’t do everything, so you must complete the essential tasks. You want to see the mountain of laundry disappear, but you could spend a few extra minutes beside your husband during a busy day when you know it would serve him. Wait for a better season of life.
Is the work you want to accomplish going to make you view your family members and their needs as obstacles? If so, then absolutely know God is not calling you to organize your shoes by color or clean out your medicine cabinet. With him, there is only one thing that counts, and that’s faith expressing itself through love (Gal. 5:6).
“‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.’” (Matthew 22:36–40)