It's not that I don't love a clean house, or think it's important. I love to bask in the marvel of clear countertops. I find the sight of freshly-vacuumed carpet intoxicating in its beauty. My soul is at peace when my surroundings are in order. But I usually have to make that my immediate surroundings, because there's no way I can achieve it in the whole house at the same time.
The kids, of course, are extremely helpful. I love the way I can get called away from cleaning apparent hurricane damage indoors, to deal with a bathroom trip that was badly timed. And, of course, trip over Legos in the hall en route. Occasionally I get through a whole job, like scrubbing the toilet, or getting dressed after a shower. Then I go downstairs and learn my peace and quiet was bought a the price of a mixed-media art project dripping from the kitchen table.*
Cleanliness, the old saying goes, is next to godliness. Of course we all know that's not in the Bible, and we've managed to laugh it off for the last generation or two. After all, who could compare sweeping to righteousness? But I'm gong to suggest there's more to this saying than we thought.**
Cleanliness is a spiritual thing. Don't believe me? Open a new tab on your browser, and start reading articles on Minimalism. My Facebook feed gets a regular dose of them. The point isn't just about decluttering your living room anymore, it's about decluttering your home and your soul. It offers peace, focus, rest. And I believe it's a good thing, although my own household will never do more than lean a bit in that direction.
Cleanliness is spiritual. I know because of how deeply that fresh-vacuumed-carpet feeling is tied to my sense of Sabbath rest. I know, because my Adventist heritage tells me there's a deep connection between my outer environment and my inner life.
Order effects the human spirit. Cleanliness impacts our souls. In that way, it's like nature, art, and music. These are all places where our physical world bleeds over into our souls. All of them can be powerful forces in our spiritual lives. And because of it, all of them also can be idols.
But cleanliness is different from the others, because it's something you create yourself. I remember reading, in more than one place, that no matter if we have money or talents, we can all have a clean house. You're off the hook if you don't have a flair for decor, but there is no excuse for dusty baseboards. So get to work, Sloth, was the message implied.
And this, I am afraid, is where cleanliness actually stands next to godliness. Both of them deal with our own works. Which means both are frighteningly vulnerable to legalism.
This is what legalism is--these are good things. We have no choice about pursuing them, if we want to feed our souls. But we aren't fed by the pursuit, by our work. Legalism happens when we forget that. It happens when we pursue good, instead of God.
Of course, since the legalism of cleanliness is like any other kind, it also has the same cure. The cure for legalism is failure. I cannot achieve godliness, and I cannot achieve cleanliness either. And here it's only fair to acknowledge that my children are a gift from God in more than one way. I want cleanliness, but instead I live with controlled chaos. I can't deny my own limits, I have to look elsewhere for true order. I can't make myself good, so I have to look for a Good that is greater than I am. I will never find value and purpose in being successful in my home. I need God to give that to me.
I'm going to rest this Sabbath in my little pocket of order, and I hope you will too, however small it is. I'm not going to be weighed down by all I could not do. Because the distance between cleanliness and godliness is really not worth arguing if you can find your joy, instead, in God.
Then Jesus said, "Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.
--Matthew 11:28, NLT
*I know, I know. Someone out there is saying this is because I just haven't taught my children how to clean up after themselves. To which I can only say, "Bingo."
**In fact, I do some of my best philosophical thinking as I spot-mop under the table.