Idolatry and Comfort In The Home

I still remember the first time I returned to America and sank into bed.

There was no thunk! I forgot that beds could be so soft. I hadn’t realized how much my own culture valued physical comfort until I learned that some cultures could replace “pillow-top” with “cloth-covered plywood” and still call it a mattress. That wasn’t the only comfort I had forgotten: I also sank into couches and ran bare toes through thick carpets. The towels were dryer-soft and even the toilet paper was plush.

When we return to our home culture it’s often obvious how comfort can become an idol. We quickly tally all the comforts we live without. I mean, toilet paper so soft it could be a baby pillow? Is that really necessary? I simultaneously idealize and scorn matching guest towels and kitchens filled with gadgets. Our possessions don’t look like much in comparison. But let’s not kid ourselves: living in a foreign country with ugly towels certainly doesn’t make us exempt from idolatry.

Likely our houses will be a little different than those around us, reflecting our unique ideas of beauty, comfort, and home. But if our homes become such a stark contrast from our surrounding world that our local friends feel uncomfortable, if going home feels like retreating into “mini-America” (or insert your home country), if we find ourselves reluctant to leave the safe-zone we have created, then likely our comforts have become too important. Our quest for comfort can hinder our calling, no matter where we live.

On the other hand, I think that austerity – lack of comfort – can become an idol as well. There were times when I felt a little bit holier just from sitting on my bench-like couch. It’s tempting to “show off” what we put up with – the cement floor, the window fixed with tape and chopsticks, or the ginormous bug in our pantry. We want people to say, “Wow, they are really roughing it. I could never do that.”

We feel a little guilty about the nicer things we have, because I’m pretty sure “live in a one room grass hut” is one of the primary tenants of our line of work.   If people see that we have a comfy couch, they might feel we’re not quite cut out for the job. Where is the suffering and self-denial? When I first moved to China I felt guilty about my hot shower, my throw pillows, and the pictures on my wall. They all seemed to be signs of my weakness.

Maybe we fear judgment because sometimes (I admit it), we judge others in the same way. How easy it is to judge our neighbors, our teammates, our fellow workers by their comforts or lack there-of. “Wow, so-and-so never buys imported foods,” we say with admiration (they must be more dedicated than us). Or “Can you believe they have that super nice rug/fridge/tv?” we say with a tint of censure (they must be less dedicated than us).

Over time I have realized that creating a certain level of comfort in our homes is healthy. During my first few years I was reluctant to bring treasured possessions, afraid they would get lost or broken. Better to keep them safely in America until I returned. Now we have brought over the handmade Christmas stockings, our favorite books, a few special pieces of pottery, and the toys saved from our childhood. This is not just someplace we are staying for a while: it is our home.

In the end, it’s not really about our comforts. It’s about our heart’s response to comforts. Do our comforts reflect our healthy desires for home? Do we cling to the security we derive from our comforts, or do we swell with pride over our lack of comfort? Do we compare ourselves to others around us and back home with envy or judgment? Or do we focus on living within our own convictions and responding appropriately to our own surroundings?

Do you lean toward clinging to comfort or proving yourself through austerity? How do you keep a balance in your life and home?

Photo Credit: Elisabeth Augusta via Compfight cc


  1. Danielle February 15, 2015

    We’ve always encouraged new teammates to make their place home. Even if you think you’re just going to be there a couple years, you can make steps to a homey place. For three years as a young,just out of college person, I went the austere route. Looking back, I wish I had made more of an effort. I think we do need to learn to live without certain comforts, but I like what you said about that austerity becoming an idol too.

    1. Ruth February 18, 2015

      I apologize for the delay in responding. We have been traveling and I discovered I can’t reply on my phone!
      I think one advantage of having a family and kids is that it made me realize how important having a real home is. When I first arrived as a single and even after I was married, it didn’t seem very important to bring my valued things (and I was just here temporarily, right?). Having kids helped me realize this was their childhood home(s), and I wanted them to have memories of home. But I wish I had realized earlier that I was more or less living with one foot out the door, unwilling to trust China with the things most important to me.

  2. Grace L February 16, 2015

    For us our kitchen and dining room are the most important places in our house and that is where we entertain the most. We don’t have the modern cabinets and just a two burner gas stove plus a cheap counter top oven that works well enough to bring forth some yummy baked goods. And we also share this kitchen with our small group of factory workers. They feel comfortable in our kitchen but so do we. Over the years we have bought many things from Ikea, including a great dining room table that we had shipped to our remote location. But it works for us and it works for the locals. Our fanciest item is a really nice cabinet and set of drawers that we bought locally for mega bucks. But it really helps us to feel civilized and it conveniently holds all our great kitchen tools.

    Having been here for 8 years, I strongly feel that we need a certain level of comfort so that this is really home. We will travel back to the states this spring, and yes, I will have twinges of jealousy at the really nice houses we will be guests in. But they are not home, and this house here in East Asia is. It’s better to develop some comfort levels and be able to hang in there long term, than to live in such an austere way that you burn out and need to go back to your home culture. We signed up with God to be here for as long as He wants us here, and by His grace, we are thriving and loving it here. Oh yes, we did get a very comfortable mattress. Getting a good night’s sleep sure helps us to function better too. I say, getting a good balance between comfort and living local style is the way to go. Neither one needs to be an idol.

    1. Ruth February 18, 2015

      Grace, it really is a balance, isn’t it.  Being okay with the things we have and also finding what is most important to us.  And for some it’s the kitchen table or a decent couch or a really pretty picture.  Although I think a decently comfortable place to sleep has got to be somewhat important for everyone.  I still remember when my teammates bought me my first bed foam – a heavenly act of true love for sure!

  3. Kim February 16, 2015

    Keeping a balance is not going to look the same for everyone. Where you live and what the average home is like will play into the equation. What you do is also a factor. If your house is just a place to go and sleep, and occasionally eat, you won’t need as much. If you have people into your home frequently, you’ll want to have what you need to accommodate them.

    I also think it’s really important that where we live is a home, and not just a house. I loved the comment on a recent post here on VA (“On the expectation to live modestly”). Elizabeth said, “My husband’s mentor told him that as a cross cultural worker, he will walk through a lot of doors each day. He told him that his favorite door should be his own.”

    A couple years ago I did a little exercise to create a mission statement for how I wanted our home to feel. It’s not just about what we have in our home or how I decorate, it’s about how we live and use this space. It clarified what our goal is, and dictates what we buy or make or do to/for our home. I involved my husband in the exercise, too, and this was the result of our collaboration:

    Our home is a haven for family and friends, a place where they feel welcome and comfortable. Our home is a light-filled, open space, clean and uncluttered, with beautiful things that have special meaning and speak of the people we love and the places we’ve been.

    We didn’t bring a lot with us when we moved overseas (mostly tools, books, fabric, bed linens, towels, and kitchen items). We later decided to try and buy inexpensive watercolor prints or take photos from when we travel to frame and put on the wall; they’re lightweight, easy to pack, and serve as a memory of where we’ve been. We live in a small space (395 square feet) so keeping the clutter to a minimum is always a challenge, and the baskets and woven bins I use for storage are also pretty. Plus they work really well on the open shelves my husband put up (since the house had zero storage).

    What works for me here may not work in the next place we live. I’m trying to learn and live with my hands wide open, not clutching tightly to my “things”.

    1. Ruth February 21, 2015


      Kim – I apologize again for the delay in responding.  Actually I thought I replied three different times and it never actually went through!  Frustrating.

      I love your idea of creating a mission statement for your home.  It seems like a good framework for making decisions about what you have and what you do in it.  I think it’s so true that home should look different depending on your circumstance.  What might be opulent in one area is normal in another.

  4. Cecily February 23, 2015

    Please take the plank out!  Oh, my goodness.  I am so guilty of judging others.  I am content with the way I live, I don’t even take thought about my own comforts.  But when I see something that is more comfortable in someone else’s home, then I start judging.  Could I please stop?!  How about just living in contentment and letting others do the same?  Who made me judge, anyway?  Nobody!  So sit down and shut up.  Oh, to live in a place of peace and to sow peace ant to be undistracted by my stuff and your stuff.  That’s where I want to live.  Thanks for prompting me to think about this!  (Okay, now I am done preaching to myself.)

    1. Ruth February 24, 2015

      Oh I know!  It is so easy to judge.  And to feel so justified in doing it!  It can definitely be a hard habit to break, but I think being aware of it is a good place to start!

  5. J'Layne Sundberg March 18, 2015

    I really enjoyed this take! Full of wisdom for me, as I’m about to move to Africa as a 30 something single. I have been advised to bring some beautiful reminders of home, and I certainly plan to! Thanks for the encouragement.

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