More than a decade ago, my family and I lost nearly everything we owned in a house fire. On that frigid January day, I stood across the street in the warmth of our neighbor's living room with my then three young sons, waiting for my husband to come home and watching as thick, acrid smoke billowed from our rented bungalow's windows. All was lost, of that much I was sure.
Despondent and depleted from the trauma of the day, we checked into a hotel that first night. Seated around a table at the hotel restaurant, I soaked in the faces of our three sons, knowing how differently this day could have ended. The fire had started in the lower level where their bedroom was, and the smoke detectors had failed. If the fire had happened at night, they all would have died. I could barely swallow the thought.
Added to that was the realization that we had nothing more than the clothes on our back.
How will we recover from this loss? I wondered.
What I couldn't see in that moment was how our smoldering wreck of a home would actually become Ground Zero for a new life—a life that would prize simplicity over stuff. In losing everything, we gained a freedom I could have never imagined. I was beginning to grasp the paradox of the apostle Paul's words, "But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ (Philippians 3:7, NIV).
Gains and Losses
I didn't experience this inverse reality overnight. At first I grieved the loss of my stuff with an intensity that surprised me. For every item I claimed as a loss for insurance, my heart sank. The beloved dollhouse my aunt and uncle built for me when I was a young girl—gone. The box of baby pictures, our wedding album—gone. All of the kids' Christmas toys—gone. Books, furniture, even the Christmas tree—tossed in the dumpster with all of the other charred memories. For the first time I understood what Corrie ten Boom meant when she said, "Hold everything in your hands lightly, otherwise it hurts when God pries your fingers open."
But as I loosened my grip and moved beyond the pain of letting go of everything that seemed so important, I began to see the value in this forced austerity program. Losing had its benefits.
Loss #1—Freedom to live.
After the fire, we moved into a new apartment and rented only essential furniture and household items—beds, dressers, couch, table, dishes, silverware. Clean-up was a breeze. Paring down our possessions freed time for us to spend with one another instead of maintaining our space and possessions. I was no longer a slave to our home. I could enjoy the company of my husband and family and the life we had together without having constantly to pick up after everyone.
Loss #2—Secret to contentment.
The fire gave our kids a short course in letting go. With every toy they owned now destroyed, they treasured the first new stuffed animal they received from our new landlord as if it were the best gift ever given. Knowing what it meant to go from plenty to plundered in one day, they, like the apostle Paul, "learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want" (Philippians 4:12, NIV). Gratitude is the secret to contentment. And contentment that is born out of less rather than more leads to a life of simplicity.
Loss #3—What enough looks like.
A wise friend taught me the mantra, I have enough; I do enough; I am enough. The fire showed me what enough looks like. Enough was the faces of my four children at the dinner table that first night. Enough was being cradled in my husband's arms when all else had been lost earlier that day. Enough was the help of neighbors and strangers who came to our side when we most needed a hand. Enough—so simple and yet not. It can be everything and nothing all at the same time. Either way it is enough.
All was lost the day of our fire, and for that I'll be forever grateful.