Forget society's standards, here's the secret to a truly beautiful home

I have a friend who was recently diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. An awful diagnosis for anyone, at any stage of life. But as a 48-year old father of four, with two still in elementary school, it has shaken everyone in our community. He’s now in a daily battle to stave off cancer, provide for his family, and both parent and husband well.

In preparing themselves for the long days and years to come, my friend and his wife decided to downsize their home – moving from 3,400 square feet to 1,800. They saw the move as an opportunity to save money, time, energy, and effort for the journey ahead – a journey that would require focus and intentionality.

They hadn’t lived in their larger home for very long before the diagnosis. In fact, I still remember the first time I visited – Christmas, last year. It was for a party and their home was decorated immaculately. My wife and I arrived early for the party and offered our hosts the first thoughts that entered our mind, “Your new home is beautiful. Thank you for having us over.”

As the party attendees continued to arrive that evening, I watched as many had similar greetings for their host and hostess, “Your house is gorgeous!”; “This is stunning!”; and “Your home is absolutely beautiful!” Customary greetings, I know, but these compliments were not empty words of praise – the houseguests were genuinely impressed with their hosts’ home.

We are, after all, a culture and society that loves big houses and expensive furnishings and decorations. Most people spend their lives, and – if current stats on household debt are correct – their money pursuing bigger and bigger homes in nicer and nicer neighborhoods.

In fact, the average American home has nearly tripled in size over the last 60 years, all while the average American family has decreased in members. And if all this increased space isn’t enough, 10 percent of us rent offsite storage and 25 percent are unable to park even one car in our garage. “Bigger” and “more lavish” tend to be homes that are praised in our culture.

Sometimes I wonder if these bigger homes (and the increased furnishings and material possessions that go inside them) are actually benefiting our lives. And if they are not, are they worthy of our praise and admiration? Is it possible we are looking for “beauty” in all the wrong places?

The concept of home as an ideal for safety and comfort, of acceptance and belonging, is one that resonates with almost everyone. But somewhere along the way, we began chasing a different ideal. “Home” became a place to upscale, store an ever-increasing pile of possessions, and chase a never-realized perfection portrayed in Pottery Barn catalogs and on home-improvement reality shows.

But what is the purpose of home and what makes the concept beautiful in the first place?

Home is a place to come home to. It offers a place to relax, unwind, and rest. It provides an opportunity for interaction among family members – a safe harbor from the storms of life to find acceptance, security, and stability.

But home is also a port of departure when you’re ready to brave the high seas of life again. Home offers us rest and security so we can live our best lives in the world outside – accomplishing the most good for the most amounts of people.

As John Shedd said, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”

These are the ideals we should strive for with the home we create: a safe harbor and effective port of departure. And when these ideals are being met, our home is beautiful. We do not need to constantly increase square footage, discounted (or not) furniture, or decorations.

In fact, often times, reducing the square footage and/or the number of possessions in our home allows us to better realize those ideals that make a house a home. When our money, time, and energy is not spent accumulating and caring for things that don’t matter, we have more resources available for the things that do.

Last week, my wife and I dropped off dinner at our friends’ new, smaller home. It had been a long day for them full of scans, doctor visits, diagnoses, and treatments. We did not intend to stay long – they needed rest as much as they needed a fresh meal.

However, while dropping off the food I asked my friend how he was liking his smaller home. He said, “It’s great! I no longer have a mortgage payment because we removed that burden when we downsized. We’re in a more stable position financially which is important to me. Sure, we’re still adjusting to living in smaller quarters as a family. But this house is easier to clean and maintain and take care of so I can focus more on the things that matter. Most importantly, it’s bringing us closer together as a family. And Joshua, that is the thing that means the most to me right now as I fight for my life and theirs.”

I looked around the room one more time. I saw a family growing closer, better prepared in this smaller space for their difficult journey ahead. “Bob, I think it’s beautiful.”