As I squeezed five large bags of used clothing into my car’s trunk the other day, I was quite proud of myself. Looking at those five bags of unworn, outgrown, and unloved clothing culled from our family closets, I thought about what they really signified: wasted emotional and mental energy spent buying them, washing them, and feeling guilty about having them. It was indeed an absurd amount of excess clothing—even for a family of four. Hopefully, they would now do more than occupy endless hangers at the back of the closet, or even—worse yet—decompose in sad piles on the closet floor, worn only once or twice. I had good reason to be pleased at my cleaning progress. I am a clutter magnet, attracting random objects around me in strange patterns like iron shavings. It is only through much prayer, counseling, and growth that I am able to reject a sense of scarcity and desperation from my childhood, especially in regards to having “enough” clothing. And now as a privileged, well-resourced person in the western part of the world, there is ample opportunity to feed the twin demons of consumerism and excess. Here, the roots of minimalism are well-founded; something must be done to stem the tide of thoughtless consumption which threatens to drown us all. The oft-quoted phrase, “They don’t make ‘em like they used to!” is quite the rallying cry, declaring the urgency of embracing an ethos of objects made to last and simplicity as a virtue.
But the rise of minimalistic culture also raises important questions, especially for Christians: Is the minimalist movement disingenuous? Would Christ, in his marginalized state, have identified with minimalism? Has minimalism become an idol? As we savvy capitalists obsess over having less stuff, are we not still consumed by the thought of said stuff, mesmerized by the stark spaces which now serve as empty shrines to remind us of how much stuff we used to have? Does the absence of clutter not still hold sway over our imaginations and passions as we strive to cultivate mindfulness about how little stuff captivates us now, in our supposedly enlightened state?
Have we not merely managed to craft newer, sleeker idols, ones cunningly made of sustainably-sourced materials?
My on-going battle against clutter is certainly the culmination of decades of learning anew to trust the Lord for my daily bread. The current iteration, however, was specifically spurred on when I first read the playful and mystical book spark joy by Marie Kondo. Upon seeing the pint-sized tome at my local library, I was drawn to the ideas reflected in the book’s aesthetics: large margins and extra white space, simple font done all in lowercase letters, and a Zen-inspired watercolor circle in the center of a deceptively simple cover. Flipping through the compact volume, I was encouraged by the style and substance of the book. Here, I thought, is the answer to both my chaotic housekeeping and perfectionistic tendencies. Here I can find a balance of concise, clear guidelines and room for error, angst, and even failure. What I didn’t realize was that my feckless heart also whispered, herein lies my salvation.
I brought the book home, promptly lost it in the large stack of library books on the counter, and continued on my merry way. A few days later, though, I unearthed it and continued my browsing. Had it been a book by a Christian author, I might not have been confronted so quickly by my sinful ways of thinking, by my idolization of minimalism. The very first sentence in the preface reads, “Life truly begins only after you have put your house in order,” the very antithesis of the gospel call to come trembling before the Lord in our desperation. Had it not been for phrases such as “the ‘god of tidying’ never abandons anyone, even those who don’t believe in themselves,” I might have been able to establish a thin veneer of piety over my efforts to declutter, to “spark joy” as the title so insidiously suggests. To be clear, once the book was due back at the library, I ordered my own copy (oh, the irony!) so that I could continue in my efforts; the book is full of practical, thoughtful suggestions and techniques that I have indeed found valuable. As I had hoped, the book has helped me to balance between chaos and perfectionism, striking a whimsical and—dare I say it—joyful tone. At her humorous encouragement that “even if you fail, don’t worry—your house won’t blow up,” I genuinely laughed out loud. The author has made a career out of streamlining the lives of her clients, and she has the art of minimalism down to a science.
Chuckling my way through her exhortation “… when you discard anything that doesn’t [bring you joy], don’t forget to thank it before saying good-bye,” I realized that her ideas were not necessarily wrong; her affections were misplaced. In watching her new Netflix show, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, the playful, caring tone of her books is clearly central to her character. Her goal is to free people from the tyranny of clutter and too much stuff, and she does so masterfully and faithfully. Discussions on the carefully crafted experience of reality television aside, there is an almost child-like authenticity to Ms. Kondo’s interactions with her clients. She seems to genuinely care about them. Her brand of minimalism doesn’t sacrifice sentimentality for simplicity; rather, it seems, she allows people to actually enjoy sentimental objects more when they aren’t buried in piles of junk. None of this is un-biblical or dangerous in and of itself. But as you watch her care for her clients, she brings them hope and purpose in a very spiritual way. She has the saintly aura of a savior, bringing beneficence to ordinary, every-day objects like clothing. She is inspiring, and I have been encouraged to de-clutter because of her influence.
So, as I looked down at those five large bags of clothing now crammed into my already cluttered trunk, I was tempted to keep my vision down, to focus on the tangible reality before me, and ultimately, to keep my focus on myself.
But instead of thanking the clothes for their service and congratulating myself on my minimalistic prowess, I was able to look up and focus on the one who both gives and takes away.I thanked God for his providence in these clothes, and asked his forgiveness for not stewarding them well. I asked his blessing on those whose bodies would be clothed with them in future, and those whose bodies were no doubt damaged in the process of their construction. And I asked him for the Spirit-empowered ability to stop thinking about clothes so much, and to be able to focus on him, instead. Not to forget them entirely, but rather to have my devotion ordered rightly on the one who came to earth as helpless and naked as the rest of us.
I asked (and am still asking, because I do not miss the humor of writing an entire article about something upon which I am trying to focus less) for eyes that can supernaturally see the unknowable majesty of our Lord, which was made visible for us when he chose to enflesh his deity in a body subject to cold, illness, and decay—a body which needed to be clothed. Yes, I want to make more room in my life for less clutter, but also for more perception of the grandeur of our God who, though he created and sustains all things, chose to live a life of poverty and want. Christ was neither minimalist nor ascetic; categories rendered irrelevant because he was wholly focused on his father’s will. He knows that our bodies need clothes, our minds need books, and our lives need tools to corral the creation with which he has entrusted us. Our Lord is full of seeming discrepancies: he asks us to give him nothing and yet to give up everything; he desires that we be content in both poverty and in wealth. He wants us to neither obsess over trendy, stark surroundings nor cling to an excess of material goods. He desires not that we punish ourselves for our failures, even as he lovingly disciplines us. His body has already borne the unthinkable penalty for our petty greed; his simple clothing has already been stripped from his broken body and distributed among desperate, sinful men.
No, the Christian response to rampant materialism must be one of gratitude, repentance, and stewardship. Though they might trademark the phrase, San Francisco-based design company New Minimalism is hardly the first to proclaim that our “external space” is a reflection of our “internal state.” The outward appearance does indicate the inward state—as Jesus teaches in Matthew 7, “every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.” As we learn to be grateful for whatever we have, to lament our prideful attitudes, and care for others better, we will see growth and change in our relationship with the world around us. And yet, as we look to the cultures and people around the world, a question arises: Who defines excess? Or, more importantly: Who do we allow to define excess instead of Christ? In the next part of the article, I address the topic of minimalism and excess across cultures and speculate how it will be defined in the New Heavens and New Earth.