The Law of Minimalism and the Idolatry of Sparking Joy

In the fall of 2014, I had just completed a cross-country move after a cross-city […]

Carrie Willard / 6.5.17

In the fall of 2014, I had just completed a cross-country move after a cross-city move with my husband and two small children. After those moves, we got a puppy, which destroyed anything that didn’t make it through those first moves, and we also said goodbye to diapers and pacifiers in that same year. We were feeling pretty great about lightening our load. We were lean — svelte even — in the hoarding possessions department. And so, that same fall, when Marie Kondo published “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing,” I politely ignored it. We had tidied up plenty, thank you very much.

Even without reading it, I absorbed some of the gospel zeal from the followers of the “Kon-Marie method,” so named after the book’s author. (Even her name can be tidied up! Cute!) The idea behind it, as I understand it, is that you take everything out of your closet, hold each item in your hands, and decide whether it “sparks joy.” If no joy-sparks fly, the item gets donated, sold, or thrown away. There’s also something in there about thanking your possessions for their service to you, and special ways to store your possessions to make them happy. There’s more to it than this, of course, but you get the general idea. And in general, I can get behind this system. If you’re not using it, someone else could. You’ll appreciate what you actually use and like, if it’s not drowning underneath stuff you don’t.

Jesus had a few things to say about this, too. In Matthew 6: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.” And again in Matthew 19: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.”

Even in the newest translations, though, I don’t read Jesus saying, “Give all your stuff away … but only the stuff you haven’t used in a year.” Or “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, unless they spark joy, in which case, you should totally keep them, but be sure to fold them correctly.”

I realize that Marie Kondo was not promising eternal salvation in the pages of her book. But the idea that there’s “life-changing magic” in this Kon-Marie method is, I’m sorry to say, a load of Oscar Mayer Grade B baloney. I’ve tidied up. I’ve appreciated the everliving crap out of (certain) things. I’ve kept my inbox clean, both figuratively and literally. I can’t say that I’ve thanked my possessions for their kind service to me, and I haven’t adopted the magical ways of folding socks and t-shirts that are supposed to make them more comfortable in my dresser drawers, so maybe I’m missing something there. I could worship at the Cathedral of The Container Store and only use special felted hangers, but if anything, that’s only going to make me give myself a self-righteous pat on the back for a few weeks when I’m choosing my outfit for the day. I’m not buying that this minimalist lifestyle would change my life.

I’m not the only one who hasn’t found salvation in the minimalist lifestyle: a recent New York Times article, “When the Gospel of Minimalism Collides with Daily Life,” describes people’s experiences who have embraced minimalism, only to loosen up a bit some time later. A woman named Karen, who has relaxed her previously minimalist lifestyle, is quoted in the article as saying: “Minimalism sure does suck you in. Life looks easier. It seems like your skin will be dewier and your hair shinier — a happier, healthier version of yourself.” The article goes on to say, “Still, critics chide minimalists for a kind of faux self-discipline. After all, if you can afford to toss your stuff, you can probably reacquire it should you change your mind and, say, come to find that your home carbonation system is indispensable.” More to the point: “Over time, minimalists may also find that they lack the time and energy needed to constantly prune their homes and exist as sparingly as possible.” The minimalist credo, in other words, can end up costing more in terms of effort and time than a person might think. Another reformed minimalist is quoted in the article as saying: “Chasing any ideal, whether it’s minimalism or anything else, isn’t the way forward. Family life, and actually any life probably, is at its best when it’s a bit scruffy and messy.”

Ironically, in our zeal to downsize and minimize, we end up elevating our remaining possessions to a higher status than we might have intended. When I was feeling all svelte and trimmed-down after all of my family transitions back in 2014, my life had not magically changed. When I take out the recycling, I feel great for a while, but there isn’t a spiritual pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.

Which is to say, we’re humans, and we’re going to mess this up. We can’t escape from the human condition, even if our closets are magazine-worthy. There is a consistent thread in the New York Times article about the recovering minimalists and their longing for objects that remind them of their past — their mother’s wedding china or an object they’d picked up on a memorable hike. They longed for the sense of connection to the past that those objects brought, if not the objects themselves. We can tidy up and clean every crevice, but there’s no escaping our past, or our need to connect with one another. I worry sometimes that we’re going to “clean up our friends list,” on social media or in real life, so much that we’ll only have relationships with people who agree with us about everything. That’s definitely tidy, but it’s also really sad.

So, what’s a Christian to do? Clean out your closet. Or don’t. If that’s what sparks joy in you, go on with that. It might save you some time in the morning, but it’s not going to save your soul. Give yourself a little grace to keep your grandmother’s pearls or your great uncle’s key chain. Life with one another is going to be a mess, whether we like it or not. The Law of Minimalism tells us that if we pare down our possessions and get right with the Lord of Simplicity, then our lives will be enriched. The gift of grace from the crucifixion tells us that Jesus took care of all of that for us, and no amount of tidying up can speed up the process. There are times that I wish that it could — like the minimalists in the New York Times article, I’d like to Kon-Marie the daylights out of my life and come out with a trimmer waistline, a higher tax deduction, and a better me. I should be grateful that life doesn’t work that way, and I mostly am. Regardless of whether I like it, though, the truth is that Jesus took our sin — both the untidiness and the tidiness alike, and cleaned it up for us and still calls us his own.