Recent publishing trends point to a shift in the American zeitgeist: More and more books hit the market each year aimed at clutter in our lives, calling it “stuffocating,” and preaching that tidiness is “life changing.” Has the American public reached a tipping point regarding consumerism?
We are a culture in conflict—simultaneously consuming more and more while desperately trying to trim excess from our lives. I know this obsession well. My husband and I are master minimalists. We’ve relocated to three states in five years and settled into five homes. With each move, we pared down our belongings, leaving our bed frame on a curb in Brooklyn because the thought of hauling it one more time felt absurd. (To this day, we still sleep bohemian-style on a single—albeit neatly blanketed—mattress on the floor.)
There is great freedom in owning less. But however commendable downsizing is, minimizing belongings can be equally as vain as hoarding them. Decluttering alone won’t untangle the web of problems produced by our over-stimulated society. “The joy of ditching all of our stuff is just as illusory as the joy of acquiring it all was,” says writer Pamela Druckerman in an op-ed for The New York Times. Tidying up may transform our material life, but simply removing things will never fulfill our need for more connection with God and others.
Many of our Christian predecessors—some of them ascetics—believed that minimizing external belongings conversely maximized the inward experience. The idea was that, when the material dimension was held less dear, the spiritual dimension would be encouraged to flourish.
Applied today, this means we should ditch things that don’t matter to more fully pursue things that do. For example, downscaling one’s wardrobe should ultimately displace one’s dependence on outward appearance and redirect the focus to experiencing God.
My family calls this “creating white space.” Designers use the term to describe the literal blank space between design elements, which allows the eye to clearly see what’s most important. For us, creating white space means removing distractions to spiritual, intellectual, and relational growth.
A scant wardrobe is a good start to cultivating white space, but it’s only the beginning. More important is what you do with white space created by decluttering.
There is great freedom in owning less. But downsizing is can be equally as vain as hoarding.
In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, Paul encourages believers to train spiritually like a runner who trains his body physically for a race, with the purpose of obtaining a prize. The first days and weeks of training rarely feel good. But it’s easier to stay motivated if the prize, or goal, is kept in focus. Practicing the Christian faith can feel laborious when exercised irregularly. Then again, so can flossing your teeth or parting with a favorite T-shirt collecting dust in the attic. Floss once a year and your gums will bleed. Declutter once a decade and the task seems gargantuan. Done routinely, these efforts provide foundations for healthy teeth and a clean home.
The same principle applies to a daily dose of Scripture reading, prayer, and seeking to love others well. When you exercise these regularly, the soul-shaping work of the Holy Spirit strengthens understanding, increases wisdom, and intensifies joy. With a little consistency, you will begin to crave the Christian disciplines that once felt like marathon-sized hurdles.
Often, training involves replacing distractions with practices that propel you closer to the prize. Paul cites food offered to idols as a distraction that isn’t inherently evil but is better removed to ensure that the spiritual growth of new believers won’t be hindered (1 Cor. 8:4-10). “All things are lawful for me,” Paul writes, “but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Cor. 6:12).
In our latest move, from New York City to Atlanta, my husband and I reflected on innocent activities that might be, to borrow from Paul, mastering our lives. We agreed to temporarily refrain from setting up an Internet connection in our home. I thought we’d cave after a week or two. But what began as a challenge to downsize distraction (and, let’s be honest, monthly bills) has re-energized our family culture to spend less time moderating our online life and more time engaging in real life. Now, we read together, play harder, and have added room to deepen our walk with the Lord.
Jesus’ call to put material objects in perspective is a gentle reminder that God’s eternal economy trumps the temporal economy of our culture.
I’m not opposed to the Internet, clothes, or bedframes. Sometimes, though, I question how large a role I let their presence—or lack—play in overcomplicating my life, and perhaps overcomplicating the simplicity of the gospel. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus encourages believers to choose heavenly treasures over earthly ones. He admonishes them to take a worry-free approach in procuring food and clothing, citing the well-fed and smartly dressed birds and flowers under God’s care: “Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt. 6:31-33). Jesus’ call to put material objects in perspective, even those we need for survival, is a gentle reminder that God’s eternal economy trumps the temporal economy—and trends—of our culture.
The benefits of minimalism are compelling, but downsizing for the sake of decluttering alone will offer only a temporary fix. Most important to moving toward minimalism is what comes next. Once we transcend the cacophony of clutter, how, then, will we fill the white space? What could we make room for in our lives—or better yet, whom?
Photograph by Tom Schierlitz