Like the documentary Minimalism (2015), the new Netflix release Tidying Up With Marie Kondo has drawn waves of attention into the minimalist lifestyle. Kondo’s signature method of decluttering — getting rid of anything that does not “spark joy” — continues to attract many followers. Not all, however, are happy with her advice of owning less than 30 books.
Be it the catchy phrase “spark joy” (also the name of Kondo’s book published in 2012), or The Joy of Less (the title of the book by Francine Jay), or “Love people and use things because the opposite never works” (the slogan created by The Minimalists), much of what minimalism advocates in words seems to resonate with Christian values.
But is the nature of joy in minimalism the same as the nature of joy beheld by those who follow Jesus?
This post by no means questions the authenticity of minimalism or attributes motives to those who adopt this lifestyle. Whether Christians or not, many have chosen minimalism as a way to seek deliverance from materialism. In addition, the minimalist lifestyle has helped many to enjoy a cleaner living space. But studying joy through the lens of minimalism gives us an opportunity to remind ourselves of the nature of Christian joy: those who are in Christ find their joy first and foremost in not things but the person of Christ.
As shown in the various definitions of minimalism such as “getting rid of the unnecessary in life in favour of happiness” (The Minimalists) and “getting rid of anything that does not spark joy” (Kondo), the lifestyle encourages us to decide whether to keep or remove certain possessions based on how things make us feel. In other words, we let things dictate our happiness. But the same thing that makes us happy today may not make us happy tomorrow. On the contrary, true Christian joy endures, because it is grounded not in circumstances but in the God who never changes. This joy rooted in Christ led Paul to declare that whether in need or having plenty, he is content in Christ (Phil. 4:11–13).
Minimalism, too, talks about needs a lot. At times, minimalism urges followers to keep only the necessary in life, but in other times, it tells us to keep only our “favourite items”. In this sense, are our necessities really necessities — as in daily essentials like food, clothes, and shelter? Or are our necessities the same as our “favourite items” — the things that we “love” or “want”?
The language of minimalism shows our human tendency to confuse needs from wants and wants from love by lumping all three together. Dallas Willard once illustrated this cultural problem with the example of the chocolate cake: when we say we “love” chocolate cake, what we mean is not that we “love” it; rather, we want to eat it, that is, to consume it. When we decide to keep things that we “love”, we are simply expressing our desire to consume products that we find satisfaction in.
There is certainly nothing wrong with enjoying God’s good gifts, which minimalism allows us to do. But ultimately, we delight not in things but in a Person and people, because delighting in someone is always a result of love. God delights in us, and we delight in God. As we love God, we delight in God, and as we love people, we delight in seeing others being honoured, for they have been made also in the image of God. God’s highest form of love opposes consumption — and this is the true essence behind “love people and use things”, for God’s definition of love, manifested to the fullest on the cross through Jesus, does not seek to devour but delights in self-giving.
This love that flows from God also interweaves with wants and needs in a beautiful way, because it repositions our desires and needs at their proper places: as we love God, we delight in Him; as we delight in Him, He imparts His desire into us (Psalm 37:4); as we share in His desire, He opens our eyes to see what we truly need in order to participate in His will.
Consider the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name”, our proclamation of our love for Him; “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”, a declaration of our desire to share in His desire; “Give us this day our daily bread”, our acknowledgment that not only is He the giver who gives freely, but that our needs revolve around His Kingdom.
When our minds are set on the Kingdom and when our hearts are captured by Christ, “our daily needs” are no longer an individualistic but a corporate term. In other words, loving God and desiring all that He desires leads us to recognise not just our own needs but the needs of others. When our view of needs goes beyond the self, we no longer choose to give away possessions based purely on the feelings they give us; we let the needs of others become a deciding factor. As stewards who manage and cultivate God’s gifts, we do not ask ourselves questions such as “Does this thing spark joy?” or “How many items should I own?”; instead, we ask God who gives wisdom, “How can we to invest carefully with the good gifts that You have entrusted us with for Your kingdom?”
We may have to give away our warmest clothings to the poor. We may have to give away the childhood toys that we have grown attached to to the orphans. On the other hand, we sometimes may need to do the opposite of “decluttering” — keeping things that we do not want to keep. We may need to keep a spare bed in our house to practice hospitality. We may need to keep an old van to transport the elderly and the disabled in our neighbourhood to church.
Again, this post is not criticising the minimalist lifestyle; rather, it attempts to use the lifestyle as a way to help us reconsider the true nature of joy. As those in Christ, we pursue not only sparks of joy coming from things but an all-consuming joy originating from a Person. We also pursue the joy of less — not having fewer items, but becoming less in the sense that “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). We decrease to a point where, as Andrew Murray wrote, “nothing but the disappearance of self in the vision that God is all”.
When we focus on things, we will always be caught up by things; yet when we displace the worship of self with God, we will see “things” revolving around Him. This vision is exactly why we can boldly practice “love God and people, and use things”, for governed by the love of God, we utilise whatever that has been given to us to live out the gospel in both words and deeds.