The other day I was scrolling on Pinterest, looking at kitchens that I thought were pretty and gardens that I would love to grow one day. Every single picture consisted only of the colors black, white, gray, green, and some shade of wood, reflecting my ideal design: minimalistic, especially compared to the houses of most people I know. While I would be happy to have a small space with neutral colors and as few possessions as possible, this clashes with the American Dream that most Americans, and those coming to America, strive for. The American Dream rests delicately on having the right car, a large house, and enough money to do whatever they want. But should that really be “the dream,” a life based on objects?
Several studies and surveys have shown that clutter increases anxiety, and psychologists are publishing articles about the reasons and potential remedies. Unfortunately, the more anxiety there is surrounding a project, the harder it is to do it, creating a seemingly endless cycle of anxiety and avoidance of the issue. Personally, I can even get overwhelmed by lots of colors, which is why my Pinterest feed is full of neutral tones. So this is not just about items. Anything that overwhelms, distracts, or takes up too much time needs to be put to the test: is it worth it?
Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, known for their various media— books, podcast, website— about minimalism, write that minimalism is not about seeing who can survive with the fewest number of items; it’s about reevaluating the value that we give to those things and weighing the worth of them in our lives. If something is taking up more time than it’s worth, shouldn’t we ask ourselves why we deal with it? Why is a part of us saying, “I need this”?
Why? Why do you need that? If the answer shows that the pros outweigh the cons or if the item “sparks joy,” as organizing guru Marie Kondo says, you have a good reason to keep it. If not, see how you do without it. Chances are you will save yourself a lot of time and stress if you are not constantly putting it back in its place or cleaning it. Those things also take up space, adding to the stress of maintaining an area and finding what you need when you need it.
Obviously, it is not a bad thing to have some luxuries and comforts. However, I think that if we look at how Christ lived, we will see that a minimalist lifestyle can be more freeing, fulfilling, and even a way to reach Western culture.
As Christ did ministry for three years, his only connections were people; he did not have items or a home to tie him down. His disciples lived the same way. This made it quite easy for them to focus on ministry and put God first. It also freed them to minister at any time or place. They were not responsible for lugging things around or keeping up with a house or even a donkey for transportation. They were encouraged to trust God even more, relying on him for everything because they all left their jobs and source of income. That life was not necessarily comfortable, but it was the best way to live out their faith while doing extensive full-time ministry.
Of course, Jesus and his disciples were able to live in this extreme state of minimalism because they had other supports. Mary, Martha and Lazarus were like family to Jesus and welcomed him into their home whenever they had the opportunity. There are even a few unknown supports that Jesus had, such as whoever hosted the Last Supper. Without these people, Jesus’s ministry would not have taken the nomadic form that it did. While Mary, Martha, and Lazarus had a physical home and material objects, they still strived to ensure that those were never more important than their relationship with Jesus.
Still, Christians are meant to imitate Christ. Based on the different instructions he gave to people who wanted to follow him, the most important part of that is to make sure nothing is more important than God. Take this passage in Matthew 8:
And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.”
This is not to say that having a home or family is not important, but God always comes first. Jesus calls out the one thing that he knows each person would choose over God and shows them that they need to change their priorities. Just because you value something over God, does not mean that God does not want you to have it. He just wants you to put Him first.
God is not calling every person to live the minimalist challenges, such as living with only 100 total items or 33 articles of clothing, as some in the movement do. He is also not calling every Christian to live exactly as Christ did, a preaching and miracle-working nomad. But that does not mean that we are not called to declutter our lives of worldly distractions to better focus on what is important, our relationships, health, and God. Minimalism is a way to reduce these distractions.
In addition to the biblical application of a minimalist lifestyle, the church can use this as a way to minister to the world. It is an opportunity for the church to use a trend and say, “We agree with that!” The possibilities and opportunities are limitless. Historically, the church has not always been the best at using cultural changes to preach the gospel, generally speaking, of course, but we could use this one.
When I was growing up, I would be thrilled every time I packed up all my things and they fit in a suitcase, a crate, two carry-on bags, and a backpack. As a missionary kid, I was part of a family that moved a lot, and packing all my things and seeing how little I owned made me feel free. I wasn’t tied down to any city or country because I had items there. I could pay for two extra checked bags, get on a plane, and go anywhere with everything I owned. This meant that connections I had to places I had lived or visited were based on people I knew and the memories made there.
I’m getting married next year and starting to build a registry to fill my future home with my husband. Now that I have to be the one getting plates, towels, and laundry baskets, I will no longer be able to pack all my things in five bags of varying sizes. Even so, I don’t plan on changing how I see my connection to places: through relationships and memories instead of physical items. The first house my husband and I will live in will most likely not be our forever home, as we are planning to go to the mission field shortly after getting married. So the registry items that I will fill it with are mostly temporary, just like that home, but the memories made there will last forever.
So what if we try to live with fewer things, to learn from Christ’s example, save time, reduce anxiety, and prioritize God? Maybe in the process, we will use a cultural trend to relate to, connect with, and reach the secular world instead of ostracizing ourselves from it.