“I have acquired an incredible amount of [expletive] in my life,” said the gent having coffee in front of me. His friends nodded in agreement. Another mentioned that he still had unpacked boxes in his garage, from his previous two moves. “Why hoard the stuff?” he asked. Great question! In our age of greed, accumulation, and consumerism, we could certainly do with simpler, less cluttered lives and homes. The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of minimalism is at hand.
Minimalism: “Repent and Believe”
Minimalism is a very wide-ranging concept. It embraces lifestyle, art, writing, aesthetics, architecture, and interior design. It’s even crept into dental treatment. My wife was invited to a Zoom meeting on Prosthodontics and the theme was: Less is More. Teeth! ‘Less is more’ is being quoted left, right, and centre. The idea is that having less means having a more substantial, more meaningful, happier life. Simultaneously, so it’s claimed, this ambition serves the greater good.
The idea is that having less means enjoying a more substantial and happier life.
In this article I’m going to look at minimalism in a limited sense: as a personal (or family) lifestyle choice, where the goal is to live modestly, as responsible stewards of what’s been entrusted to us. If you looked at how I lived, you’d probably conclude that I’m a minimalist. Because I relentlessly declutter our home, my email inbox, the garage. This is, however, little more than my own personal preference rather than deep theological convictions or philanthropy. All of us, by nature, belong on a spectrum: from hardcore hoarders to major minimalists.
“She Who Has Ears, Let Her Hear”
Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life is a Netflix documentary worth watching. In it, two typical yuppies (Joshua and Ryan), burnt out and thoroughly disillusioned with the New York rat race, explore an intentionally simplified life. The film’s 78 minutes follow them on their 10 month book tour, heralding the message of minimalism across America. They don’t even pack two cloaks. Though they do boast an assortment of Apple devices.
Once lost in the mindless rut of work and accumulation, they’re found and freed by minimalism.
Their message is that “everyone is looking for more meaning in their lives,” and that we’ll find true happiness when we live “deliberately with less.” This is their personal testimony, supported throughout by cameos of others who’ve abandoned the American dream and adopted minimalist lifestyles. These testimonies all have a similar ring: their lives were restless and filled with stuff, but believing in the message of minimalism has left them “happier and lighter.” Once lost in the mindless rut of work and accumulation, they’re found and freed by minimalism. Life is forever changed.
“The Signs of the Times”
“He who dies with the most toys wins.” This is the unwritten motto of our society. The anthem of our age. We compare our stuff with other people’s stuff, in an endless cycle of greed, coveting, and discontentment. We give essentially no thought to the consequences of our consumerism. In our pursuit of stuff we become mindless stewards of creation and irresponsible neighbours. So, the call to a simpler and more modest life is absolutely appropriate.
The call to a simpler and more modest life is absolutely appropriate.
However, while the “I want” disease is more or less universal, the appeal of minimalism is restricted to the wealthy. It’s a problem of the privileged. Do the millions living in the slums of New Delhi or Khayelitsha have meaningful lives because they are extreme minimalists?
The Church of Minimalism
The two men in the Netflix documentary sound very much like evangelists for minimalism. From start to finish, their banter sounds very religious. They speak of existential realities: an emptiness and dissatisfaction in their lives and the discovery of something absolutely life changing. Their conversations and message focus on finding meaning and fulfilment, complete personal overhaul. They desire to share what they’ve found. So they write a book, proselytise, and go on mission trips. Similarly, in her 2014 bestseller, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo writes: “Tidying up is the death that brings new life.” New birth. Resurrection. An eschatological hope. It’s all here.
There certainly seems to be some (very superficial) overlap between the teaching of Jesus and minimalism. He had a very simple lifestyle. It appeared that apart from his clothes, he owned practically nothing. And he encouraged a similar lifestyle among the Twelve: “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).
There is some overlap between the teaching of Jesus and minimalism.
Paul also commended a modest lifestyle. “We brought nothing into the world, so we cannot carry anything out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these” (1 Timothy 6:6-7). True, of course. But God also blesses us with many good things to enjoy. We need to be careful of going into some kind of ascetic mode, in the hope that we are earning brownie points with God.
Things count. Stuff is not purely utilitarian. It should be enjoyed and appreciated. If Jesus is Lord of all, and if we are called to do all things to God’s glory, and if creation reflects the beauty and wonder of God, then the created world is important. We have a duty to enjoy the good things God gives us (1 Timothy 4:4).
When all is said and done, the disciple of Jesus must navigate her way between two theological beacons. These are the call to:
- A simple, sacrificial, and generous lifestyle
- Enjoy and appreciate the good things that God gives us.
Surely the gospel calls for a revolution in spending patterns, priorities, and lifestyle. Certainly. What about investing in God’s kingdom? For this is often an invisible investment; not always quantifiable. Paul instructs the rich not to “put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain,” but rather to be generous (1 Timothy 6:17). He continues, “In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”
Surely the gospel calls for a revolution in spending patterns, priorities, and lifestyle.
If our flats, houses, cars, and gadgets tell any story, it should be this: We’re waiting on a better world. We must always have the mindset of stewards, not owners.
In closing I would like to address the two enthusiasts already mentioned, as well as their followers. Thanks for a very thought provoking, counter-cultural and well produced movie. But I’m curious about a few things. Now that you are deliberately living more modest lives, where does your excess money go? What will this look like in five years? What about when life inevitably changes: a spouse, kids, new job? Will you keep the faith?