Our stuff is killing us.
The average American home includes more than 300,000 individual items.
Our closets average 103 individual items per person, even though we only wear twenty percent of our wardrobe with regularity.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, Americans collectively spend more than $1.2 trillion on nonessential goods.
The average ten-year old owns more than 238 toys and yet only plays with twelve regularly.
One of the fastest growing real estate markets in the past four decades has been rental storage units – despite the fact the average American home is 1,000 square-feet larger than they were in 1973.
And yet, not one of us wants to readily admit we’re materialistic.
But when we open that junk drawer in the kitchen,
or look underneath the cabinet under the sink,
or walk into our closets,
and step into our garages,
I think most of us will observe a physical space bursting at the seams with stuff.
In the years that followed the Great Depression and the Second World War, Americans experienced an unparalleled technological and industrial boom. Standards of living and salaried wages increased exponentially.
In an article for American Psychologists, David G. Myers wrote,
Our becoming much better off over the past four decades has not been accompanied by one iota of increased subjective well-being. Compared with their grandparents, today’s young adults have grown up with much more affluence, slightly less happiness and much greater risk of depression and assorted social pathology.”
Over the past decade, there’s been a resurgence in and around the allure of “minimalistic” living.
But I don’t want to talk about the “Cutting-Down-Your-Possessions-To-One-Hundred-Items-Or-Less” minimalism.
I want to talk about what is generally referred to as “rational minimalism” or “responsible minimalism.”
And for lack of a better term, I’ve chosen the word “simplicity.”
Because simplicity isn’t an aesthetic.
It’s not a trend.
Or a fad.
It’s a way of life that has been practiced by the followers of Jesus for thousands of years.
Our compulsion toward American consumerism and materialism is a spiritual sickness fueled by a belief that we are not enough.
Since the 1950s, advertising and marketing firms have been peddling the lie that you are not
unless you buy [insert product name here].
Right now, billions upon billions of dollars are being spent trying to get you to look down at your phone in order that you see an ad that tells you that you are not enough.
And the appeal of consumerism doesn’t play favorites.
Additionally, a secondary research study revealed that a positive correlation exists between consumerism and people who define themselves as ambitious, competitive, and prone to jealousy.
Ohio State University professor of psychology Robert Arkin, PhD, says,
The pleasure one of them would take from having a possession might not be defined so much by how much they enjoy it, but by how much others covet it.”
Imagine the impact on your life if you simply said,
“I am enough.”
Out of Egypt
The third line in the Lord’s Prayer is
“Give us this day our daily bread.”
This verse – like much of Jesus’s early ministry – is a callback to the Exodus story.
As the Israelites are wandered through the desert following their freedom from Egyptian slavery, God sustains them by dropping manna from the sky.
The word manna is a playful alliteration of the Hebrew phrase “What is it?,” the question the Israelites ask when they first see the “fine and flaky substance” on the ground.
God tells them not to store up the manna, but instead to eat their fill and wait until the next morning to gather for that day’s sustenance.
God issued this command because He was intimately familiar with a sickness rooted in the heart of every human.
In his book The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer says,
There is within the human heart a tough fibrous root of fallen life whose nature is to possess, always to possess. It covets “things” with a deep and fierce passion.”
Despite the explicit command, some of the Israelites disobeyed God and stored some of the manna overnight. The next morning, the manna was filled with worms and maggots.
In his book The Freedom of Simplicity, Richard Foster says,
Jesus Christ and all the writers of the New Testament call us to break free of mammon lust and live in joyous trust. They point us toward a way of living in which everything we have we receive as a gift, and everything we have is cared for by God, and everything we have is available to others when it is right and good.”
The Bible talks more money and possessions than any other major topic in scripture – including prayer and faith. Jesus spoke more about the trappings of money than he did about heaven and hell – combined.
Worshipping at the altar of the American Dream can lead us to confusing blessing with entitlement.
Because entitlement says,
“I got what I deserved,
because I earned it.”
And that mentality slowly numbs us to the cries of the oppressed and the suffering of others.
Slaves to Clutter
If you want to see spiritual discontentment in action, skip the inner city or third-world slum.
And visit the standard American suburban home.
In 2012, social psychologists from UCLA, visited multiple Los Angeles suburbs to research clutter and material accumulation among upper-middle class housewives.
At the end of their four-year study, the researchers concluded,
American families are overwhelmed by clutter, too busy to go in their own backyards, rarely eat dinner together even though they claim family meals as a goal, and can’t park their cars in the garage because they’re crammed with non-vehicular stuff.”
Do you want to know why it can be so difficult to rid yourself of clutter?
According to a study conducted by the Journal of Consumer Psychology, we struggle most to get rid of objects that we have linked to our self-worth. Rather than viewing some items as “mine,” you begin to subconsciously think of your stuff as “me.”
In essence, we allow our clutter and material possessions to become integral components of our personal and social identity, self-worth, and physical extensions of our own souls.
As millennials’ tastes shift away from dark-wood furniture and fine china sets, family heirlooms that have been passed down from generation to generation are being regulated to the trash heap or forlorn storage units.
We need also to confront a grim reality: After we die, all of our material possessions will simply become someone else’s problem – and often that someone else is someone we love.
To drive this point home, a short story Jesus tells in the book of Luke ends with God telling a rich man, “You fool! You will die this very night! Then who will own what you have accumulated?”
The Simple Life
While it may be difficult to get started, decluttering your life can have near-instantaneous health and spiritual benefits.
Here are three basic practices and disciplines you can exercise in your life to declutter your life, shop smarter, live better, and decrease stress and anxiety:
Purge Your Clutter: In her book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Maria Kondo says you shouldn’t have anything in your home that doesn’t lead to or “spark joy” in your life. Go room by room and box up anything you haven’t used in six months or doesn’t make your life easier – no matter how small or expensive. See if you can purge yourself of 200 items. But don’t just store the box in the attic or garage. Donate or trash it. Get started by playing the 30-Day Minimalism Game.
Usability Over Status: When making future purchases, focus on practicality, durability, versatility and usability over trendiness and “the shiny factor.” This especially applies to gadgets and wardrobes. Often times, gadgets that promise to “make our lives more simple” do the opposite and are obsolete in less than a year anyway. In regards to our closets, check out Project 333 and the capsule wardrobe concept.
Be Generous: Jesus calls his disciples to be a loving and generous people. A life of simplicity is also a life of generosity. When you become unentitled to your stuff, you become more likely to give it away or donate it for the benefit of other people. A simple lifestyle also lends itself to a more disposable income that you can use to bless other people.
In his book The Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster says
We cling to our possessions rather than sharing them because we are anxious about tomorrow. But if we truly believe that God is who Jesus says he is, then we do not need to be afraid. When we come to see God as the almighty Creator and our loving Father, we can share because we know he will care for us.”
Some people may describe the purging that takes place to reclaim simplicity as wasteful, but it’s not.
Because the more stuff we own,
the more we have to manage,
the more we have to store,
the more we have to upkeep,
and the more we have to pay off.
Simplification is a return.
And it’s also a cleansing.
It’s a return to the example set by the early church – a loving community of generosity and grace that doesn’t seek status through the ownership of possessions but through the Eucharist rhythm of having our lives continually poured out in service to others.
And it’s a cleansing of our material and spiritual lives – a righteous protest against a culture that tells us we will never measure up to our full potential unless we participate within a culture of consumerism. It’s a physical illustration of letting go of the things that hold us back from experiencing the fullness of God.
There’s nothing wrong with owning stuff. My wife and I aren’t going to become extreme minimalists who count the individual items in our home and purge every superflous object from our lives.
But throughout scripture, God continuously calls out people and nations for their attitudes towards wealth, possessions, and the poor. We are to be faithful and responsible stewards of our blessings, and that may require a bit of self-sacrifice and self-denial.
In his first letter to Timothy, Paul writes,
For Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.”
- Check out Joshua Becker’s blog Becoming Minimalist (most of the opening statistics came from this article) and his book “The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own.”
- The Minimalist Podcast (Pretty much the standard-bearer for those wishing to de-clutter their lives).
- Maria Kondo’s bestselling book “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Declutter and Organizing.“
- Project 333 – Reduce your entire wardrobe to 33 items.