Should Christians be #minimalist? What we can learn from Marie Kondo – and St Augustine

Marie Kondo is a Marmite figure. Mention her name and you can expect a reaction. Some people rave about the mental health benefits of decluttering and the freedom they've found through owning less. Others rant about the ridiculousness of talking to your possessions or limiting your book collection to 30 volumes. Either way her message to get rid of anything that doesn't spark joy causes big emotions in people.

Kondo's appeal lies within a broader minimalism trend. Searching for #minimalism on Instagram will bring up millions of links to images of monochrome outfits and almost empty living spaces. Within the spectrum of minimalism, Kondo is actually fairly mild. There are minimalists who advocate only owning one pair of shoes and limiting your belongings to whatever you can pack in the back of your (no doubt compact) car.

Wikimedia CommonsMarie Kondo recommends decluttering.

Arguably, this trend towards having less is a rare point of intersection between living a Christian life and being cool. Jesus teaches about the dangers of wealth and consumerism and often with shocking clarity. Again and again he makes it clear that choosing to follow him has very real implications for our relationship with material possessions. Jesus calls us to let go of our anxiety about material things and trust in God (Matthew 6: 25-34). He instructs us not to hoard our belongings but to place value on what lasts and store up treasures in heaven (Matt 6.19-21).

His advice to the rich young man to give away all his possessions is perhaps the starkest indication that following Jesus means turning away from our belongings and even the concept of personal ownership (Mark 10:17-27). Many commentators resist an interpretation that would place a similar call upon all Christians but there are passages in Acts that suggest that the early church took this literally (Acts 2: 44-45, 4.32) and it is undeniable that for most of the saints, a voluntary turn towards poverty was a pivotal moment in their lives.

Given that the turn towards having fewer material possessions appears to be an essential step on the spiritual journey, it is perhaps unsurprising that the word 'simplify' has been bubbling up in my prayer life, and with increasing frequency.

I have always struggled with consumerism. I sometimes make excuses for this by pointing to my love of beauty and celebration and hospitality but the reality is that I am a product of my society. More often than I would like to admit, I bolster my self-worth by owning things that I perceive to be desirable, telling myself 'I'm worth it' and that I 'deserve a treat'. Increasingly though, I feel suspicious of these thoughts and this scepticism increased during the run-up to Christmas.

I noticed myself becoming overwhelmed by the endless messages to buy more that seemed to confront me every time I walked down my street, chatted to friends about what to put in the kids stockings or checked my mailbox only to find another dozen promotional emails. I noticed once again how clever advertisers are at getting around any inner critic by justifying excessive consumption as generous, sensible and fun. I also noticed, with more than a hint of shame, how often I was incorporating this language into my own explanations for purchases that I probably didn't need to make. All this meant that by the end of December I felt thoroughly nauseous. I don't usually make new year's resolutions but this year I resolved to consume less and lean into my urge to simplify.

Initially it felt liberating to have interrupted my unhealthy consumerist patterns. It was embarrassing to confess just how deep my materialism ran and how often I turn towards things in times of weakness, boredom and sadness. But in bringing my consumerism into the light, it lost its appeal and I could see it for what it really was – a poor substitute for genuine joy, comfort and peace. I felt more immune to the power of advertisements and I was surprised by how reduced was my desire for things.

I decided it was a good time to apply Marie Kondo's approach to my wardrobe and had a thorough declutter. Say what you will about her philosophy of tidying, but it really is cathartic to release possessions and be left with only what you need or truly find appealing. I was reminded of William Morris' advice: 'Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.' I felt cleansed and refreshed. I noticed that not only was I feeling more grateful for what I did have but also for the people who helped to produce it. My desire for more stuff was replaced with a desire for greater justice for those involved in the manufacturing process.

But then my journey took a darker turn. Having enjoyed my foray into Kondo's tidying, I started spending more time researching minimalism and began reading articles, listening to podcasts, and looking at Instagram posts of beautifully pared-back homes and capsule wardrobes. I spent my spare moments researching ethical brands, researching minimalist style and thinking about which other aspects of my life needed tidying up. I was feeling excited and inspired until I suddenly realised that all the time and energy that could have been released by turning away from old consumerist habits had actually been absorbed by new minimalist habits. I wasn't shopping or coveting things as much as before but my focus was still very much on worldly things. Instead of releasing me from an excessive concern with things, my minimalist turn had in fact replaced a focus on having more things with a focus on not-having things.

This failure to identify a purpose beyond itself is the fatal flaw of secular minimalism. Although I suspect that minimalism's focus on having less stuff is healthier than consumerism's focus on having more stuff, the focus is still on stuff – it's just that you have less stuff. In some ways minimalism actually encourages a greater emphasis on things. For example, if I am going to consciously limit my wardrobe to 20 items then it is likely that I will make sure each of those 20 items is perfectly fit for purpose, which means I'm going to spend longer choosing them and be more obsessive in taking care of them. As one minimalist stylist says in an interview I read: 'I'm not shopping less, I'm actually shopping more, I'm just rarely buying.' In our impulsive, throwaway culture this careful approach may seen laudable but it's ultimately just another way to be a consumer, and perhaps a less joyous one.

Despite this fatal flaw, I still believe there is something spiritually attractive about minimalism. While I wouldn't go so far as to say that Christians should be minimalists, I do think Christians should be actively resisting the temptation towards always wanting more. The question then is how can we learn from minimalism without falling into the trap of being defined by not-having?

I suggest that two things are important. First, we need to be careful to frame our desire to simplify as an opening up towards increased spiritual growth rather than a shutting down of our desires. When 'simplify' bubbles up in my prayer life it is always accompanied by an awareness of an invitation to allow false identities to fall away and reclaim my true identity as beloved child of God and friend of Jesus. Simplifying what I own helps with this process partly because things absorb our time and energy and partly because it is easy to confuse what we have with who we are. By stripping away what is not necessary, we gain time and energy and although we may feel vulnerable without the covering of our belongings, it's only when we step over our things that we open ourselves to finding a deeper identity in God and true satisfaction for all our desires.

The more we accept this deeper identity, the easier it will be to say 'no' to the lie that having (or not having) anything worldly will satisfy us and to say 'yes' to the truth that we were created to be more than consumers (or non-consumers) of anything, whether material possessions, technology, food, experiences or anything else that this world may present to us as desirable. It turns out that the true goal of simplification is fulfilment. The test of whether we have accepted the invitation to simplify is not how many items are left in our closets but whether we truly desire the peace, joy and contentment that is abundantly available in God.

I also think that a healthy approach to minimalism requires the recovery of a pre-modern understanding of things, which are to be used and not enjoyed. As St Augustine explains in On Christian Teaching, only God is to be enjoyed; everything else is to be used to help us in our journey towards enjoying him. While it may initially seem a bit materialistic, a bit throwaway to talk about 'using' things, further reflection reveals that using things is actually the only way to show them respect without becoming entangled in them. By choosing to use something, we acknowledge its purpose and affirm what it was made to be and do without expecting from it more than what it can provide. Thinking of material goods as things that are to be used frees us up to think about how they can serve us and those around us while shielding us from believing they are an ultimate goal.

Upon re-reading On Christian Teaching it occured to me there is a surprising point of convergence between Augustine and Kondo. In On Christian Teaching, Augustine quotes Romans 1.20: 'For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.' Augustine, following St Paul, encourages an iconic approach to the world wherein we see everything as pointing towards God, and helping us in our journey towards enjoying him and others in him.

Kondo's belief that things can 'spark joy' suggests that she has some awareness of the ability of things to point beyond themselves. Of course this 'joy' remains largely undefined and highly personal and emotive but there is some sense of it being transcendent and lying beyond the things themselves. But whereas Kondo believes that only some things will 'spark joy' in us, Augustine believes that all things have the potential to point us towards God.

And this, perhaps, is one of our challenges as Christians. Instead of focusing our attention on deciding which things bring us joy and point us beyond ourselves and discarding anything that does not, we should be seeking to see God through all things and for all the matter of our lives to spark that deep joy that we can only find in our creator. Then, like St Paul, we will be able to say, 'I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want' (Philippians 4:12).

Jennifer Goodyer is a writer and artist living in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter @goodyerjen