One of the things I didn’t realize I’d miss about life before having young children is how uncluttered my home was. These days, I tend to avoid walking through my living room with the lights off, lest my bare foot be assailed by the hard plastic of a magnet block, lego, or Hot Wheels car.
But just a few years ago, my home could have rightly been described as minimalistic. (Of course, minimalism is easy when you’re young and don’t have very much money, but nevertheless.)
Be that as it may, minimalism has been a growing trend in America, particularly among millennials. Finding its origins in an artistic movement that emphasized negative space, minimalism has evolved into a lifestyle for many who are finding inner peace through living on less.
The movement has reached a point of cultural relevance through shows like “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” and “Tiny House Nation,” along with the work of documentarians and podcasters Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn, who aptly refer to themselves as “The Minimalists.” A growing number of Americans are beginning to question their consumption habits, opting for a lifestyle wherein they only keep the things that provide them with the most value, meaning, or joy.
Included among today’s growing number of minimalists are many followers of Jesus. But is this lifestyle and philosophy something Christians should embrace? Is it something they should avoid? Or, is it theologically neutral and open to the preferences and convictions of individual believers?
A closer look at the origins of minimalism seem to reveal that the answer isn’t as simple as the lifestyle itself seeks to be.
The Religious Origins of Minimalism
The origins of minimalism are inextricably connected with spirituality. In fact, the lifestyle has existed alongside a spiritual emphasis, in one form or another, for millennia—even if the term itself is relatively new.
In the Buddhist tradition, detachment from possessions is a hallmark of the faith of regular practitioners, and especially for those who belong to Buddhist religious orders.
But they aren’t the only ones. Christians also have monkish traditions of minimalism among religious orders of our own, with a number of famous Christian thinkers throughout church history, many who still shape our theology today, having dedicated their lives to monasticism, even to the point of self-deprivation.
Minimalistic thought can be seen in Christian writings as far back as the second and third centuries. These expressions include vows of poverty, celibacy, and a dedication to detachment from the physical in pursuit of connecting with the spiritual.
Behind such practices is the belief that if unfettered materialism is spiritually toxic, then meaning and spiritual fulfillment can be found in its equal opposite.
When it comes to popular expressions of minimalism in shows and media today, the conversation is often still framed in almost spiritual terms, as people describe what could be characterized as conversion stories. They describe how they were unhappy with their life of clutter but were not sure what to do about it, discovered and converted to a lifestyle of minimalism, and are now living lives of joy, meaning, and purpose.
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Modern Day Objections to Minimalism
Nevertheless, not everybody is so bullish about a lifestyle of minimalism. For example, Christian author Megan Hill expressed concern in a 2017 article for The Gospel Coalition, warning Christians that “minimalism is not the Gospel.”
A self-described former minimalist, Hill writes, “[These] narratives also contain elements of truth. First-world citizens often do accumulate possessions to excess. We idolize our belongings and base our sense of self-worth on the newly acquired contents of our Macy’s shopping bag…In our pursuit of stuff, we become thoughtless stewards of creation and poor neighbors to those who produce goods in unsafe conditions for unfair wages.”
“But minimalism is not the gospel,” Hill nevertheless goes on to express. Rather, we find “freedom not in lifestyle changes or donations at the local charity shop but in Christ…relief not in what [we have] done but in the One who has done everything for [us]; not in needing less but in acknowledging [our] complete dependence on [our] Savior; not in the arrival of the recycling truck but in the beauty of the cross.”
Further, minimalism has also received criticism from those outside the Christian tradition. In an article titled “The Oppressive Gospel of ‘Minimalism,’” Kyle Chayka argues, “Part pop philosophy and part aesthetic, minimalism presents a cure-all for a certain sense of capitalist overindulgence…Minimalism is now conflated with self-optimization, the trend that also resulted in fitness trackers and Soylent (truly a minimalist food — it looks like nothing, but inspires thoughts of everything else). Often driven by technology, this optimization is expensive and exclusively branded by and for the elite.”
“These minimalist-arrivistes present it as a logical end to lifestyle, culture and even morality: If we attain only the right things, the perfect things, and forsake all else, then we will be free from the tyranny of our desires. But time often proves aesthetic permanence, as well as moral high ground, to be illusory. And already, the pendulum is swinging back,” Chayka writes. “The fetishized austerity and performative asceticism of minimalism is a kind of ongoing cultural sickness. We misinterpret material renunciation, austere aesthetics and blank, emptied spaces as symbols of capitalist absolution, when these trends really just provide us with further ways to serve our impulse to consume more, not less.”
So, from accusations of it being an idolized substitute for faith in Christ to it acting as an elitist virtue-signal, minimalism as a modern movement has raised the suspicions of some thinkers. But the question that remains is what wisdom the Bible has to offer when it comes to minimalist ideals.
What Does the Bible Say About Having a Minimalistic Mindset?
As you might have guessed, the Bible never uses the term “minimalism.” But that doesn’t mean that it never speaks to some of the ideas contained within the movement, namely contentment and suspicion of earthly wealth.
Below are a few examples.
But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. (1 Timothy 6:6-8)
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. (1 Timothy 6:17-19)
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)
And to aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you (1 Thessalonians 4:11)
So I decided there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work. Then I realized that these pleasures are from the hand of God. (Ecclesiastes 2:24)
Thus, minimalistic thought possesses an element of wisdom that aligns with scripture. While having physical resources is not itself a sin, putting our faith in our riches, or worse yet placing a higher value on these riches than on the people around us, constitutes a grave spiritual malady.
Instead, Christians are called to contentment, learning to be thankful for what we have, living quietly, enjoying the work we do, and practicing radical generosity.
Tips for Your Relationship With Your Stuff
While God is not calling all followers of Jesus to become Christian Marie Kondo’s or enroll themselves at the closest Augustinian monastery, minimalism does have something to teach us about the unhealthy relationship many of us have with our earthly possessions.
Here are two things Christians should keep in mind when it comes to their stuff.
Being Materialistic is Bad, but Physical Matter is Created by God and Is Good.
Too often, Christians have been caught up in the idea that the spiritual necessarily needs to be pitted against the physical. This idea, as prevalent as it is among many evangelicals, is more Platonic than it is Christian.
God created the physical world. He likes the physical world, broken though it may be. Enjoying the world around us and the physical experiences it offers is not inherently sinful. Only, we must learn to order our love of earthly enjoyment in its proper place, beneath our love of God and others, taking care that our physical desires do not reach a point of sin or idolatry.
We Need to Be Willing to Ask Ourselves if We Really ‘Need’ It.
Whatever “it” is, the thing that you are thinking about buying or wishing that you could afford, ask yourself this important question: Do I really need it?
Odds are that you don’t. And while that doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t pursue it, if you feel like you need it when you objectively don’t, ask yourself why that might be. Are you motivated by fear or anxiety that you won’t have enough? Are you buying and keeping things to bury negative emotions? Do you just need to be a better steward of your stuff and get more organized so that you can be less wasteful?
These questions will guide not only your purchasing habits, but invite you into a conversation with God about how you may need to develop a healthier relationship with your physical possessions.
Learn to have a healthy relationship with your stuff. The stuff is morally neutral. It’s how you interact with it and imbue value to it that matters.