Is a minimalist life a holy life?

Note: As my latest book, Less of More, has been released, I’ve encountered a similar question/comment regarding minimalism. This new book has a minimalist-style cover and sounds like it could address the topic. It does not. I was careful not to include it in the book for some of the reasons outlined here (it’s a trend I desire my book to outlast) and not here (I kind of find it boring).

*********************

Pastors are invited into homes. It might be a dinner scheduled many weeks out or it might be directly after a death or diagnosis, where my arrival is entirely unplanned. No matter the reason, as a pastor, you see a lot of homes.

The tables turn, however, as my wife and I host people about twice a week in our house as well. There’s a level of tidying up to be done before the guests arrive that causes me a bit of anxiety as I try to guess the various ways they might judge the state of my house.

About an hour before people come over, I’ve caught myself overanalyzing every corner of the rooms the guests will enter: should I pull the oven out and sweep behind it? My plates are 9 years old and were our wedding gifts…will anyone notice? My house usually has books shoved into corners, will someone recommend I watch Marie Kondo?

Anxiety around hosting one another has become an issue in our minimalist-obsessed culture. Books about tidying up sell really well, and TV shows about fixing your house are watched more than talent shows. Instagram personalities and podcasts fill our online spaces with promises to make our lives better by showing us a clean house and saying, “This can be your life!”

And, yes, it can be my life, but must it be my life? How central is the tidying up culture to a Christian’s walk with Jesus? Minimalism has been swept into Christian circles without batting an eye: of course it works, we think, less stuff means more Jesus!

Greed all the way around

But this cannot be true. Greed is less about how much stuff you have and a lot more about your relationship to what you have. Jesus warns us: “Beware! Guard against every kind of greed. Life is not measured by how much you own” (Luke 12:15, NLT). There are all sorts of greed, Jesus says. So be on the lookout for “every kind”: the kind that comes to you when you have a lot and the kind that comes when you have very little, even if having “very little” is your minimalistic choice.

The line, “Life is not measured by how much you own” is not just to be applied in opulence, but poverty. Life is not measured by how much you have or how little you have. Asceticism is not holiness — has not church history told us this? “Life” (and its various meanings) is not defined by the material possessions we own or curate. There is something Jesus desires beneath the home of the hoarder and the minimalist alike.

Holy hoarders

For nearly two years, I worked in the inner city of San Francisco with some of the poorest people in California. Many of the residents in the neighborhood we served lived in Single Resident Occupancy apartments, or SROs: one room with a sink and a hot plate; the bathroom was down the hall. All of their life was in a small little room. As a local pastor, I was invited in to these homes.

Some of these apartments were sparse, others were packed with garbage. Hoarders were somewhat common. But there were also people there who were “minimalists,” but not by choice. They simply did not own much of anything.

As I got to know these neighbors, I began to realize that some of the most beautiful, humble souls who loved Jesus were also hoarders. And some of those who had just a bed were also people of great prayer. In other words, the Christians in this neighborhood were not Christians because of how much or how little they owned, but because of how they related to whatever they did or did not own.

I remember talking with a woman who had stacks of old magazines and newspapers, the glossy material rotting at the bottom of the pile, as she shared her deep need for Christ as she faced illness. She was desperate before him, hoping for prayers from us. This is to say she was a Christian.

It made me think, Where along the lines of her discipleship is this hoarding issue? Is it even an issue with which Christ is concerned? At some level, if our gospel is pure and clean — that it is all about our desperation before the saving and victorious Christ — and if we really believe the only thing that makes us a Christian is the blood of Jesus, then would we not look at this woman and say, “Your faith has made you well”? Sure, at some point, we can help you clean your apartment (our ministry actually did this on a nearly weekly basis), but right now that’s not the most important thing about you. The most important thing is for you to know we are here and we will pray for what you ask. You are hidden in Christ Jesus, and this is what defines you.

Minimalism’s secret self-righteousness

Since my time in the inner city, I’ve now settled into ministry in the Silicon Valley, where minimalism and Marie Kondo is digested regularly. This is the land of Facebook and Google headquarters. Many of our people have solid jobs. “Design” and a certain kind of “lifestyle” or “aesthetic” can be curated out here because people have the means. And as my people follow well-meaning Christian minimalists and tidy-types, I’ve started to see some of the pastoral concerns.

One concern is in the form of a simple paradox: minimalism is only available for those who can afford it. To even know this trend and this name is to say, “I have access to the internet” and “I have the money to buy books about subjects very few poor people know about.” Beyond that, you have the mental capacity to even think about “space” in such a way. Minimalism is a worldview and practice that is only able to be birthed from advantaged places in society. The irony is here: you can only choose to be a minimalist if you’ve first chosen to be a materialist. At some point, those who founded this movement had the benefit of having a reflective life where they could think on such things and make appropriate changes. The very thing you’ve rejected was actually the source material for your “new idea.”

Minimalism is a trend, of course, something at which our grandchildren will laugh. Like any trend, it is performative. We do this not just for ourselves and our well-being, but so that others might know we care about our well-being. There’s little bit of “practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them” (Matthew 6:1) in this that bothers me: “see how little I own?” I’m not sure I care.

I also find a lot of the minimalist content to have a strange greed beneath it. Sure, you might own less, but what you do own, you possess with great pride. As a good minimalist, you don’t own three jackets, but the one jacket you own is handmade, probably at a price very few could afford. You only own two mugs, but they’re artisan. The chairs are sleek, the ceilings are high, and the rugs are fine quality. I hear Jesus again, “Guard against every kind of greed.” You might own less, but what you do have might actually own you. Greed is sneaky like that.

Of course the qualifications abound. Most of us would be better off with less stuff. But having less material items does not automatically make you righteous. I can’t help but see through so much of the cultural buzz. We cannot mistake a tidy life for a life saved by Jesus Christ.

Good news in a flask

Near the end of the gospel of Mark, as Jesus is preparing himself for his death, we get the report of this incident:

“And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head.” — Mark 14:3

You may know the story from here: the disciples rebuke her, saying she should have saved it for the poor, but Jesus celebrates her saying,

“She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” — Mark 14:8–9

This little story teaches us hundreds of things, and this is one: the value of the things we own is never as valuable when brought to Jesus. The purity of this woman’s actions reveals a heart rightly oriented to God, where the things we own (or don’t own) are not as important as what we do with these things when facing Jesus. The stacks of magazines must be burned in front of Jesus just as much as the minimalist’s small collection of hand-spun bowls.

A hoarder’s brokenness is revealed in their inability to throw stuff out, but the minimalist’s brokenness is revealed in their pride that they can. Both must bring their life before Jesus Christ, break what they deem costly, and receive his death on their behalf. I have learned to not assume that one is closer to God than the other. I guess I’ve seen just as many hoarders who know God’s grace as anyone else. We’ve all got flasks to break upon Jesus.

I’m aware that I might be accused of painting minimalism in broad brush strokes, so let me also paint the gospel as such: “Life is not measured by how much you own.” God’s grace is sufficient for the one who has plenty and the one who has nothing. Minimalism and the culture surrounding it is just another way we’ve come up with to convince ourselves that as long as our house is tidy, our heart is as well. Unfortunately, that’s not always true.

Pastor, writer, and sometimes professor, currently serving Awakening Church in the Silicon Valley. Author of DISTANT GOD and LESS OF MORE: chrisnye.co/books

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store