A few days ago, a friend recommended to me the Netflix doc, Minimalism, and watching it really got my head spinning, as good documentaries often do for us. It was created by the two founders of The Minimalists, who in 2010, launched a nationwide, large-scale movement stemming from their personal journeys away from corporate, high-paying jobs and toward the pursuit of minimalist lifestyles. It is a challenging yet compelling message that they offer, to leave unnecessary possessions, fancy cars, homes and jobs, in exchange for fewer material items but more overall meaning and significance in the things that they do have and in the relationships and non-tangible things that they value most. Their movement offers books, lectures, films, a podcast and more, and I’d highly recommend looking into it!
As a person who has never valued objects that much, and who finds myself in a transitional and mobile stage of life where I don’t own a home or necessarily have strong ties to physical possessions, it is not that difficult for me to consider giving things away and living on less than I do. That being said, I do have a lot of shoes and really need to clean out my bathroom vanity too. I feel a little more motivated to do so after watching this, which is good. What struck me most about this doc, however, were the social, moral and spiritual implications that it posed (this is solely my interpretation, not necessarily the intent of the filmmakers).
The questions that it leaves me with, and that I want to examine are these:
How can minimal living encompass our mental, emotional and spiritual space as well as our physical possessions?
How can decluttering our lives and hearts reveal our devotion?
I saw the minimal lifestyle championed in this film as a metaphor for discovering truth. Let me explain. Minimal living, in essence, requires cleaning out the parts of our lives that distract from what truly matters to us: our families, friends, vocations, passions, purpose. It is a means as much as an end; the significance is in the process as well as the result. We are shaped and formed as we discover what it is to live with less, what we can do without, where our priorities lie, what we cannot do without. This could be paralleled to the spiritual process of being refined and strengthened in our faith journeys, perhaps even a process that could run alongside a physical cleansing of our worldly possessions. In Malachi 3:2, God is described as “the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap, He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver.” The decluttering process can be spiritual as well as material, and through it, the re-prioritization of goods and values can allow God to do His refining work within our hearts.
Additionally, when we remove excessive physical objects in our lives that are vying for our attention, we create physical, mental, emotional and spiritual space for other things to take their place. The truth is that, as capable, well-developed and sophisticated as we are in multi-tasking in this day and age, as humans, when we are devoted to one thing or a few things, we cannot be as devoted to others. Our attention can only be truly concentrated in a limited number of compelling objects, people or causes. It’s a fundamental fact of our existence. So, I interpreted the movement toward getting rid of physical objects to be a moral statement about elevating in importance our devotion or attention to other things instead. The question therefore becomes: in what do we place our devotion if it’s not our material possessions?
Taking the spiritual parallels one step deeper: I’m reminded here of Jesus’ cleansing(s) of the temple in the Gospels, where he overturned moneychangers’ and vendors’ tables and demanded allegiance to his Father (Mt. 21:12-17, Mk. 11:15-19, Lk. 19:45-47, Jn. 2:14-16). His anger toward the desecration of his Father’s house into a marketplace illustrated a few things: 1) The temple was holy; it was a place of worship of God alone; 2) The temple represented communion, access and forgiveness, where people were accepted without barriers (key point of Jesus’ anger was that Gentiles were being swindled by moneychangers, inhibiting their access); 3) Again, the temple was holy, and it represented more than a physical building; it was Jesus’ body, the church. If you’re tracking with me, this biblical story is sort of a perfect parallel to The Minimalists message made spiritual, because the cleansing or decluttering of the physical space of the temple was a metaphor for something much greater, the reorientation, cleansing, refining and purifying of peoples’ hearts and the church. There was distraction and clutter in the way of people (especially Gentiles in this case) freely accessing and worshipping God in the way He had intended, and Jesus was infuriated by this.
This reorientation of our priorities and cleansing of our homes (and hearts) is incredibly spiritual if we want it to be. Decluttering can be more than a socially conscious action to live lightly (although that is exceedingly important in and of itself); it can also be a spiritual statement in allegiance to God and his ideals of love, care for our earth, and acceptance of its people. In resisting idols of wealth, power, status, etc., we are aligning our hearts with His. I truly believe that when we resist consumerism, capitalism, and cycles of production and consumption that exploit people and our environment, we are making a spiritual statement that we align with Our Creator and His ideals of justice, peace and love.
Joshua, one of The Minimalists’ founders, encouraged viewers if they decide to get rid of possessions, to think through each item, and only keep things that are necessary or serve a tangible purpose that we could articulate and justify. Way easier said than done, I know. I wonder if we can go through this process spiritually too. Can we recenter and refocus our thoughts on things above? Can we invite God in to purify, cleanse and declutter our souls too? Can the material, physical process of cleaning out our home propel forward the spiritual process as well?
Sometimes this looks like it did in the film for the founders or like it did with Jesus in the temple: a force ravages our lives and we are confronted head-on with our priorities and what is getting in the way of focusing on them solely. There is a distinct moment where we come to the awareness that we need to make changes. Sometimes, however, and I can speak from my own experience here, there isn’t going to be a drastic moment of realization or truth where we know exactly what we need to do. A lot of changes are gradual, incremental, and filled with indecision and hesitation, and that is okay too.
I think (and I’m taking my own spiritual liberty here) that we can be patient and forgiving with ourselves too, open ourselves up to change, refining, purifying and decluttering, but still take it slow. Again, the transformation is as much in the means as it is in the end here; a lot more could be changing for us or being refined within us than we may realize. Can we start by opening our imaginations to what we may need to do to either begin or propel forward this process?