Declutter Your Soul with Christian Minimalism

Less is the new more. Marie Kondo is just the latest incarnation of a bigger trend toward living more with less. Yet minimalism is not without its critics. Some have accused it of being a luxury of the upper middle class, a subtle form of virtue-signaling akin to veganism. Others guard their beloved possessions from minimalist scrutiny with a fervor bordering on obsession. Marie Kondo, for all her joyful, pixie-like charm, recently found one group of Americans who weren’t having it  – book lovers. Her crime? Suggesting that you really only need about thirty books.

As an avid reader, I assume she means per subject.

Confession time: I consider myself a minimalist-enthusiast — in theory at least, if not always in practice. I love throwing things away, or better yet not purchasing them to begin with. I’m not particularly fastidious in my cleaning habits, but clutter certainly stresses me out. Part of me dreads each Christmas and kid’s birthday party, anticipating the inevitable tsunami of plastic crap that I will have to accommodate until I can safely donate it to Goodwill.

But for me, minimalism is about more than decluttering, more than tidying up; it’s about taking the time to reflect on what’s truly important, and then making time for it. It’s about rejecting the reflexive materialist consumerism that engulfs our culture. It’s about spending time in nature and investing in human relationships. It’s about eating healthy food made from a few natural ingredients versus fast food and processed snacks. (It’s about failing at all of these occasionally, but trying to keep myself on track.)

I have always felt that my minimalism was highly compatible with my Christian faith, but recently I decided to investigate this further. My motive: I was trying to adapt a lesson I had used with my high school history students for a Sunday school class.

First, let me explain the lesson.

While my reading list is mainly fiction, history, and philosophy, I do listen to a few self-helpy podcasts, including The Minimalists and The Art of Manliness. After both podcasts interviewed James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, I decided to do a goal-setting/ prioritizing lesson with my students on their first day back from winter break.

I started by asking my students why most New Years’ Resolutions fail. They came up with a great list, including lack of willpower, lack of support, bad environment, unrealistic goals, and waning enthusiasm. Then I helped them set monthly goals using a template that allowed them to break their monthly goal into four weekly milestones. We discussed James Clear’s contention that success is more about building good habits than having great willpower. They were with me so far.

Then I decided to make it more concrete, based on a story I remember hearing from another teacher. I brought in a big pitcher, a smaller canister, a bag of lentils, and six bouncy balls of varying size. At the beginning of the demonstration, I placed the lentils and bouncy balls in the pitcher, as shown below.

I asked a pair of student volunteers to attempt to transfer the contents of the pitcher into the smaller canister. Many students chuckled at this, clearly thinking it was impossible. In most of my classes, the first group tried to add a little lentils, then a bouncy ball, then more lentils, then another ball, and so on. They were able to fit four or five of the bouncy balls, but not the sixth. They certainly couldn’t close the lid.

I congratulated the first group on their effort and called up another pair of volunteers. This time I instructed them to fill the canister with lentils first and then see how many bouncy balls fit. The result: only three of the six.

Then I asked my students to predict what would happen if I put the balls in first before pouring in the beans. Many doubted it would work. To the amazement of some, I poured the lentils into the container of bouncy balls, shaking it ever so slightly to allow the beans to slip through the open spaces. It’s not often that high school students are impressed, but this was one of those times.

We then discussed what it all meant. The bouncy balls, I explained, were their priorities: school, family, career. The lentils were the little things – the Netflix shows that turned into all-day binges, the five minutes here or there scrolling through social media accounts that inevitably add up. They had to put the big things – their priorities – first in order to achieve their goals. To paraphrase this Laura Vanderkam TedTalk, “I don’t have time for X” is basically code for “X is not a priority for me right now.”

They got it. They liked it. I patted myself on the back for a good day-one lesson. But then I had to figure out some way to adapt it for my Sunday school students.

My biggest help came in the form of this excellent article by Haley Stewart in Public Discourse. In The Soul-Saving Grace of Christian Detachment, she writes:

If our pursuit of simplicity is not informed by the concept of Christian charity, focusing on mere minimalism will come up short… I can spend weeks decluttering my house, and it will certainly be more pleasant to inhabit our space with fewer items inside. But it will be an empty exercise if it is separated from the spiritual life and our obligations to God and our community. We all can and should take a look at how we view our possessions, but not simply so that our homes can be minimalist dreamlands. We should pursue detachment to “stuff” for a greater purpose: ordering our desires so that we can love God and other people.

To which I say, “Amen, sister!”

In a recent Minimalists podcast, a caller complained that he had followed the rules of minimalism but was still depressed and unhappy. The podcast hosts, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, tried to explain to the caller that minimalism was not in itself the answer to everything. Of course it’s not. Because secular minimalism looks like this:

It’s an empty canister. Or maybe there’s one ball inside – the one devoted to “me.” That’s like a starving person having one bite of food; it’s not enough to satisfy you. It’s not enough to fill you up.

A Christian minimalist understands that the goal is more than just my individual fulfillment because “I” am more than just an isolated individual. I am a child of God and a member of a larger community, with real obligations to both.

We all need things to survive (food, shelter, clothing), but we can easily fall into the trap of greed and excess. We forget that things are only means to more important ends. We fall in love with our possessions. This can be bad, very bad. As the Minimalists say frequently on their podcast: “Love people and use things, because the opposite never works.”

This insight is not unique to religion in general, nor to Christianity in particular. Buddhism also discourages worldly attachments. Marie Kondo draws upon centuries of Shinto wisdom. But I would say that Christianity offers the best and most complete framework for implementing minimalist practices (though you would never know it by the way most American Christians live).

As a Christian, nothing should come before my faith – not my nationality, not my political ideology, not even my minimalism. But if minimalism is really about putting things in their proper order, then nothing could be more Christian. Consider these verses:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal; for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Matthew 6:19

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 1 Timothy 6:6–8

Then He said to them, “Take heed and beware of covetousness. For a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Luke 12:15

We enter the world with nothing. We will all leave the world with nothing. In the meantime, we are to be grateful for what we have and eager to share it with others. Our priorities should be the eternal things – God, our souls, and the souls of others.

Some of the happiest people I know have big families with lots of children. Their houses are cluttered. Their lives are messy. But their treasure is in each other and in heaven, not in their possessions. They may not be living the minimalist dream, but they certainly seem to have their priorities straight.

Personally, I need a little help in ordering my life. This includes staying as clutter-free and tidy as possible. But I don’t judge the mother of eight whose kitchen table is a bit messy. I try not to judge in this sense at all, though I do pity those who let material possessions and the acquisition of status dictate their lives.

Failing to prioritize God and relationships is like eating a diet of only fast food. Your life might seem full, but it is ultimately empty of the things that matter — the nutrients you need to survive.

When I taught my Sunday school lesson, I reminded my students that faith and relationships should be the first bouncy balls in their containers, then their personal goals and ambitions. And really, who needs the lentils? The canister sure looks better without them (although it wouldn’t spell disaster to allow a few beans to trickle in). It is human nature to fear for one’s future security, and to seek refuge in the things we think we need. We should thank God for all He has provided, and trust that He will continue to do so in the future. We should remember to ask only for our daily bread, not a stockpile.

In Defense of Matt Walsh and Jesus Christ

I am a follower of the Matt Walsh blog. While I would not always use his choice of words, I tend to agree with about 95% of what he has to say. I like the fact that we are both young, Catholic conservatives and parents of small children. Reading his posts reminds me that I am not completely alone in my generation, which is reassuring to say the least. I often wish I had Matt Walsh’s courage. As his site claims, he is a “professional speaker of truths,” someone who doesn’t care about making friends or being universally adored. Unfortunately, I know that this sort of honest, no-holds-barred approach to blogging could easily cost me my job as a teacher at a secular public high school. Since my blog provides approximately $0 in income, I need to be very careful about what I say and how I say it. Some topics I have to avoid altogether.

I often write, reread, rewrite, and rearrange my posts for hours before I feel like I have finally gotten my point across in a way that is both effective and safe. I try to be objective and dispassionate, to the extent that this is possible. Still, my best blogging (or most popular, at least) usually pours out in a stream of consciousness when I am particularly ticked off about something. So far I’ve had two posts garner over 2,000 hits. Both were quickly-written and barely-edited pieces on “controversial” topics making points so obvious they would have once been considered common sense (birth control is your own responsibility; Bruce Jenner is not a woman). But until I can actually quit my day job and make a living as a professional truth-speaker, I will be forced to engage in some level of self-censorship.

Well, a few days ago something really ticked me off. I saw on my blogging site that someone had written a viral hit-piece on Matt Walsh entitled “Jesus Would Hate This Christian Blogger Just As Much As You Do.”

The title alone pretty much identifies the piece as complete and total bullshit. The dead give-away is that it puts “Jesus” and “Hate” in the same sentence. Author Jennifer Martin goes on to adopt a format she must think is extremely clever: contrasting excerpts from Walsh’s blog that have been completely taken out of context with verses from the Bible that have been completely taken out of context.

True to form, Walsh has already written an excellent response in which he utterly destroys Martin’s “logic,” so I’ll let him speak in his own defense. As a fellow Christian blogger with about 1/1,000,000 of his audience, I know a bit of what it’s like to be attacked for your views, and the courage it requires to go against the cultural mainstream. Whether liberal or conservative, Christian or atheist, blogging on controversial topics is always a risk. Being attacked on the Internet isn’t just an occupational hazard; it’s a job requirement. If you’re not being slammed by someone, chances are you’re doing it wrong.

No, my irritation is not on Walsh’s behalf—a man I don’t know and have never met. He has clearly done very well for himself and is quite capable of handling the daily attacks launched in his direction. Rather, my frustration is on behalf of Christians everywhere who are tired of being told what Jesus would do by people who so clearly don’t know and don’t care. I’m tired of the innate openness and understanding of many Christians being used against them in a sort of cultural jujitsu. I’m tired of Christians feeling like they have to constantly prove their tolerance to their progressive friends, lest they be labeled a bunch of bigoted haters. Most of all, I’m tired of the true message of Christ being watered down into an impotent, wishy-washy compilation of slogans better suited for bumper stickers than leading anyone to salvation.

By now we are all familiar with the liberal line on Christianity. According to progressives, Jesus was basically a bearded, peace-loving hipster who came to earth just to tell people to “Chill, man! Be cool! Don’t judge, and all that.” We are told that, were he around today, hipster Jesus would be picketing with Occupy Wall Street or leading a Pride rally.

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I’m sorry, but that is not my religion. Jesus was not about going along to get along, and neither is my faith. When reading the Gospel, I have never been struck with the revelation of “Oh! So we’re just supposed to let people do whatever they want and mind our own business!” That kind of understanding of Christianity can only result from a very minimal and selective reading of the Bible, if in fact the Bible is consulted at all. If that was all there was to Christianity, why did much of Jesus’ society and the most powerful empire in the world find it so threatening? Conversely, why did his early followers find it so appealing that they were willing to lay down their lives in His name? If all Jesus wanted was for people to be tolerant and get along, why was he put to death? You would think Caesar would have wanted him front and center.

Instead, Jesus was publicly humiliated, beaten, and ultimately put to death for his refusal to compromise or water down the truth—that He is the Son of God. Pilot did not want to kill Jesus. He offered him several chances to take the easy way out. But the real Jesus of the Bible—not hipster Jesus of the liberal imagination—was not afraid to rub people the wrong way. He was not afraid to call people out for their immoral behavior at the risk of personal ridicule (much like Matt Walsh, though I’m obviously not proposing his deification). Jesus was unpopular, controversial, and at times confrontational. He lived and dwelt amongst sinners, showing them great love and compassion, but He never condoned their sin.

The truth is, Christianity is a very demanding religion, a radical creed that is not for the faint of heart. I realize this may come as a surprise to some, as what passes for Christianity these days can seem like nothing more than feel-good, prosperity-Gospel platitudes, but that was not the original message. True Christianity requires even popes and kings to acknowledge their sinfulness and to humble themselves before the Lord. True Christianity makes no promises of worldly success; rather it risks great persecution and suffering. True Christianity demands the radical giving of oneself to others and accepts nothing less. (Recall the wealthy man who could not bring himself to give up his riches to follow Jesus.) Like Judaism and Islam, Christianity demands adherence to a system of moral laws that must be followed, even when they contradict one’s personal desires or ambitions. If you want a religion that allows you to make your own rules and just do whatever feels right, you should look elsewhere and leave Christianity alone.

Unfortunately, the progressive attempt to redefine Christianity is working. We have become so thoroughly secularized that even many Christians are uncomfortable with public displays of faith or prayer (“I’ll pray for you! Um, I mean, I’ll send you good vibes!” “Merry Christ— er, Happy Holidays!”). Many Christians now truly believe that it is not for them to judge anything anyone else does. You do you, and I’ll do me. But here’s the truth: sin hurts. Sin hurts the sinner, and sin hurts everyone else. There is no such thing as a “victimless sin.” When we stand by and ignore sin, when we “tolerate” it, we are letting people hurt themselves. If you saw someone preparing to slash their wrists or fall off a bridge, would you stand aside and think, “Hmmm, maybe not the best idea, but it’s not for me to judge?” Or would you at a bare minimum point out the harm that person is about to do to themselves and others who might copy their example? Aristotle recognized that there is no happiness outside of virtue; likewise, there is only pain in vice.

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Sorry Jennifer Martin, but you do not get to redefine Christianity to suit your progressive purposes. No, Jesus was not an early supporter of the transgender movement (a conclusion you support pretty weakly with His acceptance of eunuchs and celibacy). Jesus was not a radical feminist, or a communist. You are free to be all of these things, but don’t project your secular values onto Christ.

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Liberals like Martin are particularly fond of quoting Luke 6:37, “Judge not, and you will not be judged.” There are 807,361 words in the Bible, but these eight are their favorite. However, then as now, there are two different meanings of the word “judge.” One meaning is to discern between two things (i.e. good and evil); the other is to condemn. Given the full context of this verse, and the context surrounding Matthew 7:1 (“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.”), Christians are clearly instructed not to judge only in the second sense of the word.

The rest of Luke 6:37 reads “Condemn not, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” The point is clearly that we are to show forgiveness, love, and mercy to our fellow man; not tolerance of their sin. It is not our place to condemn others. We sit in final judgment of no man’s soul. However, we are specifically instructed on numerous occasions to discern between good and evil, and to act accordingly. Take the following examples:

“Do not judge according to appearances, but instead judge a just judgment.” John 7:24

“And why do you not, even among yourselves, judge what is just?” Luke 12:57

“The mouth of the righteous speaks wisdom, and his tongue talks of judgment.” Psalm 37:30

“You shall not do what is unjust, nor shall you judge unjustly. You shall not consider the reputation of the poor, nor shall you honor the countenance of the powerful. Judge your neighbor justly.” Leviticus 19:15

“Open your mouth, judge righteously, and plead the cause of the poor and needy.” Proverbs 31:9

“Whoever despises me and does not accept my words has one who judges him. The word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him on the last day.” John 12:48

How can anyone read this and still believe Christianity is just about tolerance? My guess is Jennifer Martin has not read the entire Bible, or even the majority of it. Rather she has sought out a few odd verses to assist in her condemnation of Matt Walsh, thus engaging in the very sort of judgment Jesus actually proscribes.

Dictionary.com defines a hypocrite as “a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs.” Martin compares Walsh to the Pharisees, but he is no hypocrite. He judges in the proper sense of the word—that of discerning between good and evil—while always acknowledging his own sinfulness. Ironically, Martin and others like her are the real hypocrites. They loudly proclaim their tolerance, and yet refuse to tolerate Christians. They attack conservatives for their arrogance, but they have the arrogance to believe there is no law greater than their own. They feign outrage at “judgmental” Christians, but are the quickest to judge all who do not agree with them.

Secular liberals know that true Christianity is the largest obstacle standing in the way of their quest to radically transform society and human nature itself. They know they cannot defeat Christianity outright, so they seek instead to neuter it—to deprive it of all its power and beauty by reducing it to a handful of feel-good platitudes. They have been trying to redefine the Christian faith for the last 2,000 years, and they will continue to do so until the final Day of Judgment. We cannot let them.