How 'Simplifying Your Life' Can Be a Problem
The downside of downsizing.
“Declutter your life!”
“Throw away some clothes!”
“Buy only what you need!”
“Move into a smaller house!”
“Minimalism” is the heading under which most of this takes place. It’s been around forever, of course, leading back to asceticism and the monastic movements (though it should be noted that most minimalists would deny they’re after the same things as those movements. That’s fair.). But of late, minimalism has found its home on the internet, starting with people like Merlin Mann, and more recently The Minimalists, Joshua Becker, and others.
The movement has now broken into mainstream with documentaries like Tiny, a film that follows people who’ve abandoned typical housing arrangements in favor of “tiny houses” that are only a few hundred square feet, and Minimalism, which chronicles the teachings of minimalism evangelists Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus.
In an age of excess, it’s easy to see the appeal of the minimalist message. In the past, I’ve found myself sending loads of stuff to Goodwill, deleting old files and feeling better in the process. But as anyone who’s ever undertaken this stuff knows, that feeling doesn’t last for long. Eventually, we have to ask ourselves, “What are we simplifying for?”
What are we simplifying for?
According to what’s out there on minimalism, the answer is usually, “So you can live a more meaningful life.” That’s a great bite-size answer that makes us feel warm and cozy, but does less stuff really define a meaningful life?
When you push past the catchphrase, you find that what’s being promoted is a more meaningful life defined by making yourself happy. A life defined by being freed up to do what you love, live where you want, and be who you want, without the definitions your stuff gives you.
The best of minimalism talks about getting rid of material things to make room for more noble things, like friendships. But even with noble intentions, it doesn’t take long to see that by this definition minimalism is simply shifting our identity and meaning from having lots of stuff to having little stuff.
Promoters of the minimal philosophy would almost certainly disagree, but at the same time they’re promoting it to such a degree that their identities can easily become wrapped up in the concept of not having things (i.e., The Minimalists). My intention is not to denigrate some of the actions that are promoted by minimalists and those advocating a simpler lifestyle. I actually find much of that advice helpful in my own life.
But the ideology behind those actions is not enough to help us live a meaningful life, no matter how many closets we clean.
The deeper problem
The problem with having many (or few) possessions is that we’re trying to find meaning where there is none. At one extreme, we’re trying to define ourselves by our iPhones, cars and homes, and at the other, we’re trying to define ourselves by our own contentment. But neither is sufficient to ground us in a world of refugees crises, cancer and human trafficking.
The deeper problem is that we’re staking our identity and meaning on things that aren’t lasting. If your meaning in life can be taken away by a cancer diagnosis, the loss of a loved one or your candidate losing an election, then it’s not enough. If your meaning in life depends on your circumstances, you need to realize that your circumstances will change. You can find meaning in your possessions, but one day they’ll be taken from you. You can find meaning in your beauty, but one day you’ll lose it. You can find meaning in your happiness, but one day you’ll be sad.
Our struggle is less about deciding how much or how little stuff we have, and more about where we find our meaning in life. There are myriad suggested solutions to that problem, but the Christian worldview has a distinct way of solving it.
A solution to the problem of meaning
Christianity has a lot to say about possessions and where to find meaning. At the root of the Christian worldview is the idea that God Himself came to earth in the form of the man Jesus and that man died for the sins of humanity, but He was resurrected after three days, defeating death in the process. Christians see that saving act of Jesus as being the foundation for meaning in life. This can be seen throughout the Bible, but most clearly in the beginning of the book of John, one of the four biographical accounts of the life of Jesus.
The book opens, after all, with this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
When writing in the original Greek, John used a word that was absolutely loaded in that day. That word is logos. Logos didn’t simply mean “word.” The term was coined by Heraclitus long before John was writing, and he defined as being the divine reason or plan which coordinates a changing universe. Logos meant the reason for something. In this case, the reason for life.
In Greek culture, the logos was where meaning and reason were derived from, and the whole universe was tied together by that logos. This is what philosophers and thinkers had been discussing up until the time John was writing. Some of them decided that there was no meaning, no reason (no logos) in life. Others decided that their own pleasure and happiness was the logos.
It was into this setting that John redefined the term. He said two really important things.
First, he said the reason for life, the logos, was there in the beginning. The reason for life, according to John, was somehow eternal and existed from the beginning. Second, he said, “the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.” He said the logos, the reason for life, was a person.
And this person was with God. But not only was he with God, but he was God. When you go on to read the rest of this chapter in John’s gospel, you find out that when he uses the term logos he’s referring to the man Jesus Christ.
John’s saying that there is a reason for life, that there is a way to find meaning in life. But it’s not a philosophical principle—it’s the person of Jesus Christ. This means if you don’t know that Person, you can’t find the deepest meaning in life. If you don’t know that Person, you can’t find something that’s capable of standing up to what life throws at you.
The Christian worldview has the ability to provide us meaning in life that can’t be taken away, which means it offers a healthier relationship to possessions than either the American Dream or minimalism offers.
A better way
The Gospel, the central good news of the Christian faith about Jesus taking judgement in our place, fundamentally changes how you relate to possessions by showing you that your ultimate meaning is found in Christ. For those who believe in Christ, their meaning is placed in a person who is outside of everything in this world, which means it can never be taken away. That means Christians no longer stake their identity and meaning in the things of this world.
And that changes everything.
I love how David Platt put this:
Think about it. Faith in Christ reconciles us to God, right? It’s the essence of the gospel. We no longer live for earthly treasure. We love our eternal treasure. God is our treasure. That frees us from the constant pursuit of stuff in this world, which means faith in Christ now reconciles us to one another because we’re not living anymore for selfish gain. We’re free of that. Free to live with selfless generosity.
We want to live a life that isn’t defined by things we know won’t last, and we want to positively impact the world around us. But we won’t find those things by looking to either our stuff or our lack or it.