Tidying Up in the Image of God

The new year is full of hope and expectancy for many people; a time to start afresh, to develop better habits, to become more disciplined. What’s more perfect than signing into your Netflix account, only to be greeted by the renowned Marie Kondo and the promise that tidying will bring you the happiness you were looking for.

While I love simplifying life and tidying as much as the next thirty-something millennial mom, from the first episode of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, my radar was on high alert. While Marie herself is friendly, sweet, and encouraging, elements and core beliefs of her method raised concerns for me.

During my time in seminary, I was introduced to the idea that, as Christians, we need to not only be doing biblical hermeneutics (the art of discerning what a particular biblical text is communicating) but also, importantly, cultural hermeneutics, which could be described as the art of discerning what a particular cultural “text” is communicating. Why is this important? Because we are participants in and partakers of culture, we need to be carefully considering what exactly it is that we are receiving through various cultural “texts.”*

Back to the “text” of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo: is there anything wrong intrinsically with the concept of paring down one’s material possessions, of organizing a closet, or keeping a tidy home? Of course not. But what should be raising red flags for Christians are the subtle (and not so subtle) messages throughout the show which are communicating a variety of anti-biblical philosophies.

Because we are participants in and partakers of culture, we need to be carefully considering what exactly it is that we are receiving through various cultural “texts.”

The Promise of Happiness

On the first episode, Marie Kondo says, “the ultimate goal of tidying is really to learn to cherish everything that you have, so that you can achieve happiness for your family.” (More thoughts on the concept of cherishing the things we own here.) While initially this confident promise for happiness sounds so very appealing, and well, attainable, we ought to be the first to recognize the subtle lie in this sentiment. Will it make you happy to let go of material possessions, to minimize your stuff? If you have ever spent time bringing order to an area of your home or garage or office that particularly needed it, you likely can resonate with this sentiment. It does feel good to tidy. What is it about tidying that brings such satisfaction? Kondo would say that when we free ourselves of the things that do not spark joy and cherish the things that do, we find happiness by prioritizing what is most important to us.

May I suggest, however, that what is responsible for that happy feeling of satisfaction when we bring order to disorder is actually the image of God in us. Who was the first to bring order to the world? God himself, in Genesis 1, where we read that he brought form to what was formless, and it was good. Following creation, the first task God gives to humankind is one of bringing order – Adam is to keep and cultivate the garden, and to classify the animals God created. God is an orderly God, and as his image-bearers, we reflect his orderliness in various aspects of our lives.

So when we experience that feeling of satisfaction or happiness for the good work of tidying that we have completed, rather than look to the clean closet or fewer possessions that we own for lasting joy and proper perspective in life, let us look to the Creator of both joy and order, and rejoice for his image in us.

The Animistic Element

In each episode, Marie begins her time in the home of her clients by finding a special spot, kneeling, and greeting the home in prayer-like fashion, “to thank it for protecting you.” Additionally, she encourages her clients to hold and thank each item after determining that it indeed, does not spark joy for them, and ought to be discarded. While nothing religious is specifically mentioned in the show, Kondo herself has said that her method is partly inspired by the traditional Japanese folk religion Shinto, where inanimate objects are actually believed to possess a divine spirit or energy (kami). In Shintoism, cleaning and organizing things can be a spiritual practice, both through recognizing kami and kannagara (right way to live).

What seem like gentle and harmless touches ought to bring to mind Romans 1:25 for Christians, “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.” How easy it is for us to turn our focus from the Giver of the good gifts to the gifts themselves! How important it is that we protect our hearts against worshipping things rather than God himself.

In some places I have lived, the animistic element was clear: idols in peoples’ homes, goat skin bracelets to venerate ancestors. In Western cultures, animism, which is the attribution of a living soul to inanimate objects, plants, and natural phenomenon, is less obvious but still a dangerous and penetrating message. Marie Kondo’s show is a clear example of a cultural text which is promoting animism, and without careful attention, we can find ourselves sucked into this empty philosophy.

“Oh great, she’s going to tell me to quit watching the show.”

Christians often fall on two sides of culture: one large group chooses to withdraw from mainstream culture, in an effort to protect itself against the infiltration of anti-biblical messages. A second large group fully participates in and enjoys all varieties of culture, but without consideration for how the anti-biblical messages are likely affecting them. I would suggest that being a faithful Christian living in post-Christian times looks like engaging culture through a biblical lens. Engaging culture means that we must be participating in it, at least to some degree, and not withdrawing for our own self-preservation. Employing a biblical lens means that as we consume cultural texts, we are filtering the messages carefully against what we know to be true from God’s Word. At times, wisdom may dictate that we stop consuming a particular text, or avoid certain texts altogether. But it is essential that Christians engage with culture if we are to have a voice in the world for dialogue and for God’s truth.

Engaging culture means that we must be participating in it, at least to some degree, and not withdrawing for our own self-preservation. Employing a biblical lens means that as we consume cultural texts, we are filtering the messages carefully against what we know to be true from God’s Word.

In the end, God tells us to live wisely. Our time on earth is precious, and limited. If we decide to consume a text like Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, let us be wary of the empty philosophies presented, and do so with a biblical lens, attributing our satisfaction from tidying to the treasure of God’s image in us and ensuring that our gratitude is focused toward the Giver himself.


*Much thinking and writing on this issue can be attributed to Kevin Vanhoozer. His book, Everyday Theology, is an excellent example of cultural hermeneutics in practice (find it here).

originally published on January 29, 2019

Minimalism is Not the Gospel

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 6:19-21

To say minimalism is trending would be an understatement. It seems to crop up weekly in conversations. I see articles on the regular:

“25 Reasons You Might be a Minimalist”

“Goodbye things, hello minimalism: Can living with less make you happier?”

“Don’t Just Declutter. De-own.”

I appreciate minimalism. I enjoy purging excess stuff and keeping our home functioning simply. I’ve been told we are “so minimalist” (as a compliment, I think) and I am inspired to keep our material possessions on the fewer side. Currently, on my refrigerator I have hanging a “30 Day Declutter Challenge” which I mean to complete (but have only checked off one).

While the concept may be good, the rumblings of what minimalism can do for you, for me, of what minimalism can deliver to our lives, make me uneasy. From my dabbling in this trendy movement, I’m convinced that we ought be careful of a way of life which promises what it can never actually deliver. After all, minimalism is not the gospel.

A Few Potential Pitfalls

Don’t be convinced your minimalistic lifestyle means you have beaten materialism. Minimalism is not the opposite of materialism. Materialism is defined as “a tendency to consider material possessions and physical comfort as more important than spiritual values.” Just because you may have fewer material possessions does not mean that you are less attached to them.

Rather, consider your heart. Do you love the fewer clothes you have? Are you deeply attached to the few books you decided to keep in the recent purge? Do you love your home for the way it looks, rather than the way God provided it for your family, as a place to grow together and extend hospitality? You can still value your material possessions as more important than spiritual things, even in having fewer of them.

So while we’re busy critiquing our parents’ generation for huge homes, stocked attics and overstuffed garages, we need to take an honest look at our own lives and ask: is our minimalism simply materialism in a new dress?

Don’t expect minimalism to bring you joy. The KonMarie method has received worldwide fame, notably with the suggestion to ask of each item you own, “does this spark joy?” From the first time I heard this, there was unrest in my heart. Not because material things don’t bring me moments of fleeting joy, but because we are espousing a philosophy that leans into our already very human temptation to take our eyes off of the true Source of joy and onto the gifts instead.

J.I. Packer has said of Ecclesiastes that the right foundation for everyday joy [to be distinct from our eternal joy in the gospel] is “in celebrating joy as God’s kindly gift, and in recognizing the potential for joy in everyday activities and relationships” [read further here]. I would rather be looking at my daughters to find a spark of joy, or in my husband’s love, or in nature, or in fulfilling work, and celebrating these good gifts from God in my life, not in that shirt I wore yesterday or the ornate vase I collected from Taiwan. God has given a very material world to enjoy, but let’s be careful to worship the giver and not the gift.

“…human beings flourish and are truly happy when they center their lives on God, the source of everything that is true, good, and beautiful. As to all created things, they too ought to be loved. But the only way to properly love them and fully and truly enjoy them is to love and enjoy them “in God”.”

Miroslav Volf, A Public Faith

Don’t let your minimalism hinder your hospitality and love for others. At the very root of some forms of minimalism is simply selfishness. I want to feel free in my home, I want to clean less, I want my home to spark joy, I like the look of x, y, and z. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve thought, “I should get rid of those kiddy kitchen toys” and yet, why? Because, I don’t like the look of them. But my kids, and a host of other kids, greatly enjoy these toys, and play with them daily. Who would I be serving to get rid of them? Fortunately in my life, I am daily reminded that there are others of whom I need to think, and serve with love, than myself.

Before purging all the extra plates from your kitchen, consider: do you have adequate space for extending hospitality? Is your space warm and inviting, a place that people will want to gather? Far and above any desires for a sparse kitchen ought to be our willingness and ability to host others well, to extend our homes and lives and invite others in. [Read here for convicting thoughts on Christian hospitality].

Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, however. Here are a few reasons why Christians ought to consider living more simply:

  • to better set our hearts on things above, and not on earthly things [Col. 3:2]
  • to better love our neighbors [Mark 12:31]
  • to seek to live more generously [1 Tim. 6:17-19]
  • to offer meaningful hospitality [Rom. 12:13, 1 Pet. 4:8-9]

If these are the reasons for your pursuit of minimalism, to live a life more pleasing to Christ, then by all means, it is a worthy pursuit.

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have good and clothing, we will be content with that.”

1 Timothy 6:6-8

And he said to them, “Take care, be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”

Luke 12:15

originally published on June 27, 2018