I was surprised to discover how many books and blogs are devoted to the practice of decluttering.
A simple search of the word “decluttering” yielded hundreds of references. The sheer numbers of people writing, reading, and conversing about it is a clear indication that buying and holding on to stuff has become a moral problem for many people in our society.
Is this conversation a harbinger of real change or just a passing fad? Probably the latter.
The call to declutter and live simply is a direct challenge to the current economic arrangements and easily drowned out by all the calls to live the good life by increasing consumption.
I found that there are two basic approaches to decluttering. The first is the self-help approach. Self-help books and podcasts are of course ubiquitous, and the self-help movement has near cult status in our society. It assumes people are self-sufficient, rational agents who will make the right decisions if provided with the right information. Self-help books on decluttering offer their readers lists of easy steps that they can follow to overcome a cluttered life and reach their full human potential.
The second is the spiritual approach. Its best-known proponent is Marie Kondo, author of the best-seller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.
At the heart of Kondo’s approach to decluttering is a ritual that ends with an offering of thanksgiving. She proposes that people begin the process of decluttering by categorizing all their stuff according to its emotional and spiritual significance. Beginning with such items as clothes, books, and personal papers, she suggests that aspiring declutterers take each item in hand and ask themselves this question: “Does this spark joy?” If it does, then Kondo recommends that they keep it. If not, she recommends that they discard it, but not without first thanking it for its contribution to their lives.
It would be easy to pan Marie Kondo’s books and podcasts on decluttering as many have done and dismiss her as recycling the animism of her Shinto faith. But I think that we in the Reformed tradition can offer a more sympathetic reading.
She addresses a significant, spiritual problem in our lives, a restless and relentless consumption that is devouring the planet and diminishing its life-bearing capacity. She suggests that a spirit of thankfulness can change our restless, consumptive lifestyle.
In short, she suggests—in the words of the popular saying of unknown origin: Gratitude makes what we have enough.
In focusing on thanksgiving, Kondo touches on a central theme in the Reformed tradition. We also emphasize the importance of thanksgiving as a response to God’s gifts of life in their many forms. We too see gratitude as a source of joy and delight in our lives.
From a Reformed perspective, creation is not inert material. The word of God created the world, and the breath of God imbued it with life-giving power (Psalm 33:6). The creation account in Genesis 1 tells us that on successive days, the word of God called into being what Reformed theologians sometimes call spheres: the material, the vegetative, the animal, the human—political, economic, social, and religious—and the celestial. In the creation account, all of these spheres coalesce and give the world what the Bible calls its “fullness” or fecundity. The people of Israel understood this fullness to be a manifestation of the love of God. They proclaimed again and again in their worship services some version of this confession: “The world is full of the steadfast love of God” (Psalm 33:5; 119:64).
The breath of God imbues creation with life-giving power. We human beings receive this power, moment to moment and day by day in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. But we also receive it in the beauty we see around us, the intimacy we share with others, and in the usefulness of the products we create for our comfort, enjoyment, and devotion. We receive all these life-enhancements as gifts of God, and the appropriate response to these gifts is thanksgiving: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever (Psalm 107:1).
Offering thanksgiving reorients our relationship to material objects and to the material world from which they are drawn. A thankful heart experiences the world as gift, directs attention to the giver, and inspires trust in the one who said: “I will give you life and give it abundantly” (cf. John 10:10), and who said: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat, drink, and wear…for it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows all your needs” (cf. Matthew 6: 25-34).
A thankful heart relaxes our hands and loosens their grip on our possessions. Nothing is ever owned; nothing can ever be held. All is given; and all is meant to be given away. All is manna from heaven; all rots if we try to hoard it.
Marie Kondo realized that people needed a ritual to help them break free from their hoarding and acquisitive ways. We Christians too need a ritual of thanksgiving. Fortunately we have one that is frankly underutilized, the Lord’s Supper.
Holy and right it is, and our joyful duty
to give thanks to you at all times and in all places,
O Lord our Creator,
almighty and everlasting God!
You created heaven with all its hosts and the earth with all its fullness.
You have given us life and being,
and preserve us by your providence.
But you have shown us the fullness of your love
in sending into the world your Son, Jesus Christ,
the eternal Word, made flesh for us and for our salvation.
For the precious gift of this mighty Savior who has reconciled us to you
we praise and bless you, O God.
The liturgy of the Lord’s Supper reminds us that not only bread and wine but all material things are infused with the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit, and it leads us in expressing our thanksgiving for all these good gifts from God.