Materialism, Minimalism, and Moving House

I remember catching the minimalism bug after watching the well-known documentary on Netflix a couple years ago. For several months afterward (and even now, honestly) I desired to give away my possessions and move into a tiny house, leaving the American dream behind and pursuing a life filled with new meaning and intentionality. As it does with many people, this obsession with the “less is more” mentality became a sinful idol – not to mention an unrealistic aspiration during the season of life I was in at the time. My enthusiasm eventually fizzled out with the same intensity as it began.

Now, two years later, I have found myself erring on the opposite extreme of this obsession. My circumstances are quite different from what they were when I first heard of minimalism and vowed to reject American standards of success: I am married, living in a basement apartment in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, and am thousands of dollars in student debt as of last month when I graduated from college. You would think these three factors would move me to greater frugality and “light living,” as some call it. And they have, to an extent. I meal plan, rarely buy non-clearance items, and have far less expenses than the average American twenty-something-year-old.

But I have also fallen deeper into the clutches of materialism and consumerism than I ever intended to. This realization hit me two weeks ago when we moved from our 250 square-foot missionary apartment to a slightly larger basement apartment belonging to fellow church members. As I packed every single one of our tangible belongings into boxes and cleaned the nooks and crannies of our home that I hadn’t laid eyes on for months, the extent of my foolishness became very apparent to me.

It isn’t that I had closets full of clothes and shoes or a hundred useless knick-knacks. The problem is that far too many of my purchases were impulsive and sinfully motivated . . . and that my reasons for keeping many of our material belongings oriented around fear and insecurity. Even worse, I could think back to the times when I purchased these things and see how it closely linked with moments of depression, bitterness, and discontentment. My purchase patterns were marked by a mentality of emotional entitlement. I felt hungry for new and better things because the momentary high of owning something beautiful – or even practical, in a self-indulgent and lazy sense – distracted me from the sadness, illegitimacy, and disappointment I felt in the immaterial areas of my life. I thought the difficulties of marriage would be easier to deal with if I had a beautiful environment to experience them in (it doesn’t). I thought people would take me more seriously as a woman and an adult if my wardrobe looked more put-together (they didn’t). I thought I would become a better student if I had a nicer workspace and more books on the shelf (I didn’t).

I feel dirty and embarrassed even to write that, but maybe it will help someone else who is experiencing something similar and who feels lonely or alienated as a result. I definitely have felt that way until now. I wasn’t willing to put words to the issue, because admitting the problem “out loud” inevitably brings on a greater responsibility for change. And it also introduces the painful possibility that the information might be used by other people to manipulate, judge, and blame me.

It is worth it, though to admit this mistake in the open because of how intricately it reflects what the Christian’s earthly life both is and is not. During this season of my life I was operating on the assumption that what was good on the outside would justify and heal what was bad on the inside. I may reject this idea with my mind and my words, but the unfortunate truth is that it’s the principle my heart tends to operate under. And isn’t that exactly the kind of philosophy the Gospel seeks to transform?

The Bible offers perspectives on material possessions that run wholly contrary to what Western culture promotes. There isn’t room in a blog post to dive into each one of them, but the passage that hits closest to home for me is Matthew 6:19-33. The two headings used in this passage in the NASB Bible are “The True Treasure” and “The Cure for Anxiety,” which are both so pertinent to my life. You should check out the whole passage, but these are my favorite bits:

“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 . . . for where your treasure is, there you heart will be also. . . No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other. . . You cannot serve God and wealth [which isn’t just about money]. For this reason I say to you, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? . . . But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

How often am I distracted from whole-heartedly following Christ by the cares of the world? Most of the time. That’s the true answer for me: most of the time. Like many other Christians, I have treated this passage of Scripture as though it only applies to those whom I perceive to be wealthy according to my own cultural standards (like celebrities, politicians, and other types of people who are more obviously guilty of greed than the average person). But the fact is that the average person in Western society, especially in America, has more possessions than they are able to count and keep track of. We collectively pay billions of dollars for storage, seasonal home and wardrobe updates, bulk foods that we waste, and so on, whereas the rest of the world languishes in poverty. What’s interesting is that many of the most devoted and faithful believers in the world also have the most material deficits in their life. Less distractions. Less items to obsessively clean and rearrange. Less assurances of false security.

Don’t misunderstand me here. We shouldn’t desire poverty or pursue the ascetic/ monastic life just because much of the world is marked by poverty. We are intended to use and even enjoy material goods to the glory of God. But although a biblical and balanced approach to material goods involves appreciation for the tangible blessings God provides, one major aspect of this that is often ignored in our culture is good stewardship. If we really appreciate the fact that God gives us things, then it should follow that our use and possession of these things is done with consciousness and purpose and intentionality. How can we say we are grateful for what God has materially blessed us with if we don’t even use or think about them unless we are pressed to give them away? Suddenly they matter. Suddenly the idea that it is “mine” to use and to enjoy becomes much weightier, and the item is placed back in its corner of the closet, saved for all those “what if” instances that likely won’t ever come.

Instead, here are some better “what ifs” to consider: What if we consume things with a recognition of their true capacity for satisfying our deepest longings? What if we decorate our homes with the knowledge that we cannot live in them forever? What if our workspace actually had space on it for working? What if we spent our wages on things that are actually beautiful and useful, not just novel or neat? What if we questioned those shopping and registry lists given to us by the people who only want to profit from our foolishness? What if we don’t need five side tables or ten different coats?

Are we really just afraid of what we will unearth in our selves and our spaces once the clutter is gone? Sometimes I think the reason I put off addressing these issues is because I know that when all the stuff is gone, I will be exposed. I won’t be able to hide behind the falsely-legitimizing veneer of cute clothes or my collections of $20 throw pillows. I’ll have to live with (and deal with) my sin and relational problems. I won’t have any materials left to build masks with. Because ultimately, when we take a harder look at our materialism and consumerism, we will have to decide whether or not we truly believe heavenly treasures are better than earthly ones, as Scripture says they are. As I haul things off to Goodwill, even things that were hard to give up, I hear the deeper places in my heart ask fearfully: “After I get rid of this earthly treasure, will the treasures of heaven prove to be enough? Will they become more real to me?”

Now I know what is really important to me, and so these are the questions I need to deal with in this new season of life. Perhaps they are questions you can consider, too.

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