The Life-Changing ‘Magic’ of Simplifying

What does it say about our culture that one of the best-selling books in recent years is about decluttering and organizing? “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” has sold millions of copies and led to the Netflix reality series, “Sparking Joy.” The book’s author, 30-something Marie Kondo, has been branded the Millennial Martha Stewart. Fans pack auditoriums to see her fold clothes and organize closets.

Is it that in our consumer culture one of the primary questions that nags at us—one of life’s great mysteries—is, “How can we better organize our stuff?” If so, book buyers may be disappointed to learn that Kondo believes, “Putting things away creates the illusion that the clutter problem has been solved…tidying must start with discarding.”

Kondo says typical clients discard two-thirds to three-quarters of their clothing, countless books, at least two 45-liter bags of papers, and more.

Her criterion for determining what to keep? It has to “spark joy.”

Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.

While reading her book, I found myself thinking of Richard Foster and his writing about simplicity. Both describe their ideas as being about something more than less clutter. But they come at the bigger picture from different perspectives.

While there are many useful new ideas about organizing in her book, Kondo’s approach seems to be outside-in (“Once you have experienced what it’s like to have a truly ordered house, you’ll feel your whole world brighten.”). By contrast, Foster encourages an inside-out approach. In his books, Celebration of Discipline and Freedom of Simplicity, he says simplicity is a Christian discipline and describes it as “an inward reality that results in an outward lifestyle.”

He also emphasizes that simplicity isn’t just about uncluttered closets:

It is possible for a person to be developing an outward life-style of simplicity and to be filled with anxiety…If what we have we receive as a gift, and if what we have is to be cared for by God, and if what we have is available to others, then we will possess freedom from anxiety…However, if what we have we believe we have gotten, and if what we have we believe we must hold onto, and if what we have is not available to others, then we will live in anxiety. Such persons will never know simplicity regardless of the outward contortions they may put themselves through in order to live ‘the simple life.’

Instead of identifying possessions that spark joy, Foster advocates “a life of joyful unconcern for possessions.”

Once we have begun to cultivate that inner attitude, what might the outer expression of it look like? Foster offers 10 suggestions:

  • Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status
  • Reject anything that is producing an addiction in you
  • Develop a habit of giving things away
  • Refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry
  • Learn to enjoy things without owning them
  • Develop a deeper appreciation for the creation
  • Look with a healthy skepticism at all “buy now, pay later” schemes
  • Obey Jesus’ instructions about plain, honest speech
  • Reject anything that breeds the oppression of others
  • Shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the kingdom of God

In our materialistic, over-marketing-messaged world, sometimes simplicity isn’t so simple. But as Richard Foster points out, it begins on the inside with the attitudes of our heart. Some good starting places would be to read and reflect on Matthew 6:25-33, Luke 12:13-21, and 1 Corinthians 7:29-31.

Have you made any conscious efforts toward simplifying your life? What have you done and how has it worked out?

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