“What do you really want?” my mentor asked the first time we met. The question felt huge, and the answer almost too big for words. But it came as I listened to my heart bumping around my chest. It felt heavy and wrung out from old hurts and fears stashed in my emotional basement. “I want. . .freedom.”
As I cleaned out that space, I began to feel lighter, more confident, more peaceful. The emerging emotional freedom made me crave material freedom, too. Minimalist principles piqued my interest. I began to look around my apartment and ask What am I holding onto that serves no a purpose? What unused items do I still own because I’m afraid I’ll need them “someday” or because someone else gave them to me? Most importantly, I asked, What do I own that I don’t love? As the discard pile grew, so did my sense of freedom. This is exactly what the minimalist movement is all about.
“Minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom,” says Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus on TheMinimalist.com. “Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around. Real freedom.” It struck me: these aren’t just minimalist principles, they’re spiritual principles. Jesus tells us to give away, to him, the very things that weigh us down and clutter our hearts and minds. In return, he promises real, deep, soul-level rest. “I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly” (Matt. 11:28–30 MSG).
I packed up my things in boxes and bags, and then . . . I stalled. My possessions waited patiently by my door for about a month. Maybe more. The reality of breaking up with my stuff was uncomfortable, almost painful. It turns out some brain researchers at the University of Yale discovered the struggle is—literally—real. Pain indicators in your brain light up in response to discarding things you own or feel a connection to. What if I need some of these things again? I asked. Do I have what it takes to live with less?
In every transformational process, you’re going to encounter some internal and external obstacles. How you respond can either be your path to further freedom, or further bondage. Millburn and Nicodemus agree that there’s nothing wrong with owning things. Our problem is in the power we give our possessions. “We tend to give too much meaning to our things, often forsaking our health, our relationships, our passions, our personal growth, and our desire to contribute beyond ourselves.” Minimalist principles are less about what and how much we own, and more about making conscious and deliberate decisions about the things that truly add value to our lives.
The words from Matthew 6:19–21 kept whispering through my mind as they echoed Millburn’s and Nicodemus’s ideas, “Do not store up for yourself treasures on earth, where moths and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves cannot break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.”
This verse is often applied to putting others first, or sharing about Christ, but I took it quite literally. I thought about what my storage room might look like in 20 years—filled with nostalgia and stuff worn and ruined by moths, dust, and mice. Why wouldn’t I offer my unused things to someone in need? I had to face the fact that if I chose to not let go, then I was choosing external clutter and chaos. All this while simultaneously putting myself at risk to reclaim or re-accumulate the spiritual and emotional disorder I’d worked so hard to clear. Because clutter begets clutter, no matter what area of our lives we’re dealing with.
In her Christianity Today article, Margot Starbuck quotes minimalist blogger Joshua Becker as she journals her quest toward simplicity, “I used to view Jesus’s teachings—on money and possessions and generosity and not stockpiling treasures on earth—as a sacrifice I was called to make today so I could have greater rewards in eternity. But I began to realize that Jesus was just offering us a better formula for living.”
Minimalism addresses our freedom from material slavery in much the same way Jesus addresses our struggle with spiritual bondage. The Apostle Paul reminds us that when we decide to model our lives after Jesus, we are set free from spiritual slavery. But, understanding our limited capacity to remain unbound from materialism, temptation, and oppression, he warns us to “stand firm” and “stay free” (Gal. 5:1).“For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (5:13).
I reminded myself my goal was clarity, not clutter. And I envisioned what life could look like: fewer things to dust, fix, launder, put away; more disposable income; more time to pursue passions, focus on health, connect with people, and create space to listen—really, really listen—to God. And when you know who you want to be, how you want to feel, or what you want your life to look like, the answers become clear and simple. Not easy. But simple. And so, I let go.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not a minimalist. At least not yet. But I’m understanding the value in approaching my life with more simplicity. Which I believe is at the heart of God’s best for us. Because when we say “no” to one thing, we’re giving ourselves the opportunity to say “yes” to something better and more beautiful. And isn’t this the foundation of faith?–for our awareness of God to increase, we must decrease what inhibits us from experiencing him (John 3:30). We’re freeing ourselves to pursue the most important aspects of life: health, relationships, passion, growth, and service. What would a life of less look like for you?
Imagine the possibilities.