Why Own Fewer Possessions? Jesus and the Minimalist Lifestyle

“Acquire no more here than what is absolutely necessary.” –Hermas

“Find out how much God has given you and from it take what you need; the remainder is needed by others.” – Saint Augustine

Why Own Fewer Possessions? Jesus and the Minimalist Lifestyle

In response to my recent posts exploring how to minimize the amount of baby stuff we acquire, a common question popped up a couple of times:

What’s so wrong with buying and owning stuff, anyway?

I’ve been meaning to explore this for a while – why a minimalist lifestyle is becoming increasingly important to me as a Jesus-follower.  So I decided this was as good a segue as any!

Minimalism and Jesus

I first became acquainted with the minimalist lifestyle the way many people did: through Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits.

Leo taught me about how possessions are a burden, and how giving them away and living with less are liberating. He showed me how the compulsion to own more is rooted in fear and actually dragging us all down.

As I learned about the minimalist philosophy and way of life, I couldn’t help thinking: Why aren’t Christians at the forefront of this movement? Isn’t this exactly in line with what Jesus teaches?

. . . That material possessions don’t bring lasting joy, and can actually serve as dangerous distractions from what really matters?

Isn’t Jesus famous for saying that it’s harder for a rich guy to get into heaven than for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle, and for telling folks that in order to follow him, they need to sell all their possessions? Isn’t he the great leader who didn’t even have a place to lay his head?

So why was I not learning about simple living from the pulpit? Why weren’t we Christians talking about how to get by with as few possessions as possible?

The only things I ever remembered being taught at church in regards to material wealth were that you should give 10% of your money to the church, and that you should avoid being too caught up in materialism. (“Just try not to love your stuff too much, in case Jesus ever asks you to give it up,” was the general idea. Interestingly, Jesus never seemed to ask anyone to give up their material wealth, so that was a huge relief).

I’m so grateful that Jesus’ wisdom can be found in so many places, and not just in Christian circles.

Since becoming acquainted with minimalism, however, I have begun to see that Christians have been talking about living with less for a long time (as seen in the quotations at the beginning of this post) . . . I just hadn’t been hearing from them within my North American Evangelical context.

I truly believe that the things I learned from Leo and others are in tune with what Jesus taught, and as a consequence, minimalism has become increasingly important to me.

So what do minimalists (and Jesus) have to say about owning things?

As I’ve been learning more and more about the minimalist lifestyle, I’ve come across a few central arguments for getting rid of excess and trying to live with less. Here are a few of them.

(Remember, of course, that I’m writing this as someone who owns way too much stuff herself, and enjoys a comfortable life in one of the wealthiest nations in the world. I don’t know why you should even listen to me.)

Owning Things Comes at a Cost

Of course, almost all possessions have benefits and advantages – that’s why we own them. But we often forget that each additional thing in our possession comes at a personal cost beyond what we originally paid for it.

There are the obvious costs to many of our possessions: many modern commodities require a continuous stream of resources to maintain — things like batteries, gasoline, minutes, data, and insurance.

Many North Americans own so much stuff that they actually have to pay to keep it in storage: the self-storage industry in the U.S. has grown bigger than the entire music industry, at a whopping 12 billion dollars a year. We also have to build and buy bigger homes to house all our unused stuff: new homes today have three times the closet space of a typical 1950s home. 1

But on top of the financial cost of owning things, there are other costs. Each thing I own is another thing I have to look after — to keep clean, keep working, keep safe against thieves. Each additional item in my home is something I have to pick up, walk around, dust, clean, or keep in storage. They tax my time and attention.  More possessions mean more clutter in my home and in my mind.

All possessions beyond what I need to survive are ultimately a burden.

Perhaps this is why Jesus tells us to “store up treasures in heaven” rather than “treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal” (Matt 6:19).

Getting rid of excess and keeping out whatever I don’t need is therefore liberating.

Possessions distract us from the important things.

Because we need money to own more stuff, we have to spend more time working to earn that money. As mentioned above, we also have to take time to shop for things, keep them organized, and keep them clean and in working condition.

In other words, owning stuff takes up our valuable time.

We also tend to waste time worrying about our possessions – worrying that they will be stolen, stained, or broken.

This is all time we could be spending having conversations with our spouses, kids, friends, and neighbours. It’s time we could be spending enjoying nature, praying, meditating, or being creative.

Owning things we don’t need deprives others who do need them.

There are only so many resources in the world. We live on a finite planet. As Gandhi famously said, “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

The more stuff we own as individuals, the less there is available for others to access.

Why Own Fewer Possessions? Jesus and the Minimalist Lifestyle

Jesus once said, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none” (Luke 3:11). Dorothy Day interprets this to mean that “if you have two coats, one of them belongs to the poor.”2

Basil the Great said it this way: “When someone strips a man of his clothes, we call him a thief. And one who might clothe the naked and does not – should he not be given the same name? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat in your wardrobe belongs to the naked; the shoes you let rot belong to the barefoot; the money in your vaults belongs to the destitute.”3

In other words, anything I own that I’m not using rightly belongs to someone who could. One might say that I am hoarding other people’s possessions by holding onto things I don’t need.

Owning things beyond necessity takes a heavy toll on the environment.

First there’s the manufacturing and shipping of commodities. Then there’s the energy required to build and run retail stores. Then there’s the energy used up and the pollution created by shopping. Then there’s the energy used to run our devices and heat our homes full of stuff.

And when we’re done with stuff, it gets chucked and has to sit in a landfill.

If we own less, that’s less waste happening at each of these points in the chain.

(And I’ve discussed before why caring for the environment is relevant to life in the Kingdom.)

* * *

These are just a few of the reasons I strive to own fewer things. They’re the reason I try to own as few baby items as possible.

I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m not even close to owning the “bare minimum.” I indulge in plenty of waste and surplus. But I want to begin to work towards a minimalist lifestyle, where I get rid of the excess so that I can spend my time, energy, and money on the things that really matter — friends, family, community, and God.

This is my goal: to own so little (or things of so little value to the rest of the world) that if someone ever broke into my home and robbed me, it wouldn’t be that big a deal because I don’t have that much to lose. (Honestly, I’m almost at that point. I’m not going to get too broken up about it if someone steals my six-year-old flip phone or desktop computer).

I’m still working on doing better, though.

If you try to live life with fewer possessions, what are your reasons?

PS – Don’t worry — I definitely have a “Confessions of a Hypocrite” post lined up to follow this one.

Update: See my post on Rethinking Minimalism (A Little Bit): The Ethics of Food  Storage.

___

Sources:

1. Shannon Hayes, Radical Homemakers, p. 86.

2. Quoted in Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution, p. 165.

3. Ditto.

Photo credits: Chris Bartow and leigh blackall.

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Comments

  1. I find that the more I have, the more annoyed I get. I feel so much better whenever I do a spring cleaning or a purge of unnecessary items. I’ve always considered myself to be somewhat of a minimalist, but it sure is so easy to accumulate “stuff”. Especially with a husband and two kids. And I also have a tendency to hold onto things I think that I’ll eventually use (so I won’t have to buy more)…I wish I could find that balance between frugality and clutter collecting.
    Rachel J. recently posted..Judge Me Or Love MeMy Profile

    • Rachel: I know what you mean about the difficulty in striking a balance between holding onto things to be frugal and hoarding. And I totally feel you on the whole “more stuff = more stuff to annoy you.”

  2. Well timed post. 6 months after moving into our home I’m ready for our first “home owner” declutter – we definitely have stuff in boxes and closets that I can officially say we don’t need. Also, when considering minimalism with children, the fewer things makes what they have more precious and important and encourages imagination!
    Molly W. recently posted..A Little Stroll in the RainMy Profile

  3. Love your thoughts on minimalism. We have been thinking about this a lot in our family as we are getting ready to move overseas in a couple weeks. Selling and giving away most of what we have has been so cathartic, really wish I would have done it a long time ago. The process really helps you realize how little you actually need.
    Rue recently posted..Nursery NostalgiaMy Profile

  4. I confess, I love stuff. A lot. And I love shopping for stuff. But I am slowly starting to realize (especially with a kid) that stuff isn’t important and I don’t need most of it. You are the third person I’ve come across lately discussing the issue of too much stuff and I feel like maybe God is trying to tell me it’s time to de-clutter? I’m not a hoarder in any sense of the word, and I don’t have as much stuff as lots of other people, but I do have more than plenty and more than I can often keep track of. Your post inspires me to pick a room and get rid of all the extra stuff in it!
    Bekah recently posted..Review of Garden of Life’s RAW Prenatal. (aka my ‘happy pills’)My Profile

  5. For the past 6 weeks, we’ve been living in our new place in Germany, only our stuff (which was shipped) hasn’t come yet. So we’re living with a very few borrowed items (a mattress with sheets and 1 blanket, 2 plates, 2 forks, 2 spoons, 2 pots, 1 pan … you get the idea.) And I am surprised to admit that the only thing I really miss is my own bed. Thanks for the challenging post. I am not great at a minimalist lifestyle, although I do try. It was much, much easier to be minimalistic before I was married, because I was dirt-poor and didn’t have a choice. Now it has to be a choice, and it takes a lot of discipline to live simply. For me at least.

  6. > the shoes you let rot belong to the barefoot

    The barefoot need no stinkin’ shoes. We are proud to be barefoot.
    vas recently posted..Кот-вертолет и другиеMy Profile

  7. i totally second what emily w. said. when i was poor and had no choice, it was easier to be frugal. it does take more of an effort to be a minimalist now that we have more free spending! i’m finding it already more necessary too though, with more people in this house. i do find that the more i ‘do’ in this world, the more i think i need, ya know? like the more weddings i’m in or attend, the more i’m convinced i need a new dress. or new clothes for work so i’m not wearing the same thing each week, etc. my husband is much better at it, so he keeps me honest! i do like the idea of owning just enough to be able to move easily! there’s that nomadic side coming out again…
    alison recently posted..Take 7…Summer Edition: Earthquakes, filming, and more MSL!My Profile

  8. Here are my reasons, (which I wrote over a year ago on my mostly defunct blog). A lot has happened since then!!
    http://acupofrosieleigh.blogspot.com/2011/06/why-minimalismish.html

    Fiona from far far away directed me here. She knew I’d be happy to find a crunchy minimalist Christian mom. :)

  9. I know this is an old post and I am late to the party. As the mother of three children who are parents now, I can tell you something about owning lots of things. There is no way you can have too many nightgowns, sleepers, or cloth diapers when two in diapers start throwing up and the other has diarrhea and both need to be held. However, minimal toys works out just right.
    Practical Parsimony recently posted..Dead ChicksMy Profile

  10. Hello Kathleen,

    Thank you for this post! You’re articulation for, what I would consider, the desires of many Christians of our generation is refreshing and encouraging to hear. Keep on building that backwards kingdom!

    briG

    Shalom
    Brigi recently posted..Why then shall we learn about Injustice?My Profile

  11. I really, really enjoyed this post. Because you write well, because I agree with your points, and because I’ve really wanted to talk to a Christian minimalist about how the faith in Christ can meet with this philosophy on stuff. A philosophy of detachment that Jesus aspired to and wanted us to as well. So thank you for this. I am a minimalist because it really truly allows me to spend less thought, space, and motivation on possessions and more on what I should–loving God and loving people. There’s not much thought required for each possession, but when I add them all up, I can’t believe at how un-distracted I am because I have less stuff in my home. I’m now more motivated to do the things that require more energy and are more challenging, like loving my family or others well. Love that I stumbled upon this article of yours.

  12. Found this post only today but this is definitely so very relevant. Haven’t really found a post on minimalism, together with contextualizing on what Jesus has been teaching us. Amazing and timely!

  13. YES!!!!! This is so where my thinking is at right now. Thank you for this post.

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