Why Not to Be a Minimalist
Why Not to Be a Minimalist

Why Not to Be a Minimalist

Minimalism Symposium: Stories of more and less

Appears in Winter 2018

If you’ve ever thought, I just want to sip a perfectly brewed cup of coffee in a hammock while my organic tomatoes ripen and my chickens cluck quietly nearby, don’t become a minimalist.

If you’ve ever thought, I just want to have the time and paycheque to have those perfectly adorable quilted throw pillows and the homemade birch-bark candleholders in Real Simple magazine, don’t become a minimalist.

A kingdom-minded minimalism is not about clearing away chores, ugly throw pillows, and fancy appliances.

If you’ve ever thought, I just want to purchase perfectly non-plastic, local, organic, hand-made, fairly produced, and aesthetically beautiful things, don’t become a minimalist.

If you’ve ever thought, if only my home were a little more tidy, a little more creative, a little smaller (or bigger) so I could feel good about myself when friends come over, don’t become a minimalist.

I admit, I’ve had all of those thoughts. And yet I’m still some kind of minimalist. Like most people who feel a twinge of longing over the word “simplicity,” I have a tendency to drift toward wrong reasons for minimalism. Much of the hype about minimalism in popular culture plays off our desires to impress friends, take life easy, save more money, and have more control. These reasons quickly turn into little idols digging their claws into your wrists and dragging you down a miserable path.

And yet, I believe there are right reasons for minimalism.

Richard Foster starts his classic book The Freedom of Simplicity on a strange note—he lists all the reasons he didn’t want to write about simplicity. His main hesitation is not wanting to mislead people into simplicity for the wrong reasons. Foster teaches that simplicity is not about having less stuff; it’s about having a simplified focus. That focus needs to be on God and seeking his kingdom. A kingdom-minded minimalism is not about clearing away chores, ugly throw pillows, and fancy appliances; it’s about clearing out your motives. Whether you end up having more or less stuff, the goal of a kingdom-minded simplicity is to strip away what doesn’t matter in both your mind and your practices so you can focus on what does.

In The Wisdom of Frugality, philosopher Emrys Westacott lists about a dozen reasons that our culture offers frugality and simplicity, including living cheaply, being self-sufficient, practicing contentment, and finding spiritual purity. He notes that many of these reasons blatantly contradict. From my own experience having tried nearly all of those motives, many of them don’t bring any kind of lasting joy either. Here’s a few I’ve tried that don’t work.

Having a Few, Perfect Things

Seven years ago, our family of four moved into a 130-year-old farmhouse on two acres just off a bike path into the hipster farmers’-market-filled city of Madison, Wisconsin. In the dozen years prior, we’d lived mostly below the poverty line, often without health insurance, usually in lower-income countries, and rarely with more than a carload of belongings to our name. We were raising our two kids with only about a backpack’s worth of toys, no high chairs, no big strollers, and sometimes (when laws in our home countries permitted), no car seats. And that kind of minimalism felt pretty good. There was a certain adventure to it and a freedom of being able to move across an ocean with all our belongings in checked luggage. But there was also a certain pride in hearing the wows of our friends and knowing we were not “those” average college-educated Americans.

Pride is a lousy foundation to build a happy life on. So is legalism. Yes, clearing out the junk from my basement feels good, but if having less stuff than my neighbours or seeing how long I can go without visiting Target becomes a goal in itself, I’m missing the point. The goal is Christ’s kingdom, and sometimes that means spending little, while sometimes it means spending heaps. We recently spent more money than I want to think about on an addition on our home. The new space offers windows facing the natural beauty of our landscape and a bedroom for long-term housemates. Is it big, expensive, and non-minimalist? In many ways yes. But if minimalism means simplicity of focus, it fits right in our focus of hospitality, community, and gratitude for God’s creation.

Having an Easy Life

Country-living magazines, real-estate-development billboards, and farmers’-market small talk all offer messages that rural farming life is restful and idyllic. This myth has only ever been true for a privileged few with feudal estates, servants, and slaves. Running a farm—even our hobby two-acre farm with four pigs, twelve chickens, and two raised beds—is a lot of work.

Minimalism for the right reasons is not about claiming more time for yourself; it’s about finding good uses of time and infusing it with joy. I like to refer to our outdoor chores not as “yardwork” but as “yardplay.” At its best, living on a farm (or anywhere) means paying attention to the harmony of God’s creation and being willing to sacrifice time and energy to maintain that harmony. When my pigs come jogging across the field, ears flapping jovially, to greet me and my pail of food, I don’t care how much hard work it takes to make their home here. I know this situation—hard work though it may be—is shalom, and it’s worth it.

Having Control

When the invasive beetles have eaten half the leaves off my apple trees, I have few options—drop everything and find a way to banish them, or watch the trees die. Likewise, if I commit to rescuing a second-hand couch from the path to a landfill, I can’t control how quickly I find one, and its colour and style won’t match the magazine pictures. And if I commit to welcoming houseguests, I have to make space when a friend suddenly says she’s out of work and needs a place until she saves up for a security deposit. Minimalism isn’t about freedom from interruptions; it’s about making space for interruptions and weaving them into the steady peace of God’s presence.

Tiny-house building television shows and books on the magic of tidy homes show people tossing out the not-so-perfect things and zipping off to stores with unlimited budgets to get just the right things that express the very depths of their unique selves. Your unique self deserves to be expressed in something other than your control over purchases, no matter how small or tidy they may be. A kingdom-focused minimalism requires sacrifice of our control, our time, and our belongings in exchange for the real treasures of the kingdom. If minimalism is about feeding our cravings to control every detail of our surroundings, it’s training us in the exact opposite direction of sacrifice.

My motivations for minimalism are as mixed up as the wildflowers, winter wheat, and weeds out in my pigs’ field. But just as I root out a few dozen thistles every year, over time we can root out the worst of our motives for simplicity and let the better reasons thrive.

Christine Jeske
Christine Jeske

Christine Jeske is a professor of Cultural Anthropology at Wheaton College and author of several books, including most recently The Laziness Myth: Narratives of Work and the Good Life in South Africa. She has worked in microfinance, refugee resettlement, community development, and teaching while living in Nicaragua, China, and South Africa. She lives in an old Wisconsin farmhouse named the Sanctuary, complete with a dozen chickens, several pigs, innumerable weeds, two children, and one wonderful husband.


Download and Share Articles From The Comment Reader

An introduction to Public Theology for the Common Good

Want more of the same fresh, thought-provoking content delivered right to your inbox once a week?