Minimalism and the Kingdom of Heaven

pearlIn January I had the chance to share during our school’s morning devotional time. I’ve reworked what I shared that morning into the form of a blog post here.

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Matthew 13:44-45

Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven as a treasure, or as fine pearls, worthy of joyfully abandoning all other pursuits. Single-minded devotion. Joyful pursuit. I find the concept so compelling.

So with that as the backdrop, let me take a short detour . . .

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About a year ago I read a book called The Joy of Less: A Minimalist Living Guide by Francine Jay. It’s a practical, how-to sort of book on de-cluttering, organizing, and simplifying. It may seem silly, but something about the theme of the book resonated with me quite deeply.

I quickly took action, and gave away about half of our coffee cups, all sorts of linens and towels, tons of my own clothing, and even most of our kitchen knives (I had read somewhere that you really only need one good knife.).

Since that time I’ve learned of a whole minimalist movement. There are those who number their possessions, and others who live with a stylish but streamlined 10-item capsule wardrobe. Some hold all their worldly possessions in a van, or even a backpack.

As for me and my family, we still have a ton of stuff. But in the past year I’ve been slowly and steadily removing unnecessary items from our apartment, and it’s been surprisingly liberating. I get an odd sense of satisfaction when I see things go out the door, when a drawer has plenty of empty space, or when I realize we no longer need a particular shelf or bookcase or storage container at all.

But beyond these surface level satisfactions I’ve noticed something else, and I have found that the process of simplifying physical possessions has taken root much more deeply than expected.

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There is a saying I’ve read out in the minimalism blogosphere which says that clutter around us is simply evidence of deferred decisions. I know it’s true – we keep things around not necessarily because they add convenience or value to our lives, or even because we like them. We hold onto things simply because they’re already there, and we can’t decide what we should do with them.

It’s not that big of a deal, I suppose, except that the same sort of thing happens on a deeper level. There is the physical clutter – unneeded items here and there, that crowd our space, making it harder to clean and stay organized. But then there is the mental clutter. The emotional clutter. Even spiritual clutter.

Let’s go back a moment and remember our Scriptures – Jesus’ words, the kingdom of heaven – like a treasure, fine pearls, worthy of abandoning all other pursuits . . .

But how easy it is to let a bunch of other stuff bring us away from that single-minded devotion.

It’s easy to end up with days that are full of tasks and activities – things that keep us feeling busy and full, but still may actually be crowding out what is best.

Jon Bloom of Desiring God wrote a blog post entitled “Free Yourself from Divided Interests” that captures well what I’m talking about:

“But to pursue this joy in whatever levels of undivided devotion God calls us to requires prayerful discernment and gracious ruthlessness. We need to know a few things, and we need to say no to many things.

We need to know what our calling is right now. Perhaps our vocational and other callings are clear, or perhaps we are waiting on God for further guidance. But whatever the case, there are things God is calling us to for his sake right now. And we must give ourselves to those things and not other things.

Which means that we also must know our limitations. I’m preaching to myself more than anyone else here. I have friends who have greater capacities than I do. They can read faster, write faster, organize more efficiently, and all around manage more things than I can. So they may be able to say yes to more things than I can and be faithful in their callings.

But as hard as it might be to admit, I’m not like them. I am who I am. And being me requires that I know, within reason, my limitations and how to say no to many things I may want to do or have so that my interests aren’t too divided. It’s hard, but a kind of ruthlessness is necessary to be faithful.

I like the word “ruthless” here. I think it’s important. We can’t assume that cutting out the ‘unnecessary’ in our lives will be easy or natural. We must know our calling, and know our limitations. We must be willing to say ‘no’ to many things, so that we can fully say ‘yes’ to what is most important.

I have some health challenges and struggle with fatigue. This has forced me to face head on my own limitations. Not only the limitation of time, but even more significantly the limitations of energy and bandwidth. Last semester I cried through a decision to say ‘no’ to an opportunity to serve. It was difficult, but I know it was right.

While it has been an emotional struggle to be content with doing less, accomplishing less, feeling less productive, less social or even less fun, I do believe that the Lord has used this journey for my good. These limitations have helped prune me, have helped me focus, and have forced me to choose between good and best. I have to remember that saying yes to one thing means saying no to another. And this is true for all of us: our time and energy are limited. We must make choices.

Before my de-cluttering kick, I used to think of minimalism in terms of an artistic aesthetic. Bare uncluttered rooms, clean lines, neutral colors. Or perhaps like a picture in a magazine of an all white empty kitchen, with a beautiful vase of flowers or bowl of bright yellow bananas. In these scenes, our eyes are drawn to that one highlighted item, and the rest just falls into the background.

I’ve noticed that as I remove things from the physical space around me, it seems to highlight what is left. Every artist or designer knows that the negative space is every bit as important as the positive. The empty space is necessary, because it draws our eyes to what is most important. Without it, there is no focus: our eyes are left darting from here to there, unable to take everything in.

In the same way, I know that if I’m to pursue the kingdom of God with undivided attention, to experience joy in the pursuit, to be able to see God clearly and allow Him his rightful place on the throne of my life, I must ruthlessly cut out that which takes my attention away from him.

Richard Foster, in the Celebration of Discipline, writes:

“Shun anything that distracts you first from seeking the kingdom of God. It is so easy to lose focus in the pursuit of legitimate, even good things. Job, position, status, family, friends, security – these and many more can all too quickly become the center of attention.”

“The person who does not seek the kingdom of God first does not seek it at all . . . worthy as all other concerns may be, the moment they become the focus of our efforts they become idolatry.”

I was journaling about New Year’s Resolutions the other day, and I had a number of things on my list. It was typical stuff regarding health and fitness, daily routines, spiritual disciplines, and the like. But before long, when I looked at the list of all I wanted to do, it was discouraging. Do more! Do it better! Accomplish more! But this year, instead of thinking about what I need to add on or what more I need to do, I’d like to consider what there is in my life that I might need to take away. What is distracting me from a full-throttle pursuit of the kingdom of heaven?

So my resolution is this. May I better understand what it means to be like those Jesus describes:

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Let our New Year’s Resolutions not be a list of all the ways we should do more and do better, or things we need to accomplish to be more or be better. Instead, may God give us all the courage, the wisdom, and the strength always to hold the kingdom of God as the number one priority in our lives.