The Japanese cleaning guru Marie Kondo is in vogue, but should Christians adopt her ideas? Liz Dodd gives her view
It is early evening and I am sitting on the floor of my kitchen, eyes closed, embracing a casserole dish to see if it makes me happy. If this sounds like it is the end of a particularly strange party, think again: I am KonMari-ing my home, and it is an adventure playing out in houses across the world thanks to the tidying guru Marie Kondo.
The West seems besotted with this lifestyle consultant and professional ‘organiser’. Her hit Netflix series Tidying Up With Marie Kondo is based on principles outlined in her best-selling 2012 book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying (Vermilion). In it she outlines what has become known as the KonMari method: a way of folding your T-shirts and stacking your plates that practitioners claim will bring you lasting joy. To KonMari is not just to spring clean: it’s a way of life. Kondo insists tidying should be done not by room but by category (clothes, books, papers, miscellaneous and sentimental items) and, most famously, that you should get rid of anything that doesn’t “spark joy”.
Mindful decluttering is a glossy solution to a hard problem: the West has reached “peak stuff”, and the backlash is everywhere – from tiny homes to the quest for Hygge (a Danish word pronounced ‘Hoo-ga’, which encompasses a feeling of cosy contentment). Given that one-third of millennials face the prospect of never owning a home, for many, a portable life, decluttered of everything that doesn’t spark joy, is less of a lifestyle choice and more of a necessity.
Where is your treasure?
So far, so gospel: the Bible is writtenthrough with minimalism. Jesus despatches the twelve, in Mark 6, with nothing but a staff apiece. Even Kondo will tolerate a surplus dressing gown – but Jesus says the disciples may wear sandals, but not an extra tunic. He tells them to take “no bread, no bag, no money” (v8). In the synoptic Gospels a rich young man who wants to be perfect is told to sell everything he owns – a difficult command that Jesus repeats in Luke 12: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys” (v33). Why? “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Mindful decluttering is a glossy solution to a hard problem: the West has reached ‘peak stuff’, and the backlash is everywhere
This last line is Christian minimalism in a sound bite and it is, initially, hard to square with Marie Kondo’s philosophy, which encourages us to treasure our possessions for their own sake. Kondo practises Shinto, an animistic faith that developed into the traditional religion of Japan. Followers believe in a supreme kami, meaning god or spirit, but also in other kami, associated with places, objects and people. When Kondo works in a home she stops to thank the house’s kami; she taps books to wake up their spirits; she tells people to thank their clothes – really, their kami – as they fold them. When you KonMari your house and an object sparks joy, Kondo believes that it is its spirit that makes you happy.
The notion that objects have spirits inside of them is concerning enough, from a Christian point of view, but there are other problems too; not least the unbiblical idea that joy derives from belongings. Joy doesn’t come from what we fill our homes with, it derives from God himself. In Romans, Paul says God fills us with joy and peace through the Holy Spirit (15:13); in 1 Peter our salvation fills us with a joy the author calls “inexpressible and glorious” (1:8). The idea that God is the foundation and source of all of our joy reaches its full expression in Christian hedonism, a modern theology outlined by Reformed pastor John Piper and summed up in the phrase: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” When we are satisfied by created things, rather than the creator, we risk making them into idols.
As with any sudden, cult-like phenomenon, Christians are right to be cautious about Marie Kondo
Relying on stuff to make you happy is particularly tempting for a generation that is only ever an Amazon Prime click away from a spending spree, from near-instant gratification. But what do we do with our excess, and with stuff that sparks irritation or disinterest? When our clothes need patching or our phone screen cracks? There is a sad lack of guidance in Kondo’s books and programmes around how and why you should dispose of things responsibly, and a sad glut of stuffed black bin liners in the background of the homes she declutters. Kondo’s advice to get rid of anything that doesn’t spark joy sits uncomfortably alongside the fact that an estimated 12.7 million tonnes of plastic find their way into our oceans every year. It isn’t a gospel message, either; God teaches us to bear with difficulty and discomfort, not to jettison things that don’t make us happy. The most obvious objection to the KonMari method is that disposing of everything that doesn’t spark joy can hardly be a guiding principle for life: when I explained it to my housemate, she offered to throw away her tax return.
It is no coincidence that Tidying Up With Marie Kondo appeared on Netflix at the start of January: resolution season. It is, effectively, a makeover show: folding all of your socks so that they stand up on their own isn’t just the path to a tidy sock drawer, it’s the route to a new identity. “I just want it to be strong enough to change me,” says Rachel Friend, subject of the first episode of the series. This is the conclusion of Jesus’ warning in the Gospels: if you trust and treasure your possessions on earth because they make you happy, and you store them up so that you are exerting control over your own happiness, your identity becomes so intertwined with this process that it is where your heart lies. As Kondo puts it in The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: “…the question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life.” Whether you’re known – or want to be known – for your handbags, books, or vinyl collection, your pristine sock drawer or alphabetised spice rack, what you own risks becoming who you are. The point that Jesus is making in the Gospels is that he is who you are, he is the source of your joy and your security, and he leaves no space for anything else.
Take the good, leave the bad
There is no denying that something magical happens when you see Kondo in action, whether on TV, in your own life or in the lives of others. Every woman in my church small group had KonMari’d their home, or part of it. “The way that Marie Kondo demonstrates respect for what you have owned in your life really speaks to me, as I’m definitely on the hoarding side. I never want to throw things out just in case there’s a time I ever need it,” says Katie Lacey, whose son, Reuben, is five months old. She showed me a photo of her KM’d bookshelf, pristine and peaceful. “The ‘spirits’ thing is like any other piece of TV that doesn’t go down well with my faith, I disregard it, but it doesn’t diminish the power in what she does,” she added.
Louise Lewis admits that KonMari was part of a twelve-year journey she was on “to bring order out of chaos in my house and life”. She praised Kondo’s inspiring and practical suggestions. “Living in a small home in a city means that every centimetre of space counts, and fresh ideas and challenges to how we use our space are helpful,” she says. Rather than discounting Kondo’s Shinto-based approach to tidying up, Lewis has enlightened it with her own faith. “My view is that if we believe that ‘all truth is God’s truth’ then we can learn a lot from many different people,” she explained. “I can worship God with my whole life – including my work, part of which is keeping the household running smoothly – so I consider using any method to do my work well as worship to Christ – who I want to glorify even in mundane tasks like folding washing.”
Uncovering the deeper issues
In Kondo’s Netflix series, we see a compassionate but relentless approach to tidying up. In the episode ‘Empty Nesters’, Wendy Akiyama stands overwhelmed in front of her giant clothes mountain and admits: “It’s only by the shock that you see how necessary this is.” This is not a world away from how God deals with our sin: treat every instance of, say, anger, as a separate case and it becomes justifiable and happenstance. Pile them all together and you are faced with a habit only God can break. In episode three, Katrina understands that her iron grip on the house is depriving her children of a home. Before KM’ing the house together her children used to text her throughout the day asking her to find things for them; by the end, her daughter Kayci says: “Marie brought a whole lot of joy on our house.”
The episode that follows Margie, recently widowed, as she tearfully takes her husband’s old clothes to a charity shop is a masterclass in trust. Smiling through her tears, Margie, at the end of the programme, says she knows her husband watched the process from heaven. Her confidence in – and love for – God means that she can let go of the things she has leant on in her grief. We don’t hear much about what happened immediately after Jesus sent out the disciples in Mark 6; but it doesn’t sound like they missed that second tunic or money belt. Leaning on God and their staffs, “they drove out many demons and anointed with oil many who were ill and healed them”.
As with any sudden, cult-like phenomenon, Christians are right to be cautious about Marie Kondo. Obvious theological differences like Shinto aside, there is a risk that her method teaches a reliance on possessions that could lead to them, not Jesus, becoming the source of our joy. This leads on to how you pursue joy: are you comfortable with the one-shirt wardrobe that following Jesus might involve? If your identity is in Christ, then you should be; because “your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32), and everything else – the second tunic, the new sandals – is an overflow of that gift. It is from this starting point that Christians can embrace KonMari: we can emulate her courage when it comes to addressing our mess, physical and spiritual. We can share burdens, trusting that things won’t fall apart if we’re not in charge. There is a lovely joyfulness about Marie Kondo, a deep patience and empathy that makes you want to fold your socks and hug your casserole dishes. I’m going to carry on KonMari-ing my house, but before I do, I’m going to ask God for help KonMari-ing my heart.