Decluttering in dependence. Why the Marie Kondo method has captured our inbuilt love of bringing order from chaos

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Marie Kondo is a Netflix sensation. The recent launch of her series ‘Tidying up with Marie Kondo’ sees the Japanese consultant explain her method of decluttering your home in a way which ‘sparks joy’. Reactions to it have flooded social media and her methods have captured the imagination of many. She advocates that through ‘tidying your space’ you can ‘transform your life’ and teaches the importance of gratitude as we organise our things by category.

I really enjoyed watching the Netflix series, and let me tell you my folded scarf drawer really does spark joy for me now. But as we try to implement many of Marie’s fantastically useful tips and scour the shops for mini boxes, let’s take a moment to consider why it is that Marie’s methods have captivated so many of us. Why is it that we’re so attracted to a cupboard that’s clean and categorised? What is it about us that sends us running to the Ikea storage section now we’ve been given the tactics we need to bring order to our homes?

Bringing order from chaos was God’s idea and we’re made in his image.

As I watched the first episode of the Netflix series and heard Marie advocate the importance of organisation by category I couldn’t help but be reminded of the repetition we find in Genesis 1 as God brings order from chaos while he fashions the world. Before God sets to work the world is ‘without form and void’, but then he starts creating.

First he brings form to what was formless: light and darkness, sea and sky, water and land. Then he fills each form according to what fits within it: plants and trees, sun and moon, fish and birds. As God fills his world, consider how organised he is, everything is created and grouped ‘according to its kind’.

‘And God said, “Let the earth sprout vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, on the earth.” And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.’

You see, organisation by category, the grouping and ordering of things that are alike, was God’s idea first. Putting things together ‘according to its kind’ chimes with us so deeply because it reflects the God who ordered our world like this in the first place. Considering the fact that God makes us in his image, is it any wonder that Marie’s methods of organising our things by category captivates us so? We’re made in the image of a God who delights in bringing order from chaos and who categorised his creation right from the start.

And did you notice what God does when he’s done with bringing creative order to each section of his world? He pauses, looks at his work and delights in it. ‘And God saw that it was good’. His creative work, his ordering and filling, brings him joy. Again it shouldn’t surprise us that we, creatures crafted in his image, can experience so much joy when we work hard to bring order to the chaos of our closets. The Marie Kondo method captivates us so deeply because it taps into something of what it means to be made in God’s image and to delight in order by category.

At the end of each episode of ‘Tidying up with Marie Kondo’ we see those who have gone through the process enjoying the fruits of their efforts. The joy and relief on their faces is obvious, they’ve worked hard at bringing order from chaos and we see many of them finally able to enjoy meaningful rest in their homes. This echoes something else we see in Genesis: meaningful rest is facilitated by order. At the end of his creative work God rests. He looks at his work, is satisfied with it and rests as a result of a job well done. It’s no wonder that order enables rest, it has always been so.

The direction of our gratitude 

Gratitude is one of the hallmarks of the Marie Kondo method, and it’s a wonderful emphasis. We should be thankful for what we have. However, Marie directs gratitude towards each material thing, teaching us that we should thank each item when we decide to get rid of it, displaying gratitude for what it’s brought to our lives.

Although its good to rightly value what we own, I don’t want to be grateful to a thing, but to the one who gave it to me. If my child unwrapped a gift on Christmas morning and promptly thanked the gift for what it would bring to their life, rather than me as the giver, we would think something wasn’t quite right. Gratitude should be directed to the giver, not the gift. The Bible tells us that all things come from God and ultimately belong to him. As a Christian I want to attribute what I have to the God who gave it to me and thank him for his good gifts. As I part with things I no longer need I want to direct any gratitude I feel towards the good God who gave me what I have in the first place.

Decluttering in Dependence

I’m someone who loves a project, and the first thing I did having watched an episode of ‘Tidying with Marie Kondo’ was head to the kitchen and start pulling everything out of drawers with a sense of frenzied purpose. It feels great to be productive, and personally I love the satisfaction that comes from a good clear out. The problem is, the process of decluttering is actually pretty stressful. As you work out where everything should live, everything becomes temporarily homeless. Stuff gets scattered as you work out what to keep and what to chuck. Midway through last week as my efforts to tidy intensified, I suddenly found myself feeling utterly miserable and overwhelmed whilst sitting in a pile of half-folded towels. Why was this so hard, I wondered? I’d had such a sense of purpose when I started, but it seemed that all my efforts were yielding nothing but stress. The house was in a state of unmitigated chaos and our linen cupboard seemed to perfectly mirror the disarray of my mind.

Whilst scrolling Facebook in a moment of attempted escapism I landed on a Christian article that quoted Psalm 127.

‘Unless the Lord builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.’

Up until that moment my efforts to declutter our home had been just that, my efforts. With a sense of hyper self-sufficiency I had launched myself into this latest project determined to subdue my home through my own manic will power. This house was my kingdom and I was going to bring these unruly cupboards into submission! I was going from drawer to drawer, room to room, toiling with manic energy, but rather than experience satisfaction and joy I was becoming increasingly anxious. Psalm 127 nailed my self-sufficiency in one fell swoop. It is the Lord who builds the house.

My labour was in vain, it wasn’t yielding fruit or joy because I’d failed to do it in dependence on the one who takes our efforts and makes them fruitful. I had taken a good work, that of bringing order from chaos, and twisted it instead into anxious toil. Anxious toil, that phrase seemed to perfectly sum up my foolish attempts to bring my home under my own will in my own strength.

It wasn’t that the work in itself was bad. It was that I’d tried to do it without thought to the One who is the builder of all things. As a result, my labour was in vain. I turned in repentance and instead of striving on in self-dependence, I sought instead to begin decluttering in dependence on God. I stopped trying to be sovereign over my things and instead acknowledged that this home isn’t my kingdom, it’s a tiny part of God’s kingdom and he’s given it to me to steward and subdue only in dependence on him.

Physically speaking not much has changed. There’s still piles of clothes and half-sorted drawers around. The difference now is that while I tackle the tidying I can experience the relief that comes from acknowledging that any work I start can only be accomplished in his strength. As one made in his image I can now enjoy bringing order from chaos as I declutter in dependence.

Striving with God for sovereignty. When the control freak learns she’s a creature

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I’m one of those people that like to be organised. I’m an anticipator, a planner who prizes efficiency and finds peace in predictability. I’m the one who googles everything, carries a spare, and has a mental contingency plan for most eventualities. If I do X, Y and Z then we’ll be alright. I like to think that if I plan well I’ll achieve my subconscious goal of a world which bends to my will. Such a world promises me safety and calm, if only I can create it.

What I really crave is sovereignty. I want to know what’s coming and have the power to control it.

I sometimes feel I’ve achieved this control over the tiny details of life: a well-researched route, a recipe followed, a child on reins. The problems come when my world rudely abandons my plans and veers off instead into the darkness of uncharted territory. A bone broken, a shattered dream, a life changing loss.

When the curve balls come my well laid plans turn out to be no more secure than a tower of Jenga with its pivotal pieces removed. That’s when the fear really sets in, when collapse threatens. I strive and struggle with God for sovereignty, continually tugging at control, but despite my best efforts, it’s always beyond my grasp.

I have a firm belief in God’s sovereignty, but despite this knowledge, I still feel my heart long after control it can’t attain. My mind’s eye wanders to the ‘what ifs’ of my future and I find myself fearful at my lack authority over what’s ahead.

Thankfully though, God’s not surprised by my cravings for control, and through David he penned Psalm 131 which speaks wisdom to a creature like me who foolishly covets the traits of her Creator.

‘O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
    my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
    too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
    from this time forth and forevermore.’

Perhaps we’re used to the Psalms encouraging us to fix our gaze high, to look to the hills and behold the Lord lifted on his throne. At first glance this Psalm seems to be encouraging something different. Speaking to the Lord, David says that he’s purposefully not setting his heart on things above him, and he’s resolutely preventing his gaze from wandering too high (v1). So what’s going on?

A measured perspective

Calvin said that knowledge of self begins with knowledge of God, and this is what we see in Psalm 131. David’s grasped the most fundamental fact of who we are in relation to God.

We’re creatures, he is Creator.

Seeing this, David begins the Psalm by acknowledging before his Creator that there are limits to his own capacity and understanding. Comprehending the vast gulf between himself and his God re-orientates David’s perspective and enables him to recognise his limitations. His capacity and his knowledge have boundaries, boundaries established by God’s good design. God has ordained that there are things his heart is not meant to go after, things his eyes are not meant to see (v1). David says these things are ‘too great and too marvellous’ for him. He understands that some things belong only to God.

Deuteronomy 29:29 says The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law’.

There are secret things, things only God can hold together and only God can handle. Our job is to be wise in how we respond to what’s been revealed. It’s good to plan well, but we’re to acknowledge that God alone is sovereign, he alone is all knowing.

David submits to the fact that there are things far beyond him. But did you notice, this realisation doesn’t result in fear, instead it seems to bring contentment. So how exactly does that work? What’s happened in David’s heart to enable him to stand before God peaceful, in comparison to the manically googling mess I often see in the mirror?

Consider again v1-2. Firstly David speaks to his God, this is the key to all that follows. We need to talk to the Lord. David acknowledges before God the things that are beyond him, naming them and speaking to the Lord about them. In doing this he remembers who his God is and thus remembers who he is as a creature. With his limitations in mind he consciously sets his gaze in proportion to his capacity. He then entrusts what is too great and too marvellous for him into God’s hands.

But, how exactly? Because this is where I often get unstuck. I can talk to God about my desires for sovereignty and seek his forgiveness for my foolishness, but so often my fears still linger.

Seeking contentment in childlike faith

I know I need to stop striving with God for sovereignty, so is this where I’m supposed to just ‘let go and let God’?

Wonderfully no, because once again the Lord knows me far too well to call me to just let go. He knows that if I have nothing to hold onto my hands will all too quickly grasp after some other vain lie that promises me peace. If I’m to stop struggling with God for sovereignty I need to redirect my grip and instead of reaching after an attribute of my God, I need to cling to my God himself.

‘O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.’

David sets his hope in the Lord. It is in the Lord that he finds contentment. He brings to mind the image of a contented child with its mother (v2). A child who knows and trusts the kind provision of a devoted parent. David trusts his heavenly Father, and thus he exercises a humble childlike faith in response. He’s able to surrender what he cannot grasp into God’s care and take hold instead of the Lord  who’s proved to be eternally faithful.

A mature faith is a childlike faith, one which recognises our limitations and sets its hope firmly on God. This the secret of a calm and quiet soul. We creatures, we’re not in control, but we trust the Creator who is.