Renewing your spirit by decluttering your house

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The Book of Ecclesiastes says that there is nothing new under the sun, but clutter actually is a new social problem.

For most of history (and in much of the world today), the challenge was to make do with not enough. But for many of us, that is no longer the case. Fifty-five percent of Americans experience stress because of the clutter in their homes. A quarter of the people with two-car garages can’t park their cars in them, and nearly a quarter have paid bills late because they lost the bill! The self-storage industry is three times the size (in dollars) of the Hollywood movie business. 

Now, you may think that the state of your closet has nothing to do with the state of your soul. So did I! I faced overstuffed closets that made dressing for work an effort and kitchen cabinets that threatened to avalanche every time I opened them. But in the process of decluttering and restoring order to my house, I discovered once again that God actually cares about every aspect of my life. In Jesus, God became human so that human life, even at its most ordinary, could become holy. So decluttering my house helped to renew my spiritual life, too. 

One of the things that makes spiritual growth and decluttering difficult is that both require us to face our sinfulness head-on. Now, I’m not saying that having a cluttered house is sinful — but dealing with the clutter can bring the sins we struggle with into the light.

God actually cares about every aspect of my life.

The basic method for decluttering is simple. You gather a group of items (clothes, books, kitchen gadgets, et cetera) into a single pile and then sort that pile into one of three groups: keep, donate/sell, recycle/trash. If necessary, you sort through the “keep” pile a few more times until you have winnowed it down to fit both your needs and the space available. The other two piles force us to face our sinful behaviors. Why do I have so many things I don’t need? How many unused items are slated to be donated or sold? Where did all this stuff come from? Answering those questions will help us identify the sins we need to remove from our lives as we remove the clutter from our homes.

Sloth has always been a challenge for me. It explains why I acquired seven can openers! When I couldn’t find one quickly, I’d just go buy another one rather than make the effort to sort through my cabinets. Being too lazy to finish tasks can allow clutter to build, as well. A week’s worth of mail sitting on the table starts attracting other things that don’t belong. And the longer it stays there, the more overwhelming the task of tidying will seem.

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Envy is a frequent cause of unwise purchases. We are bombarded by ads — on television, in print, in emails, on social media — that tell us our lives will be better, easier, and happier if only we buy a particular product. The ads rouse envy in our hearts, making us want things we don’t need to get a life that isn’t real. This envy makes us dissatisfied with our lives, focusing on what we don’t have rather than embracing what we do have with gratitude. 

Pride may not seem to have a lot to do with clutter, until you think about the things you have acquired to maintain an image or to promote your status with some conspicuous consumption. I’ve bought things I don’t need because I want to show off the latest and greatest or because I don’t want to diminish myself in others’ eyes by saying that I don’t need it or can’t afford it. That may explain why I have more beauty products than I could ever use and more jewelry than I can wear. Those pride-filled purchases rarely land on the keep pile.

Greed and gluttony (the “I want more” twins) are a big cause of clutter. Because if one is good, four must be better. The more I have, the happier I’ll be, right? Actually, that’s wrong. The more we have, the less joy each addition brings. That’s why the first peanut butter cup tastes amazing, but the 10th is just OK. Greed and gluttony don’t make us happy, but they sure do fill the closets (and add the pounds).

Greed and gluttony (the “I want more” twins) are a big cause of clutter.

Clutter can also betray a lack of trust in God’s providence. We accumulate things because we might need them someday. We don’t want to need to rely on God or the kindness of others. We make going it alone a false god so we don’t have to accept that without God, we can do nothing. We want to be independent — even of God. Our things become a kind of grown-up blanket fort, keeping us from others and giving us a false sense of security.

Fortunately, sin does not have the last word! Our faith reminds us that God is merciful, always waiting to forgive and give us the grace we need to start anew. This conversion changes the way we deal with the things in our lives. It’s way too easy to become a serial declutterer, doing a major decluttering only to find ourselves back in the same place just a few years (or months!) later. But we can rely on God’s grace and change the way we live. We can turn away from sin and embrace an abundant life of gratitude, community, service, and love.

Clutter can also betray a lack of trust in God’s providence.

An important first step is learning to avoid near occasions of sin:

  • What people, places, events, or advertisements encourage you to buy more than you need or think of yourself before others? 
  • Do you need to fast-forward through commercials, toss the catalogs, or stop shopping for entertainment? Can you replace these activities with things that will help you grow spiritually? 

Second, we need to grow in spiritual discipline. In both domestic life and faith, it’s easy to celebrate the big moments: a massive house cleaning, a great retreat, a holy Lent. The harder part is maintaining that enthusiasm. The need to take up our cross each day is where the true challenge lies:

  • Foster attitudes of self-sacrifice and delayed gratification. Walk around the store and pray the Lord’s Prayer before you toss that impulse buy into your cart. Borrow the book or DVD from the library instead of buying it.
  • Strive to be present in everything you do. Begin and complete each task with intention.
  • End each day by restoring order to your living space, putting things back where they belong, and thanking God for the gifts he has given you. You’ll fall asleep with a thankful heart.
  • When you fail (and you will — we all do), turn back to God’s mercy and begin again.

Finally, we need to strive to love God more fully and follow his will. By receiving all our possessions as gifts of a loving God, we become people of thanksgiving. We bring our gratitude to the great thanksgiving — the Eucharist — where we join them to Christ’s perfect sacrifice until we can celebrate with him forever, where there is no more death or mourning — or clutter!  

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