The Limited Joy of Tidying Up

Liz Wann

They were a tired, run-down couple. They were frustrated—with each other and with the house. Closets were overflowing, tupperware was spilling out of drawers, and they had two small children adding their own daily messes. Their life needed an intervention, so a Japanese woman was called in to help. Marie Kondo is her name, and in her new Netflix original series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, she enters the homes of families like this to bring peace, stability, and her trademark staple: joy.

First, the problem is identified. The young married couple starts the episode talking about their personal issues with one another and their home life in general. The stay-at-home wife can’t stay on top of all the laundry and has to hire help. Her working husband expresses frustration with this. They both talk about feeling tension and anxiety and the effects on their relationship.

Kondo's method, known as #KonMari and first presented in her 2014 book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, is to begin with a long moment of silence and then a good house purging. Her decluttering method is based on categories, so the couple begins with dumping all their clothes out in one large pile and sorting. The wife picks up an old t-shirt she doesn’t even remember owning, then she literally thanks it and puts it in the discard pile. When she picks up the next item a big smile brims on her face. This article of clothing brings her joy, so she puts it in the pile of clothes she’ll keep. This process repeats itself with the next couple tiers of categories that Kondo has devised.

Throughout the process of dumping, sorting, and organizing, the cameras are always attuned to sentimentality, as when a wedding video is found. Both spouses can be seen talking to the cameras about any good changes happening, not just with the house, but within themselves or in their marriage. The end result? A tidy home and tidy hearts. Marie Kondo wants to help people find joy in their relationships and in their homes. She helps people get rid of material possessions, but also spiritual baggage. At the end of the episode Kondo says, “Couples can deepen their ties through tidying.”

Time for a confession: I love decluttering and organizing. Like Kondo, tidying up gives me joy. I feel alive when I can throw together bags for donations or toss something in the trash. I love seeing a well-organized and clean room, cabinet, or drawer. For me, everything has a place to go, and if it doesn’t, I’ll find one. My problem is the opposite of many on the show. I have trouble being at peace with “stuff.” I’ve had to learn to overlook, at times, the clutter my husband and children leave behind. I’ve had to learn patience and forbearance with my family. Having children means more things in the house than I would personally like to have. Being a homeschooling mom also doubles this “stuff problem.”

But Marie Kondo points out that not all stuff is a problem. She never advocates to get rid of all our sentimental items. She even points out how a lot of material things can carry deep meaning for our lives and our relationships. Kondo has helped confirm to me that material possessions are not inherently evil, but they can be a distraction from more important things. Kondo is trying to solve a spiritual problem: excess. The vice of materialism and consumerism has many of us in its grip.

For me, everything has a place to go, and if it doesn’t, I’ll find one.

This should resonate with Christians, as the Bible calls us to be wary of consumerism. We are told to “store up ... treasures in heaven,” not on earth. We are also reminded that this world is not our home. God does not want us to find our identity in material possessions, like the rich young ruler who couldn’t leave behind his earthly wealth to follow Christ. What’s more, Kondo’s message of valuing people and relationships is another reminder to love our neighbor. Tidying Up helps us see that we are too easily fixated on the material things of this world. The show leads us to a deeper, unseen realm of spirituality. We are more than material. We have a soul as well as a body.

Kondo’s spirituality seems to be rooted in her idea of joy. Here, however, her thinking falls short of the Bible’s standard. James exhorts us to count it all joy when we experience trials. Kondo’s joy seems to only occur when things are in their proper place or making you happy: a shirt you like, old wedding photos, a special relationship, or an orderly home. She doesn’t give us a solid foundation for our lives when things get messy. Can I count it all joy even when my husband leaves all his video equipment strewn about the house? Can I count it all joy when my children leave behind a trail of toys? To maintain tidy, organized homes means cultivating habits; after Kondo interrupts these people’s lives, she leaves. She isn’t there to help them maintain habits of order. In the end, it’s still up to each individual person and family to keep up what Kondo started. What happens when they don’t stick with it? I think we all know.

The message of James is rooted in something outside of ourselves and our homes. It’s rooted in the gospel. We can count it all joy, because Jesus has come and “cleaned house.” He has fully taken care of what we could not: our salvation. If our “hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness,” then we are free to let go of the lesser hope in our homes. If it is truly well with our soul, then we can be at peace with whatever physical state our home is in. We might not always feel joy as a “good feeling,” but joy is already ours, because Christ bought it for us. We have joy in Christ, even if we aren’t feeling happy in the moment.

The Apostle Paul elaborates on this when he writes of contentment in Philippians 4: “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

Whatever the state of our homes, we can be content in Christ. He can fulfill us even when we don’t feel the fulfillment of organized drawers and a simplified kitchen. Like I said, I’m not a fan of having too much stuff, but I’m learning to be content with stuff too. Sometimes mess means life is full, and that can be a good thing.

Tidying Up can be a practical means to an end to help ourselves and our families, but we have to remember Marie Kondo doesn’t have all the answers. We can’t place our trust there. True joy is present no matter the circumstances or the state of our homes. It is the joy of the Lord that gives us strength, not the joy of tidying up.

Topics: TV