Does She Spark Joy?

Sorting Through Marie Kondo

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Guest Contributor

I didn’t seek out Marie Kondo, but I can’t seem to escape her.

My news feeds, my Netflix previews, even at my women’s ministry meeting at church, there she is. It’s as if everyone is announcing that she has been raised up for such a time as this. Her mission? The decluttering of our households.

Kondo launched a new documentary based upon her organization process, popularized by her international best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Her method, however, is not merely about finding new tricks for storage, or encouragement towards a yearly Goodwill donation. Instead, her call is for people to move through their possessions item by item, asking a simple question: Does this spark joy in you? If yes, it stays. If no, it leaves. What could be simpler than that?

The Gospel of Kondo

My interaction with Kondo’s method has been somewhat indirect. I’ve encountered her ideas through book reviews and her documentary, but especially through the reactions of my friends and acquaintances who are seeking to implement her tactics. Whether writing on social media or discussing their process in person, the tone of conversations sound not like watercooler chatter about a hot reality show. Instead, it reminds me of the focus and effort of serious amateur runners comparing our training schedules and personal bests.

“Kondo has led many of us to declutter our homes and hearts, but it’s what we find underneath that matters most.”

The immensity of the response proves she’s on to something. Americans are glutted with stuff, spilling over with things. We all just came out of Christmas, which for many of us means trying to figure out where to stash our new items when we were already bursting with the old.

We all know that advertising lies to us, that it sells us products we don’t need with promises they can’t keep. That knowledge isn’t power. Though our loneliness and dissatisfaction remain, we continue to try to plug these emotional holes with toys. We believe our stuff should make us happy, even though all the evidence points away from this. What a strange walking by faith we Americans live.

Yet we sense that our relationship with things is disordered. Kondo is not the first or the only person interacting with our intuition here — see the growth in the tiny-house movement and minimalism more generally. But there is something in her approach that seems to scratch our itch.

Has Kondo Uncovered Something?

She doesn’t rip through like a bulldozer, condemning our hoarder tendencies or shaming us for what we’ve gathered. Instead, Kondo asks us to engage our emotions towards our things — to unlock our gratitude for them. Perhaps their service to us is complete, but we can still recognize what they gave to us and be thankful for that. Shame is replaced by joy. Doesn’t this have a gospel ring? By going through this process, we’re encouraged to be less dependent on our stuff — less owned by it. Kondo wants to reinstate our agency in our relationship to what we possess, instead of being owned by our possessions.

How freeing this is! It is clear that many of those who are working through the Kondo method are reaping true benefit. Materialism is one of the deadliest plagues of American life, and this method feels like a sturdy sword placed in the hand just in the nick of time.

“Earthly possessions don’t just enter our lives quietly. They take up space, demand upkeep, and tether our hearts.”

But while Kondo may have solved one massive problem, the movement seems to have uncovered an even bigger one. One headline screams, “Marie Kondo’s deceptively simple ‘Tidying Up’ tips are spreading the gospel of joy when Americans need it most” (NBC). Doesn’t that seem to be just what we need? Doesn’t it seem to line up with what we believe?

Kondo has led many of us to declutter our homes, minds, and hearts, but it’s what we find underneath, where all our things once were, that matters most. The problem is that Kondo is still asking for our stuff to be what sparks our joy. Just a smaller portion of stuff.

Decluttering People?

Yes, she militates against our hoarding, which is good. Yes, she encourages us to be people of gratitude. Amen! But when we ask each thing whether it brings us the right amount of joy, we’re still thinking of things as the locus of contentment.

Perhaps more significantly, this method of decluttering could incite us to think of human beings transactionally as well. I’m not implying this is Kondo’s intention, but it’s not hard to apply the mindset in this direction. Counselors and clinicians rightly warn of allowing narcissists and other toxic people to abuse us. But if we spring-load our minds to keep only what brings us a specific amount of joy, we’re liable to let that mechanism bleed into our relationships, too. Is life truly about how each thing, or person, makes us feel?

What then is a proper response for a Christian? Kondo is meeting a real need, a true problem some of us (though certainly not all) have. Perhaps we can see past the magnetic Marie towards a gospel solution. One that has been hiding in plain sight in the shadow of an often-misused Scripture: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

The Secret to Abundance

It’s not unusual to see this verse commandeered for tasks it was not designed for, like promising athletic prowess or career success. Like all statements, though, it must be understood in its context. In the verse just before, the apostle Paul writes, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Philippians 4:12).

Secret. Isn’t this exactly what Kondo is tapping in to? We Americans do not precisely know how to abound. Not in the sense that we aren’t stacked with plenty — clearly we are. No, in the sense that right in the middle of abundance, we’ve lost our way. We don’t know how to thrive in abundance. It drowns us instead of lifting our boats. There just has to be a secret to mastering this, instead of letting it master us, right? How can we be the richest and yet unhappiest people of all time?

“We Americans do not precisely know how to abound. How can we be the richest and yet unhappiest people of all time?”

Part of what appeals so powerfully in Kondo’s method is gratitude — replacing our careless, callous attitude towards our things with thankfulness. Our hearts easily grow numb, and so the process of engaging them meaningfully in our daily lives awakens something profound. Christians as well as non-Christians feel it.

Kondo’s background and Shinto-influenced worldview, however, cannot supply the correct destination for that healthy thanksgiving. She speaks her gratitude to the items themselves, as if they have ears to hear and hearts to receive that thanks. Truly they have no life in them. They did not give themselves. The gifts were not designed to receive these valid human responses. They were only ever meant to act as signposts to the Giver himself.

Possessed by God

When we are rooted in Christ, our abundance rests not in how much or little we own, but in who owns us. Earthly possessions don’t just enter our lives quietly. They take up space, demand upkeep and protection, and tether our hearts. We find we have less trust for people, less time for hospitality, less emotional space for God.

Being possessed by Jesus produces just the opposite. As we grow in him, we soak in the abundance of forgiveness and grace — treasures not meant to be hoarded but shared extravagantly. When we seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, we view our things as gateways towards praising God and serving others. And what if our many things get stolen? As the author of Hebrews celebrates, “You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (Hebrews 10:34).

Kondo says, only keep the items that spark your joy. Paul says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13), because he first could say, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. . . . I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Philippians 3:8).

A Better Possession

Marie Kondo wants us to say goodbye to things we don’t need, so we can gratefully hold on to what we already have that sparks our joy. Yet we know deep down that even the most immaculately folded shirt, as organizationally helpful as it might be, cannot ultimately do this. Our most beloved and meaningful trinkets won’t really make us happy now, nor will they make it past the heavenly gates.

“If there is life-changing magic in tidying up, how much more power resides in being owned forever by God.”

If there is life-changing magic in tidying up, how much more power resides in the gospel truth of being owned forever by God. Because of Christ, when the Father looks at us, he feels joy. He will never move us to the discard pile. Instead, Jesus promised that his Father’s house has many rooms, where he is preparing a forever place for us. Grounded in this irrevocable promise, we can sing with an ancient prophet, “Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines . . . yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Habakkuk 3:17–18).

Maybe the Kondo craze can wake us up to the treasures we already possess in Christ, the greatest spark of joy. Even better, perhaps it can spur us to share the wealth.

is director of theological development at Cru Northeast. She holds a BA in history from Yale College and is completing her MDiv at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. She writes at her website.