Hoarding: First Steps on a Complicated Problem

Published: September 16, 2010

I should have seen it coming.

I should have invested in storage units.

Some problems are universal. You can find schizophrenia and depression in every culture. Hoarding, however, is uniquely Western, and it is getting worse. We see houses misshapen under the weight of debris and hear warnings such as Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict that try to scare us away from the path of accumulating.

There are aspects of it that are in all of us. For example, I WANT runs deep in every heart. Desires morph into needs. We must keep up with the Joneses. We prefer our silos full. But the obsessive accumulating that has been getting more attention recently also needs an advertising-driven culture of abundance. Without these conditions, storage units go bankrupt.

On the surface, the solution is simple: throw the stuff out or give it to the local thrift store. If you can’t do that, leave town for the weekend and let your friends clean house. But the solution is only simple in the same way that the solution to every problem is simple: stop drinking, love your spouse, forgive as you have been forgiven, fear God and keep his commandments, and …throw out your extra stuff. But, it’s not simple when it’s your problem.

So, how should we think about this?

Find the Normal in the Abnormal. Key to understanding and helping hoarders is to find it in yourself. The more unusual the problem, the more critical this step is. And it should be easy for most of us. What have I bought in the last week that I don’t need? What is in my closet that I can’t wear now, but . . . if I lose 10 pounds…? Maybe my grandkids will want these 1960’s pictures from National Geographic. If they don’t, what about their kids? I’m sure they will want them to spruce up a junior high paper too thin on information. Those National Geographics might give them that A in a class, which might put them in a position for a college scholarship.

Okay, I haven’t rented a storage space yet, but I get the point. We are in this one together. Whatever a hoarder finds in his or her heart, I will find in my own. And whatever helps me with my unwillingness to throw out old magazines, will most likely help someone whose problem is more extreme.

What does hoarding say about us? It tells us that we are irrational people, but at the same time, we know that the heart has its reasons. We have a purpose in our hoarding. Listen and you might discover its logic.

A side note. Hoarding is an opportunity for Scripture to demonstrate its breadth. One way to use Scripture is to look up verses in a concordance that directly address the problem. This method won’t help us with hoarding. A second way is to merge the core of the problem with key themes in Scripture. In this case, greed and fear are obvious themes. They might apply to some hoarders, but won’t apply to most of them or will apply to them only in part. A third way is to bring out your basic doctrine of the person and see the hoarder as an embodied soul (a.k.a. heart) who is influenced by the world. This is the way I am using Scripture to think about hoarding.

So what might influence the heart of the hoarder to keep everything in the “save” pile?

  • “I don’t want to waste what God has given me.” Yes, for some hoarders the issue is stewardship. They want to be careful with what God has given them so they hang on to everything. Otherwise they might have to buy that object again, and that would waste God’s money.
  • “I don’t want to make a wrong decision and throw out something important.” Our world is filled with so many decisions. Some people make them effortlessly, others labor over what brand to buy, and others over what to keep. If you can’t make a decision, don’t make a decision – that would be the motto of a hoarder.
  • “Clothes are a lifelong journey into acquiring an identity” (from The Thoughtful Dresser: The Art of Adornment, the Pleasures of Shopping, and Why Clothes Matter, by Linda Grant). For too many people, clothes – a favorite of accumulators – construct who they are. Such shoppers don’t always hang on to last year’s style, but they certainly own an inordinate amount of stuff.
  • “Security.” This is a big one. In a world of unpredictable changes accumulated objects can bring comfort.
  • “These objects are very personal.” This is a version of security. I saved the tie I wore when I was married (I also lost it). And who can give up a beat up doll that is invested with so much of one’s childhood? Objects represent parts of ourselves. How could we give up such evocative and important possessions? It would be like giving up an heirloom, or an arm. This is the reason why a woman refused to give her endless piles away and chose to burn them instead. To give away something so intimate would border on adultery.

Some hoarders have no words to describe the tension they feel when there is a threat that something could be discarded. Can we find some words that can get them (and us) started?

What does the King say? The New Testament describes life with Jesus as King. That life, of course, is usually the opposite of how we normally think and live. In the Kingdom we live by faith in Jesus, from start to finish. For hoarders, the task is to consider how their basic beliefs would be transformed if they really knew the King, both his presence and power. For example, in light of the Kingdom, possible wrong decisions about what we discard are exposed as legalistic. Whereas Jesus draws our attention to the more important matters of love and mercy, hoarding focuses on non-essential matters. It hopes to master one realm of our world apart from faith.

Certainly, there is much more to say, and we will need to say much more because this problem is on the rise (…and those National Geographics are still in my basement). Hoarding resides at the confluence of the human heart and influences that include unprecedented amounts of goods received through inheritance, items that no longer work because they were created to be disposable, higher incomes, cheaper goods (dollar stores and the age of plastic) and a culture of sophisticated and saturated marketing. What a perfect opportunity to learn more of the Truth.


Ed Welch is a counselor and faculty member at CCEF.