Research into compulsive hoarding is relatively young. Compulsive hoarding was previously considered to be a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, but may now be categorized as a disorder all its own. The specific cause is unknown, but it seems to be linked with anxiety or with some type of loss. It is characterized by the compulsive, chronic acquiring of large amounts of things or animals and an inability to discard them. Acquiring and maintaining items appears to temporarily relieve hoarders from uneasy thoughts or emotions. There may be some genetic or brain abnormality components to compulsive hoarding, but research is unclear.
It should be noted that compulsive hoarding is different from collecting. Compulsive hoarders tend to gather seemingly random items without much obvious personal significance or meaning—such as junk mail, trash, magazines, and newspapers—whereas collectors have a more purposed reason for the items they acquire. It has been suggested that compulsive hoarding often starts in the teen years, perhaps demonstrated through excessive clutter and trouble getting rid of things. As the disorder progresses, the hoarder garners more items for which there is no need and little or no space. As the hoard accumulates, the hoarder is too overwhelmed to reverse the damage, and the problem escalates into extreme proportions. The hoard starts to replace human relationships, as the person seems to choose the stuff over his loved ones. Hoarders usually feel isolated, depressed, and misunderstood by others—others who want them to throw away their hoards. The objects become a part of the hoarder’s identity and how he sees himself. The objects may also be foundational to the hoarder’s sense of safety. That is why he feels personally attacked if someone wants to get rid of the hoard.
As with most psychological disorders, there is a spectrum of compulsive hoarding. Some hoarders may merely hold on to things longer than would most or have an excessive amount of storage yet not be otherwise impaired in their daily living. Others, as described above, may be overtaken by the disorder and be unable to function in daily life. Some may have essentially unlivable homes yet still be able to display a public persona and engage in interpersonal relationships. Depending on the items (or animals) acquired and the way in which the hoard is maintained, there may be health or safety concerns.
No matter where a hoarder falls on the spectrum, there is hope. A hoarder needs to learn how to make healthy decisions that will lead to resisting the urge for more buying/acquiring, disposing of unneeded items, and putting things in a regular place. For those with a milder form, this may be a learned process of logic in which they think about their goals and the consequences of certain behaviors. Learning new ways to handle anxiety or to meet emotional needs will be helpful. Those with more severe forms of compulsive hoarding will likely need more intensive emotional healing. It could also be that medication may be of help. The best treatment plan for believers is to work with a biblical counselor to gain insight into their own personal values, how they process emotions, and how to walk more closely with Jesus. God is ultimately the only One in whom our anxieties can be resolved and our needs can be met. Only He can provide complete healing. Working with a professional organizer to help discard unnecessary items from the current hoard and provide a plan to not let it get out of hand again can also be helpful.
From a biblical point of view, hoarding is a result of human nature and our fallen state. The Bible explains that we are living in a cursed world that is dying due to sin (Genesis 3:17-24). That means we have weakness in our minds, bodies, and spirits. Hoarding is human nature run amok. We naturally trust in things rather than in God, so it is normal for us to look for security in the material world. It is in all of us to want to feel at peace and to feel a sense of satisfaction or fullness. In our humanity, having many items seems like a good way to assuage our fears about the future or deal with the anxiety of the moment or give us a sense of fullness. Humans are often trying to fill their own emptiness apart from God; hoarding is one manifestation of that. Though hoarding may at first seem to make us feel better, it ultimately leaves us feeling empty and becomes controlling rather than helpful. Only God can truly meet our needs and give us perseverance to live in a fallen world.
All of us need discernment to distinguish between what is valuable and what is junk, trash, or spoiled in the objects we own and the ways we spend our money and our time. Learning what is of true eternal value is important for everyone. Following Jesus means placing our trust in God instead of false treasures (Matthew 6:19-21). In a lapse of faith, the Israelites stored manna rather than trust God for His daily provision. Their hoarding was to no avail; the Lord made the extra manna spoil (Exodus 16).
The underlying cause of hoarding is our human tendency to want things and our inability to discern what is truly valuable. For those with severe compulsive hoarding, anxiety or loss or genetics may prompt the behavior and limit a person’s ability to discern value and worth. But for all of us, Jesus is the most precious treasure we can possess, and His followers should value what He values. Trusting in Him means we no longer have to rely on ourselves in a hopeless effort to meet our needs or satisfy our souls. Jesus declared, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty" (John 6:35).