Spiritual practices for the year: simplicity
by Marion Van Driel
Because the spiritual discipline of simplicity is so closely related to the stuff of everyday living, it is one of the most intimidating or guilt-forming disciplines, at least for those of us who live in the western world, where affluence and accessibility to consumer goods is so prevalent. The latest realization that ‘things’ don’t satisfy our quest for meaning has sparked greater interest in the simple lifestyle. Documentaries, books and blogs on how to minimize our possessions, busyness, and unhealthy habits are gaining popularity. Even minimalists who do not profess a Christian foundation for their lifestyle changes are evangelizing newfound benefits of freedom and a more peaceful existence.
Jesus had a lot to say (and model) regarding money and attachment to material goods. His advice to the rich young ruler to “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (Matt. 19:16-22), leaves us squirming in our seats just a bit. In Luke 12:15, Jesus warns us to be on our guard against greed of all kinds; life doesn’t consist of our possessions. His own life modelled a carefree posture with respect to his daily needs. Even after 40 days alone in the desert without physical sustenance and comfort, Jesus refused to succumb to temptations of food, riches and power.
The Apostle Paul states, “But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction” (I Tim. 6:9). And remembering Jesus’ teaching that it is actually impossible to serve both God and money pulls us up short. How tempting to examine these biblical truths through the lens of someone else’s life.
A place to stand
Individual people throughout the centuries have sold all their worldly goods, taking vows of poverty and turning to a life of asceticism. Is this how we are to interpret Jesus’ words? Is this the key to heaven’s kingdom?
Richard Foster, theologian and author of Celebration of Discipline (which has sold millions of copies worldwide since it was first published in 1978) claims we need a place to stand, and “those who take the biblical teaching on simplicity seriously are faced with severe temptations toward legalism.” It is possible for us to become just as anxious about our ‘simple’ lifestyle choices as our affluence, seeking certain purchases or making decisions that we think are seen by others to reflect our simpler life. This is just another form of idolatry, Foster explains. He points us to Jesus’ words in Matt 6: “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? … So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Foster concludes, “seeking first God’s kingdom and the righteousness, both personal and social, of that kingdom is the only thing that can be central in the Spiritual Discipline of simplicity. Worthy as all other concerns may be, the moment they become the focus of our efforts, they become idolatry. When the kingdom of God is genuinely placed first, ecological concerns, the poor, the equitable distribution of wealth, and many other things will be given their proper attention.” Before it becomes an outer discipline, simplicity must be sought inwardly.
What could this look like in terms of the outward life? In his book Serve God, Save the Planet, former emergency room director and chief of medical staff Dr. Matthew Sleeth applies Jesus’ lessons of stewardship, personal responsibility and simplicity to everyday living. On the job, Sleeth noted an increasing number of patients dealing with chronic diseases which might be attributed to our ‘environmental illness’. While the book is a call to action for the sake of healing the earth, Sleeth’s quest for a simpler life came with his calling as an advocate for creation care. He relinquished his lucrative job and pay cheque, expensive house, status, and fast car.
With great candour, Sleeth reveals the journey leading their family to live in a house the size of their previous garage, give up half their possessions, make decisions about energy use that divested them of a clothes dryer, dishwasher, garbage disposal and lawn mower. Admitting that there were times of conflict and realizing moments of his own hypocrisy, Sleeth nevertheless attests to the benefit of a much fuller, richer life. “Spiritual concerns have filled the void left by material ones. Owning fewer things has resulted in things no longer owning us. When we stopped living a life dedicated to consumerism, our cup began to run over. We have seen miracles.”
All of life
But the spiritual discipline of simplicity involves more than examining what we possess. To reap the benefits of a simpler life, both Sleeth and Foster advise cutting back on technology (phones, computers, TVs), recognizing and overcoming addictions (anything that holds us in its grip), resisting the urge to cram our calendars with activities and commitments, speaking honestly and less, developing a greater appreciation for creation, rejecting anything linked to the oppression of others, enjoying God and our fellow human beings.
In Celebration of Discipline, Foster shares three attitudes of simplicity:
To receive what we have as a gift from God – we receive life sustenance from Him, and our possessions are by His grace. It takes one small life circumstance like an accident or drought to remind us of our dependence on Him.
To realize that it is God’s business to care for what we have – to use common sense (responsibility) in protecting them, but acknowledging that all we have is God’s to keep, diffuses our anxiety about our ‘things’.
To have our goods available to others – instead of clinging to our possessions in fear of what the future might bring, holding them out to the community to use when it is right and good to do so. When we see God as our Creator and loving Father, we can let go of our fear and help others in need.
However simplistic it sounds, loving God first and our neighbor as ourselves seems the key to a simpler life of joy and freedom.
Please join Marion Van Driel in further conversation of the Spiritual Disciplines at Attentivesoul.blogspot.ca.