We are constantly bombarded with the propaganda of Madison Avenue. Someone is always trying to sell us something — marketing forces always competing for our attention. It seems impossible to get away from the chatter. In contrast, Jesus calls us to a life of simplicity. How do we live a life of simplicity in the face of our world’s constant message to buy more?
What is Simplicity?
Simplicity is freedom. The need for more is bondage. Simplicity brings joy and balance. Duplicity brings anxiety and fear. The writer of Ecclesiastes said this: “God made man simple; man’s complex problems are of his own devising” (Eccles. 7:30, JB).
The Christian Discipline of simplicity is simply the desire to seek God before all things. It is the driving desire to know God more than anything else. It is living out the cry of Jeremiah when he said:
This is what the LORD says: “Let not the wise boast of their wisdom or the strong boast of their strength or the rich boast of their riches, 24 but let the one who boasts boast about this: that they have the understanding to know me, that I am the LORD, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” declares the LORD” (Jer. 9:23-24).
But Simplicity is more than just a personal decision to live with less so that you can have more of God. It is actually an inward reality that results in an outward lifestyle. In other words, if we are living a life of simplicity inwardly, it will show in how we live outwardly.
Foster describes it this way:
Experiencing the inward reality liberates us outwardly. Speech becomes truthful and honest. The lust for status and position is gone because we no longer need status and position. We cease from showy extravagance not on the grounds of being unable to afford it, but on the grounds of principle. Our goods become available to others” (Celebration of Discipline, Foster, p. 80).
We must understand that lust for affluence and influence in our culture has the potential to kill us spiritually. We begin to lose touch with spiritual reality when we crave things that we neither need nor enjoy.
Madison Avenue has convinced us that to be out of step with fashion is to be out of step with reality. So, we end up buying things we don’t need or want in order to impress people we don’t even know. The call to simplicity is a call to recognize the fact that to conform to a sick society is to be sick.
Simplicity in the Bible
The Bible deals clearly and forcefully with oppressive slavery to things. The economics of life is the number one topic in the Bible. It expresses it in the fight against idolatry and the call to social justice — the two biggest topics in the Old Testament.
The Psalmist says, “If riches increase, set not your heart on them” (Ps. 62:10). The tenth commandment is against covetousness, the inner lust to have, which leads to stealing and oppression. The writer of Proverbs understood that “He who trusts in his riches will wither” (Prov. 11:28).
Jesus literally declared war on the materialism of his day. The Aramaic term for wealth is “mammon” and Jesus condemns it as a rival God: “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13).
Jesus spoke a lot about economic issues. He says, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” and “Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:20, 24). Many of his parables had to do with wealth and the proper detachment from material things.
He knew that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” which is precisely why he commanded his followers: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matt. 6:21, 19). He is not saying that the heart should or should not be where the treasure is. He is stating the plain fact that wherever you find the treasure, you will find the heart.
He exhorted the rich young ruler not just to have an inner attitude of detachment from his possessions, but literally to get rid of his possessions if he wanted the kingdom of God (Matt. 19:16–22). He says, “Take heed and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).
He counseled people who came seeking God, “Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail…” (Luke 12:33).
He told the parable of the rich farmer whose life centered in hoarding — we might call him prudent; Jesus called him a fool (Luke 12:16–21). He states that if we really want the kingdom of God we must, as a merchant in search of fine pearls, be willing to sell everything we have to get it (Matt. 13:45, 46)
Jesus is not calling for a legalistic asceticism. He is calling for placing material goods in their proper place and keeping them there. Asceticism and simplicity are actually mutually incompatible. Asceticism renounces possessions. Simplicity places possessions in proper perspective.
The main goal of the spiritual discipline of simplicity is to “seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6: ) so that everything else that is necessary for life will fall in its proper place.
Jesus said, “Do not worry about tomorrow,” (Matt. 6:34), and the Apostle Paul said, “Do not be anxious about anything” (Phil. 4:6). In both cases, the point is that when you go to God first, everything you are worried about will be taken care of.
Simplicity and freedom from anxiety are characterized by three inner attitudes.
- What we have is a gift from God.
- What we have is to be cared for by God.
- What we have is to be shared with others.
Ten Principles for Practicing Simplicity*
Here are ten principles for the outward expression of Simplicity.
1. Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status.
It keeps you from buying things you don’t need to impress people you don’t even know.
2. Reject anything that is producing an addiction in you.
Addiction to things is the greatest scourge of the 21st century.
3. Develop a habit of giving things away.
This is an expressed rejection of idolatry.
4. Refuse to be fooled by the allure of modern gadgetry.
Addiction to gadgetry is a particularly pernicious problem of post-modernity.
5. Learn to enjoy things without owning them.
Check a book out of the library instead of buying it. In fact, spend as much time as possible in the library. Not only will you learn a lot without owning anything — you’ll also meet some interesting people!
6. Develop a deeper appreciation for God’s creation.
Spending time enjoying nature is not only free — you couldn’t own it even if you wanted to.
7. Look with a healthy skepticism at all “buy now, pay later” schemes.
Later never comes.
8. Obey Jesus’ instructions about plain, honest speech.
Jesus said, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ anything more than this comes from evil” (Matt. 5:37). If you agree to do something, do it. Avoid flattery and half-truths. Make honesty and integrity the distinguishing characteristics of your speech. This is also an important product of the spiritual discipline of simplicity.
9. Reject anything that breeds the oppression of others.
This is to participate in evil.
10. Shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the kingdom of God.
Keep the main thing the main thing.
Try the spiritual discipline of simplicity and experience the liberating power it will bring to your life.
*The ten principles are taken from Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster