The Heart of Simple Living

“I do want to point out, friends, that time is of the essence. There is no time to waste, so don’t complicate your lives unnecessarily. Keep it simple — in marriage, grief, joy, whatever. Even in ordinary things—your daily routines of shopping, and so on. Deal as sparingly as possible with the things the world thrusts on you. This world as you see it is on its way out.” – 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 (MSG)

A friend recently went through his closet and gave away literally half of his clothes. Rather than missing the items, he has a new sense of freedom. Instead of feeling deprived, his life feels a bit less complicated.

Jane Hammerslough, author of Dematerializing: Taming the Power of Possessions, describes how a roof repair gone wrong forced her family into a quick move to a small, sparsely furnished rental house for six months. She writes of their surprise that they didn’t miss much of what they left behind. Rather than feeling depressed by the “hideous living room” and “mismatched plates” in their temporary quarters, they felt liberated. And when they returned home, she felt “overwhelmed by the utter excess of stuff.” A purging of things soon followed. She concluded that, “When ‘enough’ is always just a little more than you already have, you don’t have a lot of room left for the truly great pleasures of life: family, friends and the time to enjoy them.”

Of course, too much stuff can also leave too little room for God. With the time required to shop for, move, insure, use, store, clean, maintain, organize, and worry about our stuff, there can be a shortage of time for God’s Word, prayer, ministry, church, and reaching out to others.

In his classic book, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster agues that, “The majority of Christians have never seriously wrestled with the problem of simplicity, conveniently ignoring Jesus’ many words on the subject. The reason is simple: This Discipline directly challenges our vested interests in an affluent life-style.”

But the recession may be changing that.  The stripping away of financial assets and our faith in ever-increasing real estate values seems to have sparked a renewed interest in simplicity.  Writers ranging from mutual fund company founders to spiritual thinkers have been weighing in on the question: “How much is enough?”

Answering that question is no easy task, which is what makes Foster such a good guide.  He makes an important distinction when he describes the Christian discipline of simplicity as “an inward reality that results in an outward lifestyle.” In other words, focus too quickly on the externals – the doing without – and it’s the good intentions that are likely to be cast aside instead of the goods.

He also emphasizes that simplicity isn’t just about uncluttered closets: “It is possible for a person to be developing an outward life-style of simplicity and to be filled with anxiety.” He describes simplicity as “a life of joyful unconcern for possessions” and suggests that it “is the one thing that sufficiently reorients our lives so that possessions can be genuinely enjoyed without destroying us.”

Foster, who explores the meaning and practice of simplicity in more detail in his book, Freedom of Simplicity, says there are three heart attitudes related to possessions that lead to peace. “If what we have we receive as a gift, and if what we have is to be cared for by God, and if what we have is available to others, then we will possess freedom from anxiety.”

Once we have begun to cultivate those inner attitudes, what might the outer expression of those attitudes look like? Foster offers 10 suggestions:

  • Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status
  • Reject anything that is producing an addiction in you
  • Develop a habit of giving things away
  • Refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry
  • Learn to enjoy things without owning them
  • Develop a deeper appreciation for the creation
  • Look with a healthy skepticism at all “buy now, pay later” schemes
  • Obey Jesus’ instructions about plain, honest speech
  • Reject anything that breeds the oppression of others
  • Shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the kingdom of God

In our materialistic, over-marketing-messaged world, simplicity isn’t, well, so simple. But as Richard Foster points out, it begins on the inside with the attitudes of our heart. And those are cultivated through prayer and meditation on God’s Word. Some good places to start include Matthew 6:19-34, Luke 12:13-21, and Philippians 4:12-13.

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