Threat to society
Living simplyand richly
The simple life: The goal is not to live poorly, but to live richly in the things that really matter
The iPhone is synonymous with our increasingly complex and frantic world. We're multi-tasking with phone calls, emails, faxes, and receiving directions to our next meeting with the GPS function. Its digital to-do list dictates our day while the electronic planner reminds us to pick up the kids from soccer practice.
But amidst this complexity is a growing desire for "simplicity." In Voluntary Simplicity, secular author Duane Elgin writes, "We can describe voluntary simplicity as a manner of living that is outwardly more simple and inwardly more rich, a way of being in which our most authentic and alive self is brought into direct and conscious contact with living."
Even the complex Google search engine, which in a fraction of a second searches through 8 billion Web pages using an equation of 500 million variables, strives for simplicity. Marissa Mayer is Google's "high priestess of simplicity" who guards the clean, white home page design that is indeed the model of simplicity.
And the poster child for materialistic self-indulgence, Paris Hilton, hosted a reality show called, "The Simple Life."
And so "downshifting" is a growing trend as many people as they move from a workaholic, materialistic lifestyle to a simpler lifestyle. They "downsize" their homes, drive smaller fuel-efficient vehicles, take up "low-tech" hobbies such as quilting and scrap booking, and turnoff cell phones and computers when they arrive home to enjoy "family time."
An ancient new trend
But the trendy "simplicity" movement is actually quite old.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) retreated to Walden Pond to write, "Our lives are frittered away by detail; simplify, simplify."
Earlier still, painter and inventor Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) wrote, "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."
And, in approximately 900 B.C., the writer of Ecclesiastes lamented, after accumulating massive wealth and luxurious properties, "When I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun (Ecclesiastes 2:11).
A deeper motivation
Elgin continues, "The making of money and the accumulation of things should not smother the purity of the soul, the life of the mind, the cohesion of the family, or the good of the society." So, today's adherents choose simple living for a variety of reasons as health, an increase in family time, stress reduction, care for the planet, social justice and anti-consumerism.
But not only is simplicity a much older concept, it has a much deeper motivation: Christian faith.
In his popular book, Freedom of Simplicity, Christian author Richard Foster writes, "Simplicity is the only thing that can sufficiently reorient our lives so that possessions can be genuinely enjoyed without destroying us."
That's why Christian contemplatives and mystics wrote so often of "detachment" from this world. They took on a lifestyle of willful poverty so they could more fully focus on God, their brothers and sisters, and a needy world. They took seriously Jesus' warning that "you cannot serve both God and money" (Matthew 6:24)or the distractions of making money.
Radical Christianity calls for disciples not to "conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will ishis good, pleasing and perfect will" (Romans 12:2).
Christ calls for simplicity, motivated by at least three priorities.
Jesus warns us that we will be judged by our compassion. "Then these righteous ones will reply, 'Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?'
"And the King will say, 'I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!' (Matthew 25:37-40 NLT).
"The least of these" include 24,000 people worldwide who die every day from starvation and malnutrition. That's over 8 million each year. Three of four who die are younger than five-years old. But it's not an unsolvable problem. Hunger relief groups estimate that it would take 13 billion dollars a year to end hunger for the Earth's poorest citizens. However, North Americans and Europeans spend 18 billion dollars a year on pet food.
The problem can be solved by simply reducing our spending with a simple lifestylemotivated by compassion for the least of these.
Thirty-times throughout the Bible, righteousness and justice are combined as inseparable conjoined twins: "The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love" (Psalm 33:5). "The LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed" (Psalm 103:6).
Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea around 365 A.D. wrote, "When someone steals a man's clothes we call him a thief. Should we not give the same name to one who could clothe the naked and does not? The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry man; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the man who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the man who has not shoes; the money which you hoard up belongs to the poor."
The United Nations Human Development Report of 1992 records, "In a world of 5 billion people, we discovered that the top billion people, hold 83 percent of the world's wealth, while the bottom billion have only 1.4 percent."
Living simply, then, becomes a justice issue. It is living out the "golden rule" of treating others the way we would want ourselves and our loved ones treated.
When a distraught messenger brought John Wesley news that his house had burned to the ground, Wesley replied, "No. The Lord's house has burned to the ground. That means one less responsibility for me."
That is the radical simplicity that the apostle Paul possessed. "For I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength (Philippians 4:11-13).
Notice that many Christians' favorite promise verse, Philippians 4:13, actually applies to living a simple, contented life. We can do that!
A modern expression of the Bible's teaching on simplicity is found in the "Shakertown Pledge." Written in 1973 by a diverse group of Christian leaders, it pledged, "I commit myself to lead an ecologically sound life" and "I commit myself to lead a life of creative simplicity and to share my personal wealth with the world's poor."
Duane Elgin notes, "These commitments are not meant to produce a pinched and miserly existence; instead, they are intended to encourage an aesthetic simplicity that enhances personal freedom and fulfillment while promoting a just manner of living relative to the needs of the world."
James puts it bluntly: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (James 1:27).
Putting the simple life into practice
John Wesley's strategy was to make as much as one can, save as much as one canas in finding bargainsand give as much as one can. Wesley made thousands of dollars from the sales of his books and tracts, but he died with only two pounds and five shillings (US $1.10) in his pocket.
The founder of Methodism began the first free clinic and dispensary in London, sponsored a "poor house" which cared for "nine widows, two poor children" and others, and founded the first credit union which was able to keep people from debtors' prisons.
Modern disciples of simplicity find creative ways to recycle, use coupons, downsize living space, drive fuel-efficient vehicles, turn off the TV, decline over-time work, and block out time for God and family on their iPhone schedules, without taking a vow of poverty or living in a cave.
The goal is not to live poorly, but to live richly in the things that really matter: time with God and family and generous giving to the needs of other.
For me, I've started taking sundown Saturday to sundown Sunday as a "cyber Sabbath." I turn off the computer and "fast" from email, the Internet and any kind of writing. It's been liberating and mentally refreshing to pull the plug on my computer-driven life as a writer, editor and communications pastor at a large church. It's a small, but significant step to living the simple life.
Copyright © 2008 James N. Watkins
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