Part I: According to Jesus and Company

The First and the Rest

The previous chapter was something of a warm-up; now we are ready to go to work in earnest. Part I will be an examination of the simple life as taught by Jesus and company. That is to say, we will start with Jesus' teachings in the Gospels but then in subsequent chapters move to some writings of Paul and then to the work of an anonymous author of the early church.

However, even when dealing with the sayings that theGospels attribute to Jesus, we are not going to make critical-historical judgments as to what represents "the very words of Jesus" and what represents the contribution of subsequent transmitters of the tradition. In point of fact, our interest lies more in "the mind of Christ" than in "the very words of Jesus." Now we are convinced--although it is impossible to prove--that the very words of Jesus do lie in there somewhere as the root and source of the truth we are after. Nevertheless, we proceed upon the faith that, through the help and guidance of the Holy Spirit, the mind of Christ is revealed even in the dedicated Efforts of those who came after Jesus--the "company." We will not even try to be scrupulous in maintaining the distinctions as to who is who among them.

The one most crucial statement regarding the simple life undoubtedly is that which concludes the long passage on the subject in the Sermon on the Mount:

But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well. (Mt. 6:33)

Here is the absolutely essential premise upon which thought, faith, and practice must build if the result is to Qualify as the simple life in any Christian sense. There is a "first," and there is an "all the rest." The Gospel never attempts to deny the reality or validity of the "all the rest." Nevertheless, a hard and fast distinction is to be maintained between them; no confusion can be allowed.

The all-controlling consideration must be that the "first" actually is made first and maintained as first. Once that is done, "all the rest" can come along behind, find its place, and assume true value and authenticity. This is value in and of itself, independent of, in competition with, or as a replacement for the true "first." The result may look good, be nice, make sense, and give satisfaction--but the situation nevertheless has been moved entirely out of the sphere of what Christianity understands as "the simple life."

As long as "all the rest" is so ordered as to "come to you as well," to come after, to come out of and consequent upon the "first," then it has been provided with the control that will make it good, keep it good, and use it for good. But there is nothing--not one thing--in that "all the rest" that is inherently good enough in itself so that it can stand in place of or alongside of the "first" without corrupting its own value and meaning in the process.

The First

The simple life is essentially a matter of putting the "first" first, and there just is no other place from which one can start and have any hope of arriving at what Jesus talks about. And in this instance, the old saying of "putting first things first" is not quite good enough. The New Testament makes it evident that the "first" of which it speaks is a singular and not a plural; "putting the first thing first would be the only proper statement of the matter. Kierkegaard (whom we have no intention of introducing yet; he is muscling in--as he does into most of what I write) has a book entitled Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. But in that book he makes the point that only the "first" that Jesus here specifies can be put first and remain only one thing. Anything else that might be taken out of the "all the rest" and set up as "first" inevitably will result in doublemindedness rather than a single focus.

"Set your mind on God's kingdom and his justice before everything else," Jesus tells us. Verbally that might seem to be a double focus; in actuality it is not. "God's kingdom" does not designate a location or any outward object, as the bare words could be taken to indicate. His kingdom is his "kingness," the de facto situation of his being king, his exercising of the rule that is proper to him. Thus, "to set one's mind upon his kingdom" is to seek, above all, an appropriate relationship to him as a subject to his true and sovereign Lord.

That we are to seek God's justice (righteousness), on the other hand, does not, in the first place (and we are concerned here particularly with "the first place," you will recall), invite us to try to bring the affairs of men into that arrangement we feel God would deem "just." This, properly, is part of the "all the rest that will come to you as well." No, in the first place, God's "justice" is his own activity of getting things straightened out and made right, his own "just-making action." Thus, "to set one's mind upon his justice" is to relate to him in such a way that he can make you right--"let him have his way with thee," as the old hymn has it. This, of course, also is to approach him as true and sovereign Lord; and God's kingdom and his justice turn out to be two words pointing to one reality, one relationship. The one thing that must be "first" is fealty, i.e. absolute, personal loyalty.

And this is a matter of inner relationship. Why it is so important to make that specification we shall discover as we press the line of thought a bit further. Along with these ideas of "kingdom, justice," and "fealty," there is, of course, bound up the idea of "obedience." But we must be careful to understand what it means to obey one's lord." If I do everything he has in mind but do it because I happen to agree that what he has suggested is the intelligent and appropriate thing to do, then in actuality I am not obeying him. In reality I am obeying my own good sense and judgment--which, thus far, happily, has chanced to coincide with his. But in such case, the principle under which I am operating would say that I am to obey only as long as his commands strike me as being right and proper. And this is not putting God's kingdom and his justice before everything else; it is putting myself first, my judgments, my ideas of good and bad, of right and wrong.

"Doing the will of God," then, does not mean simply doing what he wants done; it means doing it "because" he wants it done. And that is entirely a matter of inner motivation; there is no way (no way) by studying the resultant outward actions to determine whether they were performed because God wanted them that way or because, on my own, I thought it was a good idea. But Jesus is insistent that only the life that springs from the inner motivation of personal loyalty to the Lord God is truly the simple life.

Time after time, Jesus pinpoints the matter here. Each paragraph of this section of the Sermon on the Mount centers on this matter of single loyalty.

Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and stead. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Mt. 6:19-21)>

Your "treasure" is that to which you ascribe preeminent value. And what could "treasure in heaven" be except the valuing of God himself and one's personal relationship to him? Treasure, by the way, that is available to be enjoyed even before one is "in heaven." And, we are told, it is upon this treasure we are to put our hearts before everything else.

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Mt. 6:22-22)

All of a person's seeing, the illumination of his entire existence, depends entirely upon the focus of his eye (his loyalty commitment), whether it be toward light or darkness. If that focused orientation is not sound and single, totally upon God, then whatever else this entire world one might wish to see, it will accordingly be darkened. The eye ("I") must be right if anything is rightly to be seen.

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Mt. 6:24)

One's ultimate loyalty must converge at a single point. To try to go two ways at once will rip a person down the Middle and make his a multi-manic rather than a simple life.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.... For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Mt. 6:25, Mt. 6:32-33)

Jesus stakes his teaching of the simple life upon one and only one principle, namely, that absolute personal loyalty to God must take precedence over anything and everything else.

We are considering this principle in its particular application regarding a believer's relationship to his possessions, to "things." But Jesus himself applies it much more broadly--to the extent that it becomes apparent that this is indeed one of the major thrusts of his entire teaching ministry. The twelfth chapter of Matthew marks a second concentration on the theme.

Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand. (Mt. 12:25)
Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. (Mt. 12:30)

This latter saying is of special interest, because there is another saying, in Mark, which would seem to be a direct contradiction:

John said to him, "Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us." But Jesus said, "Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us." (Mk. 9:38-40)

Many scholars jump to the conclusion that we have here two different versions of the same saying. The problem then becomes to determine which is the original, which is the way Jesus himself had it. I have no opinion on that matter; but I think I see how both can be true and how, if the two are put together, they speak a greater truth than either could singly.

In the first, Jesus is making the same point that we have been finding elsewhere, namely, that life must center upon a single loyalty. However, we should give notice to a difference between this saying and the others. For the most part Jesus speaks of this loyalty being directed to God, although at times, as here, he speaks rather of loyalty toward himself. The remainder of the New Testament tends most often to affect the latter style and speak of loyal discipleship to Jesus.

Actually, there is no conflict at all between these two ways of putting the matter, because, throughout the New Testament, Jesus is presented as being the Christ, the anointed one, the one whom God has chosen as the agent of his own presence among men. Thus, when someone wants to be loyal to God, God, as it were, points to Jesus and says, "Very good; and my desire is that you express your loyalty to me by becoming a true disciple of his." And if someone chooses to make Jesus his Lord and dedicate himself loyally to him, Jesus says, "Fine; but to be loyal to me you must be entirely loyal to God as I myself am." There is no way that the two loyalties can get out of balance, because they are, in fact, one loyalty.

"He who is not with me is against me"; unless one has given his entire personal loyalty to Christ, the overall effect of his activity will be to undercut rather than enhance God's intention for man and the world. But notice that in the second instance (the one from Mark) it twice is specified that the outsider is doing his work "in Jesus' name"; and the emphasis surely is meant to imply that the man's loyalty is centered on Jesus. Jesus, then, is saying to his disciples, "If this man's action is motivated by a commitment of loyalty to me, then you have no right to try to dictate what form that commitment must take, through what means it must express itself. For he who is not against us is on our side."

If this interpretation is correct, it says precisely what we have been striving to say regarding the simple life. The "first" of the simple life must be a single-willed centering upon God; there is absolutely no room for variation on this point. But as strongly as the undeviating singularity of that aspect is decreed, just as strongly is it insisted that the means, the "how," the "all the rest," the outward details of its expression, cannot be decreed. No one dare try to tell anyone else what the simple life has to look like. For he who is not against us is on our side.

Later in the Matthew chapter, Jesus is still on the theme:

"Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" And pointing to the disciples, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother." (Mt. 12:48-50)

For Jesus, this loyalty of doing the will of God so entirely takes precedence over everything else that, as he says, the person who practices it comes closer to and rates higher with him than do his own mother, brothers, and sisters.

In the succeeding chapter of Matthew, Jesus stresses the great importance of undivided commitment by presenting twin parables regarding the kingdom of heaven. Recall that this "kingdom of heaven" is God himself affirmed in his kingly ruling.

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
Again, the kin kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. (Mt. 13:44-46)

Finally, in Luke's Gospel, there is a saying of Jesus that puts the matter as pointedly as any statement could:

No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. (Lk. 9:62)

It is abundantly clear, first of all, that Jesus demanded as an exclusive priority that a person center his life, loyalty, and valuations solely upon God. It is clear, in the second place, that his understanding of the simple life devolves entirely from this premise. Thus the doctrine of the simple life is indeed simplicity itself and can be very simply put: one is living the simple life when his ultimate loyalty is directed solely to God and when, in consequence, he lets every other concern flow out of, fall in behind, and witness to this one. That simply it can be put, and that simple it would stay--except for the inveterate human tendency that works both consciously and unconsciously to take advantage of the inward invisibility of that prime commitment in order to justify and secure for ourselves modes of living that do in fact spring from quite contrary motivations. Thus we must give attention to the second half of Jesus' formula: the "all the rest" that will come to you as well.

All the Rest

Quite certainly, the "all the rest" Jesus had in mind consisted of the food, drink, and clothing he mentioned--plus all sorts of other things a person can own as sources of pleasure and satisfaction, plus even other things which a person does not own but which nonetheless are also resources (such things as air, sunlight, scenery, music, friends, etc.)

And we need to take careful note here--although we will elaborate the point later--that Jesus in no way suggests that these "all the rest" items are inherently evil, that our lives would be more Christian and our commitment to God truer if we would eliminate as many of them as possible. Not at all; these things are to "come to you as well," and it is right and good that they do. The simple life is not to be equated with the least possible consumption of worldly goods and satisfactions. No, the point is that these things can be good--very good--if they are used to support man's relationship to God rather than compete with it.

But although Jesus likely had in mind "things," his basic principle can be applied as well to a different sort of sample out of the "all the rest," namely, to other motivations and rationales for simple living. We will look at a number of these in turn, but our conclusion regarding each of them will be the same. We will find that each has some real merit and value as long as it is kept subordinate to the ultimate motivation of loyalty to God, but that none is able to stand by itself as an adequate or dependable motive for Christianity's simple life.

  • Hedonism
    This heading may seem strange as the identification of an argument for the simple life; yet it is, perhaps the argument most prevalent today. And the term is accurate for what we have in mind: hedonism is the pursuit of or devotion to pleasure. In this instance the argument goes that a life style that is marked by the conscious simplifying of one's possessions, regimen, and relationships is conspicuously more satisfying and pleasurable than that which is devoted to luxury, consumption, and diversion.

    Now I firmly believe that this argument has a great deal of truth in it--at least for many people in many situations. Even having granted this, however, it must be recognized that, in our day, in certain sectors of our society this penchant for simplicity has taken on proportions of a fad and cult. Simplicity is given a big play in the media, and peer pressure is brought to bear on people to conform to this style. But before pop simplicity can be taken as proof of the hedonistic thesis, it will be necessary to see how deep is the commitment to this style and how long it lasts; undeniably, fads do have a way of dying out as quickly as they spring up.

    But grant the current phenomenon as much weight as you will, there still is no way of guaranteeing to any given persons that they would find the simple life enjoyable. I recently read an article about the super-yachts that compete in the California-Hawaii run. They not only cost a fortune to acquire but another fortune to maintain and operate. The reporter asked one owner how he justified such an expenditure. The answer--very simple and honest--was that he got a kick out of it, he enjoyed owning his boat and sailing it. And who is to say that the man was mistaken about his own feelings?

    It would seem the height of presumption to insist to a person, "I'm sorry, but you're not smart enough to know when you're enjoying yourself. You've got to let me tell you when you're happy--and that won't be until you are as I am, until you are living my kind of life style." As I said, I am confident that there are many people who would be happier if they didn't have so much "stuff" to bother with; but I am just as confident that there are many other people who would be perfectly miserable if they had to give up their prized stuff (whatever it may mean to be "perfectly miserable")

    Because of the very subjective nature of "enjoyment," then, the hedonistic argument lacks anything in the way of "teeth" or obligation. If I do happen to find simplicity satisfying, I should, of course, live it. But if I happen not to, then there is absolutely no reason--according to the terms of this argument--why I should have any concern about the simple life.

    Further, the New Testament nowhere so much as hints that simplicity, in and of itself, brings satisfaction. It is true that, in connection with the parable of the rich fool, Lk. 12:15, has Jesus saying, "Owning a lot of things won't make your life safe" (NEV). But this is not to say that the renunciation of "things" will guarantee one life. Or read it in the New Revised Standard Version: "For one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions." This is not to say that his life does consist in the limiting of one's possessions. The immediate context of that saying--let alone the total context of the life and teachings of Jesus--makes it plain that a man's life does consist, rather, in his relationship to God.

    Similarly, Jesus' key statement definitely did not say, "Set your mind on simplicity of life style before everything else, and all the rest will come to you as well." Indeed, if the hedonistic argument is allowed to stand as a self-contained rationale, it is a subversion of Jesus' teaching, for it in fact is a being anxious about "What are we to eat? What are we to drink? What shall we wear?" In its emphasis upon finding a stance that is most personally satisfying it is at one with those who have chosen the way of wealth and consumption--differing only in what one happens to find most satisfying among the things of the world. Yet a lust for simplicity, in and of itself, is just as little a seeking first of God's kingdom and can be just as obstructive of the view of the stars as the lust for luxury can be.

    Now the gospel does have a concern about man's finding satisfaction and enjoyment but comes at this from an angle quite different from insisting that the simple pleasures of life are best. Rather, it is as the Shorter Westminster Catechism puts it so well: "Man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever." Therefore if because I have Light a taste of this enjoyment I want to simplify the externals of my life in order to enhance it, assuredly I will enjoy the means of life that helps me toward the end of ultimate enjoyment. But as to whether simplicity is enjoyable in and for itself, the New Testament simply has no opinion; it does not deny the proposition; it just doesn't find the question relevant to the matter at hand. And so, if one does happen to discover for himself that the simple pleasures are best, fine--Jesus already had suggested that many other things would come to you as well. But what is certain is that a simple life motivated by the enjoyment of God will be much more satisfying and enduring than a fad that sees no further than the enjoyment of simple things in themselves.

  • Service to the Poor
    This argument, heard frequently, takes two different approaches, either of which comes to pretty much the same thing. The one assumes that I have a level of income above what I actually need and that, by simplifying my life, I can free money that then can be devoted to helping the poor and other such worthy causes. The other approach assumes that I will bring my income down to a level that can be shared much more widely across the board, thus making a witness and contribution to the equalization of wealth. The one approach comes through most strongly on philanthropy and the second on social justice and equality; but there does not seem to be any particular conflict or competition between the two; they point very much in the same direction.

    The first observation to be made is that this rationale is much more inherently Christian than is that of hedonism; there can be no denying that the New Testament displays a vital concern that one love, serve, and strive to ameliorate the conditions of the poor. Yet, even though this is a strong thrust in the teaching of Jesus, it is made in such a way as to indicate that he did not give it determinative, overriding priority.

    For instance, Jesus' counsel to the rich, young ruler is "Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." (Mk. 10:21). Yet the total context (including both the incident with the young man and Jesus' subsequent remarks to the disciples) and, indeed, even the wording of the counsel itself make it plain that Jesus' primary concern was not for the poor but for the spiritual condition of young man himself. The "sell what you own" is pointed much more strongly toward the "come, follow me" than toward the "give the money to the poor." The young man's possessions are obstructing his view of the stars and must be sloughed off in order to free him for God. However, once he chooses to make that move, the giving of those possessions to the poor would become a very good way of disposing of them.

    Perhaps an even more pointed instance is this from Mark:
    While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, "Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor." And they scolded her. But Jesus said, "Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me." (Mk, 14:3-7)
    The onlookers come through on cue with the correct pious expression of Christian social concern. But, surprisingly, Jesus refuses to accept this as being the first of business; he will not criticize the woman either for owning this expensive nonessential in the first place or for the "wasteful" way in which she disposes it. Jesus interprets her act as being an expression of love toward himself (and thus, at the same time, a commitment of loyalty to God); and he states quite explicitly that it is proper for this to take priority over helping the poor.

    A profound insight is involved at this point. Jesus' act is not a jealous grab of honor and attention for himself, nor is it in any way a slighting of the poor. It is a way of saying that the poor themselves will receive more help if God is made the center of loyalty than if the poor themselves were put into that slot.

    I think it quite unlikely that very many people for very long can be motivated to lower their own standard of living solely out of a humanitarian concern over the plight of the poor. Men, by nature, simply are not that altruistic--no matter how beautifully they may discourse on the topic. This truth was brought home to me with force through a television interview that took place at the time Sargent Shriver accepted the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in 1972. Leading up to the interview itself, an announcer recounted Shriver's background, emphasizing particularly his leadership in the poverty program and other service projects. While these words were being heard, the cameras panned over the Shriver home and grounds. What was most obvious was that, no matter how much Shriver has done for the poor, one thing he has not done is to let it constrict his own standard of living.

    In telling this story I am not taking a cheap shot at Shriver, the incident is significant precisely because he is a man who puts most of us to shame in the truly humanitarian concern he has shown. So I say again that it is quite unlikely that very many people for very long can be motivated to lower their own standard of living solely out of a humanitarian concern over the plight of the poor.

    However, if one sets his mind on the kingdom of God before everything else, then some totally new factors are brought into play. Now, out of his fascination with the stars, the person already is inclined to dispose of a bunch of lanterns; and Jesus' suggestion to the rich, young ruler holds: giving them to the poor is a fine thing to do the superfluous lanterns. Further, the person's very relationship to God includes the motivation, guidance, and enablement for his loving and serving the poorer brethren. So the poor themselves should be the first to applaud the fact that Jesus accepted the perfume for himself rather giving it to them; his act was the best possible guarantee of their receiving what they need.

    Yes, social justice, equality, and help for the poor are involved in the simple life; yet keep them where they belong, not as its motive and rationale, but as a "plus,"--a gift, a freedom, a grace--out of the "all the rest" that will come to you as well.

  • Ecology
    Today an urgent new rationale for simple living has obtruded upon us. Unless we voluntarily discipline our recent runaway rate of consumption, we shortly will bring disaster upon the race either through the contamination of our environment, through the depletion of essential natural resources or, most likely, through both at once.

    Now the best analysis of the facts seems clearly to indicate that our description of the threat is accurate. The logic of what must be done is unimpeachable. Every rational consideration would indicate that this matter of survival should constitute the one most immediate and compelling motivation for simple living that could be offered.

    Logically it should; practically, I am convinced that it does not. Why it does not is a little hard to say.
    • Partly, perhaps, because fear is not a motive to which people respond very well.
    • Partly because people never have done too well sacrificing present pleasure for the sake of any future advantage--the actuality of the accessible present too much overweighs the elusive possibilities of a remote future.
    • And partly because of a weird perversity that moves people to act contrary to their own best interests just to prove that they don't have to be compelled by logic.
    A contemporary social experience most strongly impels me to this conclusion. Established even more scientifically and certainly than the prediction of environmental disease and death is the diagnosis that smoking is a direct cause of individual disease and death. The threat in this instance not only is more certain, more closely linked to present activity, and more immediate and selective in its repercussions than is the environmental threat, but, as well, the removal of the smoking threat could be accomplished with very much less of personal sacrifice--merely through a giving up of the foul stuff. And yet people simply will not quit smoking.

    Now this perversity is at least somewhat understandable (and worthy of sympathy) in those who are caught in an addiction that will power is just incompetent to break. But the chilling thing is to watch our youth--the age group that is most knowledgeable about the effects of smoking, that is not impelled by the force of already-established addiction, and that we have touted as having the superior moral sensitivity that is the hope of saving our environment--how chilling it is to watch them keep total cigarette sales climbing even while older smokers are the habit at a rate that otherwise would bring downward.

    And what makes the situation even more difficult regarding the environmental crisis is that very many people will need to act before the action has any effect on the problem at all. Thus, if I look around and do not see that anyone else is hurting himself to save the situation, I draw natural conclusion that it would be stupid for me to give up my piece of the pie to no purpose at all.

    But if commanding self-interest can't lead us even to give up a noisome weed, what possible chance is there before we are forced to do so, it will lead us voluntarily to cut back on our oh-so-enjoyable consumption of "the necessities of life"? And yet, in regard to our secular society, there is no alternative but to keep preaching the not-too-effective gospel of self-interest and to hope beyond hope that somehow people will wake up and do something. Christians, however, don't have to be stuck in this boat. They have a rationale for the simple life that is infinitely superior to mere self-interest. And even more to the point, they have a gospel that goes far beyond man's saving himself by pulling at his own ecological bootstraps; it includes a God who can and will straighten out perversities and give men what takes to discipline their rate of consumption, first of all as a way of getting themselves correctly positioned to enjoy this God, and then--as an entirely free bonus--in effective way of meeting the environmental crisis as well.

    And if this is the way it is with the Christian doctrine of simple life, how tragic it would be if we were to trade it in for the ecological doctrine of sheer self-interest. And yet this is precisely what is happening in our churches. I would wager that from our pulpits there are to be heard ten appeals to ecological threat for every appeal to Christian simplicity. Yet the ecologists themselves should be the first to applaud the fact that Jesus asks for loyalty to himself even before loyalty to the environment; his demand is the best possible guarantee that the environment will get what it needs.

  • Asceticism
    Here we encounter a mode of thought and life that often is confused with the Christian simple life but actually has no part in it. Asceticism starts from an assumption that came into Christian thought not from its native Hebrew tradition but from other cultures with which it came in contact. In point of fact, it is in complete contradiction to the biblical presupposition.

    This foreign assumption is that there are two different and opposed worlds. The one is the world of stuff and things, the materiality amidst which we live our everyday lives. But over against this there stands an invisible, immaterial, ideal, "spiritual" world. Now it is this spiritual world that is the proper home of God and thus the locus of all that is good and true and beautiful. Conversely, the material world--precisely because it is constituted of material rather than spirit--is evil, is in itself a sign of fallenness and corruption.

    According to the thinking of asceticism, then, one becomes saved by basing his existence as much as possible in the realm of spirit and as little as possible in the realm of materiality. And thus the ascetic ideal has been to own little or nothing, to eat and to drink and to wear as little as possible, and to contemplate earthly realities as seldom as necessary.

    Now this mode of thought has a certain superficial and misleading likeness to the Christian simple life in its insistence that authentic personal existence must center in what it would call "spiritual reality" and we have called "an inner relationship of loyalty to God. " But the basic conception behind these two ideas is quite different, because biblical thought is insistent that there is but one world--one world created good by God, created good in both its material and immaterial aspects; and these aspects are so completely amalgamated as to be entirely inseparable, let alone one capable of being judged superior to the other.

    Here there is no suggestion of a world that is evil by virtue of its nature and origin. Biblically speaking, evil arises only as the perversion of the one world that was created and is intrinsically good, the distortion of people and things that were created and are intrinsically good. Indeed, so committed is the Bible to this view that it will not picture salvation in terms of material flesh going to extinction while a spiritual (and consequently good) soul enjoys its immortality in the spirit world. No, the biblical picture consistently is that of a total bodily-spiritual person resurrected to live upon a resurrected and redeemed earth.

    The Christian simple life is not in any sense an attempt to suppress or deny the material side of human existence. Stuff and things are good, recognized as good gifts created By a good God for good purposes. They become bad only when man turns them to bad purposes. Better said: they do not become bad at all; rather, man allows the good of these gifts from God to obscure the greater good of enjoying God himself. Somewhere in every person's life there is a point of balance that can capture the best from both of these "goods." Finding that point won't be easy; but it is what we are after. However, once the man himself gets right with God, "things" can become good in every respect by finding their proper place within this triangular God-man-things relationship. Asceticism, on the other hand, cannot affirm that there is any good place for stuff and things.

    We need to be aware, too, of a second form of asceticism, very similar to and compatible with the first and yet reached by a slightly different route--although one just as false as that of the first. This way of thinking does not so much stress the inherent evil of materiality as it does the meritoriousness of self-deprivation--obviously a second side of the same coin. But now, to the degree that I punish my material self, to that degree I have earned spiritual credits with God.

    In this respect, confusion with the Christian idea of the simple life arises from the fact that Jesus speaks much of self-denial, of giving up everything in order to follow him. Yet the economy is entirely different in the two cases. Jesus nowhere talks in terms of deliberately hurting oneself in an attempt to trade earthly pain for heavenly pleasure. No, for Jesus, self-denial is more like a swimmer getting rid of his outer clothing in order truly to enjoy his swimming. And the Christian rids himself of his excess possessions, not because they are bad in themselves or because he feels it somehow good (or a way to impress the coach) for him to freeze himself, but because getting stripped is the very thing he most wants to do in order to get the full effect of a glorious plunge into the cool pool and still waters of God (or, to put it otherwise, a view of the stars).

    However, the clearest proof that the simple life is not asceticism is Jesus' own example and the obvious contrast between himself and a true ascetic, John the Baptist. The difference even got Jesus into trouble for not being as "holy" as people thought he ought to be.
    For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, "He has a demon." The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, "Look, a glutton and a drinker, a friend of tax-gatherers and sinners!" (Mt. 11:18-19)
    The simple life and the ascetic life are not the same; in is case the contrast was conspicuous to the eyes of beholders. But this means that the simple life is not nearly as easy to spot and identify by its outward markings as is the ascetic renunciation of material reality. Indeed, in at least some aspects, the simple life must be well nigh invisible--if Jesus can be accused of being a glutton and drinker. And right here is the difficulty: to the extent that the simple life is outwardly ambiguous, to that extent it also is very easy to fake. And so, with Jesus, we must insist upon the presence of its inner reality rather than upon prescribed appearances of outward form. Otherwise, John the Baptist rather than Jesus becomes the model of the simple life.

    Now in the sensate and materialistic culture that is ours, asceticism would not appear to be a particular threat--until we realize that we may be witnessing the resurgence of new forms of asceticism, precisely in reaction to our sensate and materialistic culture.

    Rather apparent currents of ascetic thought and practice run through the Eastern religions and cults that in our midst are both winning out-and-out converts and influencing those who still consider themselves Christians. Some people, I understand, actually have broken their health through the ascetic diet by which they attempted to become "spiritual."

    There is evidence that the earthly-pain-buys-heavenly-glory type of asceticism may have infected certain sectors the Jesus Movement. And, interestingly enough, at least one psychologist claims to have spotted a variant form of asceticism in the current "organic foods" fad. He thinks that many young people who follow this enthusiasm are all unconsciously trying to achieve their own moral and spiritual purification by taking in only "pure" foods.

    But whatever the situation, the Christian response to our thing-sick culture is the simple life and not any form of asceticism. Yet we need to be aware of the current trend, knowledgeable about the distinction, and alert to the dangers of confusion. And the one protection is to set one's mind on the kingdom of God before everything else and let the "all the rest" come to you as well.

  • Dissociation from Society In addition to the above, there is a somewhat different form of asceticism that, for many people, is now threatening to displace Christianity's simple life. It is a concern serious enough that we will devote an entire chapter to it a bit later. Here we will spend only enough time to get it on our list and relate it to a couple of the sayings of Jesus.

    In this instance it is not the material world that is renounced as being totally evil; it is the societal world and in particular the contemporary social establishment in which the person finds himself. For the most part, this social asceticism does not represent a carefully developed philosophy such as lies behind classic ascetic thought; it marks much more of a spontaneous, gut-level rebellion against a hypocritical and oppressive social regime.

    Nevertheless, "the simple life" now becomes a life style designed expressly to demonstrate that the practitioner is no part of and wants nothing to do with established society. Even very minor details of dress and personal habit take on prime Significance as symbols from the dominant culture.

    Now, in Striving to relate all of this to the teaching of Jesus, the first thing to be said is that, if one truly sets his mind on the kingdom of God before everything else, properly and inevitably this should create a distinction between his way of life and that of a world that is oriented to totally different values. The societal ascetics are right thus far (if, indeed, they have come thus far--that is, to a primary loyalty to the kingdom of God); such a loyalty and a distinction from the world are inevitable correlates.

    However, as soon as one lets his single focus slip across From the kingdom of God and onto this distinction from the world, then he has botched the Christian succession. Just because commitment to the kingdom involves a distinction from the world, it does not follow that any and every distinction from the world automatically qualifies as commitment to the kingdom. The order of priority cannot be reversed; and the Christian simple life always is a positive doctrine of the enjoyment of God before it is a negative doctrine concerning the evil of the world. Protest against and challenge to the way of the world certainly has its proper place in the Christian economy; but that place must be with the "all the rest" that comes as well rather than with the "before everything else. "

    That Jesus himself did not make conspicuous dissociation from society a prime objective of his ministry is indicated by what we know of his personal demeanor. As we already have seen, he was willing to participate in society in such a way that at least opened him to the charge of being a glutton and drunkard--and a friend of tax-gatherers (who are nothing if not establishment types!). But more to the point, the Gospel records would indicate that he was not averse to being seen in and even attending banquets in the homes of society's upper crust; that he did in fact circulate as freely in the social establishment as among the social outcasts; and that he showed no particular concern to make sure that no one mistakenly identified him with the establishment crowd. He would have felt just as free to mix and be mixed with the people inside the Miami Beach Convention Center as with those in Flamingo Park on the outside--and he would have felt just as free to mount a critique against one group as against the other.

    Very relevant to this point is Jesus' response to the question of paying taxes: "Pay Caesar what is due to Caesar, and pay God what is due to God" (Mk. 12:17). Now the interpretation proposed by many expositors can be quickly granted: Jesus is not at all suggesting that the pie be split fifty-fifty between God and Caesar; rather, the case is, "Give God the kind of ultimate loyalty that belongs to him and give Caesar the pennies that bear his image. " Nevertheless, neither can that saying be twisted to say, "Give God everything, and to hell with Caesar. " If Jesus had meant that, he would have said so.

    Certainly, the "before everything else" Constitutes God's share, and it is out of the "all the rest" that Caesar's share must come; but the simple life cannot be motivated by a sheer denial of connection with Caesar and the societal world he represents. Obviously, what we have here is a dialectic relationship; we will set up that dialectic and juggle it a little in a chapter to come.

Moving on to the Outward Manifestation of the Simple Life

The present chapter has borne down hard upon one's inner stance toward God as being constitutive for the simple life; our scripture sources would not allow us to write it any other way. Yet, although we have not been at all specific as to what the outward manifestations of the simple life look like, implications about the necessity of there being outward manifestations have been present all the way through. I trust they have not been lost upon (or evaded by) the reader. But if one were to give his loyalty completely to God's kingly rule and then discover that is required no change either in his attitude toward the things of the world or in the way he actually conducts himself regarding them, then obviously God doesn't amount to very much and commitment to him is no big deal. It is the case, then, that, in the simple life dialectic, if the pole of outward manifestation is slighted, this necessarily will mark a subversion of the primary, before-everything-else pole as well. Although there is difficulty giving it detailed emphasis and description, this secondary pole is just as essential as the primary one. Please don't read this book so as to disparage it.

Copyright (c) 1971