Part III: According to Your's Truly

Why Didn't You Do what We Wanted You To?

Sure, I know what you wanted me to do; I've known all along. You wanted me to give a bunch of specific, concrete suggestions on how to go about living simply draw you a picture of what a simple life might look like, give you something you can get your hands on and your teeth into.

Well, I'm not going to do it--and, note well, neither Jesus nor Kierkegaard did it either.

I'll tell you why not! First (but definitely not foremost) to go into specific detail is a sure way to date the book and make its message a very transitory thing. Conversely, it is amazing how relevant and timely are Jesus' teachings two thousand years later and Kierkegaard's interpretations more than a century after they were written.

Second (and much more foremostly), our major thesis has been that Christian simplicity is not primarily a matter of the outward arrangements of life style. Seeking first the kingdom cuts in at a different level. But now, whatever we might do in the way of making concrete suggestions could have the effect of undermining the point we truly are concerned to make. Now, by implication, there would be two ways of living the simple life: either by seeking first the kingdom or by following the author's counsels on what that life looks like.

But be very clear, this is not to say that it is immaterial whether the simple life has a concrete manifestation or not. No, no, no it is incredible that a person could freely and wholeheartedly choose God and become absolutely obedient to him without it making some change in his relationship to things of the world. If some sort of outward change did not take place, it rightly could be suspected whether he had actually chosen God. That change, of course, will be in the direction of simplicity, a lessened evaluation of what the world promotes as important. Yet, nevertheless, no one can dictate specifics to another; each person, with God's help, will have to evolve his style of simple living for himself. And at this point there is no reason at all why a theologian and Bible teacher should be looked to as a source of wisdom or expertise.

Third, whatever we might do here in the way of describing a particular style of simplicity inevitably would give the impression that this is the way to do it. But the truth is that there are almost numberless ways of doing it.

I could, for example, exuberate about one demonstration with which I am well familiar. The Society of Brothers (Bruderhof) is a Christian community in which the members have (renounced private ownership, pooled their resources, and moved the focus of their lives entirely away from concern over "things." I have never seen a more authentic and attractive witness to Christian simplicity. Thank God for these people; and God bless anyone who chooses to go this direction. But I am not going to be put into the position of implying that any Christian who does not choose to go this route is somehow falling short of Jesus' teaching and the Christian demand regarding simplicity.

I could describe some old-age pensioners I know--people who live on a very meager income and who never have been very far above that level but who, in their love for God, are as free and content and even rich as any other person you could name.

I could talk about some college kids whose poverty (I hope and believe) is not simply temporary and of the necessity of the moment. They are (I hope and believe) committed to the Lord and through him to a continuance of this style of life.

I could talk about the home in which I grew up. The most consistent and dependable occasion for argument at our house came at check-writing time each month. Pop would opine that he thought we could afford to give the church a little extra this time, something beyond our normal pledge and tithe. Mom would respond that we had better hang onto that money until we were sure we didn't need it. And considering the total budget involved, I am sure that any dispassionate observer would have said that, if our "needing it" was the criterion, the church should not have expected any at all.

(By the way, if, as counselors seem now to be saying, money problems are as much as an inevitable point of contention between husband and wife, I would recommend to any couple that they go for this argument that my parents have hassled for years and undoubtedly still are hassling, even though I am not around to hear it anymore and so have had to institute the same hassle in my own home.)

I could talk about what I picked up out of that home background. I could describe how uncomfortable I get and how out of place I feel even walking through a plush hotel, let alone staying in one. I could tell how a good meal is ruined for me if I have to pay more than two dollars (or at most two-and-a-half) for it; my stomach is saying, "Enjoy, enjoy" but my conscience, more loudly, is saying, "Shame on you, waster!"

But, you know, right here lies precisely the trouble with this whole line of thought. I frankly don't know how much my attitude and reactions are motivated by a love of God and how much merely by the psychological conditioning of a fortunate upbringing. I suspect that it is strongly the latter. And it is a sad, sad day when a guy gets a halo just for being cheap!

So we dare not measure Christian simplicity by merely external standards; and we dare not lift up certain modes of simplicity in a way that would seem to belittle those whose circumstances and experience have led them into quite different modes of what might well be an equally Christian life.

Finally, there is no lack of information today regarding the outward details of simple living. Christianity can and must provide the inner motivation of the simple life; but when we turn to talk about outward details, Christianity is of no use at all and shouldn't even be expected to offer help. Now we have moved into the sphere that rightly and appropriately belongs to secular science and technique.

Just try to think, not of how many different hooks, periodicals, pamphlets, lectures, classes, films, and programs but how many different kinds of these are available and relevant to the building of a simple life style. One can start (if this is his "thing") with the Whole Earth Catalog and the Dome Books and move out from that point. There is, then, all of the ecology' literature. Then there is Ralph Nader and no end of consumer guides. There are discount plans, buying clubs, books listing things one can get for free, and schemes for beating the market on all fronts. There is literature on nutrition, health foods, how to cut your grocery bills, etc., etc. There are how-to-do-it books and articles for building or sewing rather than buying almost anything you might care to name. There is stuff on family style and the psychological simplifying of interpersonal relations. There is material regarding family planning and population control. There are health and exercise books and those instructing in the simple human pleasures of massage, sex, etc. There are everywhere articles and books about persons and families who have cut out from the social mass in search of a more simple and individual style of living. There is well, I don't know what all there is; undoubtedly I have missed some major categories; and the best word to describe the whole is "etcetera." Truly, one of the most unsimple things about our current society is the great glut of stuff we have turned out in the promotion of simplicity.

Now if anyone thinks it necessary and wise for the author of this modest book to try to sort out that can of worms be has another guess coming. It will have to be a case of every man for himself; and theological principles will be of very little help. The decisions will need to be made in terms of practicality, empirical testing, trial and error, and even individual taste.

Within this mass of information, there certainly is that which can be of help to the Christian as he strives to simplify his life; but that statement is not to be taken as a blanket recommendation of all this literature and not even as a recommendation of any particular item within it. This material also carries some inherent dangers for the seeker of Christian simplicity.

For one thing, consider that none of it is presented under the motivation of setting one's mind on the kingdom of God before everything else. No, the assumed motive behind it all is what we earlier called "hedonism," the search for the sensual (and monetary) satisfactions that simplicity itself can bring. So be careful; the secular emphasis can trap a person into seeking first the simple life, thus making it into an idol that displaces God rather than opening the way to him. For instance, it seems apparent that many people relate more truly to Adelle Davis than to Jesus Christ as Savior--if the granting of unquestioning obedience for one's salvation is the test. The achievement of Christian simplicity is not measured by how well a person masters any aspect of this literature and practices it.

Also, because the simplicity thing has taken on the proportions of a fad, much of what it has produced is just plain inaccurate and misleading. It would not be wise, for example, to buy every counsel that has been uttered in the name of "ecology." The whole matter of organic food calls for a second look. In many respects it does not measure up as a move toward simplicity: it is more expensive than customary foods; if society as a whole were to move this way, it would cut agricultural production to the place that more rather than fewer people in our world would have to starve; it has not been scientifically proven that it is all that much more nutritious. Watch out, too, for do-it-yourself projects; how many men have spent much more for shop equipment than the worth of anything they ever produced with it? And again, there are many situations in which it is not true that home gardening represents any kind of saving. Finally, the ethics of some corner-cutting and discount plans must be closely examined.

In short, the Christian's finding of simplicity is going to call not only for spiritual acumen and commitment but also for practical care and wisdom--rather than being just an enthusiastic plunge into today's simplicity cult.

We said earlier that individuals will have to find their own way to what Christian simplicity is to be them. That still holds, but there is a modification that should be considered. There was no intention of suggesting that it is impossible for us to be of help to one another in this area. The final style design will have to be one's own, but brotherly counsel and discussion can be most helpful in getting one to that point. This is something the church could provide: the opportunity for seeking Christians to get together in intimate fellowship for the purpose of sharing with, challenging, and even disciplining one another in a mutual search for the life style that can best express the relationship to God that takes priority over all else.

And the effort need not stop with merely talking together, either. Such a group might be able to find cooperative services and possibly even cooperative ownerships that would have the effect of simplifying the lives of all.

This book has explored only the theological and spiritual dynamics of Christian simplicity. But the possibilities regarding practical details are wide open--and are much more than any one book ever could handle. They are there for the taking. Nevertheless, we Christians need to keep very aware of our inveterate tendency to assume that our theological understanding and spiritual condition already are what they ought to be and that all we need now are a few instructions on what to do. Yet, as regards the gospel ideal of simplicity, this activist concern definitely is the minor and secondary consideration; and we would do well to place our major emphasis where the gospel places its. Therefore, set your mind upon God's kingdom before everything else, and all the rest--including guidance as to what your simplicity should look like--will come to you as well.

It Really Is the Life!

All the way through this book we have been careful to distinguish between Christian simplicity and the current secular flirtation with simplicity--and that on the grounds that the Christian mode is motivated by something quite other than "hedonism." We have not denied the conviction that many people would indeed find a simple style of life to be sensuously and psychologically satisfying; we have denied that there is anything particularly Christian about such a motivation,

This we have said (and over and over and over again, it must be confessed). And yet, at this late stage of the game, we are going to propose that the sole motive of Christian simplicity is HEDONISM (if that it can be called); and in doing so we will not be reneging at all on what we so carefully insisted earlier.

The trumpet note, which at this point we intend for our crescendo and finale, was at least implied in our biblical texts, although we didn't make a great deal of it at the time. It was, however, Kierkegaard who made it explicit and emphatic. The motive of Christian simplicity is not the enjoyment of simplicity itself; that and any other earthly benefit that comes along are part of the "all the rest." But the sole motive of Christian simplicity is the enjoyment of God himself (and if that be hedonism, let's make the most of it!)--it is "the view of the stars," "the contemplation of the heavens rather than of fireworks"; it is "the absolute joy" which is precisely "joy over God, over whom and in whom thou canst always rejoice."

More specifically, Christian simplicity is so to use "things" so that, first, they do not interfere with one's absolute joy in God, and, second, they actually point toward and contribute to that joy. When "things" are given their proper evaluation as being creations of and gifts from the God who loves us and supplies us with every good, then they can operate as integral contributions to that joy. Our task is to receive them in such a way that, as with the reception of any gift, our appreciation focuses on the giver rather than on our possession of the gift itself.

So Christian simplicity is not an anxious scrupulosity about possessions (either anxiety about getting and holding them or about keeping them below a certain "Christian" level). Rather, it is a joyous freedom regarding them. When life becomes focused upon God instead of "things," one not only is freed from all the anxieties that attend possession, but he also is made free to use "things" with all the blessing and joy for which they were created and given to us in the first place.

But in the final analysis this joy must root in God himself and in the prayer of absolute joy "which at last has nothing, nothing whatever more to pray for or to desire, but concludes with absolute joyfulness in the prayer: 'For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory.' ... And His is the glory; therefore in all that thou doest and in all that thou endurest, thou hast absolutely one thing more to do; to give Him the glory, for the glory is His."

So give it a try, brothers and sisters, for, simply put, it's the life!

Copyright (c) 1971