The Outward Bound
by Vernard Eller

6. Whose Little Microcosm Are You?

With this chapter we turn away from congregational style to look at the style of the individual Christian. However, that is not as great a change of focus as one might think. Kierkegaard once said, "The individual, in community, is a microcosm which qualitatively reduplicates the macrocosm," and he then quoted a Latin motto from Terence, "To know one is to know all."3

With the words "in community," Kierkegaard is applying his Observation only to the caravan church. If, with forceps, he is saying, you were to reach into a caravan congregation, catch the first individual (microcosm) that came to you, and examine him under your microscope, you could learn all that is essential about the caravan (macrocosm) itself. Although Kierkegaard stopped here, the Bible would suggest that the principle could be carried a step further. Catch the first Christian congregation (microcosm) that comes your way, and at least in theory, you could discover the nature of the coming kingdom of God (macrocosm).

Kierkegaard, however, was intent to show that the "random specimen" method would not even begin to work with a commissary church. In a caravan, every member shares all the powers and responsibilities and, indeed, the very character of every other member and of the congregation itself. But in the commissary church the picture would be entirely different depending upon whether the investigator happened to catch one of the proprietors or one of the customers, one of the performers or one of the spectators, one of the officers who gives the orders or a member of the hoi polloi who takes them. The commissary does not even pretend to be the sort of homogenous community that the caravan aspires to be.

Nevertheless, there is a sense in which Kierkegaard's experiment probably does apply to commissaries as well as caravans. The reason we are attracted to a church with class is that we want to be individuals with class. We want a church that enjoys social respectability because, as individuals, we want to be socially accepted. We want a fine building for our church for the same reason we want fine homes for ourselves. We want to be part of a successful church because we are interested in being successful persons. As I have said before, the church is not so dumb; it sees the advantage of giving people what they want, of being what the people themselves are.

It is almost inevitable, then, that there will be congruence between our congregational style and our personal style, between what we see as congregational values and what we see as personal values. Notice that this relationship can go either of two ways. It may be that the congregation comes to he what it is because the members are what they are. Or it may be that, being what it is, the congregation encourages and nurtures members in becoming what they do become. My guess is that the relationship works both ways at once, that congregation and people each feed into the other. In any case, talking about individual Christian lifestyle without giving attention to the church community can only get at part of the truth; the congregation is the context in which the personal behavior is meant to take place.

The question, then, to which we now address ourselves is:

What should be the behavior and character of a Christian who can serve as a microcosm of a congregation which is itself a microcosm of the macro-macrocosm of the kingdom of God The question, of course, takes in much more territory than we can hope to cover here. The whole New Testament (the whole Bible for that matter) is, in one sense, an answer.

The answer, of course, must include all aspects of both faith and discipleship, and many books have been written on each of these aspects. But rather than trying to duplicate them, our effort will be to identify the general, overall characteristic that is the trademark of all these detailed actions. Then we will talk a little about how we might go about incorporating this trademark into our lives.

The best name for this trademark is "Christian simplicity." I insist upon including the adjective "Christian" as well as the noun "simplicity" because there are some understandings of and approaches to simplicity that do not qualify at all. However, even before we come to individual lifestyle, it may be that "Christian simplicity" is the best description for the distinction between the two types of congregations.

  • A caravan is certainly more simply organized than a commissary.
  • Expediti represent a simpler line of authority and control than does an avant-garde.
  • Barbershopping is a simpler way of making music than staging the Royal Vienna String Quartet.
  • To live unmindful of class is simpler than to be continually striving for it.
  • Making church decisions through communal counsel is simpler than making decisions through management charts.
  • Fidelity (finding a single focus and becoming wholly obedient to it) is simpler, although not easier, than success (which inevitably involves playing all the angles).
Indeed, it is fidelity itself which makes Christian simplicity distinctively Christian.

It may be, of course, that some of these congregational simplicities are directly applicable to microcosmic behavior as well. Nevertheless, we want here to stress that simplicity of individual lifestyle affects conduct in every area, at points that might not even occur to us on first thought. Indeed, I am reluctant to list examples, lest they be taken as exhaustive, and implications for other aspects of life be ignored.

Undoubtedly the sort of items that first come to mind at the mention of simplicity have to do with our possessions and material goods--fashionable clothing, gourmet food, luxurious dwellings, expensive recreations and vacations, fine vehicles, appliances and conveniences, and cosmetics and adornments (you extend the list). However, we need also to consider simplicity in some other, very different situations. How about simplifying the pace and multiplicity of our involvements in activities, our "go-go-go" mentality? How about simplifying our personal relationships, clearing out all the superfluities of title, rank, status, and prestige, and just being people for a change? How about listening to Jesus when he says, "Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No, No'; anything more than this comes from the evil one" (Mt. 5:37), and do away, not only with oaths, but also with flattery, overblown rhetoric, and salesmanship "come-ons"? How about simplifying our faith by neither spinning it out into highly intellectualized theories, nor into complicated charts revealing the nature of the universe?

What is our next step? Perhaps some may want to know how to go about making these simplifications in order to be better microcosms, but that is the wrong request. It overlooks the most crucial aspect of the whole procedure. Fidelity to Jesus, you see, is not always the motive behind "simplification." A person can be motivated by his or her desire for success--which is something quite different from fidelity. Thus a person could become simpler in every area we have talked about and still not be any closer to Christian simplicity. Fidelity means doing something because we are following Jesus, because he asks us to. Success means doing something in order to achieve some goal or realize some value without regard to Jesus' will or command.

In the case of simple living, the foremost argument is that simplicity constitutes the most satisfying life, simplicity can successfully bring happiness. That may be true (although I am sure that for many people it would not be), and I am not saying that there is anything wrong in seeking happiness.

Let us simplify our lives, then, in order to save food, goods, and money that can be given to the poor. The gospel does obligate us to have a concern about poverty and world hunger. Nevertheless, many non-Christian humanitarians (and even governmental agencies) share that concern; thus helping the poor does not prove that one is acting out of Christian discipleship. Jacques Ellul has made a rather startling comment in this regard. He contends that a broad, generalized benevolence toward faraway people en masse (e.g., "the starving children of the world")--even if it means contributing money, giving up a few meals, or walking for the hungry--cannot be called Christian love, or agape. No, that must involve truly personal knowledge, mutuality, and response. Certainly, Ellul would contend that the practice of this broad benevolence is a good thing, but he would deny that doing it makes one a Christian.

Then perhaps we ought to simplify our lives for ecological reasons, so that we might succeed in passing on to our children and grandchildren an environment that is livable and has sufficient resources. This is, in every way, a good idea, and one for which we could find scriptural backing. Yet the ecological arguments are just as applicable to non-Christians. Many people who are simplifying their lives out of ecological considerations (and many of the organizations supporting them) make no Christian profession at all. Christians should practice good ecology, but that in itself does not make them Christians.

We have not named all the possible motives for simplifying our lives. Some of them are probably good and true. Even so, none represents the "what do ye more than others?" Where, then, does the answer lie? With Jesus, obviously--and there most particularly in the Sermon on the Mount, where he focuses on the simple life.

According to Jesus, there is only one basic simplicity--one extraordinary simplicity. All our other simplicities are to depend upon it; it is to be the source of all other simplicities. Jesus, we will see, speaks to this point time after time, in many different ways, but his most succinct and pointed statement (a verse we have already used in another context) comes as the summary of the simple-life passage from Matthew:

Strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Mt. 6:19-34)

This is the authoritative definition of fidelity and simplicity. 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," for in this comes the possibility of the successes and accomplishments of a more satisfying life in helping the poor, becoming ecologically responsible, and so forth. Nevertheless, a hard and fast distinction ought to be maintained between the "first" and "all the rest"; 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 follow behind, find its place, and assume true value and authenticity. This is Christianity's "simple life."

And in this instance, the old saying of "putting first things first" is not quite good enough. The New Testament makes it evident that "first" is singular and not plural; "putting the first thing first" would be the only proper way to state this. Kierkegaard has a book entitled Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing. It could as well have been called (and Kierkegaard would not object) The Simple Life Is to Will One Thing. But in that book he makes the point that only the "first" that Jesus 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" will inevitably result in double-mindedness rather than a single focus. And here is the ultimate simplicity from which all other simplicities must spring, namely, a single focus of life, a single authority, a single center, a single lordship.

"Set your mind on God's kingdom and his justice before everything else," Jesus tells us. That might seem to be a double focus; in actuality, it is not. "God's kingd9rn" does not designate a location or any outward object. His kingdom is his "kingness," the de facto situation of his being king, the exercising of his proper rule. Thus, "to set one's mind upon his kingdom" is to seek, above all, to let the king's will be done in one's life, to put oneself into appropriate relationship to him as a subject.

That we are to seek Gods "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 means, of course, that one must 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 fidelity, that is, absolute, personal loyalty.

But we must be careful to understand what it means to be faithful, 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 I am not obeying him, I am merely obeying my own good sense and judgment. In such a 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 justice before everything else; it is putting myself first--my judgments, my ideas of good and bad and 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. Only the life that springs from this inner motivation of personal fidelity to the Lord God is true Christian simplicity.

Time after time in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus stresses the importance of inner motivation:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures 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 steal. 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 valuing God himself and one's personal relationship to him? This treasure, by the way, can be enjoyed even before one is "in heaven." And, we are told, it is upon this treasure that we are to put our hearts.

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 6:22-23)

A person's vision, the illumination of his entire existence, depends entirely upon the focus of his eye (his fidelity commitment). If that focus is not sound and single, not totally upon God, then everything else in this world 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 one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Mt. 6:24)

Instead of "God and Money," we have been saying "Fidelity and Success," but the thought is the same. One's ultimate loyalty must converge at a single point. To try to go two ways at once will divide a person down the middle and make his life multi-manic rather than simple.

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, 32-33)

The twelfth chapter of Matthew marks a second concentration on the theme and includes further implications.

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)

We should note a difference between this last saying and those that have preceded it. For the most part Jesus speaks of our loyalty being directed to God, although at times, as here, he speaks of loyalty toward himself The remainder of the New Testament (as our own study here) tends to speak of loyal discipleship to Jesus.

Actually, there is no conflict at all here 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 the two loyalties can get out of balance, because they are, in fact, one loyalty.

Later in the chapter from Matthew, Jesus restates his theme:

Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? And pointing to his 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 fidelity in doing the will of God so entirely takes precedence over everything else that 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 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)

In Luke's Gospel, Jesus pointedly states:

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

Any simplicity that looks elsewhere than solely to kingdom fidelity is not the kind of plowing advocated by the gospel.

Christian simplicity, then (for we are finally to the place that a definition is in order), is that style of life which grows out of and bears the fruit of a commitment of total fidelity to Jesus Christ. It is the effort to find the character and behavior that will best give expression to the fact that such fidelity means more to me than success, accomplishment, satisfaction, or whatever else might make up the "all the rest."

And this Christian simplicity, it is most important to say, involves more than just my personal effort to get my own priorities right; it is a means of public witness--of evangelism--if you will. It is a means by which others can be shown that the gospel (and my life in the gospel) is centered in the lordship of Jesus rather than in fine buildings (even if dedicated to Christ), possessions, worldly satisfactions, and so forth. Any lifestyle that gives people the impression that I value anything else as much or more than I value being obedient to Jesus Christ proclaims a false gospel.

Now I know that many readers would like me to get specific about a life of Christian simplicity. "What can a Christian own, and what can he not own? How much can he pay for a house without compromising simplicity?" No one can answer those questions, because Christian simplicity has to be the fruit of individual fidelity to Jesus. Such fidelity is an intensely personal matter, and the results will reflect the individuality of each person and situation. Of course, some general observations and counsels could be made. But we have in mind to do something better. In the next chapter we will discuss how best to go about getting answers to the question "What shall I do?"

But there is a final consideration needed in this chapter. "Although it would seem good that the right things are done for the right reasons, what real difference does it make as long as the right thing is done in the end? Getting our lives simplified is what we are after here, so if one person does it out of fidelity to Jesus and another does it. Out of other motives, what does it matter? You get simplicity either way, don't you?"

Well, that sounds logical (and it may be), but it is not true! For one thing, the simplicity dedicated to Jesus should and will be publicly attributed to him, thus becoming a witness that otherwise-motivated simplicity can never be. Yet the distinction goes much deeper than that.

"Motives" cannot be counted as one thing and the "out-come" as something entirely different. The motive of any action carries over and is incorporated into the outcome whether its presence is readily apparent or not. Thus, identical actions, which seem as though they should produce identical outcomes, may have entirely different meanings and results if done out of different motives.

For instance, any venture with the goal of success necessarily involves an action that can be counted upon to produce the desired outcome. The most that is wanted from the action, then, is that it bring about the desired result. The venture neither envisions nor desires the involvement of factors other than those of cause-and-effect calculation.

The case is quite different with ventures aimed at fidelity. There is now no calculation designed for a pre-selected outcome. The only interest is in being obedient. However, to be obedient to Jesus is to invite him into the action. The outcome now is in his hands, and that makes it entirely incalculable. That outcome may turn out to be what would have happened anyway, yet there is always the possibility that the Lord may choose to do something quite different with it, something quite different from what we would have chosen as success, yet also something much greater than mere success--namely, a bit of the coming of the kingdom. No one can say what fidelity will bring; but it certainly is not limited to mere success.

So give Christian simplicity a try. Become a simple microcosm, and see what happens!

Copyright (c) 1980