The lengthy manuscript below is a sort of minimalist, Christian manifesto. I have put this post into the discipline category on my blog because I agree with Richard Foster that simplicity is both a Spiritual Discipline itself and the fertile soil from which all others may spring.1 I am especially indebted to Foster and also to Joshua Becker for his writings on this subject. Above even these, I am indebted to my wife, Selene, who has encouraged our passionate pursuit of this simple life over the last eight months. Next month, we will move into the next stage of our personal journey by downsizing into an apartment, not due to economic distress, but because of a desire for a simple life.
If you want to hear the sermon series that I have been preaching that corresponds to this principle, you can listen to them here (start at the bottom of the page for the first sermon).
I’ve been very interested in a current trend called minimalism. Families are selling possessions, downsizing into smaller homes or apartments, and making do with less. Ornate furniture is being replaced by clean lines and small pieces from IKEA. Bloggers are writing about how little a person actually needs instead of how much they can obtain. Part of this trend is an economic reality; people just don’t have as much money. Part of this seems to be a subtle rebellion against a consumer-driven culture with its frantic lifestyle. Part of it seems to be a deep craving for a simpler life, but what is the source of this craving and what does it mean?
For gospel reasons that I will discuss below, I think this is a great trend, but it will be no more than a short-lived fad unless we understand its root and cause. Cathy Gottberg recently wrote,
Why do I think it is critical for us to explore the depths of what minimalism and simple living mean? Mainly because if a person is attracted to one or another of these concepts without realizing how it truly fits into their world view, then chances are the minute they move into a house next to the “Jones’s,” or get a big raise, they will fall off the wagon and be right back where they started. Until anything we do becomes a vital aspect of who we are, rather than a hobby or a fad that seems cool at the time, we are susceptible to reverting back to our former habits.2
If this particular trend has the same untethered core as the consumer mentality that it replaces, then we can’t expect it to last. On the other hand, what if this trend was to be anchored in the life-shaping heart of Christ’s teachings? Then we might be getting somewhere.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus discusses a lifestyle that sounds very much like the simple life being pursued by this trend. The main sequence of thought runs from Matthew 6:25-34, but it is introduced by the conclusion of the previous section. “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (6:24). This segue introduces the simplicity of heart on which Jesus will base his teaching on the simplicity of living.
It is far simpler to serve one, than two.
Every married person knows it. The bachelor has but one master, the married person has two – two minds, two desires, two sets of preferences, and two sets of demands. Which is the more complicated life? I promise that ministers are not trained in marital counseling because it is so easy! This frustration mirrors closely the challenge of living as a Christian. Trying to please self and trying to please God gets complicated. Jesus advocates that we abandon self, but to do that, he claims that we also have to abandon the frantic pursuit of life’s goods.
The life of devotion to God is simpler because it is more. That sounds counterintuitive of course. Less seems to be simpler than more, but in this one regard, this is not what Jesus offers. “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25)
Take a look at how we are living now. A frenzied pursuit of possessions. A strained hope that with enough money will come peace and security. Minimalist author Joshua Becker suggests that our pursuit of security through possessions is natural, but easily misguided:
We have confused needs with wants and security with luxury. As a result, many of us pursue and collect large stockpiles of possessions in the name of security or happiness. We work long hours to purchase them. We build bigger houses to store them. And we spend more energy maintaining them. The burden of accumulating and maintaining slowly becomes the main focus of our lives.3
If life is only about accumulating peace of mind through possessions, then our experience tells us that this will fail. We have a culture whose wanton consumption is only matched by its anxiety and depression. What we see is not satisfying our emotional needs, no matter how much we gather. What Jesus offers is an alternative. Life can be simple, because it is more than it seems, because it is not merely a matter of hunting and gathering. Jesus is offering something more.
However, Jesus refuses to leave this discussion in the abstract, which is part of what makes this section both powerful and unbearable. He instead offers concrete illustrations.4 Why? Is he setting down a new kind of legalism? Not likely. Instead he knows that precision is required because we would find it far too easy to hide behind vague platitudes. After all, no one gets up in the morning and believes they are a slave to their possessions. No one thinks that they have too much. We all think we are about average, and not at all decadent. Those other people are obscene and excessive. Not us. We are just right.
Jesus disagrees. He strikes hard and fast at elements common to every life. He does not run to extremes, the low hanging-fruit of mansions and luxury yachts. He sees split devotion apparent in our pursuit of food, our longing for better health, and our search for personal beauty.
Jesus really isn’t playing fair. He rarely does.
To show us how enslaved even the average person is to the false securities of possessions and wealth, Jesus begins a series of comparisons and rhetorical questions. The first deals with what we would probably consider a primal need: food. “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26) Jesus here sets up a comparison between human planning and birdlike whimsy. Birds seem not to share any of our concerns about fields, barns, or grocery stores, but their disinterest does not starve them.
Birds eat every day.
This is actually disappointing to us. There is a part of us that would rather those inattentive birds starve just to prove us right in our anxiety about providing for ourselves, but there they are. Eating and living and never caring. Their simplicity of life throws shame on our career planning and careful investment strategies. They eat precisely because they do not try to provide for themselves. They are utterly dependent on the Father’s provision. Their dependence is their strength, just as our fight for independence is our undoing.
Skipping quickly to another example, Jesus addresses the human fascination with our own health. Like the modern era, the ancient world was full of both comparatively sophisticated professionals and incompetent amateurs who all claimed to be able to enhance health and length of days. Eat this herb. Take this pill. An apple a day. Jesus is unimpressed. “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:27)
At the end of the day, being human is fatal.
Recently, I sat in a small room at a doctor’s office, watching the specialist show us the first ultrasound of our son, due in July. Selene’s pregnancy is considered high-risk due to her medical history, so this particular doctor was a specialist, an expert in his field. I guess what surprised me, after the initial awe at the little life on display on the black and white monitor, was the helplessness of the moment. The doctor, a man of science and learning with a hefty price tag, could offer no more assurance than, “Looks okay, but we will have to wait and see.” It left me speechless and just a little angry. I wasn’t paying for “wait and see.” I was paying for “look and fix.” I was looking for a promise of security, of safety, and of health. Wait and see is all I got. It is most often all we ever get.
Jesus is relentless in this section, so before we can even grasp the depth of that last question, he has already framed another. “And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:28-30) Think a moment about our modern fashion industry and our beauty products. Consider the multiplied billions spent every year, money spent to try and remedy the anxiety over our appearance. Jesus has no use for it.
God creates beauty, not you.
A flower – any flower in any field, without consultation of any of our experts or magazines, a little weed that will bloom unnoticed and wither unseen – has beauty that we can neither steal nor imitate. Solomon in all his wealth could not best it. The little flower’s effortless glory comes from God, and so it puts to shame all our efforts to muster up beauty in a bottle or from a bolt of fabric. Like the bird, it manages without our efforts and makes our daily routines and fretting seem petty and small.
Our surplus of concern over all or any of these matters does us no good, but rather great harm. “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matthew 6:31-32). Jesus returns to his beginning. He asks us to look at the exhausting life of the Gentile or the consumer culture of our day. See, he says, the weariness of heart and mind that overwhelms us when we pursue what we ultimately will never attain. The alternative to the complex and fruitless pursuit of security through possessions is to remember what the birds have never forgotten and what the flowers never even had to learn. The creator is the provider, and we are not.
God is the father; you are the child.
Watch children. Take a moment and be amazed by the life they live. My son Lucas, five years-old, looked at me yesterday and without any preamble said, “You know who you shouldn’t trust? Catwoman, because she will make you steal things.” How absurd! Who has time to dream up such notions? Children do. Their divine whimsy is the result of the absolute trust in their parents to provide. They can flitter to and fro from one thing to the next like a bird or sit idly soaking in the sun like a flower, because they are not trying to master their parent’s world. They trust and live.
God is the father; you are the child. He is asking us to trust, and offering us the same simplicity, freedom, and joy that every child knows.
“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). He ends where he began. It is far simpler to serve one, than two, and the kingdom is the pursuit that ends all other pursuits. The service of God enriches rather than exhausts. Like the bush that appeared to Moses, life in the presence of God burns but is not consumed. His yoke is easy and his burden is light.
In the style of an ancient wisdom teacher, Jesus ends this section with a proverb – a nice little bow on top, the “take home” part of the sermon. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” Matthew 6:34). My mother would often quote that last bit to us any time we began to fret over the future. Out of the King James, of course: “Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.” Today is hard enough. Someone Greater Than I needs to take care of tomorrow.
Aren’t you tired of spending every day trying to make money to pay for things you can’t afford to keep? Aren’t you exhausted by buying possessions to fill up your house, and buying bigger houses to hold more possessions? Aren’t you sick of working all week in order to have enough money to go play on the weekend? Life is more than that. You know it has to be.
Nolland highlights this in his outlining of the section and in his commentary as well. John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005). ↩