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8) Simplicity

1. What is/was Simplicity? Simplicity is the first of four “Outward Disciplines” in Richard Fosterʼs Celebration of Discipline.[1] He describes this Discipline in terms of both an outward lifestyle and an inward reality. The two are intertwined and cannot survive without each other. In fact, he notes, without the inward transformation, the outward lifestyle becomes a rigid and self-righteous form of legalism, an insight to which I can personally give witness.[2] The inward reality of Simplicity begins with a biblical understanding of the purpose of things in God’s creation. It rejects both the grasping worship of the stuff of the earth and the repudiation of creation. Foster believes:

The majority of Christians have never seriously wrestled with the problem of simplicity, conveniently ignoring Jesus’ many words on the subject. The reason is simple: this Discipline directly challenges our vested interests in an affluent lifestyle.

So how does one neither run from the clear teachings of Scripture – especially of Jesus – nor so adhere to our own best understanding of his teachings that we find ourselves caught up in graceless disapproval of anyone who varies from our expression of “Simplicity?”

Foster identifies three primary reasons why modern Christians are drawn to Simplicity: 1) a desire to get out of the exhausting rat race of being owned by the stuff we have; 2) the biblical mandate for the redistribution of the world’s wealth because of the scandalous chasm between the few wealthy and the millions of the destitute, worldwide; and 3) a concern about the many environmental impacts of our consumptive lifestyle. He allows there are other motives as well. However, says Foster, to focus on any one such good concern, “will inevitably draw us into declaring that our particular activity is Christian simplicity.” Our focus, our motive for entering into Simplicity, says Foster, must be centered on the coming of the kingdom of God. He concludes this point with:

And in fact, when the kingdom of God is genuinely placed first, ecological concerns, the poor, the equitable distribution of wealth and many other things will be given proper attention.

This message is, of course, what Jesus told the ones who would soon first establish the kingdom on earth: “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33).

And what exactly, does it mean to “seek the kingdom first?” Always a good question. Foster does not fill this out but he notes that kingdom-seekers are persons who trust God, who trust God’s timing and provision and who are centered and grounded in that inward trust. They are empowered to find Simplicity because they have ceased to be divided in their deepest allegiance. To use Brennan Manning’s famous phrase, they have come to trust God ruthlessly.

To be sure, no one comes to ruthless trust in a day, a week or a year. Trust is gained, it is earned over time. To move from anxiety and insecurity toward such freedom is a journey of many days. Author and blogger Rachel Held Evans (RHE), whom I have mentioned and quoted before, published a wonderful post two months back on how she had been learning to laugh out loud at TV commercials. She shared examples of some of those which she might have previously been drawn into out of feelings of insecurity. Yet, as she has become more and more certain of herself as a child of God, she has come to see the absurdity of ads which, for instance, urge her to “volumize” and “millionize” her eye lashes!

I do not know RHE’s heart and soul, but I get the impression she is so coming to trust God and God’s evaluation of her as his very own, beautiful, kingdom-bringing child that the commercials which might have once gotten a hook into her anxieties and mesmerized her into needless consumption have become what they surely are in God’s eyes: tinny, laughable jokes. I suspect that RHE is becoming simpler, funnier and more relaxed on the outside because the kingdom is building a bulwark inside, first in her heart, where her true allegiance(s) live and then in her soul: her outlook, attitudes, opinions, imagination and hopes. Rachel, I suspect, is on a journey toward Simplicity.

This journey is a good one for each Christian to take, alone at first. The more the competing noisy allegiances are forced out of our hearts, the more centered and the less confused we become in outlook and action. When, at the end of each of these posts, I ask my readers to pray with me that the Spirit of God would so come in power that we are melted and molded, it is at that deepest heart level I mean for these profound changes to take place. To melt my heart and remold it is to have every impurity, every false allegiance found and poured out so that I might truly and purely seek God’s kingdom with my whole heart. I know such work is not the stuff of a moment or even of a decade but in this time I am sensing many urgent deadlines are looming for us and I believe I am being driven deeper into the heart of God, at least for my own sake and for God’s glory.

And as I learn to trust myself to God, I am being empowered to be patient, not only with myself but with all those around me. Simplicity, it seems, begins with an undivided heart at the center of a life which forgives and goes around obstacles and finds fellow travelers, forms, storms and norms communities, which hang on through hard times, which eventually perform with a sense of urgency but not of panic nor contentiousness.

2. How was Simplicity lost? Simplicity has never been fully lost to Christianity although its loss by one or another Christian expression has often been a visible symptom of serious compromise with the ways of the empires of a given day. The enemy of simplicity is not wealth, power, eroticism, prestige nor even mobility, privacy and convenience. The enemy of simplicity is fear, along with its BFF, insecurity. Wealth, power, and those other bright shiny desires are the things on which the fearful gorge themselves in the desperate hope that they can silence their pangs of angst, at least for a while.

Simplicity becomes blurry whenever, in fear, we turn our eyes, as individuals or as societies to other “saviors.” An insightful 60 Minutes piece on India recently focused on its people’s unashamed lust for gold. The Indian society is so crazy for gold that its people purchase nearly 33% of all the gold for sale in the world each year, most of which is turned into lavish jewelry. The Indian desire for gold is so intense that special loan programs and buying clubs have been established so that even the poor can convert their meager savings into gold. I can just see a couple of heavenly angels doubling over in gales of laughter after one says to the other, “They have invested all their worldly resources into pavement?”[3] Simplicity helps us realize what is valuable and what is not.

3. Should Simplicity be reclaimed?  Please read this quote. If you have read it before, do read it again, slowly.

In our day heaven and earth are on tiptoe waiting for the emergence of a Spirit-led, Spirit-intoxicated, Spirit-empowered people. All creation watches expectantly for the springing up of a disciplined, freely gathered, martyr people who know in this life the life and power of the kingdom of God. It has happened before. It can happen again.

It could be that the greatest affront which Christians could make to the systems of power and greed which dominate modern nations, both rich and poor, would be to become a simple people who enjoy a few really good things very much. In a world where the amassing of endless things is itself the recommended path to fulfillment, a world-wide people who choose to practice such Simplicity is perhaps the greatest possible single threat. If Simplicity of spirit and practice were to catch on with many millions in this country, a corporation which touts caramel-colored fizzy sugar-water as “The Real Thing” might be doomed or perhaps called to repentance. You never know with the Spirit…

For several generations increasing numbers of people in a world-wide expanding “western culture” have come to believe they cannot be fulfilled unless they acquire all the newest stuff: the latest cars, cell phones, computer pads and facial moisturizers or testosterone enhancers. In a world in which covetousness has become a major engine of commerce, Simplicity, internalized and then actualized by a critical mass of Christians would be an earth-shaking, but utterly loving and positive stand against a modern imperial idolatry. And yet for those called to such a witness, all that will be beside the point because the point is the living out of the mandates of the kingdom of God, the Lord’s own prayer in action.

We live in a world where around 30,000 children die each day in alleys and gutters, a world where the world’s largest democracy with the fastest growing middle class sinks every available rupee into paving bricks and where in the fastest shrinking middle class in the world, millions drop into poverty each year while others remain convinced they need to spend good money to “volumize” their eye lashes and customize their roadsters or else they will never find happiness. We are so confused, so splintered in our hearts.

Come, Spirit of God and wake us with your gentle yet fiery breath. We can see you are shaking the world again; we need you to shake us, your deeply divided people, to consciousness, wholeness and a Spirit-led unity of purpose!

Oh, do join me in praying that the Spirit of God will fall afresh on his people; that we might again be melted, molded, filled and used as the transforming Body of Christ, bringing heaven down to earth, just as we were taught to pray:

Our Father, may your name be made whole and majestic all over the earth! May your kingdom finally come fully to the earth! May your will be done on the earth, as it already is done throughout heaven! Please give us what we need for today, that we might be good stewards, daily. And do forgive our slowness of heart and meanness of spirit toward ourselves and you and all creation. And even as you forgive us, rescue us from the legalism that assumes it is ours to judge and do empower us to be utterly forgiving of ourselves and of those around us. Lord, the Evil One is more subtle than we are so please keep us clear of it so that we may freely seek and evermore establish your kingdom on this earth, where you shall reign forever and ever. So be it!

Any thoughts or comments?

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1 Back to Post Foster’s Inward Disciplines are: Meditation, Prayer, Fasting and Study. The Outward Disciplines: Simplicity, Solitude, Submission and Service and the Corporate Disciplines: Confession, Worship, Guidance and Celebration. See, Foster, Richard, Celebration of Discipline The Path to Spiritual Growth, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1983 [1978])

2 Back to Post I once found myself close to being forced to defend why Christians should not have to endure corporal punishment for the sin of watering their lawns. I chose to remain silent in the face of this assertion and possibly I was thought a fool. I can imagine a world in the not too distant future in which clean fresh water will be scarce enough to make using it for lawn watering illegal everywhere. However, to be judged a Christian in need of physical discipline because I live in a suburb and water my lawn during a drought…
Outward Simplicity must grow out of inward Simplicity and thus be filled with grace. The last thing we need in emerging Christianity is a new judgmental legalism, based on whether we do or do not practice someone’s definition of the biblical Discipline of Simplicity. The old Christian legalism which prohibited smoking, drinking, dancing, movie-going and card-playing was bad enough. Legalism of any kind is never a work of the spirit of God. And it is for a work of God’s Spirit that I seek.

3 Back to Post Revelation 21:21b And the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.