Simplicity and Generosity: Part 1
Describing someone’s life as “simple” could be interpreted as an insult. But “Simplicity” as it’s defined in the spiritual disciplines does not refer to one’s intelligence, status, or possessions; instead it offers a way of living where we are no longer defined or driven those things. Simplicity offers our heart freedom from its obsessions, attachment to riches, rank and reputation; there is freedom to live contentedly, freedom to live generously.
Richard Foster describes our current condition: “Inwardly modern man is fractured and fragmented. He is trapped in a maze of competing attachments. One moment he makes decisions on the basis sound reason and the next moment out of fear of what others think of him. He has no unity or focus around which life is oriented.” Simplicity and generosity address this condition and those distracting attachments. They encourage us to develop unity and focus, which help us, as Christ commands, to seek first the Kingdom of God.
Jesus and the rest of the Bible have a lot to say about the Christian life as one of single-minded devotion. But both Scripture and experience suggest two main obstacles lie in the way.
The first is what pop-philosopher Alain de Botton calls Status Anxiety— a worry “that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society… that we are currently occupying too low a rung or are about to fall to a lower one.” Worrying too much about what others think surrenders to them an authority that rightly belongs to God. In the end, that becomes de-humanising.
The second obstacle is Material Anxiety. Francois Fenelon referred to simplicity as “the pearl of the Gospel.” If we were honest, most us would rather have the pearls! And the house, the car, the holiday home, and the boat. Nowhere is our divided loyalty more obvious than in the area of material wealth. Jesus knew it, which is why warned us that we couldn’t serve both wealth and him. Cute car, flash yellow car, or no car—the problem is not necessarily in the having, it’s in the obsessive hankering. In today’s culture, the pressure to obtain a certain level of living can be relentless. To try and convince ourselves that we haven’t succumbed, Foster* notes that we cleverly rename the vices: “Covetousness we call ambition. Hoarding we call prudence. Greed we call industry.” Again, this is, profoundly dehumanising and, ultimately, profoundly enslaving. Few of us could honestly say, as the Apostle Paul does, that we have learned the freedom of contentment in all things.
The disciplines of simplicity and generosity are powerful antidotes to status and material anxiety. They offer us a way to enjoy life regardless of our rank or wealth, and encourage us to locate our primary identity in terms our relationship with God and his Kingdom.
Sadly, living with simplicity and generosity is made more difficult for most of us have a remarkable sense of entitlement, We accumulate position and possession because we believe that we’re owed, by God and by others. This makes it extremely difficult to address the two obstacles above, and almost impossible to be truly generous. Very few of us give away as much as we could. Consequently life becomes cluttered and fragmented as we try hold on to everything we can for ourselves.
Fortunately, this month we will be reflecting on creative ways to introduce simplicity and generosity into our patterns of life. The suggestions aren’t sensational or spectacular; instead they are… simple. But don’t let that fool you into thinking they are easy. Status and material anxiety are part of a cultural disease that is so widespread, even a small move in the opposite direction will take effort. But the resulting trust in God, and freedom from anxiety, will be well worth it.
The author of Ecclesiastes writes in Chapter 7: “This is all that I have learned: God made us plain and simple, but we have made ourselves very complicated” (GNB). People of a certain age can still remember when the cereal options every morning were limited: Weet-bix, Rice Bubbles or Corn-flakes— that was it. Today the better part of an entire aisle offers you every conceivable combination of grains, nuts, fruits, and sugar! This does interesting (and often unhelpful) things to our ability to live simply and contentedly.
In your Journal, make some observations on the ways in which you experience ‘complexity’ in your life (more than just at the breakfast table). What does your environment (your desk, your diary, your car) tell you about your experience of complexity? Can you identify situations where you might make choices to reject complexity and embrace simplicity?
Richard Foster* suggests that we will know that we are beginning to live a life of simplicity (i.e. truly seeking God and his kingdom first) when we notice some freedom from anxiety. In addition to your other scripture readings this week, reflect on Matthew 6 this week and ask a friend to do the same. Try to meet for a coffee and discuss: are you loyalties divided? How do you know? What does that look like? What are some solutions?
*Richard Foster quoted in Stephen W. Smith, Soul Custody: Choosing to Care for the One and Only You (Cook, Colorado Springs, 2010) p78.
Simplicity of Living: Part 2
Now we’re going to try a more practical exercise in simplicity and generosity. Sometime over the next two weeks, try surviving one week on $50. That is, limit yourself to just $50 (per head in your household) for food and entertainment. Invite others in your family or your flat-mates to join in: this needs to be a voluntary commitment. It is going to be easier to do with more people. When you’re done, calculate how much less you spent than usual and donate the difference to your favourite charity (that’s the generosity that comes out of simplicity).
Make your own ‘rules’ : Is it OK to use up what you already have in the pantry? Are there exceptions for birthdays? Are some expenses excluded? Let grace be your guide, but make sure you ‘feel’ the impact of living on less.
Now here’s the important bit. Reflect on your experience: Was there anything you found particularly difficult? Did anything surprise you? Has the experience changed your outlook on the way you ordinarily live, such that you would consider making some permanent changes?
Living on Less: Part 3
Previously, we tried a practical exercise in simplicity and generosity. The idea was to try to survive for one week on $50 per person in your household, although it was very important that we each set our own ‘rules’.
How did it go? Did you make some notes in your Journal about how it felt to ‘simplify’ your consumption? Did you make the calculation on how much less you spent than usual and donate the difference to your favourite charity? Was anything particularly difficult or surprising?
See if you can find an opportunity to give this growth exercise another go. Remember to set up your own ‘rules’ at the beginning of the week: Is it OK to use up what you already have in the pantry? Are there exceptions for birthdays? Are some expenses excluded? Let grace be your guide, but make sure you ‘feel’ the impact of living on less.
Preparing for Lent: Part 4
The season of Lent (40 ordinary days before Easter) often arrives before we’ve considered what to do about it. Traditionally this has been a time for the church to focus on prayer (towards God), fasting from foods and/or festivities (towards self), and alms-giving (towards others). We have a tendency to turn Lent into a token stand against chocolate and the tide of consumerism, but it’s more than that. Lent is a season of repentance, simplicity and generosity in preparation for the celebration of our Saviour’s suffering, death and resurrection. Just as Passover was created to remind Israel about the Exodus– the hardship of slavery and the greatness of their salvation– the church has created Lent as a way of reminding us of our need of a Saviour, of his grace towards us, and our role in the world. This year Lent begins on the 2nd of March (less than a week away)
There are several biblical parallels where God provides seasons of preparation: Israel’s exodus and desert wanderings provided a transitional period of simplicity and hardship before the blessings and abundance promised in the Land. Ironically we can be tempted to chastise Israel for their dietary complaining over forty years in the wilderness, yet be unwilling to simplify our own diets for forty days!
In preparation for Lent, spend some time investigating the wisdom of some of the ancient Christian activities practiced during the 40 days leading up to Easter. Perhaps you can share some of your insights in the comments box below, or at our next Community lunch. Consider observing some simplified practices, not as a mere denial of consumption, but something you (and perhaps your community) actively put in place as a discipline to help you focus on the events of Easter.