Editor’s Note: This is an introduction to the topic of simplicity. Simplicity has generally been known to those of the religious left persuasion (Ron Sider, Richard Foster), since they feel that simplicity goes hand in hand with their socialist agendas. Though strongly disagreeing with the economic and social implications of Sider and Foster, yet, I have found some of their thoughts to be helpful in this area (particularly Foster’s: Freedom of Simplicity). My goal here is to reclaim simplicity as a universal Christian mandate. However, my attempt to explain simplicity may differ with various expositions of it in the past years. This is only meant as a Sunday School introduction. It was delivered at New Life Presbyterian on November 11th.
There are many simple questions to consider when thinking about the topic of simplicity in the Christian life. But what may appear to be simple, may however, turn out to be a simplistic attempt to simplify the theology of simplicity. If simplicity is as simple as some simple-minded people say it is, they why aren’t there more simple people roaming around the church. Why do people live such complicated lives? Why is the Christian life so hectic and so filled with un-simplistic answers to life’s great dilemmas?
This is what I will try to tackle in the next 30 minutes or so and then open the floor to some of your insights. As a brief observation, when I speak of simplicity of Christian living, I am not speaking about the idea of simple-mindedness which Proverbs so often rebukes. Rather, simplicity is living in the sight of God in wisdom and in understanding.
Many of you here come from backgrounds where life was summarized in three words: eat, sleep and procreate. Sure, there was work, but work was only a sub-category under one of the three. Others here come from backgrounds where your parents had to work so hard to feed you, that there was never a time when you remember sitting with your family for dinner. There was no moment to pause and think about family life; there were other priorities.
Before we continue with this brief discourse, let me give you my definition of “simplicity.”
Simplicity is the ability to work and worship without exhaustion or legalism.
By work, I refer to our daily jobs as businessman, lawyers, truck drivers, home-schooling moms, etc. and by worship; I refer to Sabbath worship, weekly meditation, nurturing our children in the law of the Lord and in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
First, let me try to develop a little context to the discussion of simplicity. There are some fundamental questions that need to be answered before we can venture into a proper perspective on simplicity. This is what simplicity is NOT:
a) Simplicity is not abandoning the world or embracing the doctrine of “escapism.” The world is getting worse, so why not just move to the mountains. To live a simple life does not mean that we remove ourselves from society and politics and stop paying our taxes. We still have a dominion mandate that has never been abrogated.
b) Simplicity of life does not mean opposition to capitalism. We believe that “money” is the cause of all sorts of evil and that it is not evil in and of itself. Think of the benefits of rich Christians in donating to start hospitals, churches, helping the poor, etc. So our society needs wealthy Christians to uphold it. We need hard working Christians who know their role in God’s kingdom.
c) Simplicity does not mean a rejection of technology. Technology has served to produce radio stations in third world countries where the gospel can be heard, produce transportation, help communication between friends and family, etc.
If we begin with Mennonite presuppositions, we will end with Mennonite practices. During the Reformation there were some who decided to turn away from the liturgical enticements of European society and flee to the “mountains” so to speak. They were the Anabaptists. The present Mennonite tradition is a development of the Anabaptist heritage (perhaps Dick may be able to make some observations concerning the Anabaptists). The Mennonites are a peaceful people. The Mennonites are a group of Christian Anabaptist denominations named after and influenced by the teachings and tradition of Menno Simons (1496-1561). As one of the historic peace churches, Mennonites are committed to nonviolence, nonresistance, and pacifism.
The Amish on the other hand are very similar, though they tend to be less interested in technological engagement. You may remember the Amish massacre, where a lone gunman shot ten girls in an Amish school in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Instead of reacting with anger and indignation, they acted with peace and forgiveness.
My understanding is that when we talk about simplicity, this is what you have in mind. And to some extent, there are many elements from their way (Amish and Mennonite) of living that we can learn from.
Consider for example the work of a man’s hands.
Have you ever thought about the fact that it is the things that you create with your own hand that are most burdensome to get rid of? Whereas, when you purchase pieces of clothing from stores, they are the most dispensable.
I had a friend in high-school when I lived in Pennsylvania that had been working with his dad for 8 years on re-building an old mustang. 8 years! That means that he began helping his dad when he was 9. By the end of my senior year, they had finished their project. I remember first looking at it; you must realize that I know next to nothing about cars. I do however; remember my reaction when I saw that beautiful red mustang. I was amazed that the geek who sat with me every day for a year was able to build such an astounding piece of metal.
How is simplicity of life applied when speaking about the hands?
Simplicity begins with your hands. Have you noticed the interest the Bible places on the “hands?” Jesus shows love to the little children with his hands (Matthew 19:15) or Psalm 18:20: The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. How you use your hands will determine your rewards. Our society has developed indescribable tools to aid us in our day to day. We have electronic toothbrushes and you know how complicated it is to move your toothbrush on your own in circular fashion for a minute or so. Our society has created the alarm clock, without which half of us would be late to Sunday School this morning. What did society do before the alarm clock, you wonder? Well, they accomplished more than we can ever imagine. They wrote more profound books, they cherished the work of their hands; their families were much more stable than our society’s. Imagine if we began to use our hands to accomplish something. To wash our own cars instead of paying $5; to make our own Christmas cards, instead of buying the cheesy and often impersonal cards at Publix.; to hold a book instead of a computer screen when reading; I assume you can think to yourselves of the great rewards that come with those endeavors.
Proverbs 12:14: From the fruit of his mouth a man is satisfied with good,
and the work of a man’s hand comes back to him.
Matthew Henry says:
“We are here assured, for our quickening to every good word and work, 1. That even good words will turn to a good account (v. 14): A man shall be satisfied with good (that is, he shall gain present comfort, that inward pleasure which is truly satisfying) by the fruit of his mouth, by the good he does with his pious discourse and prudent advice. While we are teaching others we may ourselves learn, and feed on the bread of life we break to others. 2. That good works, much more, will be abundantly rewarded: The recompence of a man’s hands for all his work and labour of love, all he has done for the glory of God and the good of his generation, shall be rendered unto him, and he shall reap as he has sown. Or it may be understood of the general rule of justice; God will render to every man according to his work, Rom. 2:6.” –Matthew Henry
The reality however is that simplicity is complex. Anytime you see: 40 days of promise, 3 steps to this, 10 steps to achieving a simple life, let your “heresy antenna” rise up. It is true that there are certain measures we can take in order to live more simple lives, but every time you assert that there is a definitive way of accomplishing something, you have turned into an excellent legalist. Whether it is read your Bible 10 minutes a day at 6AM or follow a certain methodology of prayer or whatever it may be, once you assert these are definitive ways to live simple lives, you are a legalist.
As Richard Foster has written in his book: Freedom of Simplicity:
Christian simplicity lives in harmony with the ordered complexity of life. It repudiates easy, dogmatic answers to tough, intricate problems. In fact, it is this grace that frees us sufficiently to appreciate and respond to the complex issues of contemporary society.
I remember in my second year in seminary, I came across Wendell Berry’s works. I don’t know if any of you are aware of Wendell Berry. Berry is a cultural and economic critic, and he is also a farmer. The man lives a remarkable life.
I began to read one of his books and by the time I was done, I wanted to run to a farm, burn my computer, grow my own vineyards, make my own wine, sell my watch and tell the time by reading the stars. It was radical! It was a simple life; a life I wanted to embrace. But what was I forgetting? I was forgetting the complexity of life. If the majority of us are going to live simple lives, we are going to have to add into the equation: our city, our environment, our church life, our 40 hours of work, screaming babies, broken sinks, and even television.
Once again, here is my definition: Simplicity is the ability to work and worship without exhaustion or legalism.
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