When I first started to think about the discipline of simplicity, I decided to see what our good friend ‘Google’ had to say about it. Not surprisingly, there are copious websites dedicated to ‘simplifying your life’ or ‘living simply.’ However, as I combed through these sites and suggestions, a discontent emerged within me. Most of these sites only dealt with the external practices of simplicity. They advise one to ‘consider a smaller house’; or ‘eat more organic foods’, ‘get a better organizational system’ or ‘consider a smaller car’. It made it sound as if simplicity was nothing more that a matter of deciding what to do with the stuff we have. It also seemed very consumption based. While shunning the notion of consumption and excess, most of the suggestions simply advised you on what purchases you should now make. This is seen very clearly through the magazine ironically titled ‘Real Simple.’ This magazine is essentially collection of advertisements. The message? If you want to simplify your life, these are the things to buy.
But what of the internal side of simplicity? How do we live out Simplicity as a spiritual practice, as a way in which we connect in deeper ways with our Lord?
Simplicity must be, at its heart, a devotional attitude. It is to be a focusing of our wills upon life immersed in the presence of God. The Renovare Institute defines the discipline of simplicity as ‘A single-hearted focus upon God, which results in an outward lifestyle.’ Simplicity is about where our hearts are directed, the ‘treasure’ in which they reside. Thus, rather than being narrowly defined as ‘having less stuff’, the internal discipline of simplicity is about being attentive to the pulses and rhythms of God as they occur in and around us. In his book, A Testament of Devotion, Thomas Kelly writes: “There is a way of ordering our mental life on more than one level at once. On one level we may be thinking, discussing, seeing, calculating, meeting all the demands of external affairs. But deep within, behind the scenes, at a profounder level, we may also be in prayer and adoration, song and worship and a gentle receptiveness to divine breathings.” It is, as Kelly describes it, living from a ‘divine center.’
Of course, the internal discipline of simplicity must be evidenced in our outward life.This is the other half of the above definition. Simplicity must be evidenced in our outward lifestyles. In his book, The Freedom of Simplicity, Richard Foster writes “We delude ourselves if we think we can possess the inner reality of simplicity without its having a profound effect upon the way we live.” Take out the language of simplicity, and put in Jesus’ language of seeking the kingdom, and we see the essence of what this internal discipline is about. “We delude ourselves if we think we can possess the inner reality of seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness without it having a profound effect upon the way we live.”
Seeking God’s kingdom first and foremost, what we could call a single-hearted focus upon God, does influence the things we buy, the things we eat, and how we approach the material aspects of our lives. Yet it does so out of an internal place of freedom, not law-keeping. We become free from the constant demand to consume. We step outside the ‘rat race’—a race that surrounds us with the message that our life, identity, and worth is controlled by the stuff we accumulate. As someone commented on my previous post, “even if you win the rat-race, you are still a rat!”
In removing ourselves from an internal focus upon the constantly shifting messages and products of the world around us, we enter the freedom to live our lives in tandem with the Spirit of God. This allows us to feel the exhilarating freedom of give things away; yet just as equally we are free to own things. The point is we are not possessed by our possessions or the feeling that we must strive for the latest updates, products, or fashions. This is wonderfully described in Proverbs 30:8: “Give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say “Who is The Lord?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of The Lord.”
The fact is, through the internal discipline of simplicity, our relationship with material possessions changes. We see the goodness and usefulness of things we own or purchase, but no longer are not compelled to purchase things in order to fulfill to a sense of importance, or perfection. Mass-market slogans such as ‘brand loyalty,’ ‘impression management,’ and ‘dress-for-success’ are seen for what they are—cultural nooses that do nothing but enslave us. The kingdom of God calls us to a different way of living.
There is this tension in Simplicity. Simplicity is both about our inward life and our outward life—and you can’t actually have one without the other. This single-hearted focus on the Kingdom of God becomes the centre, the heartbeat the ‘one thing’ we seek after in our lives We simply live for the sole purpose of daily interactions with our Lord. We become free to have possession, but not be owned by them, because all of life is rooted in our relationship with Jesus. Simplicity allows us to be free from having to constantly strive to prove ourselves, to clamour for attention, to worry about how others view us, because we are comfortable leaving ourselves, our future, our reputation, and our career in the hands of God. We do not rehearse the past failures, nor worry about future successes, because we dynamically enter into the present moment, knowing this is the place called has called us to, and the person God has called us to be.
I don’t know about you, but that is a freedom in which I would like to live.