About a year and a half ago, I asked the Lord for an unusual News Years gift.
“Lord,” I prayed, “please can you make this coming year really really boring?”
He did, and it was excellent. Almost everything in my life had become far too complex, and I had developed some very serious anxiety. I knew I was spiritually dry, and it felt like my whole life was running away from me.
I needed to stop and reset.
Many of us now are beginning to realise the value of this time in quarantine. Obviously this pandemic is a terrible thing – my sister had Covid-19 and has been very sick. This illness has caused a lot of harm, destroying people’s health and their livelihoods, and even ripping apart relationships.
But there is something I’m learning in this time of social distancing that I don’t think had ever struck me so strongly before. A forced time of rest (or Shabbat, if you will) is a spiritual discipline. And this discipline has the capacity to lead us into a wonderful gift that is simplicity.
We start to re-evaluate what is important to us. We realise that we are not in control of everything, and that there is more to life than endless acquisition or productivity. I have been thinking a lot about how we are not made primarily for utility, nor do we find fulfilment in endless hyper-individualistic consumption.
When we are forced to stop, we realise this simple truth: everything is the Lord’s (Psalm 24) and nothing is ours.
Richard Foster writes,
When we are tempted to think that what we own is the result of our personal efforts, it takes only a little draught or small accident to show us once again how utterly dependent we are for everything.
This is one of the reasons why fasting can be so helpful. It reminds us how much we need sustenance from something that is outside of us.
The gift of simplicity is not new – on the contrary it is very familiar to a large number of monastic communities. Although we are not all called to be monks and nuns, we are all invited into the gift of living simply.
This is not the same as the minimalist movement, but there will be some overlapping ideas. They both force you to consider what really matters in your life, as well as what your underlying values are. But, unlike minimalism, simplicity goes beyond our obsession with stuff and starts to look at the root problems of our addiction to consumption, which is really an addiction to control.
For example, the Netflix sensation Marie Kondo did an excellent job of convincing us to throw away whatever did not bring us joy (and also how to fold things nicely, for which I am enormously grateful). But, for Marie and others, stuff is still the idol. Once you have thrown away all the stuff you no longer want, you must now buy a whole bunch of new stuff that you didn’t even know you wanted; specifically from her.
Throwing away half your possessions and changing your aesthetic may bring some (superficial) joy in the short term, but it will not address your need for control.
We are obsessed with ownership because we believe that once we have bought something it is really truly ours. And once it is mine I can control it. But what really happens is our stuff (or desire for stuff) slowly and subtly begins to control us.
Let’s remember that Jesus did not die on Good Friday and resurrect on Easter Sunday so that we can control or be controlled by stuff. He came to bring us freedom.
So how do we break this? Richard Foster provides some helpful insights:
- Learn to appreciate creation. As much as you try, you can never tame it or control it. I have recently started growing my own food, and I had no idea how much we depend on the four seasons for our sustenance! If you can, spend some time in the wild. When you stop and meditate on the natural world it puts your life into a dramatically different perspective.
- Try and buy less stuff, but when you do need to make a purchase, consider the people whom that item connects you with. A piece of local artwork may have a very small supply chain with just a buyer and a seller, whereas an unethically sourced T-shirt may have a surprisingly long supply chain, with no traceable information that links you with who made it or who grew the cotton. Ask whether your custom will support or exploit the people that this item connects you with.
- Give stuff away to those who need it more than you. I’m not talking about throwing away clutter that will end up in landfill. Consider your community – am I holding too tightly onto my possessions or am I freely making what I have available to others? This one is definitely my main struggle.
- Avoid anything that distracts you from first seeking the Kingdom of God. After telling us to not worry about what we eat or wear, Jesus then shows us how: ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.’ (Matthew 6:33) This may seem a bit abstract, so I would highly recommend Foster’s books (see below) where he unpacks it further.
Above all, the gift of simplicity can only really stem from the peace and contentment that we find in knowing Jesus.
Paul writes in Philippians 4:11-13,
For I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Until next time,
Freedom of Simplicity by Richard Foster
Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster (includes a fantastic two chapters about simplicity and solitude)
Generosity, a video by The Bible Project
Solitude and Community, a sermon by Tim Mackie