If the spiritual disciplines are about carving out space in the midst of the clutter and noise of daily life, then the practice of simplicity is the literal enactment of what it means to live a disciplined life as a Christian. Simplicity takes aim at those things in our lives that distract, detour, disarm, devolve, or denigrate the time and attention we have to give to the things of God (which include, necessarily, all good things, not just “churchly” or “spiritual” activities). It assesses our lives and discerns in them the radical and relentless assault on our senses and capacities, names them boldly for what they are—idolatrous disruptions from ordered, holistic, peaceful living—and sets out to discover creative ways to rid us of them, and always for our good.
While this study will focus primarily on material interferences, and thus concrete disciplines in response to them, we also must not lose sight both that this is still ultimately about God and that simplicity is bigger than not owning a lot of “stuff.” Simplicity is centrally about the simplicity of God: Father, Son, and Spirit, eternal life, infinite conversation, boundless joy, from everlasting to everlasting, complete and perfect and utterly simple, one God, forever and ever. In his own life, in himself, God is profoundly simple. God, simply, is.
We see this in flesh and blood when God takes on humanity in the life of Jesus. Jesus’ life is rooted in the simplicity of the divine command to love God and neighbor—and all else is excess. Of course, that does not reveal a life devoid of joy or liveliness or vigor, but that in actuality a life so simply oriented to the things of God is the most alive one can possibly be. We see Jesus charismatically leading a movement, happily feasting at a party, intimately confiding with his closest companions, angrily denouncing religious hypocrites, rigorously arguing for the truth, thankfully honoring holy women, surprisingly asking a crowd who touched him, joyfully praying to his Father, lovingly forgiving his enemies, obediently suffering the cross. The radical simplicity of Jesus’ life—his lack of home or money, job or wife, career or family—did not negate his potential. It inaugurated, sustained, and fulfilled it.
Similarly, the simplicity we seek after is rooted in God because it is rooted in Jesus. Empowered by the Spirit, disciplined by Scripture, rooted in prayer, held accountable by the church community, we follow after the one who said, “Do not worry, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” We follow after the one who trusted his Father to provide for all his needs; in the same spirit, we do the same.
In this way rooting out the excess from our lives is not only about creating space for God to be, but also about embodying, before God and before our neighbors, the faith that the God we worship, that God alone, will and does provide for us what we need—and not our income or ambition or bootstraps or know-how or degree or resolve or character or spouse or nation or family or whatever. God does not help those who help themselves. God helps the helpless—and we are, whether we like it or not, helpless. Whatever it is that functions as an idol in our lives will absolutely and unequivocally not save us, much less put food on the table. Yet we flutter and bumble about, working ourselves to death, worrying ourselves to death, believing that if only this promotion goes through, if only this account works out, if only this or that event/object/person happens according to plan—everything will be okay. We will be taken care of. We won’t have to worry.
But we keep on worrying, and we keep on busybodying.
Only when we have so been captured by the love of God manifest in Jesus, only when we have been caught up into the daring adventure of discipleship, only when we have given over all our self-made plans and ambitious dreams and visions of success will we find rest in the easy yoke of the Messiah. Only when we realize that none of those things to which we give so much of ourselves will ever satisfy the desires given us by God, will we discover the peace of not having, of not getting, of not calling the shots or being on top. Only then will we know the gift of simple living, simple loving, simple joy in the regular graces of life not normally noticed when moving at the speed of light.
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Therefore our working definition will be:
Simplicity is rooted in the life of the triune God, revealed in the human life of Jesus, and empowered in humans by the Holy Spirit; as a discipline in the life of God’s people, it is embodied in (1) the radical centrality of love for God and neighbor, (2) gratitude in all things, (3) unwillingness to claim anything as one’s own or to ascribe it to any but God, (4) abstaining from needless things, (5) rooting out needless things from one’s life, and (6) the beauty of finding joy in the ordinary gifts of God in daily life.