Simplicity has been a recurring theme in my life lately. Through books, movies, conversations, t-shirts, and bumper stickers, I’ve been relentlessly pursued by the gentle insistence that I need to simplify. In some regards, this is nothing new. When Becca and I were house shopping a few years ago, I told her, “I want something nice, and big enough for the family we hope to have — but modest.” No ostentation for me, thank you very much.
If I could bring the concept even further back, I think that temperance — the longstanding virtue of saying that enough is quite literally enough — is at the root of simplicity. And every so often, there’s a piece of writing like Andrew Peterson’s latest post at The Rabbit Room (you really should read the whole thing) that speaks to me more than most:
What I envied about the Bolivians wasn’t poverty. It was simplicity…It’s a life uncluttered by television and power bills and traffic jams–a life enriched by the intense joy of interacting with other souls at a profoundly deep level, which is what we were meant for.
American culture is one extreme (a land of plenty at the cost of simplicity) and the Third World is the other (poverty with the gift of simplicity). Each has its blessings and its curses. This point of this isn’t to get to the bottom of which of these extremes is better, but to propose a better way. A Christ-centered life of intimate fellowship unharried by either sickness and starvation or the chaos of a capitalistic rat race might be a good picture of the order of the day in the New Jerusalem.
Here, A.P. intimately ties simplicity to the Christian life — and I would tend to intellectually agree with him, although my life doesn’t yet reflect it. And he isn’t the only one. Wendell Berry, Margaret Feinberg, Ellen Davis, and (to some extent) Francis Chan would all probably agree. I just finished Chan’s Crazy Love and was struck with how he handles his money: working at his church for no salary, for example, or refusing to make more than the average American salary, or giving away hundreds of thousands of dollars.
This is exactly where everything dovetailed for me earlier today, and exactly where it gets confusing.
In another corner of the blogosphere — a corner populated by New Calvinists instead of storytellers and musicians and wannabe farmers — a video has been making the rounds. In it, Mark Driscoll and Joshua Harris talk to Francis Chan about his recent decision to leave his church.
Now, I respect and trust these guys (Driscoll and Chan, anyway. No offense, Harris, but I sort of tuned you out after you kissed dating goodbye), so I thoroughly enjoyed the whole video. But what struck me and stuck with me was this question from Driscoll:
It seems to me that if the primary view of sanctification comes through simplicity, suffering and poverty… you’re only allowing God to sanctify you in the pre-conceived ways. What if God wants to sanctify you through not poverty but generosity, not suffering but blessing, not simplicity but complexity? And that’s part of the sanctifying process?
Admittedly, these three pastors are speaking of simplicity in an entirely different context, and I think that Peterson and Chan both end up in a similar place — but is it fair to say that sanctification or holiness or Christlike-ness is best imaged through simplicity? In other words, can God make a person holy through an unsimplified life?
I have a lot of reading, thinking, and prayer to do about this (and I’m sure you, Dear Reader, will get to hear quite a bit about it here), but my initial reaction is to insist that while there are many benefits to living a simple life — and enough benefits that I find it increasingly desirable — a person’s level of simplicity is not a reflection of said person’s Godliness. Of course God can sanctify through whatever means he chooses, and to point to one means and say that it’s better than others is, in some respects, limiting God. On the other hand, I have to admit that much of Christ’s life and teaching seems most compatible with a simple, modest life.
So this is the line I’ll try to walk: being generous because of my relative wealth, using my abundance of blessings to bless those around me, and clinging to pockets of simplicity as necessary oases in the midst of my complex and often chaotic life.