I have in the past number of years heard talks and seen books by various people (Christian and otherwise) calling modern North American folk to a life of simplicity. The common refrain of this crew of writers and speakers is that our sense of well-being and contentment is being sacrificed on the altar of “more”: earn more, spend more, and acquire more. The result is that our lives are profoundly out of balance. I was reminded of this again this evening as I listened to a broadcast on the local Christian radio station. The author was insisting that we ignore our consequently overburdened and rapidly dwindling financial, emotional, and spiritual reserves at our own peril. I must say that I find it hard to disagree with this premise.
This is not to suggest that this is a new conversation. One of the historically central tenets of the Anabaptist witness has been the call to a simple life, wherein one divests himself or herself of much of his or her material possession and worldly preoccupations that distract from one’s emotional and spiritual well-being. To a certain extent, this has been true of the Christian witness in general, though it has all but disappeared in certain times and places. Arguably, it is a very weak aspect of the Gospel at the present time, crowded out by our avalanche of acquisition, except for this importantly vocal minority.
My wife is packing our house this week in preparation for a long-distance move, and it is clearest at these times that we all too easily accumulate far too much stuff. It is a sobering experience to see the house strewn with boxes, all to be filled with our possessions. In our case, we will need to put many of these boxes in storage until we find a house to put them in. The mere fact that we will be able to live our lives with minimal adjustment while our things are in storage reminds me of how unnecessary many of those items are, though they certainly are handy when you do have access to them!
In light of these thoughts, I wonder how this discussion on simplicity is heard in other parts of the world. I am reminded of the story of the latest MB Confession of Faith. It was authored in North America but intended to be used by national MB conferences throughout the world. As one might expect from a Confession of Faith originating in North America, there is an article on stewardship. Our congregations need instruction on how to responsibly utilize their monetary resources. Well, a response came from churches in the Congo commending much of the Confession but pointing out that the article on stewardship was predominantly of very little use to them because most people in their churches are poor and have no resources to spend unwisely. What they would have preferred instead would have been an article on persecution, a subject with which North American Christians are wholly unfamiliar.
In other words, our ideas of a simple life and what a person from pretty much anywhere in the non-Western world might consider the simple life, are likely radically different. Our simple life might be an extravagant life anywhere else. Can we live simply and still own a car? Two cars? What about a big-screen TV? Can we still go on vacations? Is simplicity doomed to be a relative term — say, living on 70% of one’s disposable income and giving the rest away or saving it? For a millionaire, then, a simple life would be a rather luxuriant one, whereas someone else using a 100% of their take-home pay might be barely scraping by, much less living a simple yet comfortable life. Ought simplicity to involve some level of sacrifice? And by this I don’t mean merely not having a satellite dish even though you could afford it and would desperately like one. Do we sacrifice until it hurts or at the very least becomes inconvenient? Does our deliberately putting ourselves into a state of need aid us in finding balance and spiritual contentment/fulfillment?
There is, I have noticed, a fetishization of poverty among affluent peoples. If we do not pity the poor in foreign lands because they lack the basic necessities, we may be (sub)consciously envying them because they aren’t running the rat race that we realize our lives have become. This attitude has been evident for a long time. The Romantic poets of the 18th-century wrote prolix odes to the shepherd and the pastoral life style (i.e. rich men of leisure wrote about poor country folk). I have spoken with people who have experienced short-term missions trips wax eloquent about how much they learned from the people in Mexico or Africa or the Ukraine, how strong those people’s faith is, and how joyous they all seem to be despite their deep poverty. This is undeniably true to some extent, but falls short of dealing with the reality of the situation. Likely these people are praying to God for their basic needs. They are not thriving, but merely surviving. Their emotional and physical energy is expended in accessing basic necessities, and once those are met they are looking to tuck a little something away for the future as a buffer against unfortunate circumstances.
I would encourage us to do a few things: (1) Continue to explore the idea of the simple life and continue to pursue the quest for balance and well-being that material possessions always seem to promise but cannot deliver. (2) Seek ways to make the call to a simple life and a less consumer-driven mentality part of our Gospel witness. Jesus came to save us from our sins but he also came to save us from the suffocating landslide of possessions and wealth that threatens many of us. (3) Be mindful of how other, less-fortune people may view our quest for the simple life. This will keep us from patting ourselves on the back when we have the courage to make that shift to riding the bus instead of owning a car, or giving up cable television. Let’s keep things in perspective.