Simplicity isn’t easy.
I used to think that “simple” and “easy” could always be used interchangeably, like when asked about a particular task that didn’t require a lot of physical or mental sweat, one could say, “it was simple” or “it was easy” and both would mean the same thing: “No big deal!” But when it comes to what Richard Foster calls the “discipline of simplicity,” whatever other descriptors one may attempt to describe simplicity, “easy” cannot be one of them.
People who enter into a monastery take vows and they typically center on three virtues that become the benchmark for the life of a monk: poverty, chastity and obedience. A monastic community in the British Isles known as The Community of Aidan and Hilda has reworded the first two, such that their three life-giving vows are these: simplicity, purity, and obedience. At a conference on Christian revitalization I attended several years ago in Edinburgh, Scotland, John Bell, a representative from Aidan and Hilda, described how these vows are life-giving. He said this: “Simplicity leads us into a deeper experience of the generosity of God; purity leads us into a deeper experience of the love of God; obedience leads us into a deeper experience of the freedom of God.” This sort of simplicity is of a centering sort and narrows our focus in a similar way with what Wesley called “The One thing Needful.”
It has been quipped about the modern tendency of humans in Western civilization that, “we buy things we do not need with money we do not have to impress people we do not like.” Richard Foster adds to this that the pressure placed on those who desire to live in simplicity when he said:
We are made to feel ashamed to wear clothes or drive cars until they are worn out. The mass media have convinced us that to be out of step with fashion is to be out of step with reality…[Consider that] the modern hero is the poor boy who purposefully becomes rich rather than the rich boy who voluntarily becomes poor. (We still find it hard to imagine that a girl can do either!)…It is time we awaken to the fact that conformity to a sick society is to be sick. Until we see how unbalanced our culture has become at this point, we will not be able to deal with the mammon spirit within ourselves nor will we desire Christian simplicity.
So it becomes clear that simplicity isn’t easy!
A couple of years ago, I was honored to preach at the memorial service of a man who served as a Navy pilot in World War II. It wasn’t something that he talked about, for he was a very unassuming fellow who quietly lived out his days, not seeking attention or accolades for his achievements. But when I scripted his eulogy, I kept coming back to two characteristics that I felt defined his life: simplicity and perfection, both of which are central to Wesleyan theology and spirituality. Here’s why I say that.
There is a quote attributed to several people in the last few centuries, including Elizabeth Seton, Gandhi, and Mother Teresa: “Live simply so that others can simply live.” When I think of that man who exuded simplicity so well, of course I do not mean he was simple-minded. Even to the very end of his life as he struggled with severe Parkinson’s he had a sharp mind, keenly aware of his surroundings, of his identity, of his story, of Scripture and of his world. Rather, by simplicity I mean the way he lived and shared the grace of God he had been given. It was that trademark of humility and valuing the betterment of his neighbors rather than seeking his own prosperity. The man’s son said that he “feared of having too much money more than he worried of not having enough.”
This brings to mind the wisdom about simplicity and stewardship shared by John Wesley, who is (falsely) attributed to have said, “When I have money, I get rid of it quickly lest it find its way into my heart.” Though this statement is nowhere in his writings, I think we can say that it at least sounds “Wesleyan.” Wesley did, however, explicitly lay out three simple rules to guide about the use of money/resources: gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can. Some will abide by the first two, but the mark of a true Christian is to follow it to the end, and give all you can. Whether this man knew that rule or not, he lived by it.
Now let me tell you one more thing about this Navy pilot and why he made me think of “perfection.” He flew fighter planes over the ocean that took off and landed on aircraft carriers. Because of the moving target that is an aircraft carrier, it is not that uncommon for a plane to be waved off, circle around and try again if the controller aboard the ship discerns that a safe landing is in doubt or question. Well, in over 900 landings, this pilot I knew never had to be waved around a single time. He always stuck the landing on the first attempt. Whatever negative connotations may be heard in the notion of “perfection” in today’s world, I can’t really think of any word to use to describe the fact of this man’s flawless landing streak other than “perfect.” Perfection, as any student of Wesley knows well, isn’t about an absolutist sort of ideal where there is no more room for growth. It is, however, about aiming at “the one thing needful.”
And so we come to see that living in simplicity goes hand in hand with a life in pursuit of holiness, or sanctifying grace. For if you do a word search of “simplicity” through Wesley’s works, you will quite often find that he speaks of it in relation to Mary’s action of sitting by Jesus feet, drawing deeply from the well of the “one thing” known as intimate discipleship rather than Martha’s actions of being concerned about “many things.”
To bring the point to a close, Wesley wrote in his sermon Causes of the Inefficacy of Christianity the following:
Why has Christianity done so little good, even among us? Among the Methodists? Among them that hear and receive the whole Christian doctrine, and that have Christian discipline added thereto, in the most essential parts of it? Plainly because we have forgot, or at least not duly attended to those solemn words of our Lord, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow me’…The Methodists grow more and more self-indulgent because they grow rich…many are twenty, thirty, yea, a hundred times richer than they were when they first entered the [Methodist] society. And it is an observation which admits of few exceptions, that nine in ten of these decreased in grace in the same proportion as they increased in wealth.
So it is that when more and more resources become available to be used and disposed by us, the more and more difficult it is to live in simplicity. But to live as Christ would have us live means that we ought to define ourselves not by what we consume or possess, but how, in modeling our God who gave of himself, we deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Christ, giving ourselves for others.
That may be simple, but it isn’t easy.
May the Spirit empower us to live in simplicity!
This post from our archives originally appeared on Wesleyan Accent in 2015.
The featured image, Cranes from Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing ca. 1823, is by Katsushika Hokusai.