Exploring Spiritual Disciplines: Simplicity
There is an important way of understanding morality, one that the early church found especially valuable, called virtue ethics. In virtue ethics, good things become bad things when they are found either in excess, or in deficiency. The excess of simplicity would be asceticism, intentional suffering in order to make one’s life as void of material possessions and fulfilling meals as possible. For the ancient church, asceticism was a real problem as ideas about the valuelessness of the material world invaded Christian ideology from Greek philosophy. However, in our modern culture, we are much more troubled by a deficiency of simplicity: greed and materialism.
While the Western Church has largely ignored the Bible’s teachings on materialism, it is impossible to deny that they are there. In the Old Testament, the law that the Jewish people were under proclaimed that land must be returned to the original owners, and lenders were forbidden from charging interest. Jesus echoes these laws in his words on possessions, telling people to sell their possessions to follow him, that those who needlessly store up their harvest are foolish, and calls out the wealthy for their vain giving.
However, if Jesus stepped into our world to speak directly to us now, I don’t think that he would only be calling out the wealthiest among us. All of us have been consumed by the need to accumulate, the need to be constantly entertained, and the need for the latest gadgets and technology. We are so obsessed with getting the “next best thing” that we have a hard time appreciating what we already have. In our era, we have become the product for so many businesses that we don’t even realize. Social media ads that use our browsing history to target us try to make us believe that they have the next cool thing that we need, and sometimes we fall for it! Perhaps now, more than ever, the cliché “Do you own your things, or do your things own you?” rings truer than it has at any time in the past.
That is why the practice of simplicity is so important. It doesn’t mean that we can’t have things, or that we can never buy things simply to enjoy them. But it means that we have to have a healthy understanding of what they are. When determining whether you are too attached to your possessions, ask yourself these questions: would I be able to give this away to someone needier than I? Would I be able to sell this to help someone else? If I were apart from my phone/the television/the computer/some other gadget for more than a few hours or a day, would I feel like I was going through some level of withdrawal or panic? Many of us have at least one possession, but probably several, that we wouldn’t like to answer this question about.
There are several things we can do in order to ensure that our possessions don’t have a hold over us. First, we need to make sure that we are buying for function over fashion. Our things should serve a purpose; they serve us, and that means that longevity and efficiency are key. When we buy a car, for instance, are we buying it because it serves our lifestyle efficiently, or are we buying it as a status symbol? When we go house shopping, are we buying a house that suits our needs simply, or are we buying something that will impress everyone around us?
Second, we need to get into the habit of decluttering. When we buy new clothes, we should try to give an equal amount of clothes away. Get rid of things you haven’t used in a year or more. Toss some of those kitchen tools that you thought would be a great help, but turned out to be worthless that have snuggled into the corners of your pantry.
Lastly, learn how to be an ethical consumer. With the way our global economy works, this is impossible to do all the time. But we can make informed decisions about where our food comes from, where our furniture is made, and how our products come to us. The more we encourage simplicity and wholesomeness in the work conditions of what we consume, the bigger the impact we can make on a larger scale.
Over the years, our tradition has done a very good job with simplicity. We have avoided worship services designed to be spectacles and grandiose worship buildings. But it is time for us, as followers of Christ, to regain that simplicity ourselves.