The simple life is trending. In our complex world, where option fatigue can paralyze us, living simply has great appeal. Amazon has an increasing number of guides on how to achieve simple living. Long before the current trend, Christians throughout history have modeled a life of simplicity. One example is Saint Francis, who found joy in living a life disentangled from earthly things, but chose to live a life of simple trust, like the birds of the air in Matthew 6. Living simply has been one of the threads in the tapestry of my own journey, from my upbringing in a Dutch immigrant home to the years I lived in Nepal, where the simplicity of life and the generosity of Nepalis deeply formed who I would become. As a young adult, my journey with simplicity was ramped up when Ron Sider’s book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger came out. Sider made a compelling case for living with less so that others around the globe could simply live. My friends and I took this all very seriously, and thus was birthed a new legalism in my life. When Richard Foster released Freedom of Simplicity, I knew I wasn’t alone. Striving for a legalistic, outward simplicity that did not flow from within was anything but joyful. And simplicity was intended to be a path to deeper joy.
My journey toward living simply with joy continued when I joined InnerChange, CRM’s Christian Order Among the Poor. I felt immediately at home with simplicity as one of our core commitments. Simplicity reminds us that “the earth is the Lord’s” and that everything belongs to God. In InnerChange, we see our lives operating in three dimensions: the missionary, the prophetic, and the contemplative. Each of these dimensions provides a lens that contributes to a deeper understanding of the value of living simply—how it moves us more deeply toward the life God intends for us.
First, simplicity helps us connect missionally with those in need. In our missionary dimension, InnerChange desires to share life with the poor, to live together as friends and neighbors in our neighborhoods. We choose to live in ways that lower the barriers to relationships with our less affluent neighbors. This downward mobility helps us experience life in ways similar to our neighbors, to share the struggles and joys of life together. Not everyone shares this call to move in as neighbors with the poor, but every community includes those who struggle. Entering into relationship with those on the margins becomes a gift to all involved, and places of joy are found when we cross barriers through friendship.
Simplicity gives us a prophetic presence in a self-centered and materialistic world. In InnerChange’s prophetic dimension, we recognize the many ways that our lives are interconnected with our neighbors and global sisters and brothers. Our choices and decisions impact not just our own lives, but also our communities and all those with whom we share our global world. Being good stewards of all God’s good gifts means making decisions based not only on our own needs and wants, but also in consideration of those in our world whose lives are vulnerable and who struggle daily to survive. Living in prophetic ways includes considering our deep impact on dwindling resources of our planet, shared resources that have been entrusted to us. Our choices to live more simply become a prophetic witness to a me-centered society.
Finally, simplicity helps to focus our hearts on what’s most important. In the contemplative dimension, we consider the inward movement of simplicity. So many things compete for our attention in our world. We say we trust God but in reality there are many things that hold our hearts. According to Mother Teresa, “The heart of God cannot fill what is already full. The heart must be emptied, in order to be filled with God.”
When Jesus asks the rich young ruler (Mark 10:17-27) to give away all his possessions to the poor and come follow him, he is not creating a new rule that all believers must copy. He is after the heart and allegiance of this young man. Jesus knows what fills his heart and challenges him in the place of his deepest attachment. The things that hold our hearts are also where we have put our trust. Jesus wants our undivided heart, so he calls us to simplicity.
One area where Jesus might challenge a rich young ruler to live with an undivided heart in our culture would be in simplicity of time. Our busy lives often seem anything but simple. Over these past busy weeks, I have been pondering this Celtic saying: “When God made time, he made enough of it.” What does it mean to have enough time? Do I trust that today will be enough? That this week will be enough? Our society bombards us with messages that tell us we don’t have enough, that we are not enough, that there is never enough time. What would it mean to live in the opposite spirit of our culture, to embrace and declare that today is a gift and to live in the joy of today as enough?
Finding joy in the places of simplicity is a journey, a transformation that takes time. As we travel this road we must remember that simplicity is not an end goal or destination; it is a path to living more like the birds of the air, who “live lightly” and trust their heavenly Father to care for them. This is the joy that God wants for us.
QUESTIONS FOR REFLECTION
What are the areas of your life where you desire to be less encumbered—to live more like the “lilies of the field and the birds of the air”?
What might you be able to let go of—items in your closet, an activity? Or a worry, a view of yourself that is holding you back? What might it mean to let go, to empty your heart, in order to make more space for God in your life?
What impact might this move toward inward simplicity mean for the rest of your life? What might the outward movement look like?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jude Tiersma Watson has been serving with InnerChange in Los Angeles, CA, with her husband John since 1992. Jude is an associate professor of urban mission at Fuller Seminary.