The Idol of Simplicity

Minimalism is in. From ultra-light running shoes to iPhones to home and office decor, it is clear that many of us desire to keep things simple. Simple looks good, feels good, and, we are told, facilitates productivity and decreases stress.

Complexity, on the other hand, weighs us down.  Christopher McDougall told us that shoes with too much flair and cushion can actually lend to foot and joint injury; Steve Jobs was able to sense that people usually resist gadgets that require a significant learning curve; and interior design experts have noted that minimalism is an obvious trend in home and office decorating.

The Complexity of Simplicity
But the simplicity trend appears to encompass more than running shoes, smart phones, and interior design. Search briefly on Google and you will find that there are many who are ready to offer their sage advice on how we can simplify our life to find more happiness and lower our anxiety.  Ironically, one article suggests 72 ways to simplify one’s life; a book published 20 years ago provides 100 recommendations. Apparently the cultivation of simplicity is a rather complex task.

But we shouldn’t be surprised that the pursuit of simplicity would falter under the weight of self-contradiction. Experience tells us that no matter much how we change our lifestyle, church, friends, job, home, or even our family, we cannot escape the fact that sometimes—oftentimes—life is complex.  The search for the simple life will always be elusive for one basic reason: the simple life doesn’t exist.

Don’t get me wrong. There are aspects to the simplicity trend that I appreciate.  Learning to live with less stuff, finding ways to be most effective with minimal resources, and framing my goals and general lifestyle around a few foundational principles does seem to resonate with biblical overtones.

But, apart from Christ and his Word, the pursuit of simplicity can turn into nothing but a pious kind of selfishness.

The Bondage of Simplicity
How so?  Well, if our taste for the simple keeps us from exercising hospitality because we cannot bear the thought of our home or apartment becoming disordered, something is amiss. If we find ourselves unwilling to engage relationships at a deep level or empathize with other people’s sorrow because such relationships resist predictability and require a certain amount of emotional messiness, we are not walking according to love (Romans 12:15). If we resist rigorous theological thinking because we are only satisfied that with the “simple truths” of Scripture, we may not be growing in sanctification (Hebrews 5:11-14). The barn might be clean and well-ordered, but there won’t any crops for the coming harvest (Prov. 14:4).

The Idol of Simplicity 
The main problem is that for some of us, the pursuit of simplicity has become the end rather than the means of growth in Christlikeness. We have ever-so-slightly shifted the emphasis from obedience to Christ to the pursuit of simplicity—and often mistaking the latter as the former. Now what was intended to be a tool has become the treasure, and a passion for selfless service to others has been replaced by an unswerving commitment to avoid the complexities of life. The trouble, of course, is that much of life requires that we embrace complexity for the good of others, so our devotion to simplicity often discourages taking on tasks that may introduce disorder into our minimalistic lifestyle. Unwittingly, we have been sealed off from Jesus’ command to deny ourselves and from the joy of walking by the Spirit.

Beyond Simplicity
It’s true: there is simplicity to the Christian life. As David Powlison has noted, “Jesus spoke exceedingly simple words.” We have a straightforward message and a clear mission (Matthew 28:18-20). The uncomplicated commands to love God and love our neighbor encompass everything we do (Matthew 22:37-39). Seek first the kingdom of God and all the other stuff will shake out (Matthew 6:33).

But when we substitute the simple word of Christ with a pursuit of simplicity for its own sake, we will drift away from the gospel and its demands. A commitment to love God and love neighbor may often draw us into situations that add complexity to our lives. Your predictable schedule may be overthrown for several days because a friend is desperate need, your impeccably organized home and garage may need to be filled with supplies for a coming mission trip, and a pressing spiritual problem may require some hard thinking and theological study. But whatever the case, our submission to the word of Christ will always prove far more satisfying than a pursuit of a life free of complexities. It’s just that simple.

 Photo Credit: Katie Brady

9 thoughts on “The Idol of Simplicity”

  1. While I think you have a valid point, I can’t help but think that you don’t have a clear concept of what it means to minimalize – the definition that I’ve often heard is the practice of getting rid of the extras in our life to focus on what really matters. The idea is to decide what your goals are, and focus on pursuing them, instead of letting you life become bogged down by a serious of “busy nothings”. As Christians, the one thing we must treasure above all is Christ. If He is our life goal, everything we do must reflect him and his heart. So we pare out meaningless acts and time wasters, in order to spend our time pursuing him. I think that the minimalist movement can be a way to witness to people – because unless you’re life is built on The Rock, you will be unhappy, no matter how much junk you get rid of in your life. As christian minimalists, we can preach that Christ is more than any earthly possessions can be.

    1. Abby,

      Thank you for your comments. As I thought about and did some research on this topic, I ran across some blogs and websites that define minimalism in the way you do above. One website sought to draw a distinction between minimalism and simplicity, again defining minimalism the way you. I think you are correct: there are several “minimalists,” Christian or otherwise, who seek to rid their life of all the “non-importants” in order to focus on what “really matters.” In the articles I read, often the renewed focus is on relationships and helping others. I especially appreciate how you tie in “minimalism” with our pursuit of Christ and evangelism. I think it would have been helpful in my article to include the notion that unless one knows Christ, a person will be unhappy no matter how much they pare down their life. This is an excellent point.

      But the renewed focus for minimalists is not always on relationships and on what “really matters.” I watched an interview with a young man who had stripped his life of nearly everything so that he could focus on outdoor pursuits. He was a minimalist, but he was living selfishly. He was now focusing all of his energy on what really mattered…to him.

      I agree that given the right motivations, Christians should pare down their life in order to focus on Christ and on obedience to his Word. There is much in our lives that distracts us from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ. But my argument in this article is that minimalism is not enough, nor should it be equated with obedience to Christ or reliable a gauge of it.

      In the original draft of this article I included a section where I pondered the possibility that having more possessions or a larger house, etc. may be pursued out of obedience to Christ. In other words, we may need to sacrifice our desire for minimalism for the sake of serving others with what we have. When we rid our lives of most of our possessions, it may be in obedience to Jesus, or it may be selfish, because in our desire to “live simple,” we now have nothing to share with those in need. Obedience to Christ may call us to get rid of a lot of our stuff and get a smaller home and sell our car, etc. Or, those things may be pursued in disobedience to Christ because we are merely crafting a clutter-free life out of desire for comfort.

      Minimalism is trendy. It’s cool. Christians must take care, then, to evaluate it with biblical rigor, even though some of it resonates with us and with our desire to focus on Christ.

      Derek

  2. Simple living appeals to me because I do see it as a way of being more able to focus on what matters when I trim the excess from my life. The temptation to go too far is always there, and many times I have made simplicity an idol. The pendulum swings when I realize my sin: I unsubscribe to all the blogs that have been influencing my thinking and I wonder where I went wrong. I have wrestled with this issue for a solid 10 years!

    As I read what you wrote about the means becoming the end, it was like a lightbulb turned on.

    “The main problem is that for some of us, the pursuit of simplicity has become the end rather than the means of growth in Christlikeness. We have ever-so-slightly shifted the emphasis from obedience to Christ to the pursuit of simplicity—and often mistaking the latter as the former. Now what was intended to be a tool has become the treasure…”

    You’re so right. The current potential idols wanting to creep onto the throne of my heart are minimalism, healthy eating, and exercise. These are all good things, but so easily can become the end goal rather than being used rightly to drive me to the real goal: a deeper relationship with Jesus.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  3. Hi, Derek —

    While I agree it’s good to challenge idols (which often come in the form of the trendy), I think the battle to simplify and, as Abby points, focus on what really matters can’t be understated.

    The idolatry you describe isn’t a result of simplicity in the cases it has gone awry: it was just idolatry. But in that case, whether someone is touting simplicity or not would be irrelevant: they would still be doing something other than putting the Kingdom first. It would just be a different idol.

    The challenge, as I see it and often try to write and teach, is to be free from the unnecessary busyness or materialism. Whether talking about the Rich Young Ruler, or about the seeds that were choked instead of bearing fruit, Jesus rebukes the human tendency to accumulate.

    Christians will have a very hard time if they aren’t able to go through this pruning process. It’s a hard discipline to not conform to the world, but to be renewed in a way that can see what’s important. How many Christians are just too busy with work, kids, conflicting priorities to serve, love, and be light?

    Yes, almost any good thing can be perverted without the right heart:sex, prophecy, and even simplicity. But we could do worse than to cut more stuff out of our lives. Less of me and more of HIm.

    Hm, I’d like to be able to be notified if you respond, but it’s greyed out. But interested in continuing….as you know, Silicon Valley (I am in San Francisco) has no shortage of shiny objects and techno-gadgets, and I think simplicity is a discipline to pursue the true treasure.

  4. Good stuff and great comments. I think we can agree that we should probably let the Holy Spirit draw that line. Also if it means anything why do you think “dispossession” is mentioned in a virtuous light? Context in mind, I’m not sure we can take it lightly.

    2:44 And all that believed were together, and had all things common;

    2:45 And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.
    Acts

    Interesting how you mentioned that it can be used as a way to rid yourself from the burden of giving. Admittedly, the thought has crossed my mind with the conviction of not giving.

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