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.
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.