What is it about striving for simplicity that seems to provoke negative emotional responses? Feelings of guilt, hopelessness, despair, and self condemnation often rise to the surface.
So often when I hear people talk about simplicity, they hold up some specific standard set by others. But the problem is, there will always be people who live with less. Perhaps we could do without another pair of jeans. But there are some with no jeans at all. Perhaps we could live in a cheaper house. But there are some with no house at all. Perhaps we could go without that extra cup of coffee, but compared with the global poor, even one is a luxury! It seems that the more we compare ourselves with others, the more likely we will either start to despair or cynically decide that simplicity is purely for those with a special calling.
What I’ve found to be true is this: the more we seek simplicity itself as the goal, the less simple our lives become. We become legalistic, setting unrealistic rules for ourselves, and then become guilt-ridden when we break them. We despair that we will never be as simple as Christ himself. Our painful striving for simplicity eventually becomes the very thing that keeps us from the freedom and experience of Jesus that simplicity is meant to help foster.
A parable from India will be helpful to illustrate this downward spiral:
A guru had a disciple and was so pleased with the man’s spiritual progress that he left him on his own. The man lived in a little mud hut. He lived simply, begging for his food.
Each morning, after his devotions, the disciple washed his loincloth and hung it out to dry. One day, he came back to discover the loincloth torn and eaten by rats. He begged the villagers for another, and they gave it to him. But the rats ate that one, too. So he got himself a cat. That took care of the rats, but now when he begged for his food he had to beg for milk for his cat as well. “This won’t do,” he thought. “I’ll get a cow.” So he got a cow and found he had to beg now for fodder.
So he decided to till and plant the ground around his hut. But soon he found no time for contemplation, so he hired servants to tend his farm. But overseeing the labourers became a chore, so he married a wife to help him. After time, the disciple became the wealthiest man in the village.
The guru was travelling by there and stopped in. He was shocked to see that where once stood a simple mud hut there now loomed a palace surrounded by a vast estate, worked by many servants. “What is the meaning of this?” he asked his disciple. “You won’t believe this, sir,” the man replied. “But there was no other way I could keep my loincloth.”
In striving to maintain the mere symbol of his simplicity, the disciple eventually created a cluttered life – the opposite of simplicity. We must remember that the point of simplicity is to remove all the clutter, complications, and distractions that keep us from seeing God, experiencing his grace, and sharing that grace with others. Do we get so caught with desperately seeking simplicity that the guilt and legalism become the very clutter that prevents us from enjoying its benefits?
Simplicity must never become the ultimate goal. It is simply one of the means to move towards the most ultimate goal: the freedom to walk towards Christ, to obey him fully, to experience his grace, and to share all this with others.
[Steve Tripp comes from New Zealand and has been living in Cambodia for four years with his wife Wendy, and two children, Isaac (16) and Niam (10). He is the Servants Cambodia co-leader and helps with running the Justees project: www.justees.org]