Many of us have heard the famous Shaker song, “Simple Gifts.” It begins,
’Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
’Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be …
And so on, about the importance and joy of turning away from worldly pride and living the simple life.
In the Gospel, Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” [Luke 12:15]. This was the preface to an extended soliloquy we heard in our Scripture reading today, on the topic of simple living and relinquishing our anxious grasping for more and more stuff [vss. 16-34]. Jesus made it clear that if we wish to live according to his faith, we should live for God and our fellow man, rather than the things of this world.
Materialism and hedonism — the focus on physical things and maximizing the pleasure we can obtain from them — are a common way of life that is diametrically opposed to our spiritual calling. Many, perhaps most human beings, choose to live for the accumulation of items and experiences that produce pleasurable sensations, arising from the release of adrenaline and dopamine in the brain. The quest for excitement becomes an addiction, requiring ever-increasing levels of stimulation to achieve the same feelings of pleasure. That’s why people keep buying more and more stuff, bigger houses, faster cars, and working harder and harder to climb the social ladder of prestige, power and influence.
People who are caught in such an addictive mentality fail to appreciate the ordinary things of life. They have desensitized themselves to its meaning and joy. So intense is the desire for stimulation that a recent study showed that most people would rather give themselves electric shocks than sit quietly alone in a room for just fifteen minutes!
All great religions warn about this psychospiritual sickness. For example, as Buddhist scholar Francis Dojun Cook writes in his book How to Raise an Ox, “The everyday life of the Zen patriarch consists merely of eating rice and drinking tea.” This has a deeper meaning, he says, “that an enlightened individual is one who has learned not to kill ordinary acts such as eating plain rice or drinking plain tea. ‘Eating rice and drinking tea’ means, of course, ordinary, everyday life, and consequently not to kill these acts means not to kill our ordinary, everyday lives.”
As Dr. Cook continues, “we can kill them by discriminating, devaluating and demeaning, which occurs when we actively prefer other situations which we consider more valuable. To yearn for lobster and fine wine while having plain rice and tea is to discriminate against the rice and tea, which demeans and kills them. To want to be in some other place is to kill this place. To want to be entertained instead of painting the garage is to kill work. … Our problem is that we kill so much of our lives in the expectation that there is something better someplace else. This is delusion.”
This is why Jesus warned so strongly against pursuing a life of materialism and pleasure-seeking. He knew that if we are always seeking for something we don’t have, we will never find God, who is already with us always. God is in the plain rice and tea just as much as He is in a fancy building, a glorious vocation, or anything else we might desire.
Henry David Thoreau, a Transcendentalist Christian philosopher of the 1800s, decided to put this philosophy into practice. He went to live in the woods and built himself a simple log cabin, grew his own food, and admired the beauty of nature every day. As he wrote in his seminal work Walden, “God himself culminates in the present moment, and will never be more divine in the lapse of all the ages. And we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by the perpetual instilling and drenching of the reality that surrounds us.”
Thoreau lamented that so many people get distracted from this simple yet divine reality by accumulating material goods and becoming enslaved to their preservation and increase. “The portionless,” he said, “find it labor enough to subdue and cultivate a few cubic feet of flesh” — as do we all, if we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing in this world. As for those who focus on extending themselves materially, Thoreau says they “labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon plowed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal [Matt. 6:19]. It is a fool’s life, as they will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.”
Last month, I had the opportunity to attend a funeral. I say “opportunity” because funerals are a good chance to reflect on our mortality and what really matters in life. We’re all going to have one someday, and if a person lived well — as the person did whose funeral I was attending — it can be a great reminder about how to live and the fact that, as the saying goes, “you can’t take it with you.” When you die, nobody’s going to care about the size of your stock portfolio, how big your house was, how much land you owned, or how much stuff you had piled up in that extra storage unit you rented — except maybe your heirs who excessively crave such things for themselves.
Physically speaking, we will all be reduced someday to the dimensions of a coffin — or in the case of the man whose funeral I attended, a wooden urn less than one cubic foot in size. That was the last house his body would live in, and the only real estate here on earth that he could continue to occupy was marked out by his tombstone. But the real person was not these physical things, but the character of his life as recalled by his many loved ones. He was a quiet man, a simple man — and because he was a good man, his spirit has undoubtedly expanded to fill mansions in heaven.
I think many people excessively complexify their lives with the things of this world because of “FOMO” (fear of missing out). They see other people with more stuff and more exciting things to brag about, and they worry that their own life is comparatively less meaningful. They don’t want to be left behind in the rat race. But we’re God’s children, not rats. We should be seeking a meaning in life that accords with our true spiritual identity — the eternal part of us, not the part that has to die.
Many people shun simplicity and aspire to live a more complex life because of tremendous peer pressure to be “successful” as defined by a stressed-out, materialistic society. Swimming against the current, downsizing and simplifying rather than adding complexity and ever more grandiose aspirations, can be very psychologically challenging. For example, if you’re a young person today who grows up in a middle-class family, chances are you will be scorned if you don’t aspire to an “important” career such as law, medicine, business, engineering, or some other white-collar profession that necessitates that you fully embrace a fast-paced, high-tech modern lifestyle and tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars of student loan debt.
But you know what, some of the most important jobs don’t fit that description. If it weren’t for the janitors who empty the trash cans, our elite offices would stink of more than just corporate greed. Small farmers produce the organic vegetables, free-range eggs, and other healthy food that wealthy professionals buy at the local farmers’ market. Gandhi, one of the greatest spiritual leaders in history, spent a lot of his time spinning cloth to make his own clothes and cleaning the latrines in his ashram, inspiring the people of India to become more self-sufficient. There’s nothing wrong with having a low income and doing simple blue-collar work. As we celebrate Labor Day this week, let’s remember that.
It’s also important to realize that if a person is willing to live a simple life, you don’t actually need a lot of money. You can live simply and well on less than $20,000 per year. I’ve done it, covering all basic expenses such as food, housing, transportation, and utilities. You might not be able to live in an affluent city or suburban neighborhood, but if you’re content with a small town or rural location, low-income living does not have to mean an impoverished lifestyle.
Some people go even further, such as living in a tiny house and going off grid. This growing movement is to some degree a reaction to the excessive materialism and complexity of 21st century life — but it also taps into a rich spiritual tradition of voluntary simplicity that dates back many centuries and has been found in a wide variety of religions. If you’re interested to learn more about the history of simple living among Christians in monasteries and intentional communities, I preached in depth on this subject earlier this year.
But you don’t necessarily have to live in a one-room log cabin, become a monk, or go Amish to live a simple life. Here are three simple suggestions that anyone can follow.
First, have less stuff. The more things we accumulate, the harder it is to live in the moment, trust in God, and appreciate spiritual value instead of merely physical pleasure and security. There are some basic necessities that even the average sincerely religious person wouldn’t want to do without, but I think we’d all be surprised at how much less we could possess and still feel like we’re living a decent and fulfilling life. And we may find that when we get rid of some of the stuff that, as Jesus put it, “moth and rust will destroy,” we will have more freedom to live for the eternal things that also bring a deeper joy to us in this life than any number of material possessions.
This point is well illustrated by a famous parable. A monkey sees a jar with food in it. Reaching in, he grabs hold of the food, clenching his fist. But when he tries to pull out his fist, still holding the food, he finds that he cannot — only if the monkey lets go of what he’s grasping can he free his hand from the jar. Because he refuses to let go, he remains caught in the monkey trap.
Each of us should think from time to time, what am I holding on to that I don’t really need? What is my own personal monkey trap? Taking stock of our possessions and getting rid of some things that have outlived their usefulness or importance in our lives is a great way to get started in living more simply.
Secondly, we can talk less. Have you ever found that the more you say, the less time you have to do things that really matter? Many people spend hours each day arguing with people on social media, for example, about things they can’t change anyway — and often ruining relationships in the process. Is it worth it?
The more we talk, whether online or in real life, the more likely that we’ll say something we regret. Mindless conversation often creates needless drama. In many cases, it’s better to say nothing at all — or when we do talk, keep our words simple and intentional. The maxim “Is it necessary? Is it kind?” is a good rule to follow. All too often, I’ve found that when I talk too much, I say things that are unkind or unfruitful, causing unnecessary conflict and wasting my own time and energy and that of others.
As the Apostle James wrote, “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” Indeed, says James, an unrestrained tongue is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” [Jas. 3:5-6,8]. A great way to simplify one’s life is therefore to restrain the tongue, allowing us to avoid a great deal of evil, and freeing us to do good.
Third, in this vein, we should focus on creating peace, both inwardly and among others. Prayer, meditation, appreciating the beauty of nature, creating beauty through art, and engaging in acts of service and loving kindness to our brothers and sisters in the human family — all of these can be important parts of living a simple life. Simplicity is not just about what we don’t have, or don’t do; it’s also about consciously choosing positive habits and actions that naturally lead to less drama, less conflict, and more harmonious interaction with our environment and with society.
For each individual, this may look somewhat different, depending on our respective talents, abilities, and interests. There is no single way to live the simple life. And what might be simple for one person might be extremely complex, unmanageable, and unbalanced for someone else.
The important thing to understand is that no matter what we do, the goal is not to always have more, more, more — of anything except our love of God and each other. When we focus on that, our true purpose, instead of keeping up with the Joneses, our lives will be less cluttered, more meaningful, and just as challenging and interesting. Simple clarity and simple living can, in fact, lead to extraordinary joy.
Watch on video (starting at 7:32):