February Exercises

Simplicity and Generosity

Describing someone’s life as “simple” could be interpreted as an insult. But “Simplicity” as it’s defined in the spiritual disciplines does not refer to one’s intelligence, status, or possessions; instead it offers a way of living where we are no longer defined or driven those things. Simplicity offers our heart freedom from its obsessions, attachment to riches, rank and reputation; there is freedom to live contentedly, freedom to live generously. 

Richard Foster describes our current condition: “Inwardly modern man is fractured and fragmented. He is trapped in a maze of competing attachments. One moment he makes decisions on the basis sound reason and the next moment out of fear of what others think of him. He has no unity or focus around which life is oriented.” Simplicity and generosity address this condition and those distracting attachments. They encourage us to develop unity and focus, which help us, as Christ commands, to seek first the Kingdom of God. 

Jesus and the rest of the Bible have a lot to say about the Christian life as one of single-minded devotion. But both Scripture and experience suggest two main obstacles lie in the way. 

The first is what pop-philosopher Alain de Botton calls Status Anxiety— a worry “that we are in danger of failing to conform to the ideals of success laid down by our society… that we are currently occupying too low a rung or are about to fall to a lower one.” Worrying too much about what others think surrenders to them an authority that rightly belongs to God. In the end, that becomes de-humanising. 

The second obstacle is Material Anxiety. Francois Fenelon referred to simplicity as “the pearl of the Gospel.” If we were honest, most us would rather have the pearls! And the house, the car, the holiday home, and the boat. Nowhere is our divided loyalty more obvious than in the area of material wealth. Jesus knew it, which is why warned us that we couldn’t serve both wealth and him. Cute car, flash yellow car, or no car—the problem is not necessarily in the having, it’s in the obsessive hankering. In today’s culture, the pressure to obtain a certain level of living can be relentless. To try and convince ourselves that we haven’t succumbed, Foster* notes that we cleverly rename the vices: “Covetousness we call ambition. Hoarding we call prudence. Greed we call industry.” Again, this is, profoundly dehumanising and, ultimately, profoundly enslaving. Few of us could honestly say, as the Apostle Paul does, that we have learned the freedom of contentment in all things. 

The disciplines of simplicity and generosity are powerful antidotes to status and material anxiety. They offer us a way to enjoy life regardless of our rank or wealth, and encourage us to locate our primary identity in terms our relationship with God and his Kingdom.

Sadly, living with simplicity and generosity is made more difficult for most of us have a remarkable sense of entitlement, We accumulate position and possession because we believe that we’re owed, by God and by others. This makes it extremely difficult to address the two obstacles above, and almost impossible to be truly generous. Very few of us give away as much as we could. Consequently life becomes cluttered and fragmented as we try hold on to everything we can for ourselves. 

Fortunately, this month we will be reflecting on creative ways to introduce simplicity and generosity into our patterns of life. The suggestions aren’t sensational or spectacular; instead they are… simple. But don’t let that fool you into thinking they are easy. Status and material anxiety are part of a cultural disease that is so widespread, even a small move in the opposite direction will take effort. But the resulting trust in God, and freedom from anxiety, will be well worth it. 

*Richard Foster quoted in Stephen W. Smith, Soul Custody: Choosing to Care for the One and Only You (Cook, Colorado Springs, 2010) p78.