Simplicity:  The Pearl of the Gospel

Published in Response Magazine, November 2008.

Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” (Matt.13:45-46)  This parable speaks of the value of an undivided life.  Jesus calls his followers to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:37-39).  For disciples of Jesus Christ, this is our purpose, our resting place, the place where we are whole.

But we often feel pulled in different directions by competing demands and expectations of home, family, work, church, and society.  Instead of wholeness and clarity of purpose we can end up distracted, conflicted, dissatisfied, and divided against ourselves.

This sense of inner division is compounded by commercial culture, with its barrage of messages designed to endlessly stimulate our desires for consumer products.  Commercial media promotes a way of life built upon greed.

As United Methodists, we reject greed.  Our resolution on “Greed” states:  “God’s vision of abundant living is a world where we live out of a theology of `enough,’ a theology based in the knowledge that we are grounded in Christ, that our sense of personal value and esteem grows from our Christ-centered life.” (Resolution #211)

How can we find inner peace and clarity of purpose in the midst of our complex, alluring,  fast-paced world?  How can we stay grounded in Christ, and find our sense of worth and self-esteem in a Christ-centered life, when we are constantly urged to buy more?  How can we live into a “theology of enough,” in which greed is replaced by gratitude?

One way is through the practice of simplicity.

Simple living, or “simplicity,” has been a part of many religious traditions, including United Methodism.  It is a spiritual discipline, a way to open oneself to God.   It is also a way to respond to today’s growing inequity and environmental destruction with faithfulness, integrity, and hope.

An Undivided Heart

 In Freedom of Simplicity, Richard Foster writes of both inner and outer simplicity.   As we cultivate inner simplicity, we focus on Christ’s call to love God and serve our neighbor with singleness of purpose, to follow Christ with an undivided heart.  It is here that we begin to relinquish all competing desires and loyalties, find healing for our addiction to more, and live into a “theology of enough.”

As we take steps toward outer simplicity, our lifestyles are transformed through the guidance and empowerment of the Holy Spirit.  We learn to “live simply so others may simply live.[1]” We learn to reduce our harmful impacts on the earth, give generously to those in need, help transform unjust social structures, protect the earth for future generations, and be responsible members of the community of life.

Matthew 6 has been called “the most radiant passage on Christian simplicity in all the Bible.”[2]  Here Jesus teaches that how we handle property and relate to worldly wealth is central, not peripheral, to our spiritual journey.  He instructs his disciples to give alms to the poor as a spiritual practice, trust God’s gracious provision, and serve God alone.

Jesus calls us to undivided love and service, and warns against split loyalties, since it is impossible to serve both God and wealth.  He does not warn his followers to stay unattached to earthly treasures, but to not store them up in the first place.  His call is to singleness of purpose, for “when your eye is sound your whole body will be full of light.”  Jesus invites us to live in radical trust and dependence upon God, who provides for the lilies of the field and the birds of the air.

Responding to the Invitation

Not everyone who is drawn to Jesus responds to this invitation.  When Jesus instructed the rich young man to “go, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come, follow me,” the young man went away grieving rather than part with his wealth. (Matthew 19:16-22)  His attachment to material possessions prevented him from gaining the spiritual treasure that discipleship provides.

But through the ages many have responded to the gospel call, and have “sold everything” to buy the “pearl of great value,” the kingdom of God.  The first disciples gave up everything to follow Jesus.  Early Christians shared everything in common and joyfully sold their possessions to provide for the poor.  The Desert Fathers and Mothers renounced materialism withdrew to the desert, and sought God in solitude.  Francis of Assisi relinquished his claim to his family’s wealth, found joy in God’s creation, served the poor, and required his followers to take vows of poverty.  Early Quakers wore plain attire, and many refused to wear dyed clothes because they were connected to the slave trade.  In more recent times, Dorothy Day lived among the poor, giving all she had to relieve their hardship and advocate for justice.  Gandhi lived a Christ-like life, in utter simplicity and solidarity with the poor, spinning his own cloth in resistance to English rule.

For John Wesley, simplicity was one aspect of “holiness of heart and life.”  He centered his life in prayer, wore plain clothes, ate simply, and fasted twice a week.  Mr. Wesley earned considerable sums from his writings, but throughout his life he lived on 28 pounds per year, just as he had in his student days.  He distributed the rest to the poor, and urged others to do the same.

At the same time, Wesley spoke out strongly against harms caused by the Industrial Revolution and unjust social structures, advocating for prisoners, slave, workers, women, children, and the poor.  For Wesley, holiness was not a private affair, for our lives affect the world around us.  He said, “The Gospel of Christ knows no religion but social; no holiness but social.”[3]

Living Simply Today

In the midst of today’s pressing economic and environmental problems, living simply becomes relevant as never before.  The global economic system is based on ever-expanding markets, casino-like stock trading, accumulation of wealth at the top, and a “race to the bottom” among workers.  As the rich amass unprecedented wealth, millions are driven from poverty to misery.  The natural systems of the earth are being overwhelmed by toxic pollution, industrialized development, and the accelerating release of fossil fuels.  Whole ecosystems are destroyed as the gifts of God’s good creation are turned into growing mountains of throwaway “stuff.”

Simplicity is an antidote to these complex and almost unfathomable problems.  In today’s world, social holiness requires cutting consumption among those who have more than enough, sharing the earth’s resources justly, and caring for the natural world.

Choosing to simplify one’s lifestyle isn’t easy.  It requires difficult decisions about money, time, and other details of everyday life.

Serena Mitchell, who attends Nevada City United Methodist Church in Nevada City, California, cancelled her family’s July camping reservations.  Instead, they put up tents in the back yard.  For four days her family enjoyed a “staycation.” They took walks to the park and swam in nearby ScottsFlatLake.   Relatives and friends stopped by to share barbequed dinners, roast marshmallows, and sing songs around a portable “campfire.”  Cousins spent the night, shining flashlights in the dark and telling ghost stories while snuggling in their sleeping bags.

“We’ve been trying to live simply,” said Ms. Mitchell.  “We have a cash system and don’t use credit cards.  Vacationing at home wasn’t the same as taking a trip, but the kids loved it.”

“I liked the baths,” she added.

Many families are choosing to live more simply.  Some are being forced to, as homes are foreclosed, jobs are lost, and gas and food prices rise.

Churches can support members through this process.  Worship and Christian Education classes remind us to place God first and serve our neighbors, especially people in need.  Some churches offer simple living support groups, stewardship education, produce-sharing, and addiction recovery programs.  NevadaCityUnitedMethodistChurch, the Mitchell’s church, offers shared community meals and alternative celebrations.  It has a food pantry and participates in a rotating homeless shelter called Hospitality House.

[ParkroseUnitedMethodistChurch in Portland, Oregon co-sponsored a series on “Moving from Debt to Assets,” in response to the debt crisis among community members.  Parkrose also offered a class on “Simple Living:  Are you living as Jesus wants you to live?” Pastor Tom Anderson of Houghton Grace United Methodist Church in Houghton, Michigan, preached a sermon series on “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger:  Moving from Affluence to Generosity,” based on a book by Ron Sider.  Many churches offer similar programs and support.

As we focus on loving God and neighbor, we seek to align our will with God’s loving will for all life.  As we simplify our lifestyles, we free up resources for those who are in need, reduce our ecological impact, and move in the direction of “abundant life.”  As we practice simplicity, we gain integrity and make wholeness possible for ourselves and others.  In the words of Francois Fenelon (1615-1751), “O, how amiable this simplicity is!  Who will give it to me?  I leave all for this.  It is the pearl of the gospel.”[4]

[2] Foster, Richard, Freedom of Simplicity (San Francisco:  Harper and Row, 1981), page 34.

[3] Wesley, John, as quoted by Maxie Dunnam in Our Journey:  A Wesleyan View of the Christian Way (Nashville:  Discipleship Resources, 1984), page 66.

[4] Fenelon, Francois, Christian Perfection (New York:  Harper and Brothers, 1947), page 204.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s