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The Discipline of Simplicity

After studying Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man in Mark 10, one Christian in Birmingham, Alabama, had an unusual reaction. He went home, placed all of his clothes on the bed, and gathered several bags of canned goods along with baby clothes and toys that his son no longer used. Then he bundled it all up and took it to the poorest parts of his city. From house to house, he gave away his clothes, electronic equipment, toys, and money to people in need. The man later told his pastor, “We prayed with each family and told them we came with God. I got such a rush from this that we got home and got more things together to give away.”1 Though his behavior was certainly an extreme to which not all believers are called, the man represents an instance of a recent trend in spiritual disciplines: Christians simplifying their lives as an expression of devotion to Christ.

Yet the idea of simplicity is not new. It is has been practiced from the earliest days of Christianity by such believers as the Desert Fathers, Saint Francis of Assisi, and the Methodist circuit riders. According to Quaker theologian Richard Foster, the first step toward simplicity is focusing all one’s actions on the single goal of pleasing God; subsequently that inward focus translates into an outward refusal to lust for status or delight in showy extravagance.2 Naturally, the application of Christian simplicity varies widely according to God’s differing plans for various believers. Marital status, place of residence, and profession all affect the application of simplicity. Thus, for some, it leads to voluntary poverty while for others it requires merely cutting needless items out of a schedule or adjusting an attitude toward possessions. And of course, those called to have fewer possessions are not necessarily purer than those with more.

Indeed, simplifying one’s life does not in itself foster communion with Christ. Communists have long argued that government should take wealth from the rich and redistribute it to the poor—an act of simplifying, but one often motivated by an atheistic worldview. Similarly, E. F. Schumacher’s classic economic text Small Is Beautiful argued for simplicity in the name of conserving natural resources and preserving the dignity of work. But his reasoning drew from Buddhist teachings more than Christian tradition.3

Only Christian simplicity has the power to draw a believer closer to the Lord. Perhaps that is why a recent college graduate named Daniel reported great joy when he turned down two lucrative job offers and instead used his engineering degree to help impoverished communities around the world in the name of Jesus.4 A similar Christ-centered joy came to a Christian businessman named Jeff when he decided to stop pursuing the American dream and began using profits from his business to provide clean water in communities where thousands die daily of preventable waterborne diseases.5 For Ed and Patty, a retired couple in their early 70s, simplicity meant devoting their twilight years to disaster-relief work across the world rather than enjoying tourism and accumulating possessions.6

Still, cathedrals, automobiles, computers, and other material goods all play roles in the advance of God’s kingdom. And none of them would exist had not the Lord called some men and women to pour resources into manufacturing them rather than living in voluntary poverty. In fact, renunciations of technology and commercial goods often ignore important societal realities. For example, though American farmer and academic Wendell Berry refused to buy a computer in the name of simplicity, publishing his ideas in articles and books would have proved impossible today without someone’s using a computer on his behalf.7

True Christian simplicity, however, is liberating. Indeed, the inward commitment to live with single-minded commitment to Christ liberates one from the bondage of ordering life according to a myriad of complicated worldly ambitions. As the old Shaker hymn notes: “‘Tis the gift to be simple.”8


David Platt, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah, 2010), 132.


Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, 3rd ed. (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 80.


E. F. Schumacher, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, 25th anniv. ed. (Point Roberts, WA: Hartley & Marks, 1999).


Platt, 79.


Ibid., 80-81.


Ibid., 81-82.


Wendell Berry, “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,” (accessed August 20, 2010).


Foster, 79.