The Simple Life: God’s Quiet Revolution of Love, Forgiveness, and Unity
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing….But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matt. 6:25, 33).
The Gospel of Matthew offers concrete advice about how to live the good life by recommending a simple life which trusts in God. This vision of life is not a pie-in-the-sky otherworldly dream. Rather than rejecting or ignoring bodily concerns, the Bible is intensely interested in the human realities of hunger and thirst. The goal of the Christian life is not an escape from the world or an abstract communion with God, but a way into the realities of the world through an alternative vision and way of life. Participation in the life, worship, and witness of the church is an invitation to a new communal life, a new social identity, and a new way to receive and to share the basic necessities of life. It is by recognizing their own hunger, their own need for forgiveness and reconciliation, that Christians learn how to stand in solidarity with the hungry, the dispossessed, and the fearful. Seeking God’s reign and God’s righteousness, Christians are nourished and strengthened. As they pray, study, and break bread together in Christian fellowship, Christians are drawn into God’s quiet revolution of love, forgiveness, and unity.
During 2011, Center Letter Blog intends to explore the theological, biblical, and practical implications of living the simple life, which is also be the theme of the Center’s Convocation in Chicago, IL on July 14-16, 2011 (see www.missionalchurch.org ).
IN THIS POST:
- Excursus: Presuppositions of Center Letter Blog
- “Do not be anxious….”
- “Seek first God’s Kingdom….”
- “Blessed are….”
- Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Excursus: Presuppositions of CENTER LETTER BLOG With the explosion of world-wide access to information, the number of web sites, blogs, and social networks offering a wide variety of resources for church leaders is almost overwhelming. Some are extremely professional, offering dynamic content and amazing varieties of resources. Others are less sophisticated, but draw upon the real life experiences of Christians seeking to become faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. In addition, many seminaries, denominations, and para-church organizations offer workshops and opportunities for learning and sharing among pastors and lay leaders. What is not always clear are the presuppositions which shape these various offerings: what they assume about God, about God’s activity within and intent for the world, about the socio-cultural context, and about the identity and purpose of the church.
Thus, as the year-long consideration begins of what it might mean to strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness (God’s quiet revolution), it is important to consider the presuppositions of the Center for Parish Development as expressed in Center Letter Blog. The primary assumption is that the shape of the church is determined by the shape of God’s mission. God is actively engaged in a redemptive mission in the midst of an alienated and broken world and calls the church to discern and participate in this mission. There is no one model, no one set of characteristics, that designate a congregation as a “missional church.” This is because the mission of each congregation is determined by its unique circumstances as well as by its unique gifts. As congregations seek their particular calling, the primary resource and authority is the witness of Scripture. Therefore at the center of their life and ministry, missional churches spend time together, opening their minds and hearts—and imaginations—to the movement of the Holy Spirit through prayer and worship, Bible study and conversation. At the same time, missional congregations engage in research and analysis regarding their missional context, asking “What are the principalities and powers that are blocking the fulfillment of human life as intended by God?” Through the active illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, missional churches are called and empowered for particular ministries within particular situations.
“Do not be anxious….” (Matt. 6:25). At the heart of the market economy which “has become the dominant god of the modern world”1 is the elevation of material possessions—money and all that it can buy. More and more people do not simply consume to live but live to consume. Rather than being resources for life, material goods have become indicators of success, happiness, security, and self-worth. All of life, even fun, is defined through the lens of consumption: “Having fun lies in the satisfaction of consuming and ‘taking in’ commodities, sights, foods, drinks, cigarettes, people, lectures, books, movies—all are consumed, swallowed. The world is one great object for our appetite, a big apple, a bottle, a big breast; we are the suckers, the eternally expectant ones, the hopeful ones—and the eternally disappointed ones.”2 The growth of the market economy depends upon a perpetual dissatisfaction. The anxious appetites of consumers are intentionally stimulated in the never ending search for the lasting satisfaction which remains just out of reach.
Challenging the cherished beliefs of the consumer society is the Bible’s approach to material possessions. While earthly goods are a part of the created world and therefore are pronounced “good,” biblical teachings indicate that they are to be used within the context of God’s economy. While Americans tend to talk about “our money” and “our possessions,” such ownership is illusory since all that exists belongs to God. As gracious gifts given by God, material goods are to be used for God’s purposes. In other words, possessions are not ends in themselves, but have an instrumental value. Through what human beings receive, make, and possess they are to honor God and participate in God’s redemptive activity.
The Gospel of Matthew provides an alternative approach to material possessions. Three central teachings can be identified:3 (1) “You cannot serve God and mammon” (6:24). The story of the rich young man (19:16-30) tells of a pious Jew, following God’s commandments and living a good life. Yet when confronted with Jesus’ request to “go, sell what you possess and come, follow me,” his possessions appear to mean more than his salvation. (2) Affirming God as Lord affects the attitude that people have toward material goods. While it is true that life is “more than food, and the body more than clothing” (6:25), both food and clothing are good things (7:11) given by God. Jesus went so far as to liken the reign of God to a marvelous feast (22:1-14). While appreciating material blessings as God’s gifts, followers of Jesus are not to accumulate possessions or become unduly devoted to them. (3) God’s people regard material possessions as resources God trusts them to use as God wishes. Rather than storing up earthly treasures for personal use, devotion to God means devotion to the “least,” to those who are hungry and thirsty, the stranger, those who are naked and sick, as well as those who are in prison (25:34-46).?
“Seek first God’s Kingdom….” (Matt. 6:33).The Gospel of Matthew contains both a penetrating criticism of the danger of wealth (“for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also,” 6:21), and a carefree, almost light-hearted attitude toward possessions (“look at the birds of the air” 6:26; “consider the lilies of the field” (6:28). Trusting in God to provide all that they require, Christians can appreciate and enjoy the abundance of creation, even as they maintain a singleness or simplicity of focus upon God and God’s economy. The well-known Shaker hymn expresses the freedom, joy, and balance of abundant simplicity. “’Tis a gift to be simple, ‘Tis a gift to be free, ‘Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be, And when we find ourselves in the place just right, ‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.”
Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline, offers ten very practical—but challenging—guidelines for living lives of abundant simplicity4:
- Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status by determining what is essential rather than desirable.
- Reject anything that we become addicted to, whether it be coffee, cigarettes, television, computer games.
- Develop a habit of giving things away, especially if we are becoming attached to them or if they are not being used regularly.
- Refuse to be seduced by the promotion of gadgets, timesaving devices, or entertainment products.
- Learn to enjoy things without owning them and thus expose the illusion of control and security by sharing our material goods.
- Develop a deeper appreciation for God’s creation, for example, take walks, listen to the birds, enjoy the flowers.
- Buy only what we need and what we can afford to pay for now.
- Make honesty, simplicity, and integrity the distinguishing characteristics of our speech and life.
- Reject anything that will breed the oppression of others, for example, not buying from those who do not treat their workers justly.
- Shun whatever would distract us from our main goal: “seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness “ (Matt. 6:33), trusting that whatever is required for full and abundant life will be given by a gracious and loving God (see Matt. 7:7-11).
“Blessed are….” (Matt. 5:1-11). In the Beatitudes Jesus confronts and reframes human concerns and expectations. The issue becomes not benefits to be received, but conversion: a change of mind, a change of actions and relationships, a total reorientation of life. The power of God’s economy is not found in human desire or accomplishment, but through a trusting and obedient relationship with God. And this relationship comes through participation in the life, worship, and witness of a community of people seeking to become disciples, to follow the way of life taught by and embodied in Jesus. Personal and family lives of abundant simplicity are dependent upon the mutual love and care of disciple communities. Empowered by the Holy Spirit, such communities manifest an alternative way of life. One congregation both imagined and encouraged such lifestyles in the expression of a covenant to guide their life together: “We commit ourselves to following Jesus Christ, through whom God has made friends with the world and in whom we continue the work of reconciliation. We commit ourselves to each other, the church, to love our brothers and sisters in God’s family, sharing our decisions, our talents, our time, and our possessions. We commit ourselves to caring for the world, to bringing good news to the poor and setting free the oppressed, to proclaiming Jesus the Servant as Liberation and Lord. We commit ourselves to the way of the cross to a life of simplicity and prayer; in this is our joy, peace, and new life.”5
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Why are presuppositions important?
- What is meant by “missional church”?
- Describe aspects of a market economy.
- How does Matthew describe God’s economy?
- How can wealth block the simple life?
- Which of Foster’s list catches your attention? Why?
- Which items in the list might be the most challenging for your congregation?
- Read the Beatitudes. How do they reframe both concerns and expectations?
- Why is community important for the simple life?
The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.
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