The discipline of simplicity is, simply put, the practice of living with less. This practice is unique from the other spiritual disciplines that we have explored in this series, in that the need to be intentional about living with less applies specifically to those living in societies and situations that allow people to live with more than necessary to meet their needs. While the concept of this discipline is uncomplicated, this particular spiritual practice proves difficult, as the very idea of voluntarily choosing to live a life of simplicity or minimalism is blatantly countercultural. While there are certain niches of society that have championed minimalism and normalized it to a certain extent, such as the case with Bea Johnson and her Zero Waste Home blog, to live a life of simplicity as an extension of our internal spiritual reality is a different matter entirely.
Richard Foster writes in his book Celebration of Discipline that “The Christian Discipline of simplicity is an inward reality that results in an outward life-style.” He goes on to instruct his readers that the two components go hand-in-hand. We must first orient ourselves toward Christ—to seek him and to find our contentment in him—if we want to live simply. If we try to live simply by adhering to a set of rules about how much or what we can have without first pursuing a greater intimacy with God, our minimalist lifestyle becomes legalistic.
The Bible has much to say on the hazards of wealth and the barrier that it can create between us and an intimate relationship with God. Matthew 19:16-22 recounts the story of a rich young man who approaches Jesus and asks him what he must do to have eternal life. Jesus’ response to him in Matthew 19:21 is, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Later, Jesus cautions his disciples in Luke 12:15, saying, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And perhaps the most explicit directive regarding this matter is in Luke 16:13, where Jesus states, “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” In this last verse, the original meaning of the word translated to money is “mammon,” which refers to wealth in general.
These passages of scripture emphasize that the love of wealth is problematic for Christians. There is not a set quantity of wealth that is considered to exceed the amount that Christians ought to have – rather, it is a prioritization of wealth or material goods that outshines our relationship with God that becomes the issue.
The discipline of simplicity can reach beyond the conventional understanding of frugal living and deemphasize the importance of wealth in our lives; it can also encompass owning fewer things. It includes components of simplifying the way we buy things to reflect a concern for the human beings that play a role in the production cycle, reducing waste, and being mindful of our individual impact on the planet.
Simplicity can also impact the way that we order our lives in addition to our material possessions. In her book Present over Perfect, Shauna Niequist tackles the concept of less — of cutting out the excess from our schedules in order to be present with God and our relationships with family and close friends. Simplicity can look like saying “no” to the things that consume our time, and spiritual, emotional, or mental energy away from God, so that we can say “yes” to time with God.
In order to get the insights of someone more experienced in living a simpler lifestyle, I consulted with Cayla Pruett, who has been living a simplicity-oriented lifestyle for a couple of years. Cayla is a seminary student and resident of Portland, Oregon. Her journey toward simplicity began after she and some housemates moved out of a large house into a smaller townhome and had to downsize. She explained, “We didn’t have room for anything… I found myself organizing drawers and organizing cupboards and reorganizing and it was just making me crazy. And I just had this moment where I— and I actually remember being down in this cupboard organizing pans—and I had been back and forth to The Container Store and I thought, ‘What am I doing? I don’t need more stuff to store my stuff. I just need less stuff!”
This moment served as a catalyst for Cayla, and from there she started to further explore the way that she and society in general consumes material goods. She is a self-described researcher and voraciously devoured anything she could find on the subject of simplicity and minimalism. She found that her initial interest in pursuing a more simplistic lifestyle coincided with her faith. She notes that the primary intersection between her faith and the practice of simplicity comes from the idea that “those who suffer most from our carelessness and our overconsumption are the global poor.”
Cayla’s concerns are consistent with issues identified by the United Nations regarding the global impact of overconsumption, and the need for the development of sustainable consumption and production. The United Nations identify that the world population is projected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050 and that the food industry is not cut out to meet the needs of this growing population. The United Nations also points out that nearly one-third of food produced annually around the world goes to waste, households produce 21% of the world’s CO2 emissions, and that water is being polluted at a rate above that which it can be recycled and redistributed. According to the United Nations, the textile industry is the largest polluter of clean water (after agriculture). Making ethical purchasing choices and trying to reduce waste can help ameliorate some of the issues that the global poor face.
For Cayla, acknowledging that the choices she makes regarding purchases of clothing or other goods often come at the cost of the well-being of other people, as well as the impact that her waste has on the planet, serve as the point of tension between her profession of faith and her lived experience. She states, “When I look at that and I look at the person of Jesus in the Scripture, it can’t be overlooked that he was always on the side of the poor and the oppressed and the marginalized. Those were the ones he was touching and healing and blessing.” Cayla’s external expression of her inward relationship with God shows up in a simplicity characterized by minimizing her waste, limiting the quantity of items she purchases, and choosing to either purchase items that have been ethically made or bought second hand. While not everyone’s practice of simplicity may not look this way, Cayla does have practical suggestions for getting started:
Give Yourself Grace
Cayla encourages anyone seeking to practice simplicity or minimalism to give themselves permission to not do it perfectly. Simplicity is, after all, an expression of our internal faith – not a legalistic set of rules.
Cayla recommends that you take a week to observe yourself – observe what you buy, what you have and use or don’t use, and what you throw away. During this week also pay attention to the responsibilities and relationships that you devote your time to, and what kind of energy these commitments require.
Eliminate Things that Keep You from God
OK, this isn’t actually Cayla’s suggestion, but rather something that I pulled from Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. This instruction is consistent with Matthew 6:20-21, which instructs followers of Christ to, “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” An example of this that I have tackled recently is getting rid of quite a number my children’s toys and books. I know this seems like a very odd example, but hear me out. My kids are toddlers, and are limited in how much they can tidy after themselves. I usually spend a good portion of my evening cleaning up their things after they have gone to bed. Eliminating toys that they don’t play with, and leaving ones that they enjoy and can easily tidy leaves me with an additional 20-30 minutes each evening that I can spend reading or praying.
Cayla suggests finding one small thing to change. She shared the example of changing the way that she purchases coffee by always bringing a reusable cup with her when she is at work or school. If she forgets her reusable cup, then she will not purchase coffee because it comes in a disposable container.
Change Your Buying Habits
This is a suggestion that comes from both Cayla and Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. Foster encourages individuals to purchase items for their usefulness rather than their status. Cayla suggests being mindful of the human labor that goes into products that we purchase, and encourages purchasing from brands that adhere to ethical practices or buying secondhand. I recommend checking out www.thegoodtrade.com, as they have a number of buying guides that are quite useful in finding ethically produced goods.
Give Things Away
Again, this is a suggestion brought up by both Cayla and Foster. Foster suggests cultivating the habit of giving things away, and references Luke 12:33, which states, “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.” Cayla shared that she has become more mindful of how she gets rid of items, and seeks out programs that will recycle or repurpose items, rather than disposing of items into landfills.
Learn the Five R’s
This suggestion actually come from Bea Johnson of www.zerowastehome.com, a website that Cayla recommended for practical tips on simplifying life. The Five R’s are: Refuse what you do not need, Reduce what you do need, Reuse what you consume, Recycle what you cannot Refuse, Reduce or Reuse, and Rot (Compost) the rest.
If you are interested in learning more about simplicity, Richard Foster has a book that fully discusses this topic, entitled Freedom of Simplicity. If you are looking for practical tips and ideas to implement simplicity-oriented practices around your home, check out zerowastehome.com. If you would like to learn more about Cayla and her everyday practice of simplicity, follow her on Instagram @minimalmillenial.