Richard Foster wrote this eloquent hymn to a lifestyle of simplicity, submission, and service back in the late 70s, but it’s as prescient now as when it was written. This is an excerpt from chapter 1 of his seminal work, “The Freedom of Simplicity”:
Contemporary culture is plagued by the passion to possess…the good life is found in accumulation, that “more is better.” ….the lust for affluence in contemporary society has become psychotic: it has completely lost touch with reality. Furthermore, the pace of the modern world accentuates our sense of being fractured and fragmented. We feel strained, hurried, breathless. The complexity of rushing to achieve and accumulate more and more frequently threatens to overwhelm us; it seems there is no escape from the rat race.
Christian simplicity is a call given to every Christian. The witness to simplicity is profoundly rooted in the biblical tradition, and most perfectly exemplified in the life of Jesus Christ. It is a natural and necessary outflow of the Good News of the Gospel having taken root in our lives.
While simplicity provides an answer to the modern dilemma, it does not provide an easy answer. We must never confuse simplicity with simplism (oversimplification; as in the analysis of a problem)….Simplistic answers, by their vary nature, fail to perceive the rich, ordered complexity of life.
Paradox: Christian simplicity lives in harmony with the ordered complexity of life. It repudiates easy, dogmatic answers to tough intricate problems. In fact, it is this grace that frees us sufficiently to appreciate and respond to the complex issues of contemporary society….The fact that a paradox, complex simplicity, lies at the heart of the Christian teaching on simplicity should not surprise us. The life and teachings of Christ were often couched in paradox: the way to find our life is to lose it (Matt. 10:39); in giving we receive (Luke 6:38); he who is the Prince of Peace brings the sword of division (Matt. 10:34). Those with simplicity of heart understand the Lord, because much of their experience resonates with paradox. It is the arrogant and obscurant who stumble over such realities.
Paradoxes, of course, are only apparent contradictions, not real ones. Their truth is often discovered by maintaining a tension between two opposite lines of teaching. Although both teachings may contain elements of truth, the instant we emphasize one to the exclusion of the other the truth becomes distorted and disfigured.
Simplicity is a grace because it is given to us by God. There is no way that we can build up our willpower, put ourselves into this contortion or that, and attain it. It is a gift to be graciously received. Simplicity is also a discipline. It is a discipline because we are called to do something….What we do does not give us simplicity, but it does put us in the place where we can receive it. It sets our lives before God in such a way that he can work in to us the grace of simplicity. It is a vital preparation, a cultivating of the soil, a “sowing to the Spirit,” as Paul put it.
Christian simplicity is both easy and difficult. It is easy in the same way in which all Christian grace, having once worked their way into the ingrained habit structure of our lives, are easy. It is easy in the way that breathing is easy. The playing of Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique is easy to the accomplished musician who has labored until it flows out in his very body language; but until then it is difficult, painfully difficult. And in simplicity there are times of struggle and effort, times when we despair of ever having our lifestyles where we feel they should be, times when we wonder if our lives will ever be of one piece. But occasionally, in the middle of the struggle, we have a sense of entering in, and spontaneously we glorify our Father in heaven because we know that we have done no more than to receive a gift.
Simplicity is an inward reality that can be seen in an outward lifestyle. We must have both; to neglect either end of this tension is disastrous….The Christian faith views material things as created goods God has given us to enjoy. It does not dismiss material things as inconsequential, or worse yet, as evil. The material world is good and meant to make life happy. In fact, adequate provision is an essential ingredient in the good life. In human society today, misery often arises from a simple lack of provision. Misery also arises when people try to make a life out of provision. While it is an essential ingredient in the good life, it is by no means the only ingredient, nor is it even the most important one….The tension must be maintained: things are good, but that good is limited.
At times simplicity seems as elusive as humility; the moment we think we have it we have lost it. …The very sense of awe you feel at the immensity of the task is the first requirement for entering the race of simplicity. Those who come bolting in discover not simplicity, but arrogance….We could well say of simplicity what Thomas a Kempis said of compunction of heart, “It is better to practice it than to know how to define it.”
Models of simplicity are desperately needed today. Our task is urgent and relevant. Our century thirsts for the authenticity of simplicity, the spirit of prayer, and life of obedience. May we be the embodiment of that kind of authentic living.