Trends & fads. Society sure does have a way of sifting and sucking the meaning out of words, until all that is left is a mere carcass of letters and sounds, just a shadow of its original meaning. Love, justice, evangelical – the list doesn’t stop there, but those are some significant ones that come up a lot in my work that make me have to stop and ask the question, “Wait, when they say that word, what exactly do they mean?” It seems like one of those words has been “simplicity.” All things being relative, “simplicity” means different things for different people – I get it. But sometimes it doesn’t feel simple at all, and I feel like in our consumerist culture there is need to remember the importance and benefit (if not magnificence) of simplicity. Because, simplicity, while it still holds romantic connotations in our culture, has become plenty docile. Sure, we all want it…though we don’t really know how to get there.
For me, simplicity within the context of living life has been an important part of my spiritual walk, and it always will be. However, I’ve been reconsidering how I communicate simplicity in our current cultural climate. Another word that has become shorthand in our culture for the way that simplicity can be lived out is “minimalism.” Maybe you’ve noticed it. It’s been growing in popularity for awhile now. Like any word, it pulls with it its own stereotypes. Maybe even as you read the word it gave you the impression of living without. But I want to push back against that idea. For a number of years now, I have been challenged by and have been embracing what is called the minimalism movement.
Because, minimalism is less about living without, and more about paying attention about what you’re living with. Minimalism is about simple living. It’s not about how little we have, but about paying attention to, and considering, why we have what we have. It tends to be marked by integrating frugality, work-life balance, leaning into stress-free living, and sustainability. It is a push against the culture of excessive consumerism, with a calm, contrasting sound of silence into a frenzied culture. It’s facing the hard fact, that owning ‘stuff’ can be a slippery slope if we’re not careful. It can lead us down the slope of chasing after the wrong things.
Joshua Becker defines minimalism as: “the intentional promotion of things we most value and the removal of anything that distracts us from them.”
With that as a helpful definition, I believe minimalism offers us something to consider, and as followers of Jesus Christ, I believe it is an arena that we should engage. When “seek first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33) is the priority and lens for our lives, I believe how we view our material possessions looks a lot different: it becomes not about status, instant gratification, or keeping up with the Joneses, but about loving God and others, and bringing His Kingdom.
The Spiritual Practice of ‘Life Inventories’
I remember in my early twenties, when I was living in a cabin in the mountains, I was challenged by the historical character of St. Francis of Assisi. He was eccentric, and childlike in the way he lived out his vision of what it meant for him to follow Jesus. Embracing downward mobility, from an upper class family to living among the poor, he gave up everything in the eyes of his society. Italian Franciscan Friar, Thomas of Celano once said of Francis and his followers, “Because they had nothing, they feared in no way to lose anything.” There was a simple joy that Francis found in not owning things. Francis was once reported to say,
“If we had any possessions we should be forced to have arms to protect them, since possessions are a cause of disputes and strife, and in many ways we should be hindered from loving God and our neighbor. Therefore, in this life, we wish to have no temporal possessions.”
I guess, for me, being challenged by Francis was a first brush with minimalism. There was a lightness and freedom in this invitation. In the small cabin that I was living in, I decided to do what I called a ‘Life Inventory.’ In regard to my possessions, anything that did not ‘bring me life’ (fulfill a purpose, support my passions and call, etc.), I would get rid of it. (It wasn’t too hard since everything I owned could pretty much fit in my truck anyway.) But I ended up doing this practice regularly, often going through the process of considering the things I owned, and asking myself why I owned them.
Now, I’m married. Now, I have kids. I’m thankful to have traded in my hermitage for a community of marriage and flesh and blood – it’s not as quiet, but it is a daily adventure in learning to love myself and others. All that to say, ‘Life Inventories’ are more involved now. It requires teaching two elementary school age girls priorities and how to let things go. It means verbalizing my own intentions, desires, and longings for our home. It’s challenging, but formation is a process.
Minimalism Isn’t Just ‘Decluttering,’ It’s an Opportunity to Rethink the Way You’re Living Your Life
Richard Foster wrote in his book, Celebration of Discipline,
“The Christian Discipline of simplicity is an inward reality that results in an outward lifestyle. Both the inward and the outward aspects of simplicity are essential. We deceive ourselves if we believe we can possess the inward reality without it having a profound effect on how we live. To attempt to arrange an outward lifestyle of simplicity without the inward reality leads to deadly legalism.”
And I’ve found, that while there may be some expressions of minimalism that may have insisted or implied a cap on how many items you can own (which could lean toward legalism), what I’ve found is the benefit of stepping into the ‘journey’ of decluttering with a minimalist mindset (like the ‘life inventories’ that I would do). While I feel the tensions of what Foster wrote, I do feel that to enter into it with the idealism of ‘I need to achieve my inner-simplicity before I begin’ can get us stuck, as much as thinking, ‘the outward must look a certain way.’ Minimalism isn’t about asceticism, it’s about focus. Sometimes the focus comes as we start walking. Becker makes the point in his book The Minimalist Home, “Minimalism isn’t about removing things you love. It’s about removing the things that distract you from the things you love” (pg. 7).
The following are things to consider that I’ve collected from a couple different sources. The first is a list from Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, which he develops more in his book:
- Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status.
- Reject anything that is producing an addiction in you.
- Develop a habit of giving things away.
- Refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry.
- Learn to enjoy things without owning them.
- Develop a deeper appreciation for the creation. [outdoors]
- Look with a healthy skepticism at all “buy now, pay later” schemes.
- Reject anything that breeds the oppression of others.
- Shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the Kingdom of God (Foster, pg 90-95).
Second, questions from John Michael Talbot’s book The Lessons of St. Francis:
- Do I have some possession that complement my life but don’t really bring me enjoyment?
- What are some things that do bring me enjoyment but may not be worth the cost in time, money, and concern?
- Do I buy things that I don’t need, won’t use, or can’t afford?
- What do I really need, and what do I merely want?
- Am I consuming more than my fair share of the world’s limited resources? What am I doing to help those who are less fortunate than myself? Is there some of my surplus that could benefit others with less? (Talbot, pg 31)
I feel that all of these points and questions are helpful to ask, ponder, and act on. My encouragement is for us to rethink our lives from the place of prayer, and how the call to simplicity (and yes, minimalism) can be lived out in your life.
The Lessons of St. Francis: How to Bring Simplicity and Spirituality Into Your Daily Life by John Michael Talbot with Steve Rabey