Formation | Culture | Mission

On Contentment and Simplicity

Mo’ money, mo’ problems.
—Notorious B.I.G.

Left unchecked, our lives become increasingly complex.

We take in too much information and get decision fatigue.

We become hyper-connected by technology and social media and become disconnected in actual relationships.

We enter into forty to fifty “relational circles” (teams at work, family members, old college roomates, our homeowners association, our CSA, our kids’ little league teams) and end up with few real friends.

Marketers have picked up on this and offered a sub-movement of “simple” products. But don’t be fooled. Even Real Simple is 400 pages of tips, advice, recipes, and ads every single month.

It makes me wonder, Is a simple life even possible right now?

Contentment First, Simplicity Later

Here’s the big thought: any attempt at living a simpler life is going to fail if it doesn’t have its roots in inward contentment. Even “simplicity”—if you follow the de-cluttering tips and the design blogs—it just leads to another form of competition. It’s all about the heart.

I remember reading once that the Greek word for “content” is just a combination of two common words: Full and self/soul. To be “content,” then, means to have a “full soul.” Not full in itself, but full by itself. A soul with no further need. A “full soul.”

Contentment is having a “full soul” in God, and not needing much else beyond that.

Contentment in God enables simplicity in life—a life within our means and boundaries, a life of few and deep relationships, a life of meaning and fullness.

Money is the easiest example. As the proverb author wrote some 3000 years ago,

Give me neither poverty nor riches,
But give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
And say, “Who is the LORD?”
Or I may become poor and steal,
And so dishonor the name of my God.
– Proverb 30:7-9

Of course, this is totally counter-cultural. We live in Trumpian times now. (Or is it Drumpfian times?) Why on earth would someone intentionally live below their means?

Consider this: The accumulation of money and possessions is actually a threat to our contentment in God.

Accumulation: The Threat to Contentment

Richard Foster, in The Freedom of Simplicity, writes, “Contemporary culture is plagued by the passion to possess. The unreasoned boast abounds that the good life is found in accumulation, that ‘more is better.’ Indeed, we often accept this notion without question, with the result that the lust for affluence in contemporary society has become psychotic: it has completely lost touch with reality.”

St. Paul, in 1 Timothy 6, wrote, “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

I am, by nature, a greedy person. It’s possibly my biggest vice. And it’s not even primarily money (although it can be). I’m greedy for more success in my work, more comfort foods in my belly, more books on my shelf, more hobbies to enjoy.

But greed has an insatiable appetite. Notice what the old apostle said about all kinds of greed: It traps us, tempts us to other sins, discourages us (“pierced with griefs”), and threatens to destroy us. You’ve heard the quotes: Vanderbilt said the worst possible life was the one with $200 million. Henry Ford said he was happier as a mechanic than a millionaire.

But again, greed is not primarily about money.

“A Little Bit More”

Personally, I’ve found the pursuit of contentment to become more demanding as I grow older and the practice of simplicity more difficult in the suburbs.

When my wife and I first to St Matthews (a nice suburb in East Louisville), we bought the cheapest, smallest house in a high-end neighborhood. At first, we didn’t feel like we fit in at all. We’d take our two sons on a walk and make small talk with neighbors, then later joke, “They think we’re one of them!”

But four years later? Now I find my heart thinking, “Man, we have the junkiest house in the whole neighborhood, and the worst cars, and the worst clothes. We should have much nicer things! We’re so far below average!” What happened? Our definition of “average” changed.

The broader biblical category of greed is coveting. Coveting is a sort of inner grasping. It’s not constant grasping with your heart after things that don’t belong to you.

(Side note: Have you ever noticed that the first and last of the Ten Commandments are (1) “Love God with all your heart”—in other words, put nothing before him, be totally absorbed in him—and (10) “Don’t covet”? It’s God’s way of telling us: Be content with God, and you will have all that you need.)

So if we want to be content in God, how do we begin? I’m of two minds here, and I think there’s something to both…

Simplicity: The Practice of Contentment

We can begin by pursuing the virtue of contentment itself. We can quiet our hearts, bring our greedy impulses before the Father, receive his forgiveness, and seek deeper fellowship with him. There is no other way of contentment than ongoing fellowship with God.

But you can also begin by practicing simplicity, and then your heart will follow your habits. Apart from Christ, one can cultivate a more simple life and a more content heart. But as I said, only through ongoing fellowship with God (through union with Christ), can we become truly content. But the practices of building deep relationships, living within your budget, maintaining a sustainable calendar, giving generously to the church and the poor, eating healthy and energy-giving foods, and de-cluttering your house do make a difference. These practices create space for contentment in God.

It’s possible to become legalistic here. But a Grace centered approach is invitational: Which world are you living for?

It is psychosis to live as if money and possessions will bring us longterm satisfaction and fullness. Wouldn’t we rather be grounded in reality and have a “full soul”?

I love the way Paul says it in Philippians 4:11-12, “I have learned… the secret of being content.” There is a challenge and a hidden nature to contentment. If it was easily found, everyone would be content and lead simple lives. Paul says that he learned to be content—it took a process; he had to mature into contentment.

And I think the process must involve the cultivation of both practices: (1) practicing Contentment through deep prayer, and (2) practicing Simplicity through living within our means and giving away what’s not needed.

(Final side note: I remember Tim Keller telling his congregation once, “You have a lot of things in your wallet that belong somewhere else. You have clothes in your closet that belong someplace else. You have food in your pantry that belongs someplace else.” Wow. Great truths to do something about.)

So, I am in the process of learning contentment. And I have a long way to go. My life is more cluttered than it is simple. But as I continue to consider what Jesus did and seek to live my life in the same way, it has offered a new freedom.

You want freedom, true freedom? Don’t look to money. Only contentment can afford freedom.

 

 

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