The Discipline of Simplicity

I’ve recently finished reading Richard J. Foster’s now-classic Celebration of Discipline. It’s a well-written, easy-to-read book which draws deeply on centuries of insight from the true masters of the spiritual disciplines, but I must admit to not being greatly excited about reading it at the outset. I read a good number of these sorts of books as part of my theological degree (and subsequently), and I wasn’t convinced there’d be much in it for me except for the reminder that I don’t engage in most of these disciplines nearly as well as I should. Perhaps that was reason enough to read the book in the first place, but these days I generally try to avoid placing myself in situations where I know feelings of guilt are the inevitable consequence…

For the most part, the book conformed to my expectations. There is, perhaps, a lesson in this of expectations overruling the possibility of truly engaging with a text, but that’s for another time. There was, however, one thing that did grab my attention.

This one point is ‘The Discipline of Simplicity’ (chapter 6 in the book, if anyone’s interested).

The discipline of simplicity is something that both engages and challenges me greatly. I deeply desire to remove unnecessary complexities from my life, but I also find it incredibly difficult to do. I wish very much to be satisfied with a simple life, uncluttered by enticing yet pointless add-ons, but I often fail miserably in this regard. I am attracted by minimalism and the subtlety of understatement, but I dare to say that this is not what might spring to mind should those who know me wish to describe my life and personality.

I have always struggled with these ideas, but I think it came home to me in the most profound way at the wedding of friends of mine. In their (beautiful) vows, they included a line that describes their life together quite well, and which stirs me at every remembrance of it. It went as follows:

I will lead with you a simple, just and peaceful life
as Christ has called us to live.

It is truly a profound vow, and I wish that more would include it in their own wedding ceremonies and, more importantly, live it out (including, especially, myself).

But there it is; a vow to lead a simple life. In the interests of trying to keep this post as simple as is possible for me (and I know I’ve probably already failed at that task), I will simply (there it is!) summarise 10 points that Foster offers in regards to what this discipline of simplicity might look like in practical terms.1 The only thing I’d add before it is to note that the outward working of simplicity must arise out of an inward conviction, but you can read it all for yourself in Foster’s book if you so desire. Anyway, here they are. I kind of hope I’m not the only one who finds them so incredibly challenging:

  1. Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status. This includes cars, houses, clothes (worn until they are ‘worn out’ rather than until they are unfashionable), etc.
  2. Reject anything that is producing an addiction in you. This includes addictive, non-nutritional drinks, food, technology, media, and money.
  3. Develop a habit of giving things away. ‘Nuff said!
  4. Refuse to be propagandised by the custodians of modern gadgetry. (I’m writing this on a MacBook Pro Retina…)
  5. Learn to enjoy things without owning them. This is bucking the trend of a society that considers ownership as the highest value, and values rather, for example, the sharing of public spaces (beaches, parks, libraries, etc.)
  6. Develop a deeper appreciation of creation. “Marvel in the rich colors of everywhere!” (p. 92).
  7. Look with a healthy skepticism at all “buy now, pay later” schemes. Incurring (any) debt should not be taken lightly.
  8. Obey Jesus’ instructions about plain, honest speech. Basically, let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’, and your ‘no’ be ‘no’. It also includes avoiding flattery and half-truths and all forms of obscure speech.
  9. Reject anything that breeds the oppression of others. The product is not more important than the people involved in the chain of production.
  10. Shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the kingdom of God.

____________________

(1) The initial sentence in each of the points below is a direct quote from Foster’s book.

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Published by

Josh Dowton

Student of history/theology/nonviolence/permaculture/missional thinking. Large of limb, red of hair. Semper in excretia sumus, solum profundum variat.

3 thoughts on “The Discipline of Simplicity”

  1. I think that book is among the classics and is one that is not meant to be critically engaged in within a academic setting, rather is one to be digested and put into practice. Though of course I do make the claim that anything we read or hear should be critiqued and thought through before we put into practice.

    One of the most enriching and rewarding times for myself (hindsight is a marvellous gift) was my time of homelessness. I remember going to a certain large book store where I would plonk myself onto a comfortable lounge and read a book and put it back onto the shelf and come back and read it the next day. I was blessed that a number of truck stops provided showers and laundry facilities so I could keep clean.

    By no means am I saying that this experience was a great one, because simply put it was also one of the most heart wrenching times I have had. I am grateful for my house, my collection of books, our largish fridge. I believe that sometimes we can choose to live simply and other times the circumstances of life cause us to simply live.

    1. Thanks for that, Craig.

      I remember moving to Sydney and packing everything I owned in the back of my $600 Datsun 120Y station wagon for a new adventure. ‘Everything’ at that point was, listed in order of importance, a bar fridge, one bag of clothes (mostly jeans and Hawaiian shirts), and one small box of books and other bits and pieces. It was actually quite a liberating feeling. It pretty much continued this way as I went through my theological study as well. There’s something beautiful in not being tied down by the weight of possessions.

      My life is quite different now and, while I don’t want to go back to those days, I do still long for less (useless) complexity in my life. It’s much harder to do from where I find myself now.

  2. I believe having kids can be a life lesson of simplicity. I can remember watching family get miffed while watching the kids unwrap fairly expensive presents, who then laid the toy aside and had a great time with a big box instead.

    I remember once travelling through Coonabarraban, and needed to get some camping supplies at the local hardware. The shop shut between 12 – 2 pm every day for the owners siesta. At the time I was frustrated, but, on meeting the owner, I remember he was a unhurried and calm person,

    I like what the Apostle Paul says while in prison and commenting on his experience of having much and having little, that he had learnt to be content in both situations and that the only way he could do that was through Christ. Perhaps contentedness is a major part of living a simple life in the midst of complexity.

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