Is it Really That Simple?

Many of us talk about simplifying our lives. When we stop to think about how many choices that we make in one day, it's exhausting. A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a friend who lives in Dubai. She was joking around about all the choices Americans have even in the marshmallow isle. You've got your big marshmallows, your mega-sized marshmallows, your little bitty ones, multi-colored, pre-flattened, chocolate-drizzled, toasted coconut, etc. My friend was saying that it's a lot less stressful to buy marshmallows in Dubai. There's one choice: Buy this particular bag of marshmallows or you don't get any.

How many marshmallow choices do we really need?

It's the things like the marshmallow isle that make us realize that it wouldn't hurt to scale down a bit. Understandably, there are many in the church today advocating a discipline of simplicity. I pulled up an article written by Richard Foster, who is known for his work on the spiritual disciplines and simplicity in particular. He states that, "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." I wondered, what is this inward reality? Foster continues, "Simplicity begins in inward focus and unity.... Experiencing the inward reality liberates us outwardly. Speech becomes truthful and honest. The lust for status and position is gone because we no longer need status and position. We cease from showy extravagance not on the grounds of being unable to afford it, but on the grounds of principle."

Still, I'm not sure what this inward reality is. Does inner searching lead to simplicity and unity? Foster discusses the fruit of simplicity, which I wholeheartedly desire. I do want to have contentment whether in riches or want. I agree that this virtue leads to a greater generosity. He talks about our "yes" being "yes" and our "no" being "no." And Foster highlights pure obedience to God, quoting Soren Kierkegaard:

"If thou art absolutely obedient to God, then there is no ambiguity in thee and ... thou art mere simplicity before God ... One thing there is which all Satan's cunning and all the snares of temptation cannot take by surprise, and that is simplicity."

In all these descriptions of simplicity, I see a theme of independence. The discipline seems to center around not needing what the market tells us we need, and not needing the approval or goods of others because we experience "inward focus and unity." But I can't say that I will ever attain this kind of simplicity. These virtues must be the fruit of something else.

I'm currently reading through K. Scott Oliphint's book, God With Us. In discussing God's name, "I am," Oliphint explains how, unlike us, the Lord is "essentially a se" (53). That is, he is completely independent. Oliphint discusses how God's essential properties are distinguished from his covenantal properties. "Essential properties, therefore, are properties that relate to God as God, or to God's 'Godness.' They are properties that help us see who he is quite apart from his relationship to anything outside of him" (62).

One of these essential properties Oliphint introduces is God's simplicity. "God's being is a unity; it is 'simple'" (63). Since God is the only One who is truly independent, he is the only One with essential attributes that really are who he is. "The doctrine of God's simplicity says that the characteristics of God are not parts of God that come together to make him what he is, but rather identical to his essence, and thus with him" (63).

Simplicity isn't a discipline; it is an essential characteristic of God.

And so Oliphint explains that when we say that God is good, it isn't that there's some sort of universal goodness that God participates alongside of, but rather that "he simply is good, and that goodness that he is just ishimself."

Not only so, but when we think of the simplicity of God, we are also committed to the notion that God's attribute of goodness and all of his other essential attributes themselves are, since they are Gods, attributed to him essentially and thus are his essence. God's truth is a good truth, and his goodness is true goodness, just because (in God) the one is included and identical with the other.  (64)

Sure, simplifying can be a very good thing. But when we are talking about our spiritual life, goodness, obedience, and truth, I think that it is important to recognize that these are not virtues that come from within ourselves. This discipline of simplicity that Foster teaches is ambiguous at best. At worst, it is suggesting that we can emulate this essential character of God. He is the One who is generous, and we need to look outside of ourselves to Jesus Christ who has lavished his grace on his people abundantly, praise God! We are in fact very dependent creatures. We are dependent on God for our salvation, for any goodness, honesty, and truth, and we are even dependent on one another to thrive in this world. That is the economy God has placed us in.

So when Foster says, "Simplicity is the only thing that sufficiently reorients our lives so that possessions can be genuinely enjoyed without destroying us," I want to say that it isn't our discipline of simplicity, rather, it is the essential characteristic of an independent God who has graciously condescended in creating and covenanting with us. God reorients our lives. It is all because of his work, not my own, that I can be confident he is transforming me not into some vague discipline of simplicity, but to the likeness of Jesus Christ through his promised means of grace. In Christ, God has communicated to us that which we will image.

There are many varieties of spirituality out there on the isle of evangelicalism. Some teachings are colorful, some are mega-sized, some are pre-flattened, and some are decorated with all kinds of messages on how we can ascend to a higher level. Don't miss the actual bag of marshmallows.