What is Simple Living?

Date: April 25, 2011
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In a previous post, I suggested that society needs some sort of upper limit in order to achieve the vision of a world in which there is equality of economic opportunity and proper care of natural systems and resources on which we depend. I suggested a flat percentage tax on income would be one step toward this goal, but realize that there will always be ways around these limits as long as their is greed. Some people are already trying to create some sort of upper limit for themselves with the idea of “simple living.”

However, it seems that people have lots of different definitions of what it means to live simply. For some living simply might mean deciding to do without some conveniences or luxuries like video games, cable or an iPhone. A friend of ours here told us that, to him and his family, living simply meant buying higher quality items that they needed, but not just making do with whatever happens to be lying around. I have other friends who think about living simply more in terms of using up other people’s leftovers and waste by dumpster diving, scavenging and repairing what they need.

With all these competing visions of what that means, it seems that we still don’t know exactly what living simply means. The idea of living simply as often been summed up with the phrase “live simply so that others may simply live.” While this doesn’t really help us choose whether to be a dumpster diver or bargain shopper, it does help us realize the purpose of living simply. The point is not to feel better about ourselves or our lifestyles. The point is not to rack up spiritual bonus points or rewards by being a better person. The point is that we recognize that our lives are tied up with the rest of the people on this planet. The choices I make about how I live directly affect people on the other side of the world.

At its most essential, from a Christian perspective, living simply is about embodying the kingdom of God in our lives and particularly in our economic lives. Matthew 25 (and the prophets Isaiah, Amos, Micah, Hosea, etc.) tells us that our relationship to the poor, hungry, sick and imprisoned is direct reflection of our relationship to Jesus and the kingdom of God. We have created a world in which we can keep the least of these further and further from our daily lives. Perhaps living simply means accounting for our relationship to the least of these in our personal economic lives.

So, how do I know what to buy or not buy? Is it possible to own an iPhone and be living simply? Perhaps the slimness of that sleek gadget might still get you through the eye of the needle, but my Macbook would probably get me stuck (I wonder about a Macbook Air?). The point is not to be dogmatic or legalistic but challenging and provocative, to ourselves more than others. There are always ways to justify our lifestyles and choices. Some of them might even sound good or right. The question has to be whether my economic and lifestyle choices are moving me in the direction of the kingdom, that vision of the way the world should be, or not. These choices are not the same for everyone, but the trajectory should be clear.

Perhaps there are some guidelines or questions that can lead us like that pillar of fire led our ancestors in the wilderness.

1. Are our economic choices and/or lifestyle leading us to think more about ourselves or others?
2. Are we more concerned about our daily bread or securing for ourselves a comfortable future?
3. Are our choices challenging our economic privilege or making us feel more secure and comfortable?
4. Can we see change because of our choices? Are there positive tangible effects for ourselves or others in our community or around the globe?
5. Do our choices bring us into conflict with the Powers or do the Powers pat us on the back for our support?

Now, I have a family and certainly understand the need for a certain amount of comfort and security. I don’t think we would be living and working in Bolivia if we thought it threatened our security or the needs of our family.

On the other hand, I have been faced with choices that require a certain amount of discomfort and insecurity. There is a tension there that might be an indicator of following Jesus and being led by the Spirit. I also recognize that #5 might sound too combative to some, but it is biblical language that Paul used to describe the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection and our consequent relationship with the world as children of this new kingdom. I’m not saying these are a perfect or exhaustive list, but rather a good place to start the process of discussion, prayer and discern about what it means for us personally to live simply and participate in the reign of God in our economic lives.

  • Willmar T. Harder

    Thanks for the reflections on living simply. Living simply is one of the goals of Mennonite Central Committee, but is left quite open ended (probably intentionally so). As I think about this for myself, and especially in light of our LGM work … how much does/ought our particular community help define living simply. To what extent is the “we” in your rubric individually and/or corporatly defined? Look forward to seeing you at Focus Weekend!

  • http://thoughtloose.blogspot.com Maria Kirby

    I guess for me living simply has a lot to do with knowing what my purpose is. If some activity or possession does not further the purpose God wants me to fulfill, then it probably doesn’t belong in my life. I have a hard time understanding how a particular lifestyle can be considered simple if it isn’t sustainable. I don’t believe that every sustainable life requires one to garden or limit one’s possessions to a hundred items or some such thing since we are all unique and live in different circumstances.

    I have learned my purpose not only from the gifts and talents God has given me, and the needs I observe in the world, but from the privileges and responsibilities I have inherited. I have been challenged to consider poor people’s time as valuable as my own. I have been challenged to consider every possession a responsibility that needs to be used, properly stored, kept clean, and well maintained. If I have so many possessions that I cannot care for them responsibly, or use them regularly, or if caring for my possessions takes away from actually fulfilling my purpose, then I figure I’m not living simply enough.

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