Transformed by Simplicity of Heart

“The Christian Discipline of simplicity is an inward reality that results in an outward life-style.” So writes Richard Foster about the spiritual discipline of simplicity. Over the years calls to live simpler lifestyles have challenged us to give up all attachments to this world whether they be possessions, relationships, or some other things. Is that surrender of worldly things the key to simplicity in life, though? Some would point to the story of the rich young man who approached Jesus, asking to follow him (Matthew 19:16-22). Do you remember the tale? Jesus told him to sell all of his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow him. And the young man, saddened because he couldn’t do as Jesus asked, left. Some conclude that Jesus is saying that we need to give up our possessions if we are to truly follow him. Is that what Jesus is really saying? I don’t think so.

The issue for this rich young man wasn’t that he had many possessions. The issue was that all of these possessions stood between the young man and Jesus. Matthew’s story is about priorities more than it is about wealth. Wealth is the example in this instance but far from the only thing that stands between us and wholehearted allegiance to God. That is the key to what simple living is about. It is about a heart focused wholly on the love of God in Christ, and on discerning God’s will for us and our world.

It is possible to be impoverished of worldly goods and still not have a simple heart. We can have few or no possessions and still have hearts cluttered with all sorts of things that prevent our first and sole allegiance to God. Hatred, prejudice, fear, worry, envy are several of the things that, in addition to possessions, can prevent us from focusing in all things on God’s love and will.

External simplicity, according to a Christian definition, should not properly be considered an end in itself, but rather as a way of mirroring an internal reality that some have called simplicity of heart. We cultivate an inward detachment from the things of the world in an effort to obey the words of the first commandment to love God. When this is achieved, the rest should follow. (Brett Grainger, “Simpler than Thou,” Sojourners, July-August 1996)

The spiritual discipline of simplicity is not about unloading all of our stuff. The spiritual discipline of simplicity is about unloading anything – attitudes or possessions – that prevent us from fervent focus on God’s love and purpose.

This has to do with trust. Do we love God enough and believe that God loves us enough to dare to surrender our trust in what we own, in our work, in our attitudes and worldviews (all of which create feelings of security as did the rich young man’s possessions), to allow God’s spirit to work in and through us even if such working requires us to change what we have, what we do, and what we believe to be true? The spiritual discipline of simplicity begins with simplicity of heart and finds expression in lives transformed by the gracious and powerful God in whom we place our allegiance.

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