God has filled our world with pleasures, and He has given His image-bearers the power to create even more. We could survive by eating insects and drinking water, but we enjoy deep-dish pizza, pork tenderloin sandwiches, Chicago-style hot dogs, and Vernors ginger ale. We could sleep on gravel, but we luxuriate in king-size mattresses, fluffy pillows, and warm duvets. God might have created us with only black-and-white vision, but He has given us the power to delight in the blueness of the sky, the brilliance of a flower garden, and the splendor of autumn leaves reflected in a still lake. The world might have been filled only with the ceaseless droning of cicadas, but we strain our ears for sonic enjoyments from bird songs to Bach.
There are, of course, sinful pleasures. It is possible to relish things that God forbids. Those are not the pleasures I am discussing. I am not here concerned with debauches, but with legitimate delights, with pleasures that God permits and even provides.
Faced with these pleasures, we can commit two equal and opposite errors. The first is to embrace them as ends in themselves, to live for them until we become enslaved and are unable to let them go. The other is to eschew them completely as distractions from the important and eternal spiritual business that we must accomplish.
The latter error is a form of impiety. It is rudeness toward God. He is the one who has given us the gifts (or the power to invent them). They come from His hand. He formed the creatures with His word and then pronounced them good. He has placed them in the world in order to provide for us, astonish us, and delight us. To neglect them is to neglect what God Himself has given. To turn up our noses at God’s good gifts is not devotion. It is plain boorishness.
Previous generations of Christians have often inclined toward this error, and some still do. Certain versions of Christianity have harbored a false asceticism that despises the beautiful, enjoyable, and comfortable just because it is beautiful, enjoyable, and comfortable. Too often, delight in such things has been viewed as worldliness. This ascetic attitude makes a show of its devotion to God, but it is actually a form of snobbery.
This is a serious error, but it is not the main peril that Christians face today. Ours is not an era of excessive self-denial. We rarely struggle with guilt over the too-lavish enjoyment of the fleeting pleasures of life. Instead, we struggle to escape their attraction.
Christians in the West are accustomed to wealth, ease, and comfort. We have never known life without the necessities. We have always enjoyed creature comforts. Even if our appetite for luxury is less voracious than that of our general civilization, we still feel its pull. To us, the idea of subsistence living is as foreign as the dark side of the moon. We harbor an insidious sense of entitlement. Somehow, we believe that we deserve all that we have and all that we can get.
Nevertheless, life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions or the multiplication of our delights. The pleasures of life are not evil, but they are transient. They do not last and they cannot support the weight of the human soul. They cannot satisfy. They provide welcome diversions, but they become shabby and brutal if we make them into gods.
Our civilization is unashamedly materialistic and hedonistic. It comprises two kinds of people. The first are those who have ostentatious homes, luxury SUVs, big-screen home theater systems, smart watches, and who can afford their fill of comforts and pleasures. The second are those who think they should have these things, and who usually entertain a spirit of resentment because they haven’t got them yet. Incidentally, a recent study of the American poor shows that (as of ten years ago), three-quarters were living in air conditioned homes, about two-thirds owned multiple televisions and at least one DVD player, and more than half had a cellular phone.1 Compare that to Malawi, where the average annual income is about $250.
We have money. We have stuff. Even our poor have stuff. And none of it satisfies. Envy and class conflict in America are not noticeably scarcer than in most other places. One politician has even run his presidential campaign on the insistence that American wealth must be spread around more evenly—to him, it is a matter of justice.2 All our money, possessions, luxuries, and pleasures clearly are not enough to fill the void in people’s lives.
Those who have found forgiveness and real satisfaction in Jesus Christ—those who have discovered true pleasure in Him—have a calling to live in ways that are genuinely counter-cultural. This counter-cultural life does not mean behaving as if the pleasant things of this world are not good. It just means living as if they are not god. In short, it means a return to simplicity.
Simplicity is not asceticism, austerity, or severity. Rather, simplicity is the determination to keep life from becoming cluttered by unnecessary possessions and distractions. It begins with a recognition that whatever you own, owns you. All possessions bring stewardship because they require ongoing care and investment. Simplicity means choosing to live without the things that aren’t really useful to us.
Simplicity also means that we reject the frenetic pace and constant motion of contemporary life. We take the time to enjoy nature, to visit with friends, to share with family, to serve neighbors, and to seek the face of God. Because we wear callings as spouses, parents, neighbors, and most importantly as children of God, we refuse to allow our gainful employment to determine every concern. We gladly make choices that work against our economic interests when those choices serve our other callings.
With simplicity comes freedom. We can delight in God’s good gifts without becoming slaves to them. We can use them as a means rather than serving them as ends. Our money, time, possessions, and opportunities become stewardships that we can put to use in ways that will most glorify God.
Because little in our society encourages that kind of life, few people ever attempt it. Simplicity of life is genuinely counter-cultural. It is also honoring to God, because it puts Him and His gifts in their proper order. Practicing simplicity is a way of making the gospel visible to the lost—not in its message, but in its effects. It is an important way of serving God.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Oh, That I Had a Thousand Voices!
Johann Mentzer (1658–1734); trans. composite
Oh, that I had a thousand voices
To praise my God with thousand tongues!
My heart, which in the Lord rejoices,
Would then proclaim in grateful songs
To all, wherever I might be,
What great things God has done for me.
O forest leaves, so green and tender,
That dance for joy in summer air,
O meadow grasses, bright and slender,
O flow’rs, so wondrous sweet and fair,
You live to show his praise alone;
With me now make his glory known.
All creatures that have breath and motion,
That fill the earth, the sea, and sky,
Now join me in my heart’s devotion;
Help me to raise his praises high.
My utmost pow’rs can never quite
Express the wonders of his might.
Lord, I will tell, while I am living,
Your love and grace with ev’ry breath
And greet each morning with thanksgiving
Until my heart is still in death,
And, when at last my lips grow cold,
Your praise shall in my sighs be told.