Radically Simple Living

Imagine for a minute if I said that I’d found the key to a wonderfully happy life and it was in the pages of this month’s Psychologies magazine.  Then, I went on to tell you that the answer was to take a few simple steps listed in the magazine and stop being a slave to your ‘stuff’.  How many of you would rush out, part with £4.00 of your hard earned money and buy it?

Now, if I said that the exact same advice was to be found, for free, in that unused Bible you keep on the shelf (because it was Granny’s and you can’t part with it), how many of you would a) ignore me or b) think I was some Christian nut job who ‘actually believes all that stuff?’

It’s more socially acceptable in twenty-first century Britain to act on advice from the trendiest life-guru in books or women’s magazines, than it is to admit that the the basic principles are just a re-hash of advice given out by a man 2000 years ago and by his father for several thousand years before that. “There is nothing new under the sun” it says in Ecclesiastes 1:9 and Solomon was quite right. History repeats itself constantly. We all know that flares and leg warmers will come back into fashion, if we hang on to them long enough. The bonus is that next time our originals will have a trendy name… vintage!

So while on the face of it Christianity may have a bit of an image problem (after all, our hero dies – he can’t be on Jonathan Ross flogging his book), we need to bear in mind that modern lifestyle guru’s, giving advice on getting the most from your life and being truly happy, possibly need to watch out for a plagiarism suit from God.

Let’s get back to the thing about possessions.  Go to Amazon and stick in the word ‘declutter’.  Today when I did that it listed 201 titles on how to downsize and organise your life.  I haven’t got much past the books, but no doubt there’s a DVD, a Wii Game and an audio CD of music to jettison your stuff by.  By the way, I think the ultimate declutter track has already been discovered by FlyLady, which is Please release me, let me go by  Engelbert Humperdinck.  Great track, although I think he should consider decluttering his name.

The Amazon listing tells me that you can declutter anything; your kitchen, your wardrobe, your garage (Simon!) and you can do it by any conceivable method you want. You can Feng Shui your stuff away or you can simply stick it all on Amazon and reap a nice tidy sum in return. Whatever method you choose, the message is the same: Get rid of your stuff and you’ll be happier forever.

If, in the process of decluttering your life you take down that dusty unused Bible and turn to the book of Luke and look (and if you’re from Lancashire looking in Luke will be an experience for you – bwhahaha!*); then look at what it says in Luke 18: 18-30 where Jesus is talking to a rich man. The rich man is asking Jesus what he needs to get eternal life.  He’s a good man, a devout Jew, he keeps the Law, but Jesus lands the killer blow on him in verse 22:  “Sell all you have and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me” (NLT).   There we are, it’s the same advice as in all those books on Amazon.  Get rid of your stuff, give the money you make from it to charity and then do something with your life that’s really worthwhile, instead of collecting possessions.  The man goes away sad that he can’t do that. The hold his wealthy lifestyle has on him is too great.

This is where Jesus is radically different to every lifestyle guru going.  Even at their most ruthless, they will only ask you to pare your life down to an acceptable number of possessions, using criteria such as ‘is it a beautiful object’ to determine whether or not it retains a place in your home.  Jesus on the other hand is the true radical declutter guru.  His advice?  Get rid of the whole shebang, every last bit of it.  No wonder the rich man baulked at that.  Jesus replies with the very famous line that it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich person to get into heaven. (Luke 18:25).

Who on earth can manage to get rid of everything they have?  There again, Jesus has the answer: “What is impossible from a human perspective is possible with God.” (verse 27).  So it’s going to be possible, but there’s no way some book from Amazon or this month’s Psychologies magazine is going to help you to achieve it.

But is this call really to sell everything we own?  No, it’s a call to have a change of heart about material wealth.  There is nothing wrong with money as long as you use it wisely.  If you are just going to use what God gives you to amass a collection of Osprey handbags, then you have your priorities in the wrong place.  We’re forever hearing ‘change your attitude and you will change your life,’ a modern-day mantra that comes straight from Romans 12:2 – ‘let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think‘ (NLT).  But that’s what Jesus is talking about.  It isn’t about getting rid of everything you don’t need, but it’s making sure that you separate your real genuine needs in life from your endless list of wants.  I need an iPad2.  Really? Shall we start with clean air and water first?

So have I done it?  Have I taken everything surplus I own, sold it and given the money to Christian Aid?  I’m sat here surrounded by three shelves of Bible study books in a four-bedroom detached house in Bedfordshire. A house which has shelves of books in every room and literally creaks under the weight of accumulated unused stuff in the loft.  I think that’s a big fat no!  I too am going to need God’s help to release me from my love of books… and music… and kitchen gadgets… and handbags – the list goes on.  I am slowly changing my mindset though.  I will put my hand up to being the owner of the cluster of Osprey handbags, but I can see changes happening in other areas, although some things are easier to give up than others.

Earlier this year I read Penelope Wilcock’s book In Celebration of Simplicity (Monarch, 2009) and I was deeply challenged, by how she’s embraced the biblical call to live lightly that expounds from every page.  Her life flies in the face of modern living and as such she can’t escape people questioning her about it. I suspect that’s twofold: People being drawn to the life or genuinely horrified that she only has enough clothes to fill 1/4 of her wardrobe.

I admit, when I first read her book I hadn’t read anything that had resonated more deeply in years. But it’s October now and I still have exactly the same number of possessions as I did in March.  I tried, briefly, to make changes to what I buy; but buying fewer and better quality items meant that we had to do without an awful lot of other things. The organic, ethically aware consumer needs a larger income than I have!  As a family we hadn’t made a corporate decision to downsize and I was trying to enforce something which meant giving up things my teenage daughter wasn’t willing to sacrifice.  She’s firmly locked in twentyfirstcenturyworld and rarely gets her nose off BlackBerry Messenger long enough to work out that the planet’s spinning.

But I am not undaunted.  Although I’m not there yet, I believe that these things are a process and that you need to be ready for change to occur in your life before it can successfully happen.  In Luke 18 we read that the man went away unhappy, but Gerard Kelly, writing in the current issue of Encounter with God (Oct-Dec 2011, Scripture Union) gives us hope when he says:

“From this [the rich man’s] sadness, might repentence and new life grow?… Dare we believe that God might later have made possible a change for this devout man?… Perhaps his tears became the first steps towards freedom.”

So, although I am currently still deeply cluttered as a person and not in a position to joyfully sell my collection of theology books and give that money to Christian Aid; that doesn’t mean that in time I won’t be. I’m still a relatively new Christian, although I know that doesn’t excuse things. Ecclesiastes again: “There is a time for everything, a season for every activity under heaven.” (Eccl 3:1 NLT).  Perhaps now is not my time for jettisonning the study books, maybe this is my time to be learning from them.

But whether you take the advice offered in Philippians or Psychologies, just remember that it’s all the same stuff, just packaged differently.  So do you really want to be shelling out £4.00 a month for another magazine’s worth of advice, that you can get for free from Granny’s dusty Bible?

We’re back to that decluttering problem again…


*I’m from Lancashire, I’m allowed to make that joke!

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