Early in my faith journey, I made the mistake of reading the Sermon on Mount. Fresh out of my first year of college and not knowing any better, I assumed Jesus was quite serious about these matters of money, possessions and focusing one’s life on what is close to the heart of God.
Despite my new church’s best efforts to convince me that these teachings were not meant to be taken literally, I continued to be drawn by the possibility of a life so rooted in Christ that it reflected a testimony of simplicity.
Years later, searching for a community that embodied this and other core faith commitments more radically, I stumbled upon the Friends (Quakers), who have a deep concern for simplicity.
Over the years, my understanding and experience of what a simple life entailed were sorted and shifted by marriage, raising children, job changes, inheritances and the challenge of living in a culture that rewards acquisitiveness and glorifies individuality.
Even so, my family and I worked hard (mostly) to remain faithful to this impulse toward a simple faith and life. I tried to be guided by a definition of simplicity that looks something like this:
SIMPLICITY: A way of life based on the values found in God’s economy, with a concern for the well-being of others and the preservation and sharing of natural and human resources. Simplicity is rooted in a singular focus on the concerns of God’s kingdom in the stewardship of time, talents, resources and energy. Our lives ought to be ordered so that we are free to serve God faithfully in all things.
This definition served me well until a dozen or so years ago, when I began thinking more deeply about the fullness of this spiritual trait.
Sometimes, Quakers allow simplicity to morph into miserliness. We can get so focused on using less, avoiding waste and spending the minimum that it can make us stingy, judgmental and uncharitable.
When this happens, true simplicity is lost, and our attitude and actions diminish the glory of a generous God.
It was my interaction with Anabaptists, and your mutual aid and generosity, that caused me to re-examine what simplicity means. Quakers taught me to live simply. Anabaptists helped me become more generous.
In Matthew 6 and Luke 11, Jesus speaks of the vision we need so that our body will be full of light. Depending on the translation, Jesus says our eye must be “healthy” or “clear” or “sound.”
In the King James Version, Jesus says, “If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light” (Matthew 6:22).
The notion of being single-eyed finds expression in a simple, sincere and pure life. It includes vision free of distortion. Such clarity opens us in liberating ways to the presence of God and the world around us.
In Freedom of Simplicity, the Quaker theologian Richard Foster writes: “If all within us is honed down to the single treasure of Christ and his kingdom, then we are living in the light of simplicity. The ancient term ‘single eye’ has a rich connotation that our English has difficulty capturing. It refers both to a single aim in life and to a generous, unselfish spirit. The two ideas have such a close connection in the Hebrew mind that they can be expressed in a single phrase. Singleness of purpose toward God and generosity of spirit are twins.”
Forty years after first reading the Sermon on the Mount — and feeling like it was in some way reading me — I still feel like a novice at abiding in the way of simplicity. Self-interest distorts my vision and distracts me from a singular focus on the heart of God.
Similarly, the dutiful management of resources and discipline of giving can devolve into a transactional way of living. So much better is the transformational spirit of freedom and open-hearted generosity that springs from a simple soul.
Colin Saxton of Newberg, Ore., is stewardship theologian and director of church relations for Everence.