The Spiritual Discipline of Simplicity – Richard J. Foster

The Spiritual Discipline of Simplicity – Richard J. Foster


Constantly the Bible deals decisively with the inner spirit of slavery that an idolatrous attachment to wealth brings. “If riches increase, set not your heart on them,” counsels the Psalmist (Ps. 62: 10). The tenth commandment is against covetousness, the inner lust to have, which leads to stealing and oppression.

Jesus declared war on the materialism of his day. (And I would suggest that he declares war on the materialism of our day as well.) The Aramaic term for wealth is “mammon” and Jesus condemns it as a rival God: “No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Luke 16:13).

He speaks frequently and unambiguously to economic issues. He says, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” and “Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:20, 24). He saw the grip that wealth can have on a person.

He knew that “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” which is precisely why he commanded his followers: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth” (Matt. 6:21,19). He is not saying that the heart should or should not be where the treasure is. He is stating the plain fact that wherever you find the treasure, you will find the heart.

He exhorted the rich young ruler not just to have an inner attitude of detachment from his possessions, but literally to get rid of his possessions if he wanted the kingdom of God (Matt. 19:16-22). He says “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).

He counseled people who came seeking God, “Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail.. .” (Luke 12:33). He told the parable of the rich farmer whose life centered in hoarding-we would call him prudent; Jesus called him a fool (Luke 12:16-21).

He states that if we really want the kingdom of God we must, like a merchant in search of fine pearls, be willing to sell everything we have to get it (Matt. 13:45, 46). He calls all who would follow him to a joyful life of carefree unconcern for possessions: “Give to everyone who begs from you; and of him who takes away your goods do not ask them again” (Luke 6:30).

Jesus speaks to the question of economics more than any other single social issue. If, in a comparatively simple society, our Lord lays such strong emphasis upon the spiritual dangers of wealth, how much more should we who live in a highly affluent culture take seriously the economic question?

The Epistles reflect the same concern. Paul says, “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction” (1 Tim. 6:9) … A deacon is not to be “greedy for gain” (1 Tim. 3:8). The writer to the Hebrews counsels, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, ‘I will never fail you nor for­ sake you”‘ (Heb. 13:5)

Paul calls covetousness idolatry and commands stem discipline against anyone guilty of greed (Eph. 5:5; 1 Cor. 5: 11)…. He counsels the wealthy not to trust in their wealth, but in God, and to share generously with others (I Tim. 6:17-19).

Having said all this, I must hasten to add that God intends that we should have adequate material provision. There is misery today from a simple lack of provision just as there is misery when people try to make a life out of provision. Forced poverty is evil and should be renounced. Nor does the Bible condone an extreme asceticism. Scripture declares consistently and forcefully that the creation is good and to be enjoyed

Asceticism makes an unbiblical division between a good spiritual world and an evil material world and so finds salvation in paying as little attention as possible to the physical realm of existence. Asceticism and simplicity are mutually incompatible. Occasional superficial similarities in practice must never obscure the radical difference between the two.

Asceticism renounces possessions. Simplicity sets possessions in proper perspective. Asceticism finds no place for a “land flowing with milk and honey.” Simplicity rejoices in this gracious provision from the hand of God. Asceticism finds contentment only when it is abased. Simplicity knows contentment in both abasement and abounding (Phil. 4:12)Simplicity is the only thing that sufficiently reorients our lives so that possessions can be genuinely enjoyed without de­ stroying us.

Without simplicity we will either capitulate to the “mammon” spirit of this present evil age, or we will fall into an un-Christian legalistic asceticism. Both lead to idolatry. Both are spiritually lethal. Descriptions of the abundant material provision God gives his people abound in Scripture. “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land . ..a land …in which you will lack nothing” (Deut. 8:7-9).

Warnings about the danger of provi­sions that are not kept in proper perspective also abound . “Be­ ware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth”‘ (Deut. 8: 17).The Spiritual Discipline of simplicity provides the needed perspective .

Simplicity sets us free to receive the provision of God as a gift that is not ours to keep and can be freely shared with others. Once we recognize that the Bible denounces the materialist and the ascetic with equal vigor, we are prepared to turn our attention to the framing of a Christian understanding of simplicity.

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