The New York Times recently profiled an Oregon couple who winnowed their possessions down to 100 things, giving away most of what they owned and cozying up in a 400-square-foot apartment. The article discussed new (read: more cautious) spending patterns, spurred by the recession but potentially having long-term staying power. Americans are investing in experiences and leisure activities such as vacations and concerts, which contribute to their happiness in a way that the latest electronic gadget does not. " 'It's better to go on a vacation than buy a new couch' is basically the idea," says Elizabeth Dunn of the University of British Columbia.
The emphasis on owning less relates to the Christian virtue of simplicity. In Matthew 6:19-20, Jesus reminds us to store up treasures in heaven, not on earth, while the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:16-21) warns against preoccupation with saving for future comfort. Biblical examples of giving away wealth and possessions abound, from Old Testament teachings on tithing to Jesus telling the rich young man to "sell all that you have and give to the poor" (Mark 10:21).
Should Christians hop on the 100-things bandwagon? Does material simplicity—spending and owning less—always lead to spiritual and emotional enrichment?
In my 20s, I attended a Washington, D.C., church that had rigorous membership requirements, including a minimum 10 percent tithe. I worked for low-paying nonprofits in an expensive city, so tithing made a big difference in what was left once rent and groceries were covered. Instead of embracing forced simplicity, I resented it for making even the most mundane purchases occasions for anxiety and guilt. I remember standing in a drug store aisle contemplating whether it was irresponsible to buy new pantyhose. Scrutinizing every purchase didn't free me from material concerns to make room for spiritual ones. It just made me cranky. And it didn't feel like freedom to agonize over a $4 pair of pantyhose.
Our five-person family used to live in a tiny five-room house, which required unrelenting commitment to efficient storage, scrutinized shopping lists, and regular cleaning. It required far more work, and fostered more anxiety, than life in our larger home now. Living in a consumer society can make simplicity complicated, as we navigate culturally entrenched gift-giving rituals, or accommodate expectations that we dress a certain way for work. I struggle with how to foster simplicity without our kids resenting us for being tightwads.
Jesus said that he came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. Abundant life—that's really what we're after, isn't it? Do our spending, saving, and giving contribute to an abundant life, or to resentment, anxiety, covetousness, and a consuming concern with how much we have or don't have? Perhaps what Christians should strive for is abundant simplicity.
Abundant simplicity does not mean agonizing over every purchase or adhering to an arbitrary number of possessions. If someone gives the 100-things couple a gift, do they start mad mental calculations to identify what they will give away to accommodate the new item? Do they say, "Sorry, but your gift puts us over our limit"? If they ever have children, will they be able to graciously accommodate the stuff that inevitably accompanies kids—the goody bags and found objects and favorite stuffed animals? Gratitude, contentment, and acceptance of life as it is, even when it does not conform to our preferences, are also virtues.
Abundant simplicity is more about paying attention—to what we want and need; what we have and buy; what we spend, save, and give; and our relationship with our bank accounts and material objects. When do money and things enhance our life, and when do they tempt us to envy, anxiety, fear, pride, or selfishness?
Simplicity doesn't always mean spending less. We might spend more on well-made clothes that fit and flatter, for example, rather than filling our closets with bargain-rack finds that we rarely wear. Simplicity doesn't always mean having less. I have many possessions that provide daily satisfaction, such the nearly new leather loveseat I bought from some neighbors who moved, and that has quickly become my favorite writing spot. Other possessions—a well-equipped kitchen, a car with a power driver's seat, multiple swimsuits for pool workouts—allow me to care for myself and my family well by accommodating my physical disability. Could I live without these possessions? Absolutely, but I'm glad I don't.
The observation that money spent on experiences contributes to happiness also rings true. My daughter's horseback riding lessons or our family vacations to Cape Cod are luxuries, but they offer my kids some of the moments they will remember forever—how it felt the first time the horse broke into a trot, the drowsy contentment of slipping between sandy sheets with the damp, salty air blowing in through the screens. That feels like abundance to me.
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