From Compulsion to Contentedness: Practicing Simplicity

Philip Yancey tells about a busy and overcommitted “spiritual seeker” who decided to check in to a monastery for a short retreat. The monk who greeted him said, “I hope your stay is a blessed one. If you need anything, let us know… and we’ll teach you how to live without it.”

To seek a posture of simplicity does not mean to eschew complexity or nuance of thought. We know those parts of life that are grey—not black and white—and that defy simplification.

But when we talk about simplicity of lifestyle, we also know what it means to overcomplicate things.

We take on too many commitments—all good ones, even, but then we can’t fulfill our responsibilities.

We lose track of where our money is going, and feel reactive rather than proactive with our finances.

We find ourselves surrounded with physical clutter at home or in our office.

We’re awash in mental and psychological clutter every time we unlock or open an electronic device.

We long for simplicity of focus, but often find our attention scattered.

We regret when our lack of simplicity prevents us from serving others. Valerie Hess, in her year-long Spiritual Disciplines Devotional, says that through simplicity “we seek to live a life that is pleasing to God, life-giving to ourselves, and has an element of availability to others.”

As many have pointed out, simplicity is both interior posture and external action.

Our inner lives and outward deeds mutually reinforce each other. Focused hearts produce focused minutes. And a simple lifestyle trains our hearts more fully on God.


Simplicity: Where?


Long before there was “Buy Nothing Day,” there was, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

This is good counsel when it comes to material possessions. We want to interact with our possessions, but without anxiety. We don’t want to be possessed by what we have—or don’t have. We want to trust God with whatever we have, great or small.

And this applies not just to the stuff we have, but to our time, our financial position, our attention and focus, and even to how we interact with electronic media.

These are some of the sites where we variously experience focus and peace, or distractedness and discomfort.


Compulsion vs. Contentedness


So, yes, in a sense too much complexity is the enemy of simplicity. But I also think it’s our runaway compulsions that keep us from simplicity of life, simplicity of heart.

We are, as the great hymn says, “prone to wander.” This takes the shape of wanting more, of following our compulsions to pursue what we think we want, rather than living in joy no matter the circumstances. The call to simplicity is a call to contentedness, an exhortation to steward and enjoy what we have.

The Challenge

In Celebration of a Discipline Richard Foster tells about a friend who panicked one morning when his morning newspaper wasn’t in his yard. His friend realized he had an addiction to the morning paper. So he called and cancelled his subscription—he needed to quit cold turkey. I love Richard Foster, but nearly 40 years later, this example seems quaint. I wish my interior life were as simple as warring with myself about reading a print newspaper in the morning.

If the bombardment of statistics is true, many of us North Americans today can’t even get out of bed without checking our “newspapers” on our phones (by which I mean: text messages that came in overnight, our Facebook news feeds, and other notifications, etc.).

Foster concludes with advice that is, however, timeless and timely: “Reject anything that is producing an addiction in you.”

“How do you discern an addiction?” he asks. “Very simply, you watch for undisciplined compulsions.”

And I want to add: we should watch for “undisciplined compulsions”—especially the compulsion to worry—in these areas: time, finances, possessions, media, and our overall sense of focus.

Fear and worry keep us from simplicity. We somehow think that riding out the feelings of fear that come up will accomplish something.

Jesus was wise to ask, “Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?”

Of course we don’t worry to try to somehow make there be 25 hours in a day. Or do we? How many times have we rejected the simple confines of sunrise, sunset, 6 days on, 1 day off, and tried to finagle 30 hours worth of commitments into a single day?

We are committed, as followers of Jesus, to a life of trust and simplicity. We resonate with this Proverb: “Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread.”

But then, even as we are consuming the day’s bread, we worry about where it will come from tomorrow. Our fears and thoughts give way to unwise compulsions as we act on our lack of trust. We give up contentedness for a shot to add a single hour to our life by fretting, by grasping for at least mental control over our circumstances. If we can’t change our circumstances, we can at least feel a little in charge by worrying about them.

So God had to tell the Israelites, through Moses: Here’s some manna for you, but no one is to keep any of it until morning… because I will provide for you again, and I want you to go out and see it tomorrow. For now, sit back, relax, and enjoy what you have.

“Seek first the kingdom of God,” Jesus said, “and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

When we seek first the creations of the Kingdom, and not the Creator-King, our mind is divided, our attentions scattered, and our hearts are anything but pure and simple before the Lord.

The Vision

We do well to pray in such moments—as literal Gospel truth—“All things come from you, O Lord.” We can recognize that anything good in this life is a gift from God.

And we continue to pray, “Of your own have we given you.”

Perhaps the best antidote to a scarcity mentality is to give back to God and others out of the abundance of what we’ve received—giving generously of our time, our energy, our financial resources, and our skills.


Practical Ways Forward


If the goal is to “Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness,” rather than seeking or worrying first about “all these [other] things,” what can we do externally that will shape us internally?

1. Pare Down: Less to Worry About

In general, we can shoot to pare down, so there is less to worry about.

Something as small as clearing out your backpack or purse or wallet of accumulated receipts and other random stuff can help sharpen your focus. Are you constantly carrying more than you need? Paring it down can help us have more mental clarity with which to seek the kingdom of God.

You may need to de-clutter your room or living space or car. You may find you have good stuff you just don’t need that you can give away to others who would appreciate it. See if you can find one or two things this week to give to someone else who would find them useful and enjoyable.

You might need to de-clutter your schedule, maybe even your email inbox. (Hint: take two minutes and start here.) And consider this short prayer from an old book of daily prayers: “Lord, do not let us do more, if in doing less, we might do it better.”

Start leaving margins, rather than squeezing more things into them. Pare down.

2. Simplicity of Speech

You could also consider practicing simplicity of speech. Jesus says, in the Sermon on the Mount, “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.”

In other words, Jesus says, when you say you’re going to do something, just say you’re going to do it… and, insofar as you can, do it. Don’t over-promise or over-represent yourself. Folks who too often say, “Believe me,” or, “I guarantee” sound more like snake oil salesman and less like people you would trust.

3. Enjoyment and Contentedness

About a year ago my college roommate sent me Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.

Parts of her approach are a little over-the-top for me, but I think it’s actually a great book with a lot to commend it.

When it comes to the things they are considering discarding or keeping, Kondo’s driving question she wants her clients and readers to ask is: “Does it spark joy?”

But maybe the apostle Paul’s ability to be content—whatever his circumstances—gives us an even more effective starting point. As we make an inventory of our clutter and distractions—physical ones and psychic ones—an even more powerful question can be, “Can I practice contentedness with this?”

Our being content is not rooted in things themselves, of course, but in a God who loves to care for and provide for his children. The Psalmist prays:

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;

you make my lot secure.

The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;

surely I have a delightful inheritance.

To the back of your journal or a brand new notebook, add a couple daily writing prompts, like, “Today, I am grateful for…” and, “God, today I remember you have given me….” (fill in the blanks). Gratitude and contentedness go hand in hand, so maybe another external practice to adopt is to write a thank you note.

4. Attention/Focus

And if all else fails, and you need to super-charge your quest to seek first God, so that everything else falls into place… you could build yourself one of these:


The Isolator


This is The Isolator, from 1925. Which is kind of funny, because that guy thought the 20s was a distracting decade to live in!

Or you could just put your phone on “Do Not Disturb” for a little while and go the simpler route of Dorothy Day:


Image via Weavings
Image via Weavings

5. Foster’s 10 Principles

Finally, consider Richard Foster’s “Ten Controlling Principles for the Outward Expression of Simplicity.” His emphasis is on “outward expression”—there may still be some soul-searching and interior work you’ll want to do around issues of simplicity and sufficiency, worry vs. trust, compulsion vs. contentedness.

But in the middle of working through these principles in Foster’s book, I was distracted by wondering if Field Notes Brand in Chicago had released any new pocket notebooks in the last three days. When I read on their site, “Keep on scrolling. Things you need await,” I was sufficiently embarrassed, and decided we all probably could benefit from all the practical suggestions Foster gives us.


Conclusion: Start Today


May God give us the grace and courage to see the many good things of God all around us. May we be like the apostle Paul and know contentedness whether we have much or have little. He says to the church in Philippi: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content (keeping it pure… and focused) in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

And then the secret to Paul’s contentment? It’s simple: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

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