Coping with Plenty

April 25, 2011


By Jan Johnson

Flourish magazine, Spring 2011

I have learned to be content
with whatever I have.
I know what it is to have little,
and I know what it is to have plenty.
In any and all circumstances I have
learned the secret of being well-fed
and of going hungry, of having plenty
and of being in need.

Philippians 4:11-12

People marvel that the apostle Paul could be content while chained in a prison cell for years. This former Pharisee probably lived in filth and darkness, ridicule, and loneliness. At best, his movements were restricted under house arrest by the Romans.

But it’s just as bewildering that Paul was content in times of plenty. When he stayed with rich folks such as Philemon or Lydia, he didn’t envy them or think, “Jesus was poor. Don’t they know that?” When he moved on from their homes to less opulent situations he didn’t think, “I sure do miss all that great food and the beautiful home.” He was truly content with whatever he had.

We’re discovering that the pressure of constant expansion often leads to the exploitation of both God’s world and other people.

Contrary to what we usually think, having plenty does not make us content. Instead, a taste of plenty makes us want a little more than what we’ve got. When offered an increase in salary, who among us would say, “No thanks. I’m content with what I have. I don’t need a thing”?

We want one thing but do another
In a study on work, money, and religion, sociologist Robert Wuthnow found that people feel worried about getting their personal needs met no matter how far up they are on the economic ladder. One person interviewed in his book said she earned a six-figure income but that it would take at least $50,000 more per year for her to live comfortably. Having plenty wasn’t quite enough to live comfortably.

Those of us who follow Christ are often unaware of how these appetites injure our life with God. “We live in a materialistic culture, and we want money and possessions, and very few people have heard a powerful voice telling them to resist those impulses, or how to resist those impulses. . . . Organized religion . . . has not done a good job of challenging people to examine their lifestyles.” Wuthnow found in interviews that religion is merely a therapeutic device designed to make people feel good about themselves. The church seems to have little to say about material consumption or self-indulgence.

Amid all this desire for more, however, many people also desire a simpler life, at least ostensibly. Take the

The pursuit of happiness backfires, luring us to use people and love things.

magazine Real Simple, for example. While most new magazines fail, this one succeeded immediately. But a peek inside reveals pages and pages of advertisements and articles about new products—simplicity as a lifestyle to be purchased. The message is mixed: desire simplicity, but buy more stuff to get it.

We resemble the Roman god of doors and gates, Janus, who had two faces turned in opposite directions. In Janus’s case, this was an advantage so he could see the past and future at once. But our two faces represent divided minds as well; we desire a simpler life but we also think that the comfortable life we want can be acquired only by purchasing more things. Whichever face rules us in the moment seems to be unaware of the other. The I-need-more face cannot see that its arms are already full of activities and purchases.

Cultural awareness
The cultural messages described below—mostly about how success is defined as having more money, fame, power, and status—are woven into our thoughts through exposure to the innumerable commercial messages that the average American experiences every day. Below are the assumptions behind those cultural messages. Their preeminence explains why we have to learn to be content. Consider reading these messages prayerfully and with openness, examining their inaccuracy but also observing if they have a sense of reality in your life.

More is better; bigger is better. As society pressures us to move forward and upward, we feel the need to continually upgrade: our computers, our education, our living space, the quality of our grass. Consider that a twenty-ounce soda, now commonplace, used to be enormous. In 1976, when 7-Eleven tested a thirty-two-ounce fountain drink at one of its locations, the store sold out of its entire thousand-cup stock in one weekend. Now a thirty-two ounce drink is small compared to the forty-eight- or sixty-four-ounce options. In the same way, the standard sizes of restaurant plates, television screens, outdoor grills, and mattresses have increased without our noticing.

On a national level, we seek a continuously expanding economy, assuming that “the pursuit of self-interest will necessarily lead to ultimate social good,” as author Richard Foster says. But we’re discovering instead that the pressure of constant expansion often leads to the exploitation of both God’s world and other people through false advertising and ill treatment of workers, especially in developing countries by multinational corporations.

Busyness is a sign of power and significance. If someone tells us, “You’re always so busy,” they usually mean it as a compliment. Busy people are important people, and we’re supposed to be flattered. In our society it’s assumed that anyone who wants to get ahead must attend power lunches and strategic social events. These activities satisfy that drive that dictates to us—though we’re barely aware of it—I need to be noticed, to get attention, to move ahead.

All my desires must be fulfilled. When Thomas Jefferson wrote about the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence, he was thinking in terms of not being locked up for being in debt or for being a Baptist or a Quaker. But that phrase has morphed into the notion that we have a right to pursue whatever makes us happy. For people in developed countries, freedom is no longer about the absence of tyranny and oppression but about unrestricted freedom of choice: You have no right to stop me from doing whatever I want. As a result, people are mastered by their desires. The pursuit of happiness backfires, luring us to use people and love things.

We justify these actions through a deep-seated belief that our feelings must be satisfied. We even hear it said that to choose not to satisfy our desires is to warp our sense of self: I wouldn’t be me. This message stood out to me many years ago during a television show in which a woman (whose character I otherwise admired) advised her unmarried, unattached daughter something like this: “You’re just grouchy because you haven’t had sex lately.”

Think about that for a moment: According to this mindset, kindness isn’t possible without recent sexual experience. The mother believed that the daughter was harming herself by not satisfying her feelings. In this way of thinking, to resist feelings or to replace them with other feelings is out of the question. Feelings of lust and anger, in particular, are not only accepted but also applauded in movies, books, and talk radio.

I can’t resist
The use of humor and sentimentality in advertising makes this deadly message of self-indulgence seem less harmful than it is—even funny or cute. Self-indulgence grows when we give in to excess, often by spending money

Advertising plays into our fears that we won’t have enough, that we’ll miss out, that we’ll be shown to be inadequate, that we’ll be misjudged, rejected and left out, that we’ll face others’ disapproval, anger or disappointment.

or eating certain foods. We repeatedly give in until that activity becomes a settled behavior and we’re unable to resist gratifying even the smallest whim. Giving in to small, seemingly benign, culturally acceptable temptations leads to enslavement. People of faith are not exempt; those in whom the Word of God has been sown may find that the “care of this world . . . and deceitfulness of riches” choke out the life of God in them (Mt 13:22 KJV).

For example, I’ve always wondered how King David could commit adultery with Bathsheba and murder her husband when he lived such a faithful life overall; he was a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14). But while reading his whole story again recently, I saw that this evil didn’t come out of nowhere. For David’s entire adult life he practiced polygamy over and over in violation of God’s law, marrying six wives and keeping numerous concubines (2 Sam 5:13; 1 Chron 3:1). Every time he took a wife or concubine he gave into the enslavement of that inner voice: I must have her! Committing adultery (and having to cover it up) was the next logical step.

Self-indulgence is self-destructive. It destroys integrity one good intention at a time and eats away at the capacity to think about loving God and others. Self-indulgence invites us to be not only in the world, as Jesus was, but also of the world, with character and habits that look just like everybody else’s (Jn 1:10; 9:5; 17:11; 1 Jn 2:15-16).

Disciplines of simplicity are powerful because they move us away from self-indulgence just for today: don’t buy this one thing; don’t sign up for one more activity; don’t mention this last accomplishment to anyone. Even when we practice these restraints only temporarily, they still train us not to grab what we want now. In the midst of our discomfort during these little experiments, something beautiful happens within us: the enormous river barge of our life that’s flowing toward self-indulgence is turned around and begins to move upstream toward self-giving Christlikeness.

Simplicity practices chip away at self-indulgence by interrupting our reflexive habit of doing whatever makes us happy. They make us aware of our excesses: driving five miles out of my way to have my favorite hamburger instead of eating whatever is handy; checking phone messages now because I can’t pay attention one more second to this long-winded person talking to me. To set limits by eating simply or checking phone messages only twice a day teaches us to die to self when we automatically reject the urge to insist on getting what we want when we want it.

Such little decisions toward selflessness are so nurturing that pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James advised us to deny ourselves a little something each day. Then when our will is truly thwarted, we don’t become crabby or manipulative. We respond in faithful, loving ways rather than seeking revenge or simmering with quiet resentment.

Slowly but surely
As we follow God’s grace-filled invitations into disciplines of simplicity, we learn to be content and to resist the impulse for more. To our surprise, our personality becomes progressively more organized around God and the way God moves in the world.

That progression proved to be true in Cathleen’s life. She says,

When I was young, I street-raced for years. Expensive and powerful cars were important to my identity. But I surrendered that to the Lord and was glad to let my husband pick out whatever car worked best for our family. Recently when I needed a car and he suggested we buy our son’s Lexus (so it would still be available to him for occasional business use), I agreed because I saw it was the best option for our entire family.

At first, driving a Lexus was no big deal. I was over the expensive car addiction. But I also began enjoying the sense of self-importance. Other drivers treated me respectfully. To be honest, I thought I was finally worthy. Then I became self-conscious because it was an older model; did people think I couldn’t afford a newer model? When I found two of the fancy L’s missing from the wheel covers, they had to be replaced immediately.

As I worked through this, the hardest part was that I thought I’d laid to rest these issues of identity and self-worth. Back when I’d surrendered having a powerful car, I couldn’t have it. Now that having a luxury car was appropriate and helpful, I couldn’t enjoy it because of my inner turmoil. It took a year to wrestle through these issues, and now it’s just a car again, serving only my transportation needs. I’m grateful for freedom from the drivenness, and freedom to do the simple thing.

Notice how Cathleen’s conversations with God made this experience a place of growth. First, God invited her into a simplicity that was away from fast cars (coping with less, or what seemed like less). Then years later God invited her to drive a Lexus for the convenience of her family (coping with plenty). When being a Lexus driver became her master, she saw she had to revisit with God her issues of identity and self-worth.

Observe how the hardest part for Cathleen was that she’d thought she was finished finding her identity and self-worth in cars. And she had actually done quite well in her earlier years. But now she and God were conversing at a deeper level of maturity, and she had the capacity to hear more complex things. (God is gentle that way, telling us only what we can stand to hear in that moment of our growth.) She wrestled with this, which illustrates the importance of the heart examination that goes on while experimenting with disciplines of simplicity.

Because these conversations took place in the midst of knowing that God treasured her as much as she treasured God, Cathleen experienced the freedom to work through her identity and self-worth and find them once again in God, but this time in a much deeper way. In other words, she didn’t fail. She moved forward and God was glad to meet her there.

Two masters
Jesus, a master of logic, tells us it’s impossible to live like the two-faced god of doors and gates, Janus. He calls it serving two masters (Mt 6:24). And he says it’s not just that we shouldn’t do it; we cannot. We are not able to do it. Our actions, especially those of which we’re unaware (but everyone in our household has known about for years), reveal which master we truly serve. That master gets our time, energy, and paycheck. It might be high productivity, admiration from others, technological savvy, having fun, building a strong body, or being perceived as a deep thinker.

The bad news is that marketing folks have identified these masters we don’t know we’re serving. “Marketing theory says that people are driven by fear, by the promise of exclusivity, by guilt and by greed, and by the need for approval. Advertising . . . promises to resolve our discomfort with a product.” This happens fifty to a hundred times before 9 a.m. every day.

Advertising also plays into our fears that we won’t have enough, that we’ll miss out, that we’ll be shown to be inadequate, that we’ll be misjudged, rejected and left out, that we’ll face others’ disapproval, anger or disappointment. These fears, which focus on not being loved or valued, are evidence of an internal neediness that holds us back and that God invites us into conversation about.

If you listen to the stress inside you, you may discover a neediness in your own soul you didn’t know existed. This neediness may have resulted from past wounds that have left you feeling more fearful or angry than you realize. These wounds need to be explored and addressed, a process that often occurs in stages, as Cathleen’s story illustrates. You may have found healing and made progress with the help of a therapist, counselor or support group, but these fears may recur in other forms. In the meantime it’s important to dream and ponder, What would my life be like if I weren’t afraid? What if I chose to trust God a little more today?

The good news is that as Jesus progressively invades our “interior castle” (as Teresa of Avila calls the soul), he ties up the “strong man” who lives there. Jesus replaces that strong man with God’s presence, room by room (Mk 3:27). This process happens partly through the practice of disciplines of simplicity. As we face the strong man of our past fears, we make small, incremental decisions about trusting God a little more. And more healing occurs.

Transformative growth works in a spiral, as it did with Cathleen. She had made great progress letting God’s love for her be the basis of her identity and self-worth, but her neediness showed up again when she started driving the Lexus. As we’re ready, God allows basic issues to resurface, but each time he lets us see ourselves more clearly so that better and deeper pruning work can be done. If we’re wise, we’ll make notes about what we’re learning (in a journal, with a friend or therapist, or embedded in our memory) so we can look back and remember what we’ve learned when we work through it with God the next time.

Heart exam: What do you want?
Facing our underlying fears prepares us to sit down and examine the central questions of life, the first of which are the core issues at the heart of the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola:

  • What do I want?
  • What do I really want?
  • What am I longing for?

Jesus asked these same questions in many forms: “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mt 20:32), “What are you looking for?” (Jn 1:38) and “Do you want to be made well?” (Jn 5:6). He seemed to know that it was good for people to speak forth these core longings.

When asked to voice what we want, we usually offer admirable goals about living for God or serving our family or helping others. Those are our stated, realized goals. Disciplines of simplicity, however, reveal unstated, yet-to-be-realized goals: I want to be liked; I want to be noticed. In trying to discern these darker hidden goals, we might ask ourselves: By what standard do I measure others? What do I most dread losing? How do I spend most of my time, energy and money?

This last question touches on the concept of “revealed preference.” As economics professor Bruce Wydick explains, “I can tell what you really value by how you use your resources. . . . Thus, we may say we have a magnanimous Christian love for everyone in the world, but if 99 percent of our time and energy is spent fighting to improve our own economic circumstances, who (or what) do we truly value? Our actions reveal our priorities.”

So I may want to treasure God and think that I do (my stated goal), but my underlying goals may be revealed by how my

  • online banking record shows that I spend nearly all my discretionary funds on products to help me look younger
  • calendar shows that I spend a lot of time attending events that either win others’ approval or increase others’ esteem for me
  • low energy level tells me that I put up with a job saturated by self-serving values because it pays good money

These insights reveal to us our underlying fears of not being loved and valued. So we have a few more conversations with God: What truths does God want to communicate to me today? How might the Spirit help me absorb these truths?

When our stated and unstated goals don’t match (which is normal, so please don’t beat yourself up if this is true of you), we need to consider: If I don’t like what my actions tell me about what I want, what do I want to want?

If we want to want God, our next step is to come to terms with our underlying fears. We start where we are. We invite God to work with us on these fears so we can begin drinking God’s living water, God’s own Spirit, which, as Dallas Willard explains, “will keep [us] from ever again being thirsty—being driven and ruled by unsatisfied desires. . . . Indeed, it will even become ‘rivers of living water’ flowing from the center of the believer’s life to a thirsty world (Jn 7:38).”

Skipping the heart exam puts us in grave danger of making simplicity practices about external behavior only. The Pharisees partially ruined fasting and Sabbath-keeping by making them external practices without looking within. They did not practice these disciplines with an openness to hearing God speak or to discern God’s invitations for today.

Getting there
Realizing the difference between our unstated goals and what we want to want takes time, thought, humility, objectivity and openness to the Spirit’s help in listening to oneself.

God in enormous grace empowers us in this effort.

The simple way to experience these moments of clarity regarding our true motivations is to practice disciplines of simplicity. However, we can also experience them in a painful way when someone we love (or don’t love) confronts us with the truth or when we fail to achieve our unstated goals. I believe that practicing disciplines of simplicity saves ourselves and others the pain of some of those confrontations and failures because these moments of realization occur daily as we deny ourselves in small ways as William James suggested. We need to process through these moments in a journal or by talking with a friend, counselor or spiritual director, and we also need to pray about them with intentionality.

Please don’t think this process is bleak. In fact, it’s exciting because Jesus is our companion on the journey. Our admiration for Jesus causes us to keep choosing to be his disciple as we (internally) desire more than anything to be like him and (externally) arrange our life to bring this about. We develop a personal strategy that usually includes spiritual disciplines targeted at places of growth the Spirit reveals. Then we’re ready to fill our minds with the real treasure of Christ and to become his hands and feet to our family, our friends, and the needy. We start agreeing with Gregory of Nyssa, who said, “Disregarding all those things for which we hope and which have been reserved by promise, we regard falling from God’s friendship as the only thing dreadful and we consider becoming God’s friend the only thing worthy of honor and desire.”

Experiments with simplicty

God in enormous grace empowers us in this effort.

  • Explore the website and notice how its images communicate our enslavement to spending. (If nothing else, check out its “Buy Nothing Day” campaign.) What feelings do those images create in you?
  • Read Matthew 6:24 slowly every day for a week, and ask God to show you the masters your actions reveal. What do you learn about what you want but have never stated explicitly? If you’re really brave, ask a friend or someone you live with to suggest what your masters are. Try to smile at what this person says.
  • Read Philippians 4:11-13. Then sit back and picture the apostle Paul chained in a cell yet just as content as the day he ate a huge meal at Philemon’s house. What might he have thought about then? Consider Paul’s contentment with plenty and with scarcity.
  • Journal about this question: What do you want? First, write down what you think you want (your stated goals). Then ask God to help you search yourself as you look at your spending records and calendar. Consider your thought energy: What do you think about a lot?
  • Consider the same question, but instead talk it through with a very trusted friend. Or go somewhere private and speak about it as if you were talking to a friend.

Jan JohnsonJan Johnson is a writer, speaker, and spiritual director who holds degrees in Christian education and spirituality. She has enjoyed writing seventeen books, including Enjoying the Presence of God, When the Soul Listens, Savoring God’s Word, and many magazine articles. She is also a frequent retreat and conference speaker.

Taken from Abundant Simplicity: Discovering the Unhurried Rhythms of Grace by Jan Johnson. Copyright(c) 2011. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press PO Box 1400 Downers Grove, IL 60515. Read Chapter One of Abundant Simplicity here.

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