by Matthew Sleeth
Flourish Magazine, Spring 2010
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
At home I write at an old desk pulled off the dump at the Navel Ordinance Lab in White Oak, Maryland, in 1960. It is a standard government-issue, quarter-sawn oak model dating back to the forties. The desk has file drawers on either side of a large center drawer. The working surface is three feet by five feet so I can get a multitude of papers and books on it. Above the top drawers on both sides, the desk has pull-out writing surfaces, on which my childhood friends once etched their initials. The desk was discarded along with other oak desks and file cabinets so that new grey metal ones could take their place; these in turn have probably been cast off for laminated plastic ones. That’s progress.
Progress According to the Bible
Our lives may be largely defined by what we keep and what we discard. Christ was abandoned on the cross, despised and rejected. Yet just because something is thrown away doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worth saving.
Today we live in a time of hyperconsumerism and high turnover. We move every half dozen years or so. We get rid of desks, countertops, and phones even though they are still serviceable. We discard spouses and families that were once the apple of our eye.
The Bible, however, calls for us to live a very different kind of life, one governed by simplicity and humility. Simplicity as a way of life brings us closer to God. It is a means of receiving God’s grace as he transforms us. Simplicity helps us disconnect from the worldly concerns that destroy God’s creation and, instead, engage in redemptive actions that heal.
The opposite of simplicity is blind consumerism. A consumerist way of life tells us we never have enough. Formica countertops are out; granite is in. Wide ties are dated; skinny ties are hip. Our kitchens need makeovers, as do our bodies, wardrobes, and marriages. If simplicity brings us closer to God, consumerism draws us to the devil.
I once had a patient come into the ER for a complaint I’ve long since forgotten, but I have not forgotten the man. He was a quiet sort of gentleman who lived alone and worked a solitary job. I asked about his passions and interests. Music—he loved music. I also love music. One afternoon, the patient invited me to his small apartment, which was lined with old-fashioned records. When he played a favorite recording, he was nearly moved to tears. He sat transfixed through the entire side, using a record player that probably cost no more than a hundred dollars. His record collection was modest but beloved. At the time, no one any longer manufactured “vinyl.” (Ironically, record manufacture has come back, and the average pressing costs twice what a CD does.) Occasionally he picked up a used recording at a yard sale for less than a dollar.
I met another gentleman a few weeks later. When asked, he also said that music was his hobby. “Would you like to come and hear my new system?” he asked. I made time to drop by. This fellow was of far greater means than the first gentleman. His system cost what one would pay for an average car. He popped one CD in after another—never waiting until a song was finished before going to the next. I could not picture him moved to tears or excited enough to play air guitar. I asked how many records he owned. “About three thousand records, and closer to seven thousand CDs,” he replied. I couldn’t help but do the math. At forty hours a week, it would take nearly five years to listen to everything just once. He had the largest collection I’ve ever seen, yet he’d lost the love of music.
Standards for Simplicity
How much to take in, what to keep, and what to get rid of? Simplicity doesn’t just have to do with food, clothing, handbags, and cars; it’s about what we put into our minds, what we listen to, and where we spend our time. Editing what we put into our hearts and our lives leads us along a less consumeristic path—one that heals creation rather than harms it.
Over my salvaged oak desk I have four small pieces of paper taped to a bookcase. One is a slip of paper with a bit of advice written by a jailed political prisoner two thousand years ago. It is about what to keep, and what to cast away:
Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
When Paul wrote this advice in a letter to the Christians in Macedonia, he was in chains. Paul was a former high-ranking Jewish Pharisee who gave up everything to become a follower of Christ. Over the years, Paul suffered some tremendous hardships. The next time you’re having a difficult day, consider this partial list of ordeals Paul underwent in his ministry:
Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.
(2 Cor. 11:24–27)
Paul has been dipped, dunked, stoned, and spat upon; now in chains, facing death, he worries about his jailers. In this most simple and humble state, he writes his friends in the east and urges them to set their minds toward “anything worthy of praise.” For us today, as for Paul, a multitude of distractions can draw our thoughts away from God and caring for his creation.
Nearly every person on the planet thinks he or she is a kind person and a good steward. The question is, how do we get from thinking we are thoughtful caretakers to being like Paul, Mother Teresa, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer? We can pray—nothing works without prayer—but most of us are going to have to work at it as well. You may have heard the saying that if you pray for food, you should have a shovel in one hand and seeds in the other. Subtracting consumerism and waste from our lives requires work.
Many Christians are familiar with voluntarily giving up a certain worldly vice for Lent, the forty days leading up to Easter. Some stop eating candy, while others forego caffeine or alcohol. The purpose of the exercise is to give up a minor vice to both celebrate Christ’s victory over sin and to share a tiny part of Christ’s suffering. The point is not to show others what a great Christian you are, but to be able to understand the sacrifice of Christ. It is a time for becoming less attached to worldly things, and more focused on God.
Acts of sacrifice and simplicity such as abstaining during Lent were nearly universal in the Christian world until the Reformation; they have been slowly making their way back into the Protestant denominations. The book of Acts records numerous examples of Christ and members of the early church participating in periods of prayer and fasting. A few decades ago, one of the most common vices to give up for Lent was smoking. Many hoped that after forty days without a smoke, they would be delivered from the habit for good. Some didn’t make it a day, some cheated, others made it and then relapsed, and others were delivered from the need to smoke forever.
What is seen as a blessing to one generation can be viewed differently by another. Tobacco was once considered an adjunct to social well-being. It was the engine of the Revolutionary War economy. But few today argue that tobacco is good for anyone. Tobacco is addictive and works by changing our brain chemistry. I wonder what Paul would advise about the accepted addictive behaviors of today, such as television, computers, and electronic gaming?
Keeping it Real
In Paul’s day, people went to the city gate, temple, market, and coliseum to interact with others. What they encountered depended on the functions they attended. Today, we live in an electronic and increasingly virtual world. One need not walk to the temple to engage a pagan prostitute; we can find pornography on the computer or television. If we are bored and want to see someone killing another person, we don’t need to go down to the coliseum and watch the gladiators duke it out. We can enjoy The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Kill Bill from the comfort of our recliners. If we enjoy endless gossip and speculation, we can tune in to talk radio or Entertainment Tonight.
A twentieth-century prophet who predicted the immense impact that television would have on our society is E. B. White, author of the childhood classics Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web as well as Strunk and White’s Manual of Style, and a longtime editor of the New Yorker. He put together a collection of essays between 1938 and 1944 titled One Man’s Meat, which has remained in continual publication ever since. The book is on my top-twenty must-read list. When White saw a demonstration of the television in 1938, he made several prescient predictions:
Clearly the race is between the loud speaking and the soft, between the chemist of RCA and the angel of God. Radio has already given sound a wide currency, and sound “effects” are taking the place once enjoyed by sound itself. Television will enormously enlarge the eye’s range, and like radio, will advertise the Elsewhere. Together with the tabs, the mags, and the movies, it will insist that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote. More hours in every twenty-four will be spent digesting ideas, sounds, images—distant and concocted.
If White was rightly concerned about the potential impact of television, consider how appalled he—or Paul—would be by the content and consumption of programming today. For example, imagine Paul’s reaction to a show that films people in prison, for the sake of entertaining viewers. I don’t think this is what the Bible means when it says, “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured” (Heb. 13:3). In fact, reality shows like this are voyeuristic, the antithesis of the compassion and empathy called for by Scripture. What would Jesus say about a reality series featuring women who compete to sleep with a rock star?
Paul, rather, calls for us to be imitators of Christ:
Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But among you
there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk
or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.
(Eph. 5:1–5, NIV)
What Paul is advocating is a pure and simple life dedicated to godly concerns, not worldly ones. The Bible is pretty clear about what Jesus would make of entire networks devoted to food, home decorating, fashion, or sports. Christ’s instructions tell us explicitly not to fill our minds with such concerns: “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?” (Matt. 6:25).
Not all media, of course, is bad. Several years ago, I took a group of teens to see the documentary Winged Migration, a visually stunning film about the migration of birds. All the young people seemed to enjoy it, but one had a question: “Is it real?” This high schooler had spent so much time in front of television and computer screens that he could no longer discern the difference between fact and fiction.
Yet most media, unlike documentaries like Winged Migration or Planet Earth, are not educational or inspirational. The majority of what we watch on the tube is escapist in nature. It kills time, while killing our souls. Christ, however, warned us not to let ourselves be caught “sleeping.” He wasn’t referring to actual sleeping at night, but to spending our time dazed—not focused on loving God and our neighbors. Intellectually, we know that our days could end at any moment, and yet we waste time as if our earthly life will go on forever. In America the average seventy-year-olds will have spent ten years of their waking lives passively watching television. The average child in America spends six and a half hours per day in front of a screen. That’s the kind of sleeping Jesus is telling us to avoid.
Simplicity and Contentment
Adopting a simpler life can be boiled down to a simple question: what to edit, and what to keep? My family hasn’t owned a television for about eight years, but occasionally I am confronted by one in a hotel room, and I’ll turn it on. A scroll through a hundred channels is enough to get me anxious. Maybe my bathroom needs to be updated. I ought to lose weight, yet don’t I deserve a break today? What about the invisible germs lurking in my house that I’ve never paid attention to before? Do I need a home alarm system? Should Nancy wash the grey streaks out of her hair, and should I do something about that thinning area on the top of my head?
My car has a few dents in it, and that stain on the carpet—is it time for a new one? I’m told I should be talking to my broker, and that some listen more than others—does this mean I have to get a broker? I feel a bit tired on the road; do I need a power drink, leaner cereal, or to ask my doctor about an antidepressant? Do I smell? Does my house need to be painted a new color? Would life be complete if I traveled to shake Mickey Mouse’s gloved hand? If I check the news on the top of every hour, will I stay informed?
Paul’s question: What is true and just? What is worthy of praise? What distracts me from a God-centered life? My advice, based upon Paul’s wisdom, is that we need to edit out much of what the world is trying to sell us. The goal of all the ads for cars, skincare products, and clothing is to make us feel discontent and buy the concept that we would be happier if we only added Product X to our laundry, hair, skin, or lawn.
This bombardment of discontent is the opposite of Paul’s message:
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. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Paul’s continued call to the Philippians was to be joyful and content. His formula for getting there was to love God, love our neighbor, and be happy with what we have.
I’m glad my desk was pulled off the dump. It works fine. The earth is being dug up, cut down, and dismantled to meet the needs and cravings of a population that can only be satisfied with newer, better, and more. The way to cut back on the misuse of resources is to live more simply and be content with what we have. One way to accomplish this is to remove the nonstop assault of advertisements from our lives. America would be a better country if we pursued whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, and whatever is commendable. We should edit out the vulgar, greed, and selfishness as much as possible, and add in what is excellent and worthy of praise.
The journey toward a simpler, less consumeristic life is not easy to take alone; we can be more successful if we work within a supportive community. If you cannot take one day a week for rest, begin with four hours. If getting rid of your television forever seems too daunting, unplug it for a month and keep a journal of how this change affects your thoughts, your activities, and your relationships. Try to make these changes with friends, church, and family. If you’re the mom or dad, unplug your children from television for forty days. Take them outside and plant a tree like Abraham did. Read them Psalm 104, and then enjoy the simple pleasure of spending time in God’s creation on a daily basis.
Simplicity is life enhancing. Disconnecting from consumerism and adopting a simpler lifestyle helps us edit out the destructive stuff and welcome in the redemptive. Simplicity allows us to be transformed by God’s grace into people who take care of God’s creation, rather than destroy it. It helps us do what we cannot do alone to save the planet.
The practice of simplicity demands that we alter life-as-usual. When you are feeling like life is out of control, ask yourself two questions: What am I currently doing that, if eliminated, would open me up more to God’s work of grace in my life? And what am I not doing that would help me be a better steward of God’s creation? Your honest answers will always lead you down the right path.
From the book The Gospel According to the Earth: Why the Good Book is a Green Book. Copyright © 2010 by J. Matthew Sleeth. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
J. Matthew Sleeth, MD, a former emergency room director and chief of medical staff, now writes, preaches, and teaches full-time about faith and the environment. He is the author of Serve God, Save the Planet and was a contributor to The Green Bible. With his wife, Nancy, and their two children, he helps lead the growing creation care movement. The Sleeths live in Wilmore, Kentucky. Visit them online at www.blessedearth.org.