Editor's note:

Sometimes, there is nothing like a slow summer day to remind us of the beauty of simple things. A white or golden butterfly wings its way languorously across the backyard … bare feet dangle off the dock … lemonade and ice cream … the scent of freshly mowed lawn … children zip by on their bicycles, laughing and yelling out to each other … in the distance, someone is singing as she waters her flowers. If you’re in the northern hemisphere, you might have experienced one or more of these things recently.

Today, Richard Foster encourages us to see simplicity not as a one-off day every so often, but rather as a pattern for experiencing the true riches of life. He acknowledges that a full embrace of this discipline entails grappling with some paradoxes, but fully trusts that we can, with the grace of God, find the heart of simplicity in perfect obedience to Christ.

—Renovaré Team

A pivotal paradox for us to understand is that simplicity is both a grace and a discipline. It is a grace because it is given to us by God. There is no way that we can build up our willpower or contort our natural tendencies to attain it. It is a gift to be graciously given and received. At the same time, simplicity is also a discipline because it is something we are called to do. Spiritual disciplines (prayer, meditation, etc.) do not give us simplicity, but they do put us in the place where we can receive it. Perhaps we need to learn to speak in terms of “disciplined grace.” Isn’t that the profound reality which underlies the symbiotic alliance between faith and works?

A second paradox is closely aligned with the first; Christian simplicity is both easy and difficult. It is easy in the same way in which all other Christian graces are easy once they have ingrained into the habit structure of our lives. It is difficult because there are times of struggle and effort, times when we despair and feel that the complexities of this life are about to do us in. But occasionally, in the midst of the chaos we have a sense of entering into true Christian Simplicity, knowing that it is only by the grace of God.

The third paradox has to do with the balance between the inner and outer dimensions of simplicity. As I mentioned before, living in Christian simplicity would be easier to understand and to practice if we could only reduce it to a system of external rules. However, an outer expression of true simplicity must necessarily flow from the inner resources. Without an inner simplicity, all external efforts are in vain. At the same time, we delude ourselves if we think we can possess the inner reality of simplicity without it having a profound effect upon the way we live.

The fourth paradox is particularly relevant to those who seek to follow Christ in such a materialistic world. It is the affirmation of both the goodness and the limitation of material things. To deny the goodness is to be ascetic. To deny the limitation is to be materialistic. So often the biblical teaching on provision has been taken and twisted into a doctrine of gluttonous prosperity. Incarnated into our theology are covetous goals under the guise of the promises of God. Misery arises not only when people lack provision but also when they try to make their entire lives out of provisions.

Christian simplicity does not yield to simplistic answers. It is the ability to be single-hearted and at the same time sensitive to the tough, complex issues of life. It is a strange combination and quite difficult to explain, though quite easy to recognize. There is focus without dogmatism, obedience without oversimplification, depth without pride. It means being aware of many complex issues while having only one issue at the center—obedience to Christ.

Christian simplicity is not just a faddish attempt to respond to the chaotic and materialist world in which we find ourselves; it is a call given to every Christian in every age to follow Christ.

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Originally published in True Wealth Magazine (2005) as “The Paradox of Christian Simplicity.’