Car­ol decid­ed to try an exper­i­ment. Sev­er­al of her friends at work were giv­ing up things for Lent and she decid­ed to join them (even though her church didn’t prac­tice Lent). To her husband’s sur­prise, she gave up shop­ping. Once a week she did gro­cery shop­ping for her fam­i­ly but she didn’t buy any­thing for her­self for forty days.

When she thought about some­thing she want­ed to buy dur­ing that time, she said to God, I’ll let it wait. You are enough.” By the end of the forty days, she’d for­got­ten about most of the things she want­ed. Think­ing back on her exper­i­ment, she says: Life was so much less hec­tic. Being in stores mess­es with your mind. It con­vinces you that you real­ly need things you don’t need at all.” 

Such exper­i­ments with sim­plic­i­ty (actu­al­ly, fru­gal­i­ty) are about learn­ing to be con­tent with what­ev­er we have (Phil 4:11). They help us rede­fine the good life as the life that is tru­ly life” (1 Tim 6:17 – 19). They teach us to live with less rather than sat­is­fy­ing every desire for more. They help us learn to ask our­selves, What can I get rid of? rather than, What do I want to buy? As a result, when we have a lit­tle more, we don’t think of how we can spend it but how we can use it to help oth­ers: a flat-screen TV or help­ing our friends with their mort­gage payment? 

Help­ing oth­ers is what the apos­tle Paul said those who are rich in this present world” need to do. (Since two-thirds of the world eats most­ly rice and beans, those of us who eat beyond that qual­i­fy as the rich­est third of the world’s pop­u­la­tion.) He urged us to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be gen­er­ous and will­ing to share.” We ask God, How do you want me to man­age the resources you’ve giv­en me? 

Stuff Does­n’t Make Us Happy

An unex­pect­ed result of fru­gal­i­ty is a more sat­is­fied heart: we rel­ish what we have rather than resent­ing what we’re miss­ing. Recent stud­ies show that as low­er-order needs (food, cloth­ing and shel­ter) are met and peo­ple become hap­pi­er, their pri­or­i­ties shift. Peo­ple begin car­ing about things mon­ey can’t buy such as love, sig­nif­i­cance and mean­ing. Beyond the basics, mon­ey doesn’t buy what makes peo­ple hap­py. In fact, as pros­per­i­ty increas­es, there is usu­al­ly a trag­ic ero­sion of fam­i­ly sol­i­dar­i­ty and com­mu­ni­ty inte­gra­tion, and indi­vid­u­als become more and more dis­trust­ful of each oth­er and their polit­i­cal institutions. 

This bears out the theme that under­lies so many vers­es and sto­ries of Scrip­ture: Love peo­ple and use things. Lov­ing things and using peo­ple leave us weary and want­i­ng and will nev­er give us a sat­is­fied heart. 

In our first year of mar­riage, we lived in a 10-foot-wide mobile home that pro­vid­ed us with a cozy nest. But while vis­it­ing my in-laws, I often browsed through cat­a­logs and plot­ted how I might afford cer­tain things. My father-in-law would smile and say, Wait a year and see if you still need it.” He knew what he was doing. If I kept my nose out of the cat­a­log, I nev­er thought of it again. Look­ing through the cat­a­log dis­tract­ed me from a rich life of learn­ing how to be mar­ried, fin­ish­ing col­lege and reach­ing out to the folks around me. Mate­ri­al­ly, we had just enough and were satisfied. 

Choos­ing Not to Own and Aquire

To live in sim­plic­i­ty is to go against our cul­ture. The innu­mer­able com­mer­cial mes­sages aver­age Amer­i­cans receive each day con­vince us that we need a lit­tle more. To be pro-active against this requires an abid­ing trust that God has pro­vid­ed what we need and will con­tin­ue to do so. 

Prac­tic­ing fru­gal­i­ty means mak­ing inten­tion­al choic­es to keep or let go of pos­ses­sions we already own (clut­ter?) and what we acquire. This begins as an issue of stew­ard­ship but becomes a reveal­er of what’s in our hearts. How does it feel to pass up buy­ing a shirt that would make you shock­ing­ly attrac­tive? Why is it not OK to use yard tools that are old­er than dirt but still work well? Why do I resist get­ting my sofa repaired instead of buy­ing a new one? Such chal­lenges help us look deeply with­in ourselves. 

The Heart Exam

When we want to buy some­thing (or acquire it anoth­er way), it’s wise to con­sid­er the motives that dri­ve us. We’ll dis­cov­er feel­ings and desires we didn’t know we had, such as: 

  • inad­e­qua­cy (own­ing cer­tain items to prove I’m important), 
  • peo­ple-pleas­ing (get­ting oth­ers’ approval by hav­ing the lat­est cloth­ing or gadget) 
  • per­fec­tion­ism (mak­ing sure I have just the right high per­for­mance rims for my car’s tires or buy­ing my chil­dren every­thing they want to feel like I’m a good parent). 

Rec­og­niz­ing these and oth­er motives moves us to begin ask­ing God: Why am I so needy? How will I learn to let You, O God, be enough? Show me what I need to know about You and how You care for me. 

Once a month I have an appoint­ment not far from a large, col­lege-slant­ed book store. I used to drop by there on my way home every month, com­ing away with at least one pur­chase. I con­fess I felt good as I drove home — as if I had friends (books) in the seat next to me. Final­ly I asked God, What’s going on here? Is there any­thing unhealthy in this? While some of it was my healthy desire to learn and grow, it was also about hav­ing smart” books because I hang out with some smart peo­ple. It was also about my desire to cocoon away my life read­ing rather than reach­ing out and lov­ing peo­ple. In God’s gra­cious pres­ence, I even began to con­sid­er all the books I had at home that were unread. So I decid­ed to see how many months I could go with­out vis­it­ing the book­store. It’s been a good experiment. 

This heart exam pro­vides great fod­der for our devo­tion­al life and dis­cus­sions with friends. We forego buy­ing some lit­tle thing and say to God: So, Lord, if you are my shep­herd, that means I don’t need this. Would you help me believe that you pro­vide every­thing I need? Slow­ly we begin to look to God a lit­tle more as the com­pan­ion of our life and learn the joy of a sim­ple, sat­is­fied life. 

Where to Start

Con­sid­er the list below. (You’ll prob­a­bly think of ideas that suit your life and wants bet­ter.) If you did one or two of the fol­low­ing, how would your life be more focused on what you believe is impor­tant? How would it shape your char­ac­ter? What qual­i­ties might be built in you? What would you have more time and mon­ey for? How might it help you invest more in peo­ple and less in things?

  • Refused to enter any kind of store more than once a week 
  • Bought a new car every 10 years and not before 
  • Moved to a small­er home, con­do­mini­um or apart­ment instead of a larg­er place 
  • Lived on a week­ly allowance of 10, 20 or 30 dollars 
  • Ate out less than once a week 
  • Gave away a piece of cloth­ing every time you bought a new piece of cloth­ing (even from a thrift store) 
  • Give your­self a favorite item” allowance, such as a book allowance or pow­er tool allowance (or com­put­er gad­gets, cloth­ing, health and fit­ness aids, groom­ing & beau­ty items)

When we do such things, we aren’t prac­tic­ing legal­ism. We don’t want to cre­ate pride in how well we obey a set of rules we’ve invent­ed. The point is to make space for God in our lives, to love God with all of our selves and to love oth­ers as ourselves.

This arti­cle is adapt­ed from Jan Johnson’s book, Abun­dant Sim­plic­i­ty, with per­mis­sion from Inter­Var­si­ty Press.

Text First Published April 2011 · Last Featured on May 2022

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