Solomon said, “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.” (Proverbs 14:4 ESV)
That Proverb came to mind when I first heard of Andy Jones’ post, “Why John Stott Lived with Less” at The Gospel Coalition website. I certainly liked Jones’ conclusion:
“Simplicity won’t look the same for every Christian. The approach of a large family in a rural area will be different from a single man living in the city like Stott. This is a matter of liberty, and believers can do as their consciences dictate.”
I agree with his final exhortation that we should ask ourselves, “What can I reduce, eliminate, or limit in my lifestyle that would enable me to invest intentionally and sacrificially in the growth of Christ’s church?” Though if we keep in mind the allowance for marriage and children, we should recognize that, for many the question will be, “What can WE do…?”
This is not a small thing. The Apostle Paul wrote that “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Timothy 5:8) The context of the Apostles' statement was the care for destitute widows. He insisted that if they had a support system then they should not receive from the church. “Honor widows who are truly widows. But if a widow has children or grandchildren, let them first learn to show godliness to their own household and to make some return to their parents, for this is pleasing in the sight of God.” (1 Timothy 5:3–4 ESV)
This concern that families provide for their own was addressed by Jesus: “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition? For God commanded, ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever reviles father or mother must surely die.’ But you say, ‘If anyone tells his father or his mother, “What you would have gained from me is given to God,” he need not honor his father.’ So for the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites!” (Matthew 15:3–7a ESV)
So, while it might be relatively simple to “make do” with less as a single individual, unmarried and childless (and whose parents do not need financial help), simplicity gets complicated quickly in a world where people are supposed to provide for the well-being of others. It is one thing to sacrifice oneself for others. It is quite another to sacrifice one’s family for strangers. Scripture is clear that we should care for our own so that no one else is burdened. If I use my money for braces for my child, is my desire for straight teeth in my offspring a sinful temptation to be greedy and “rob” churches in poor countries with the money that could be donated to them instead? These issues care anything but “simple.”
The issue of showing generosity was so complicated that the Apostles failed to do it well, and had to appoint others to offices in the church (Acts 6). And the Bible warns that contentment tends to compile into wealth: “Whoever loves pleasure will be a poor man; he who loves wine and oil will not be rich... Precious treasure and oil are in a wise man’s dwelling, but a foolish man devours it.” (Proverbs 21:17, 20 ESV) Be content so you can save and invest? If that is what you mean by simplicity, then I'm all for it. But I suspect most people would call such behavior more complicated than simple.
In fact, nothing in Jones’ arguments or Stott’s as he relates them justify the motto of “simplicity.” He mentions contentment as a subsidiary part of simplicity, but I don’t see it.
Contentment in all circumstances, including the circumstance of complicated abundance, is what the Bible calls for. That’s the word used by Jesus and Paul. “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11–13 ESV)
And, for Paul, contentment in one’s circumstances did not rule out looking for better opportunities: “Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.)” (1 Corinthians 7:20–21 ESV)
There is a major elephant in the room in reading about John Stott living with less. Living with less was never the most effective way Christian culture alleviated poverty. The global standard of living has risen dramatically because Christian culture produced bourgeois capitalism. As impious as many find it, the fact is that giving people authorization to work and save for their children without being subject to envy or confiscation has done far more for the poor around the world than the charity of Christians ever could. In fact, the only reason we can transfer so much wealth to other countries is because of the market system.
People should be generous, but generosity isn’t possible without producing wealth to share.
Mark Horne has served as a pastor and worked as a writer. He is the author of The Victory According To Mark: An Exposition of the Second Gospel, Why Baptize Babies?,J. R. R. Tolkien, and Solomon Says: Directives for Young Men. He is the Executive Director of Logo Sapiens Communications and the writer for SolomonSays.net.