What are we simplifying for?

March 23, 2016

An army of people are urging us through their books and blogs to simplify our lives. The advice is the same, though it takes many forms: “Declutter your life.” “Throw away some clothes.” “Buy only what you need.” “Move into a smaller house.”

Minimalism is the heading under which most of this takes place. It’s been around forever of course, leading back to asceticism and the monastic movements (it should be noted that most minimalists would deny they’re after the same things as those movements).

But of late, minimalism found its home on the internet, starting with people like Merlin Mann, and more recently The Minimalists, a couple of guys that quit their jobs, got rid of lots of their stuff, and then moved to Montana. They’ve also brought joy to many of their readers’ lives, which shouldn’t be overlooked.

Now the movement has broken out into more mainstream culture, with things like the documentary Tiny, a film that follows people who’ve abandoned typical housing arrangements in favor of “tiny houses” that are only a few hundred square feet. Late last year came an interview with Christopher Nolan, the filmmaker behind the reboot of the Batman franchise, Inception, and Interstellar, in The New York Times citing his decision to wear the same thing every day to help simplify his life.

In just the last week, another story of a daily uniform came in the form of an interview with Matilda Kahl, an art director who’s been wearing the same outfit to work for three years now. Before Kahl and Nolan there was Steve Jobs, who famously wore the black turtle neck and jeans for his daily garb.

The interest in pairing back possessions and wearing a daily uniform is fascinating to me, and I’ve been reading about it for years now. Take a look at the page you’re reading on and you’ll see I have a taste for minimal things. I don’t like clutter. I don’t like unread text messages or too many numbers in those little red bubbles on my iPhone.

In the past I’ve found myself sending loads of stuff to Goodwill, deleting old files, and feeling better in the process. But as anyone who’s ever undertaken this stuff knows, that feeling doesn’t last for long. Eventually, we have to ask ourselves, “What are we simplifying for?”

What are we simplifying for?

According to what’s out there on minimalism (at least everything I’ve read), the answer is usually “So you can live a more meaningful life.”

That’s a great bite-size answer that makes us feel warm and cozy. But what defines a meaningful life?

When you push past the catch-phrase you find out that what’s being promoted is a more meaningful life defined by making yourself happy. A more meaningful life is defined by being freed up to do what you love, live where you want, and be who you want, without the definitions your stuff gives you.

To be fair, the best of minimalism talks about getting rid of material things to make room for more noble things, like friendships. But even with noble intentions, this is nothing more than shifting our source of identity and meaning from having lots of stuff to having little stuff.

Promoters of the minimal philosophy would almost certainly disagree, but at the same time they’re promoting it to such a degree that their identities are literally wrapped up in the concept of not having things (i.e. – The Minimalists).

My intention is not to denigrate some of the actions that are promoted by minimalists and those advocating a simpler lifestyle, because, like I said, I actually find much of that advice helpful in my own life. But the ideology behind those actions is not enough to help us live a meaningful life, no matter how many closets we clean.

The real (deeper) problem

The problem with having too many (or too few) possessions is that we’re trying to find meaning where there is none. At one extreme, we’re trying to define ourselves by our iPhones, cars, and homes, and at the other we’re trying to define ourselves by our own happiness. But neither is sufficient to ground us in a world of earthquakes, cancer, and hunger.

I’ll put it this way (and this isn’t original to me, I heard it elsewhere, but the source escapes me): Imagine yourself in the midst of the Nazis in World War 2. If your meaning in life could be taken away by being put in a concentration camp, then it’s not enough.

That’s just one example, but it could be phrased any number of ways. If your meaning in life can be taken away by a cancer diagnosis or the loss of a loved one, then it’s not enough.

If your meaning in life depends on your circumstances, know that your circumstances will change. At some point, you will find yourself in a different set of circumstances that shakes the foundations of where you’ve staked your meaning.

You can find meaning in your possessions, but one day they’ll be taken from you.

You can find meaning in your beauty, but one day you’ll lose it.

You can find meaning in your happiness, but one day you’ll be sad.

So the problem is less that we need to decide between how much or how little stuff we have, and more about where we find our meaning in life. There are a myriad of suggested solutions to that problem, but let me suggest the Christian worldview as a way of solving it.

A solution to the problem of meaning

The Christian worldview has much to say about possessions, and its solution to the problem of where to find meaning is sufficient to hold us up through life regardless of our circumstances.

At the root of the Christian worldview is the idea that God himself came to earth in the form of the man Jesus and that man died for the sins of humanity, but he was resurrected after three days, defeating death in the process.

Christians see that saving act of Jesus as being the foundation for meaning in life. This can be seen throughout the Bible, but most clearly in the beginning of the book of John, one of the four biographical accounts of the life of Jesus. The book opens with this:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)

John, the author, wrote that in Greek, and when he chose the word that’s translated as “Word,” he used a term that was absolutely loaded in that day. That term was “logos.”

Logos” didn’t simply mean “word”. The term was coined by a guy named Heraclitus long before John was writing, and he defined as being the divine reason or plan which coordinates a changing universe. Logos meant the reason for something, in this case the reason for life.

In Greek culture, the logos was where meaning and reason was derived from, and the whole universe was tied together by that logos. This is what philosophers and thinkers had been discussing up until the time John was writing.

Some of them decided that there was no meaning, no reason, no logos, in life. Others decided that their own pleasure, their own happiness was the logos (which we see today in any of the self-fulfillment philosophies).

It was into this setting that John redefined the term.

He said a couple really important things. First, he said the reason for life, the logos, was there in the beginning. Now, the Greeks of the day would have had no problem with that part, since it fit with their general understanding of the term. It’s the next part where John drops his bombshell.

He says, “the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God.” He said the logos, the reason for life, was a person. And this logoswas with God. But not only was he with God, but he was God, meaning he was the same as God.

When you go on to read the rest of this chapter in John’s book, you find out that when he uses the term logos he’s referring to the man Jesus Christ.

John’s saying that there is a reason for life. That there is a way to find meaning in life. But it’s not a philosophical principle – it’s the person of Jesus Christ.

And if you don’t know that Person, you can’t find the deepest meaning in life. If you don’t know that Person, you can’t find something that’s capable of standing up to what life throws at you.

Not only does the Christian worldview have the ability to provide us meaning in life that can’t be taken away, but it results in a healthier relationship with possessions than either the American Dream or the minimalists offer.

A better way to relate to possessions and people

The Gospel, the central good news of the Christian faith about Jesus taking judgement in our place, fundamentally changes how you relate to possessions, thereby changing your relationship with the meaning associated with them.

This entire argument is more than we have time for right now, but the essence of it is that the Gospel frees you from assigning meaning to possessions by showing you that you find meaning in Christ. You find meaning in the treasures of the world to come that will never fade away, instead of the treasures of this world that won’t last.

And that changes everything.

I love how David Platt, a former pastor and the current President of the International Missions Board, put this:

Think about it. Faith in Christ reconciles us to God, right? It’s the essence of the gospel. We no longer live for earthly treasure. We love our eternal treasure. God is our treasure. That frees us from the constant pursuit of stuff in this world, which means faith in Christ now reconciles us to one another because we’re not living any more for selfish gain. We’re free of that. Free to live with selfless generosity.

Finding meaning in Christ changes how you relate to possessions and, as you just read, how you relate to people.

The Christian is freed to live a simple and generous life. Both of which I think we’re all after, aren’t we? We want to live a life that isn’t defined by things we know won’t last, and we want to positively impact the world around us. But we won’t find those things by looking to either our stuff or our own happiness.

So what are we simplifying for? What are you simplifying for? And is it really worth it? Is it something that will bring real, lasting meaning to your life?