I need to preface this post with a disclaimer: I do not have a life of simplicity. My life is really complicated. But I hope to change that someday. I’m writing now with that longing in mind.
I came across a passage in our Bible reading schedule that stopped me cold.
“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.” 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 (NASB)
I’ll come back to this passage in a paragraph or two. But first a question for anyone who has gone to a church.
Have you ever noticed the pressure in evangelical church culture to live an activity-filled life?
I’ve talked to more than one individual who felt this pressure. And as a result, condemnation, albeit indirectly, by their fellow Christians, for not being as “on fire” as the critical mass of worshippers in their church. Now a second disclaimer: No blame should be left at the feet of those who are passionate about their faith. Especially if they are excited about following Jesus. Passion is needed in the church. All I’m suggesting here is that not everyone is in the same place that you are, spiritually speaking. And they don’t have to be. Everyone has their own pace at which they grow in their spiritual walk. All that really matters is that you’re growing. We shouldn’t quench the fire of the zealous ones among us; neither should we quench the smoldering wick of the Christian who is just trying to make it through the day without screwing up. For that reason, I can’t stop going back to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Specifically, those two verses in chapter four.
Paul’s instruction are a blatant contrast from the now overdone trend in Christian youth culture to be radical, sold-out, and influential.
There is this prevalent idea among Christian (evangelical?) millennials to live in a manner that is unparalleled by their peers. In a way that stands out. There is an external pressure to wield as much influence, power, and connection in the world as possible. After all, this is the “next great generation,” as they say. And we have a hefty expectation to live up to. “Ahem”…for the glory of God, of course.
Now, I do believe God’s call on our lives is radical in itself. Jesus changes our innermost being, relationships, worldviews, social structures, and then sends us as disciples into the world to repeat the process with others. Just the nature of our salvation, involving the mysterious union we have with Christ is beyond the scope of imagination. Consequently, anything we do as Christians, if the presence of Christ is in us, is by association, of a radical nature. To share the gospel with a non-believer, if done with the Spirit of Christ in us, is a radical commission. To open our doors in hospitality to our neighbors, when infused by the Spirit of Christ in us, is radical. If we are one with Christ, then talking to a cashier at the local grocery store can be radical. If, by radical, we mean, “far-reaching or thorough” in its “affecting the fundamental nature of something.” You can see how talking to a cashier in a grocery store about Jesus can have “far-reaching affects” if you are speaking by the power of Christ’s indwelling presence.
So then why are millennials so unsatisfied with their jobs, homes, churches, environment, and callings? It’s not the technical definition of “radical” that we seem to be after. For then, we’d already be satisfied in the seemingly mundane, as long as God is present with us. But we’re not satisfied. We’re the unsatisfied generation. I lost count of how many restless friends I’ve known who left the town they initially thought they were “called to.” It’s like they’re always on the run to find the next best thing “God has for them.”
I wonder, why don’t I ever hear of millennials staying in the same place, for years and years, faithfully ministering to the same people, day in and day out? Why don’t I ever hear stories about that twenty-three year old who worked for twenty years at a job she hated because of the uncontrollable burden on her heart for a co-worker? Why do I less stories about millennials counting the cost to obey Christ, and hear instead about “chasing my dreams”? Why do I see young people hopping from “calling” to “calling”–as if God keeps changing our minds (or His) on what He’s called us to?
Could it be that we have turned an already Great Commission into a romantic expectation?
Maybe our dream is of big venues, great movements, and the prestige that will come when God uses us. Perhaps we daydream about the connections we’ll make, the book deals we’ll sign, or the influence we’ll have. We see non-profits, CEO’s, celebrity pastors, entrepreneurs and kind-of-famous musicians. Even if we can’t be that big, we at least dream of being as happy. We feel as though our right as Christians is to serve God doing what we want to do. We have passionate ambitions. We cannot imagine serving God in anything less than our dream job, with our best gifts, on our terms, and according to our schedule. I fully support dreaming big. But sometimes big dreams emerge from small beginnings.
I remember visiting the Sistine Chapel six years ago. The swell of global visitors in that room was astonishing, as everyone stood on tip-toes clamoring for a blurry shot of the famous ceiling frescos that were too far away to promise any photographic detail. Greatness. We want to be the Michelangelo of our day. But Michelangelo was primarily “gifted” as a sculpter. In fact, it’s said that he had a low opinion of painting. How many of us would turn that opportunity down because “our gifts are not being used,’ or “it wasn’t my dream job!” But Mike faithfully undertook the commission. Four years later, a masterpiece was born. That’s true greatness. But lying on scaffolding, with paint leaking into your eyes after the 10th hour on your back is certainly not romantic. Greatness rarely is. And according to the apostle Paul, the greatest ambition we should be pursuing is an invisible one.
What if God never intended for you to be legendary? What if you never made the paper, the TV, or even Youtube? Are you ok with being insignificant in the eyes of culture, to be obedient before God’s? What if God just wanted you to be faithful to your classmate, your friend, your neighbor, your kids? What if the inner change that occurred over the slow months of investing into them was the world-changing venture God had in mind for you? What if God just wanted you to teach others what you were once taught? Would you be ok with that? Because Paul’s verse to live a quiet life, not bother anyone, and have a good reputation would also certainly dovetail with his calling to make disciples. Paul is consistent. Maybe we’re the ones that have it skewed.
In Hebrews 11:32-40, aptly nicknamed the Hall of Faith, some of the most faithful believers don’t even get named. To be sure, some of them “stopped the mouths of lions” (33). But others were simply mocked, flogged, or imprisoned (36). How unglamorous. All of them went down in history nameless and unknown to us. Yet they are unforgettable to God. In fact, the author of Hebrews describes them as people “of whom the world was not worthy” (30). A backhanded jab at prevailing culture’s adulation for celebrity, fame, and power. The irony is that most of us don’t even know any Greek pagans from that time in history–the ones with honor and prestige. But our churches exist because of the nameless in the Hall of Faith. The explosion of the early church was founded on the faith of such men and women. So yes, history yields a radical result. It’s just not worthy of the world’s fame. Or even a headline in a blog. But God is thrilled. Is that enough for you? To be praised by God, if not by the Huffington Post?
I think that Paul is calling us to a life of simplicity and obedience.
This grinds in the face of what many of us think we want (try sitting in a chair for 20 minutes without having to look at your phone). In fact, Paul seems to correlate the overall health of our relationships with non-believers to a simple and quiet life: “lead a quiet life and attend to your own business…so that you will behave properly toward outsiders”
I have recognized the glaring absence of simplicity in parts of my own life.
As I mentioned at the beginning, my life seems anything but simple. The times my life is the most complicated, sometimes also happens to be the most lacking in true, heavenly power. And I wonder if there’s a correlation. I long for simple power. To not be dominated by my calendar, technology, bills, emails, and urgent-but-menial tasks. I’m guessing that for a lot of you, it’s the same. That would make simplicity a discipline that we must enter into and practice if we’re going to take seriously God’s Word. It won’t just happen. But the discipline we enter into is not some spiritual form of self-flagellation. It’s a pattern by which we subvert dangerous cultural norms that threaten to derail us from true peace of mind. It’s a discipline by which we experience and reflect God’s power in our lives regardless of the external pressures of our world. It’s a way of saying, breathing, and living a simple motto: my union with Christ is enough. It lies latent in every believer who can slow down enough to trust and obey their Lord. It will cause us to slow down and refocus our inner life on the indwelling presence of Jesus, if we let it. But since acts of simplicity are an enigma for many of us, it might help for me to spell it out for the sake of clarity. Since I am still a novice at it, I’ll offer direction from one of the great modern-day contemplatives.
So my next post will bring with it ten acts of simplicity, by Richard J. Foster. A guy who knew where the radical nature of Christianity lied: the interior life of every Christian.