Here’s the easiest way to describe the kind of simplicity I think we are called to live. One sentence, so you can remember: you know you are living simply when “enough” guides your decisions and when you know the difference between “yes” and “no.” Too philosophical? Let me tell you about two of the dogs my wife and I have served over the years. (You have dogs or cats? Then you know that they are in charge and that you serve their needs, right?) Let’s call them Greta and Crumpet and let’s say that they had two very different approaches to “enough.” Crumpet believed that food was to be eaten in its entirety anytime it appeared. Crumpet approached any offering of dog rations as an opportunity to gobble as much as possible in as short a time as possible. On the other hand, Greta would approach her dog dish with reverence, select a single morsel, and carry it gingerly to another location that was suitable for chewing and swallowing. Greta—the favored dog in this story—sometimes took hours to finish the proffered nuggets of food.
For Crumpet, the appearance of dog-groceries in her line of sight and smell was the major cause to gobble up every morsel as quickly as possible. Greta’s more subdued “yes” still resulted in the satisfaction of her appetite, but was a more measured—thoughtful—approach. Like most dogs and some people, Crumpet confused “enough” and “yes” with “right now.” Down deep in Greta’s doggie brain she was content with what she had for that moment, trustful of the abundance that regularly appeared in that dog dish, and assured that her serving stewards—my wife and me—would care for her. Those two beloved dogs helped me years ago to give voice and action to “enough” as a joyful way of living.
Stephen Covey, the “effective living” guru, talks about the relationship of “yes” and “no,” especially in the management of time. One concept from his books and training course has stayed with me for more than a decade: saying “no” to something is easier when a deeper “yes” burns inside of you. With this insight, Covey names simple living to its core: what is the deeper “yes” burning inside of you? By whatever name—passion, lifework, a sense of purpose and meaning—your “yes” is the primary guide for making life’s most basic decisions, the ones that make possible the other decisions. Among all the less-important priorities in your life, this “yes” is always in play. Let me give you some examples:
- If your deeper “yes” is to empathize with others, then you most likely seek to know and serve others before you want to be known and served by them.
- If you are most mindful of your own inferiorities, then your “yes” can help diminish those self-diminishing feelings.
- If having fun most fully characterizes you, then anything painful, boring, or ordinary likely comes up as less worthy of your attention.
- If you insist on fairness in all your personal dealings and in all the societal institutions of which you are a part, you are less likely to grouse about injustice.
- If you value personal safety as the primary quality of a good life, then you live and work to protect yourself against any real or imagined danger.
“Yes” or “no” and “enough” are at the heart of simplicity because they signal your basic attitudes about life, the mindfulness by which you approach decisions, and the directions in which those decisions will take you.
Distinguishing among “Yes,” “No,” and “Enough”
“Yes” or “no” and “enough” are at the heart of simplicity. Together they can form the core of your appreciative conversations with others. But how do you discern among them? Let me tell you about some of the aphorisms that help me sort these three basic decision-making processes in my life.
- Sometimes “enough” sounds like “Alleluia!” As evidence of gospel grace, “enough” reminds me of the blessing of sufficiency: “Yes, dear God, you have given me just what I need to live life to your glory.” “Enough” also reminds me that God does not choose to overburden me unnecessarily or beyond my capacity.
- “Enough” and “no” can sing together. In my life, no second helpings at supper, no fatty snacks, no carbonated beverages, and no excuses for not exercising have helped me stay fit and healthy. Temptations to excess, busyness, or an overwrought sense of my importance or lifework—all are diminished when my self-talk goes something like, “No, thank you. I already have enough.”
- “Enough,” “yes,” and “no” can show your integrity. Lived out consistently, each of the three words helps you match your values with your behaviors. Understanding each of these words requires your intellectual and emotional honesty. Pretense about not knowing the meaning of these three concepts is as transparent as trying to patronize a teenager.
- Eventually “enough” wins. When all is said and done, you are not God, and so you can’t do everything all at once, every time, and everywhere. Messing with “enough” brings consequences: You work too hard for too long and you get sick. You don’t brush your teeth enough and you get gum disease. You accumulate too much stuff and most of it requires too much time for maintenance, repair, or disposal.
- “Enough” sometimes precedes “yes.” Alcoholics know that when you finally hit bottom—ENOUGH in big letters—you are ready to start on the road to sobriety. When a nation finally has had enough of its leaders or their values, the people first say “no” to their supposed leaders but then reach with their votes towards a more joyful “yes.” The sighs of “enough” can lay the foundation for the grateful tears of “Yes!”
How do you discern which of these three words is operating? The secret: when one is operating in your life, most likely the other two are working, too. They form a triumvirate of mutual support, each for the other. For example, if I don’t know whether to say yes or no to another invitation to speak, I ask myself if I have enough to do or if I am satisfied with the amount of attention I am already getting.
For years I carried two smooth touchstones at all times. One I named “Enough” and the other “Forgive.” It was amazing to me how many times those two concepts, alone or in tandem, helped me take stock of my feelings, an experience, or a severe challenge. In the simple act of touching the Enough stone, I often reminded myself of God’s promise, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9 NRSV), and Forgive helped me get over the times when I didn’t live as though “enough” was enough.
It would be easy to think of simplicity as a lifestyle switch permanently fixed in the NO position. But lifestyles based only on “Thou shalt not” break down soon enough and lose their sensitivity to God’s abundance. When any part of a law-only system—law enforcer, judge, jury, jailer—loses its power, law-based lifestyles can’t fulfill their promise of a meaningful, purposeful life.
A better way of thinking about simple living is to name it “Good News.” Another way to think of gospel-powered living: the salvation after God’s salvation. Still another: playing with the Spirit’s gifts. Or perhaps: your brain hooked on God’s will. Freedom, joy, mission, creativity, courage—all gospel words—give voice to your feelings when you understand that simple living is the result of God’s saving you from trying to save yourself. God’s fierce repudiation of a fear-based life helps you defy death’s hold on your emotions. When fear of dying—or any of its ugly stepchildren—doesn’t control your lifestyle, you are freed from its power.
Excerpted from Starting Simple: Conversations About the Way We Live, copyright © 2007 by the Alban Institute.
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Starting Simple: Conversations About the Way We Live by Bob Sitze
As people yearn for simpler lives in today’s complex and busy world, Bob Sitze offers Starting Simple to help readers live joyfully and justly. He invites us into heart-to-heart conversations about simple living. Sitze helps readers and others in their congregations learn what the Scriptures have to say about living a godly life in these times, find ways to repent of unsustainable lifestyle choices, gather courage to change the ways we think and live, and speak and listen to the struggles of others with honesty and respect.
Bob Sitze offers a new vision for congregations and their leaders—a vision that releases us from the growing burden of trying harder to invent and implement “better” worship, evangelism, stewardship, small groups, long-range planning, mission statements, and the like. Sitze argues instead that as congregations apply the insights of simpler lifestyles to their life together, they will find joy and fulfillment by more closely matching their expectations for ministry with personal and corporate assets.
Emerging discoveries in brain science are sparking new areas of research as cutting-edge educators and psychologists are asking, “What can we learn from brain science about how we function in the world?” Bob Sitze joins the conversation with a new question: what does the human brain have to do with the beliefs, practices, and structures of congregations? Study groups will enjoy the “Big Questions” Sitze asks throughout the book, as well as the discussion questions and follow-up activities included at the end of each chapter.