June 18, 2024

What does the Bible say about simplicity?

This year is reportedly the year of minimalism in living room design. Minimalism refers to being stripped of non-essentials, or limited to only the essentials. In addition, minimalists often use the tool of repetition in their design.

Minimalism and simplicity have a lot in common. Consider that there is even such a concept as minimalism. This must mean that there is such a thing as not-minimalism. Most will recognize the opposite of minimalism as modern life. Indeed, society naturally gravitates toward not-minimalism and not-simple. However, this gravitation does not necessarily end in complexity. Creation is intrinsically complex. Each time we improve the microscope, a smaller particle is found. Telescopes find no end to occupied space with innumerable worlds. Creation is complex, but they discover confusion when humans move away from minimal and simplistic. This confusion exasperates them. As a psychologist, I can tell you that people are exasperated.

The Bible has much about simplicity. I used this search:

https://www.openbible.info/topics/simplicity

I then looked for themes among the results. The Bible tells only one story, so all the search results will fit together. It is a great pleasure to search for the fits as daunting as this sounds, and I commend it to you. The verses below generally appear in this essay in the order they did in the search. The reader should expect to see repetition in my refrain.

2 Corinthians 1:12

For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you.

In this context, “simplicity” is sometimes reportedly translated as “holiness,” suggesting that simplicity and holiness are sometimes synonymous. In other places, this word translates as “liberality,” “sincerity,” “generosity,” and “singleness.”  It is difficult to put a single feeling to all of these words, but lighthearted, content, anxiety-free, and focused are a few. One who knows all he has comes from God can be liberal and generous in giving, sincere in intention, and with singleness of purpose. Paul says elsewhere (1 Cor. 7:34) that his singleness (i.e., unmarried state) is an advantage to him because the concerns of the married man are divided (i.e., doubled) between God and his wife. In the above case, simplicity (haplotēti) is a virtue commended to all Christians.

Luke 16:13

No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

Jesus says that certain complexities, like the division of our affections, are impossible. This verse also suggests there are only two possibilities when directing one’s affections: God and not-God (see also Matt. 22:37). The choice will always be between God and something else, but never between two not-gods. In this verse, it is God and money. We never make a devotion choice between money and family. Choosing either money or family (if one can even conceive of this) is always ultimately choosing between that thing (or its alternative) and God. In this case, a simplicity law dictates where we direct our affections.

Another implication is that it is impossible to feel anything other than complete devotion to one and complete rejection to the other. This verse lists love/hate and devoted/despise as the only two options. This choice is binary. When we place love/devotion on one option, we must put hate/despise on the other choice. Regarding alternatives, two options are as simple as it gets.

The final note is that money and riches seem linked to this issue of simplicity. I do not draw out the issue of money and simplicity as much as I could, but the Bible indicates that simplicity is harder to achieve when one keeps lots of money.

Psalm 116:6

The Lord preserves the simple;
    when I was brought low, he saved me.

Simple is often used as a pejorative term in English when referring to humans. Another way to call someone simple is to say simple-minded, dumb, or naïve. Indeed, scholars also translate pə·ṯā·yim as “naïve” in the Bible. Does God save the simple-minded? Remember the lie that initially hooked Eve In Genesis 3 (you will be like God, knowing…). Knowing things “like God” was, in fact, a lie. We do not know because we are simple-minded. Consider the standard of an all-knowing God when thinking about your knowledge. The Lord preserves you, oh simple-minded one. 

Might simple people live simply? Can a simple-minded person tolerate much complexity? When God saved me, did he give me the capacity to live up to my false beliefs about my abilities (e.g., freedom of the will), or did He handle things for me by pledging to give me my daily bread (Jn. 6:35)? Remember that the world we live in is complex, and we cannot escape it (we cannot exist outside the universe as God can). We are simple-minded individuals. We must rely on God, our mighty Benefactor (Phil 4:19). In the above verse, simple seems more than the result of being humbled and brought low; it is an acknowledgment of our natural state. This fact is confirmed in Job 38-42 and elsewhere.

Matthew 6:33

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Years ago, I felt burdened by all of the to-dos of the Christian faith. There were so many lists of good behaviors to do. Yet, how is a simple-minded person (Psalm 116:6) supposed to keep up with and manage all of those items? This verse suggests we are not supposed to. In overestimating their abilities, simple-minded people make manageable things unmanageable and confusing. A prime example of this is in Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisees who burden their people with extra things to do but do not help them carry that burden (Matthew 23). 

It turns out we only have one thing to do. This amount is perfect for the simple-minded person. To be clear, the task of seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness requires discernment. But the point is that the to-do list for Christian living is one item long.

1 Corinthians 14:33

For God is not a God of confusion but of peace.

Confusion comes from the avoidance of simplicity. This confusion is not from God. Consequently, this section in 1 Corinthians is about orderliness in worship services. Paul commands turn-taking and intentionality (namely, benefit others). These concepts are in line with simplicity. One of the easiest ways to organize your closet (so you can find something to wear) is to get rid of clothing you don’t wear. We pair down to simplify. Are Sunday morning services in danger of getting too short for content, or are they choked with too much agenda? I can remember a handful of services, among thousands attended, that have ended earlier than scheduled. The reality is that services are more likely to get congested and confusing.

Proverbs 1:22

How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
    and fools hate Knowledge?

and

Psalm 19:7

The law of the Lord is perfect,
    reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
    making wise the simple

I presented these passages like a call and response. It is our thinking and not creation (or even our bodies) that is simple. God humbles us when we exalt our thinking and reasoning (Prov 3:7). Instead, we should exalt the wisdom of God. He makes us understand complex things and beyond our efforts at understanding (e.g., discernment) and gives us peace through simplicity. Here is the seeming paradox: God commands Christians to live simple, quiet, peaceful lives. However, Christians can only live this way by the working of the eternally complex God who is making us like Jesus. I venture to state that God is both perfectly complex and perfectly simple. In Him do we simplify, and in Him do we understand complex things. However, godly simplicity is devoid of banality, and godly complexity is without confusion. It is simplicity with peace and complexity with orderliness.

Luke 10:21 (Matt 11:25)

In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.

This verse suggests that something about our fleshly maturity obscures knowledge of the truth. The less tainted we are with the experience and reasoning of the flesh (e.g., school of hard knocks, formal education, faulty learning from experience), the easier it is to understand the Truth. The term childlike is another way to say naïve or simple-minded. Childlike has a somewhat positive connotation, though. It is a virtue and has a disarming quality to it. Sometimes a childlike response can turn off a parent’s anger and convert it to shame. Childlikeness (i.e., simplicity) has power. A good question to ask is how does one achieve this childlikeness?

Psalm 131:1-2

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
    my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
    too great and too marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
    like a weaned child with its mother;
    like a weaned child is my soul within me.

This passage combines many of the concepts discussed above. My goal is peace and quiet that looks like that of a content child. To achieve this peace, I actively avoid thinking (i.e., my heart, my eyes) of anything too difficult or beyond me (lifted up, high, great, marvelous).

The thoughts the Psalmist reports avoiding are not just stressful because they are tragic, like suffering, poverty, hunger, death, injustice, or the like. He also reports avoiding marvelous things. These are all thoughts beyond his current ability to understand. Could Eve have said, “Knowledge of good is too marvelous for me; I will content myself with sitting quietly with God.”? However, Adam would have most likely scolded her for her simple-mindedness with such an offer of knowledge on the table. “How could you pass that up? Aren’t you even a little curious to know about this thing called ‘good’ and the other thing called ‘evil?’”

One must interpret this passage in the context of the whole Bible because asking, seeking, and knocking (Matt 7:7) are commands. We cannot discard this passage, and thus we must take seriously that the Psalmist confidently and virtuously avoids occupying his mind with things that are too marvelous for him. He values his simple-mindedness, and God rewards him with contentment.

What then should we seek to know? Only Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor. 2:2). Paul has only one “textbook” to add to our one-item to-do list (Matt 6:33).

1 Timothy 6:6-8

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.

Although not mentioning it directly, this passage has the money and riches overtone. Physical death is The Great Simplifier and the end for all of us. I will stretch this meaning a bit to suggest that Paul may be thinking about other places in scripture that talk about people accumulating things to achieve contentment. The opposite of accumulation, both simplifying and giving away, is a better path to contentment for the wealthy. Ultimately, having what we need (i.e., daily bread, food, and clothing) is the fastest path to contentment. Not because these basic items bring contentment, but once we have them, we can learn to be content along with them. (Hint: unlimited access to our heavenly Benefactor and belief (i.e., faith) that he cares for us is the only way to be content.)  Those who accumulate to be content never reach contentment because accumulation cannot bring contentment (only faith can). Accumulators are in an eternal state of seeking contentment, thinking that contentment can come from having. Alternatively, some seek contentment through not-having. They are called Ascetics. Buddhists also attempt to achieve contentment (i.e., nirvana) by eliminating their desires. Neither is content because not-having does not bring contentment, and there is always more (consider the Buddhist focus on eliminating specific thoughts) to give up. The point is that having and not-having are dead ends in the path to simplicity. We must look beyond having and not having to find simplicity.

Isaiah 55:1-2

Come, everyone who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in rich food.

How much time do you spend working (laboring) and preparing for work? I spend most of my waking hours working, and a primary reason for sleeping is to labor well. Work is good (1 Cor. 4:12), but what would happen if everything you needed was free and would never wear out or run out? How would you spend your time? Isaiah says you would listen, eat, and delight yourself. That’s it. Forever. Simple.

This passage is about heaven and an invitation to believe in Jesus in this age. Indeed, some of this feasting and satisfaction is available to the Believer in the present age. We are offered a life of simplicity, even before death. The offer of freedom from worry and toil in this age is genuinely tempting as everyone has experienced the sense of futility and potential emptiness ad insufficiency of their labors. But I will note that there will be no work for eternity. How will we then spend our time, if even time continues to exist?

Summary

  1. Godly simplicity will include getting rid of things for most people reading this. All readers should assume that the accumulation of material things is their default, and eliminating these things (and primarily through giving away) will move one toward simplicity and all good that comes with godly simplicity.
  2. True simplicity comes through faith. I found it much easier to build faith when I had less money. This observation is consistent with the general message of the Bible.
  3. Perhaps even more than wealth, we are lured into ungodliness through illegitimate offers of knowledge. This concept can be extended very broadly, from knowledge of good and evil to knowledge of marvelous things that are beyond our understanding; even knowledge (to know; have sex with (Gen. 4:1)) of others. “Secret knowledge” or exclusive knowledge is a hallmark of cults and other false doctrines. So it is no surprise that research finds that atheists are, as a group, more educated than Christians. 
  4. If endeavoring to be simple-minded is hard to tolerate, aim to be childlike. Simple, childlike, simple-minded, and naïve all seem to mean the same thing, even if we as a society have applied slightly different meanings to each term. For example, simple and holy seem to be synonymous in some passages.

AJ Switzer

This name is a moniker so that the text can speak for itself. I am developing what I can write about more than how I write. I use AI to edit my stuff.

View all posts by AJ Switzer →