Living with Less, Loving People More
by Jan Johnson
Carol decided to try an experiment. Several of her friends at work were giving up things for Lent and she decided to join them (even though her church didn’t practice Lent). To her husband’s surprise, she gave up shopping. Once a week she did grocery shopping for her family but she never bought anything for herself for 40 days.
When she thought about something she wanted to buy during that time, she said to God, “I’ll let it wait. You are enough.” By the end of the 40 days, she’d forgotten about most of the things she wanted. Thinking back on her experiment, she says: “Life was so much less hectic. Being in stores messes with your mind. It convinces you that you really need things you don’t need at all.”
Such experiments with simplicity (actually, frugality) help us learn to be content with whatever you have (Phil 4:11). We learn to ask ourselves, What can I get rid of? rather than, What do I want to buy? As a result, when we have a little more, we don’t think of how we can spend it but how we can use it to help others: a flat-screen TV or helping our friends with their mortgage payment?
The Heart Exam
Practicing frugality means making intentional choices to keep or let go of possessions we already own (clutter?) and what we acquire. This begins as an issue of stewardship but becomes a revealer of what’s in our hearts. How does it feel to pass up buying a shirt that would make you shockingly attractive? Why is it not OK to use yard tools that are older than dirt but still work well? Why do I resist getting my sofa repaired instead of buying a new one? Such challenges help us look deeply within ourselves.
When we want to buy something, it’s wise to consider the motives that drive us. We’ll discover feelings and desires we didn’t know we had, such as inadequacy (having to prove myself by owning certain items), people pleasing (getting others’ approval by staying in style), perfectionism (making sure I have just the right high performance rims for my car’s tires or buying my kids everything they need because I want to be a good parent). Recognizing these and other motives moves us to begin asking God: “Why am I so needy? How will I learn to let you, O God, be enough?”
Once a month I have an appointment not far from a large, college-slanted bookstore. I used to drop by there on my way home every month, coming away with at least one purchase. I have to confess I felt good as I drove home – as if I had friends (books) in the seat next to me. Finally I asked God, “What’s going on here? Is there anything unhealthy in this?” While some of it was my healthy desire to learn and grow, it was also about having “smart” books because I hang out with some smart people. It was also about my desire to cocoon away my life reading rather than reaching out and loving people. So I decided to see how many months I could go without visiting the bookstore. It’s been a good experiment.
This heart exam provides great fodder for reflection. We forego buying some little thing and say to God: “Would you help me understand that you really are enough?” Slowly we begin to look to God a little more as the companion of our life and learn the joy of a simple, satisfied life.
Where to Start
Consider the list below. (You’ll probably think of ideas that suit your life and wants better.) If you did one or two of the following, how would your life be more focused on what you believe is important? How would it shape your character? How might it help you invest more in people and less in things?
• Refused to enter any kind of store more than once a week
• Bought a new car every ten years and not before
• Moved to a smaller home, condominium, or apartment instead of moving up
• Lived on a weekly allowance of 10, 20, or 30 dollars
• Ate out less than once a week
• Gave away a piece of clothing every time you bought a new piece of clothing (even from a thrift store)
• Gave yourself a “favorite item” allowance, such as a book allowance or power tool allowance (or computer gadgets, clothing, health and fitness aids, grooming and beauty items)
When we do such things, we aren’t practicing legalism. We don’t want to create pride in how well we obey a set of rules we’ve invented. The point is to make space for God in our lives, to love God with all of our selves, and to love others as our selves.
Jan Johnson writes from California.
Adapted from the book Abundant Simplicity, with permission from InterVarsity Press.