Can living simply become its own sort of idolatry?

When I was growing up, there weren’t a lot of extras. There simply wasn’t money for them. Everyone got about three Christmas presents - and there was a clear price limit on them. Hand-me-down clothes were standard, vegetables were either frozen from the garden or the canned variety and vacations consisted of camping a couple of weekends in the summer. As a child, I’m sure I was disappointed that I couldn’t have more of what I wanted; yet, I had no idea how bad the situation really was. It wasn’t until after I’d left the house that my mom told me that there were times when we had so little money that a gift of groceries on the porch was understood as God’s provision. Living on less wasn’t a choice we’d made - it was simply the reality.

The reality of living on less has followed me much of my life. Years of studying have put to good use the skills my mother taught me: buying the generic products, looking for sales, going to the cheap grocery store, cooking from scratch, picking things up in bulk and never throwing out food. Not having much as a child made me realize that I could live without most things, so I spent years using the computers at school, rarely ate out, took few vacations and tried to borrow books instead of buying them. It was a way of life I was used to, and I was generally content.

Furthermore, living on less has given me lots of freedom. Throughout my life, most of what I’ve owned has cost me little - simply used things picked up here and there over the years. The lack of investment made their loss or breaking down less overwhelming: the whole time that I’d had them, it was more like I was borrowing them than that I’d owned them. It was a little harder to see my car and computer in the same way, but even learning to hold less tightly onto those things has been good for trusting in God’s provision. When I moved away from Michigan, many things got left behind - timely gifts to the new neighbors from Korea who were moving in just as I was trying to figure out what to do with all of my random furniture. There is a joy in being able to share with others what I’ve been given. On top of that, living with less brings with it less anxiety about stuff and helps foster a wonderful simplicity.

Living with less also has given me freedom in terms of time. Because I don’t need a lot of money to live on, I don’t have to work like crazy simply to pay the bills, so I can choose the work that I love. During seminary, I used the summers to work some of the time and play some of the other times: I went on mission trips or took one crazy summer to go to Alaska. And at the beginning of starting my master’s degrees in theology, I could take the step of faith that God would provide enough money for me to pay for all the coming schooling without me going into debt. Living with less was part of that; perhaps not finishing up as early as might be expected was also a possible “less.” Yet, freedom from more debt piled upon my undergraduate loans has meant that I’ve been able to continue to pursue my academic dreams while also spending a lot of time volunteering in a Christian community. Living on less has continued to mean being able to choose to do what I love above needing to work to make ends meet.

And yet, strangely enough, as much good as “living with less” has done me, it has also been too much of an idol at times. Somehow my brain got wired into thinking that in an ideal world, spending less is always better. But I have learned that less is not always better and cheap is not the equivalent of good. What sometimes appears cheap or less actually hides other costs. Cheap for me sometimes translates to pain or hardship for someone else. Cheap can mean more work and more repairs and more hassle when things break or malfunction. Cheap also sometimes translates into less healthy - and that can be costly down the road. Furthermore, a love of cheap can get in the way of understanding and living out the extravagance of God. Being too cheap means that I can spoil the joy of others by not going out or in denying giving to others. Certainly God wants us to use the resources He gives us wisely, but that shouldn’t come at the cost of honoring others and delighting in the good gifts He has given us.

What Do You Think?

  • How do you balance good stewardship with "living out the extravagance of God?"
  • Should Christians always seek to live with less?
  • Is there a danger that such a lifestyle can be idolized?

 

Comments (4)

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Excellent points here, especially the statements about God wanting us to "use resources wisely" and "delighting in the good gifts He has given us."

I am still trying to disentangle myself from my stuff but I don't want to become smug about embracing a simple lifestyle. I don't want to replace greed or gluttony with pride.

Besides scripture talks an awful lot about abundance. I have a feeling I might be freeing myself of my stuff so God can complicate my life with His stuff rather than making it simpler.
I think anything can become an idol because our natures are prone to that. Frequent self-evaluation of our motives, actions, and the consequences can be humbling.

Interesting article!
Dare I say I think all Christians should seek to live with less? We live out the extravagance of God by realizing that everything we have is a gift; contentment comes by realizing God will never leave us or forsake us; by giving extravagantly to others who have little; and, when we may spend, by trying to balance it with justice to God's created order and to people.

For me, this means spending very little, making it a priority to buy good quality used items, repairing and limiting my possessions, and taking joy in giving rather than getting.
This was a really well-done article (and timely) article; thank you for sharing it. One point that came up for me was whether a drive to live cheaply is robbing others of their livelihood. I think it is important to provide people with a fair price for fair services rendered, particularly if we know that money is going to the workers producing the thing. Sometimes the price can be so low that it's virtually impossible to produce it without relying on unfair labor practices and other types of exploitation.

The trick, of course, is figuring out how to pay a fair price so the money goes to the people who produced it, not just the company. I also think there is a real difference between living with less and needing to find the cheapest product. (One or two pairs of trousers, well but simply made, is probably cheaper and better than five pairs of Walmart slacks...)

 

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