Virtually every element of minimalism is found in sound Bible doctrine, yet, surprisingly, the trend doesn’t have its roots among Christians.
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“Simplicity, clarity, singleness: These are the attributes that give our lives power and vividness and joy as they are also the marks of great art.” That was said by Richard Holloway, a Scottish writer.
There’s an emerging trend I am seeing more and more of, mostly on, but not limited to, the Internet. It’s an idea, a philosophy, a lifestyle known as minimalism. I don’t know what you think of when you hear that term, minimalism, but most people probably think of having less stuff. Well, that’s certainly part of it. But there’s more to it than that.
In today’s episode, I not only want to talk about minimalism, I also want to weigh it next to what the Bible teaches. When I first discovered this concept of minimalism, I was immediately drawn to it. But I was also surprised by it. I was surprised because virtually every element of it is found in sound Bible doctrine, yet the trend doesn’t seem to have its roots in the church or among Christians. As a matter of fact, none of the mainstream minimalists I’ve found offer any profession of faith or belief in Jesus Christ. In other words, these very Christian ideas are not coming from Christians.
First of all, I suppose I should try and define minimalism for you. Well, I’ve discovered that everyone seems to have a slightly unique definition with some common themes running through each of them. According to Joshua Becker, of BecomingMinimalist.com, minimalism is “intentionally trying to live with only the things I really need.” I like that definition. But he doesn’t stop there. He goes to better define it using seven points. But I’ll come back to that.
I want to share with you the story of Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus of theMinimalists.com. Let me add a quick disclaimer though. I first read about Josh and Ryan more than a year ago. So, I’m recalling most of this from memory. I did revisit their website to confirm some of these details, but there’s a chance I might get things a little out of order or simply mess up some of the facts. Regardless, you’ll get the gist of their story.
Josh and Ryan were in their late twenties and they were very successful. While we all might define success in a different way, I don’t think anyone would argue with me saying these guys were successful. At least when it comes to occupational or financial success. They were making $130,000 a year. That’s a lot of money. If you don’t think so, the average American family has a household income of something like $50,000 a year. Keep in mind, that includes families with more than one income. $130,000 is a significant income.
Most of us would think we have it made if we ever got to that point. We think about all of our current expenses and we imagine how much easier it would be each month to meet those expenses if we were making a lot more money. But that line of thinking is flawed. Yes, it would be easier to meet our current expenses if we made more money. But we should also factor in the impulse each of us would have to grow those expenses. If we make a little more money, we can afford a few more things, right?
We all have dreams. Unfortunately, we live in a consumeristic culture where most of our dreams include possessing more or, at the very least, different things. I always joke with my wife that she doesn’t dream big enough. She dreams of one day having a dishwasher. We don’t have one right now. Currently, she’s been dreaming about this living room chair she really wants that we don’t have room for. Her biggest dream is probably having a fireplace. I wouldn’t say she’s dreaming big, but all of these goals involve material things. Of course, my wife is the furtherest thing from materialistic, so I don’t mean to imply that if that’s how it sounds.
My point is that we like stuff. We also think of more money as the equivalent to more convenience–maybe even greater happiness. But that’s not true at all. Perhaps there is no greater example of this than King Solomon of the Bible. He was the richest man in the history of Israel up to that point in time. He had everything a man could want.
Here is what he said about his life in Ecclesiastes 2:4-11…
“I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards: I made me gardens and orchards, and I planted trees in them of all kind of fruits: I made me pools of water, to water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees: I got me servants and maidens, and had servants born in my house; also I had great possessions of great and small cattle above all that were in Jerusalem before me: I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces: I gat me men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments, and that of all sorts. So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem: also my wisdom remained with me. And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labour: and this was my portion of all my labour.”
While Solomon did not have the same luxuries as we do today, he had the best of the best in his time. He had power, gold, riches, servants, and even entertainment at the snap of his finger. When you consider quality of life, I’d go as far as to say most of us have it even better than Solomon. He didn’t have a car. He didn’t have electricity. He didn’t didn’t have refrigeration. He didn’t have central heat and air. He didn’t have television, the Internet, or smartphones. Even so, he had it made. He was the guy–much like celebrities today–everyone else wanted to be.
Yet, this is the conclusion Solomon came to concerning his life…
“Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.”
That’s a little depressing. But it’s also a reality. We will never find satisfaction in material or earthly things. We convince ourselves we can, but it will never happen. Think of a child at Christmas time who finally gets that toy he/she has been wanting. That child is filled with excitement when he unwraps the package to see what he got. But jump ahead a few months in time. There’s a good chance that toy is now collecting dust in the bottom of a closet or a toy box. Maybe the child still plays with it, but not with the same enthusiasm as before. The most telling thing is how that child will be longing for something else altogether next Christmas. We will always want more because there’s no satisfaction to be found in material things.
We have to learn to be content. In Philippians 4:11, Paul wrote, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” Let me put it another way. We should be content no matter how little we have. At the same, we should never be content because of how much we have. In Revelation 3:17, Jesus told the Laodicean church, “Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked: I counsel thee to buy of me gold tried in the fire, that thou mayest be rich…”
We should always be content no matter how little we have. But we should never be content because we have so much. Not only will we never find satisfaction in our souls through material things, we have to cautious because material things are actually more prone to be spiritually destructive.
Getting back to the story of Josh and Ryan, they were making a six-figure income at a fairly young age. $130,000 a year is a lot of money. But even that amount of money can be insufficient. It all depends on how much a person spends. Think of it this way. Let’s say Bob earns $50,000 a year and he spends $30,000 a year. Then we have Bill who earns $100,000 a year but spends $100,000 a year. Which man is richer? After the first year, a quick glance at their bank accounts would reveal that Bob, making $50,000 less than Bill, is actually richer.
It’s not just how much money a person makes. We also have to consider how much that person spends. This is especially important if the person spends so much that he/she is actually racking up debt. That is exactly what leads rich celebrities like MC Hammer, Michael Jackson, and Elton John to bankruptcy. You would think they have more money than they could ever spend and it’s continually pouring in by the millions, but they are still spending more than they have.
Josh and Ryan were making $130,000 a year but they were spending $150,000 a year. You don’t have to be good at math to know they were running a deficit which is not sustainable. Not to mention, it’s foolish. Romans 13:8 says, “Owe no man any thing…” That doesn’t mean borrowing money or buying something on credit is altogether forbidden, but racking up debt is not being a good steward of what the Lord has blessed us to have. It should be avoided.
So, they made all of this money but they were spending more than they had. They were caught up in the lifestyle of wealthy corporate types. They had nice homes, fancy cars, and expensive clothes. However, it came at a price. They were driving themselves into debt and they were forced to spend most of their time working. They didn’t fall into this money. They earned it. They worked hard, put in a lot of hours, and dealt with enormous amounts of stress.
Fortunately for them, they quickly wised up. They realized they could not live that way for long nor did they want to. Now, at that time, they weren’t on a quest to become minimalists. They weren’t necessarily seeking some kind of spiritual fulfillment. They were simply looking at their unsustainable lifestyles in a very practical way.
Their top priority was to get out of debt. The only way to get out of debt, of course, is to stop spending money. So, they did. The interesting part of their story is how they went about spending less money. First, they disconnected TV service, Internet, and virtually every other luxury service they were paying for each month. Second, they stopped buying stuff. They made a vow to not spend one dime more than what they absolutely had to for a full year. I mean, they didn’t buy a pack of gum if they did not need it. They didn’t go out to eat. They didn’t buy the new iPhone.
One year later, they were completely out of debt. But it gets even better. They also learned how happy they could be without stuff. Like I said, they didn’t have Internet or cable TV or a number of other common staples in the American household. They were living with even less than most of us, yet they found much more happiness.
After that year, it dawned on them, why not continue that path of minimalism rather than go back to living the way they had been living? To prove their resolve and just how firmly they believed in this new lifestyle, the next step for them was to reduce the headaches and stress of their corporate jobs. In other words, they were so happen with less, they didn’t need to make a six-figure income. In one post on their blog where Josh–I believe it was Josh–wrote about leaving his job, he said, “I changed my spending habits over two years, sold my house, paid off my car, sold stuff I didn’t need, got rid of nearly all my bills (TV, Internet, etc.), moved into a small apartment, and then focused on leaving my job and living a more meaningful life.”
They continued to scale back. They eventually quit their jobs. I believe their entire income now is based on the sales of their books which they’ve admitted is dramatically less than what they made before. But again, they are much happier. They are able to focus on what’s most important to them. They have less pressures and stress. They have more time.
I don’t know how you feel about this, but I find their story to be very inspirational and very attractive. I really wish Brad was with me on this episode because I’d probably hear a resounding amen right about now. By the way, there will likely be several episodes where I’m flying solo because of scheduling conflicts between us. I can record during the day and he can only record in the evenings. But we’ll still work out times when we can to produce the show together.
Anyway, there are so many aspects to minimalism that go beyond just material things or money. I want to go back to what Joshua Becker wrote on BecomingMinimalist.com. He describes minimalism in seven parts though I only want to focus on five of them. First, he says, “[Minimalism] is marked by clarity, purpose, and intentionality. At its core, minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it. It is a life that forces intentionality. And as a result, it forces improvements in almost all aspects of your life.”
As I said before, this developing trend of minimalism seems to be happening apart from the church and in the secular realm. It’s surprising because so much of what minimalism seems to be has roots in scripture. But, of course, that kind of thing does happen. Romans 2:14 tells us, “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts…” Believe it or not, the written Word of God is not required for someone born of the Spirit to practice the things contained in the Word of God. That is because God places the truth in the hearts of his people.
Becker here is really talking about focus. What is our lives focused on? For the believer, the answer to that question should be Christ. However, we all have a great number of distractions. As a matter of fact, some of the greatest things we’ve been blessed with in our lives serve as distractions. For example, our families are distractions. Our families are a blessing from God, but they also distract us from what is most important.
Let me show you what I mean in 1 Corinthians 7. Paul began the chapter by writing, “Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me…” In this chapter, Paul addressed a number of questions that had apparently been asked of him by believers in the Corinthian church. Most of these questions related to marriage. I’m a believer but my spouse is not so should I stay married this person? I’m an unmarried believer so should I get married or should I abstain?
Interestingly enough, Paul told the unmarried to stay unmarried if at all possible. Doesn’t that contradict everything else we know about marriage going all the way back to Genesis? In Genesis 2:18, God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” God said man shouldn’t be without the companionship of a wife, yet Paul said it’d be better if we abstain from marriage.
For the record, there’s no contradiction here. After all, Paul did write, “If [the unmarried] cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.” Marriage is still an option. We’re not forbidden from ever getting married. In fact, Paul described the ability to abstain from marriage as a gift. He wrote, “For I would that all men were even as I myself [that is, unmarried]. But every man hath his proper gift of God…” Not everyone has that gift. Most of us desire companionship which is perfectly natural.
So, why would Paul tell the unmarried, the widows, and the virgins–those have never been married–to avoid marriage if possible? The answer to that is found in 1 Corinthians 7:32 where Paul said, “He that is unmarried careth for the things that belong to the Lord, how he may please the Lord: But he that is married careth for the things that are of the world, how he may please his wife.” Husbands, it’s okay to please your wives. However, our first priority is always going to be pleasing the Lord–at least it should be.
Virtually anything in this life–no matter how good it is–can potentially be a distraction for us. I believe that’s the point Paul was making in his letter. As this relates to minimalism, minimalism is not solely about getting rid of stuff. It’s about getting rid of distractions which can often include stuff. The goal is to determine what is most important in your life and get rid of or, at the very least, minimize anything and everything that distracts you from what is most important.
Briefly, I want to point out something else Paul wrote in that chapter. He said, “Brethren, the time is short: it remaineth, that both they that have wives be as though they had none; And they that weep, as though they wept not; and they that rejoice, as though they rejoiced not; and they that buy, as though they possessed not; And they that use this world, as not abusing it: for the fashion of this world passeth away.”
How much difference does it make whether you’re married or single in the grand scheme of eternity? It matters very little, it would seem. This is interesting. On one hand, the time is short so what happens in our lives here on this Earth is insignificant. On the other hand, having a limited amount of something typically makes it more valuable. To reconcile this apparent paradox, the time we have on Earth is made significant when we spend that time wisely. That is why Jesus said, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…”
By addressing our focus–which should be Christ–and intentionally shaping our lives to reflect that focus, we effectively turn the insignificance of time into significance. It is the shaping of our lives where this minimalist philosophy comes in. It’s all about removing distractions, one at a time.
To give you an example from my own life–by the way, I’m nowhere near what I would call a minimalist at this point–I’ve been trying to simplify my daily workflow. As the pastor of a church, I am constantly studying the Bible. That is where most of my time is spent. Several months ago, I started to notice how much better my concentration is when my office is clean and without clutter. But as the days progress, my office would get messier and messier. I’d have books all over the desk, papers, notes, and all kinds of things. Then I decided enough’s enough and I went almost entirely digital. I do everything on a computer now. That’s where I keep my notes and that’s where I do my reading.
The result has been phenomenal. I focus better. I get more done. In fact, I continue to minimize things more and more. I moved from a rather large office to a smaller one–both outside of the church. Now, I’m considering moving my entire operation to a place in the church where I’ll have virtually no space at all. At least, not a personal space like my office now.
With each step, I’m actually freeing myself from stuff. I’ve been giving away books left and right. I’ve been throwing out or selling my furniture. Beyond the material things, I’ve become more and more comfortable with turning off notifications on my laptop and phone. Turning off new email and other notifications can be tough. But it also means fewer distractions. Do I really need to see every email as soon as it gets to my inbox? Probably not.
Liberating is the word I would use. It’s liberating. Another word that comes to mind is refreshing. But another interesting thing about this is how it is shaping my perspective. For instance, I’ve always been prone to have the TV on when I’m at home. I might not be paying attention to it, but I’ll have it on anyway. This past summer, my wife and I cancelled our satellite service. I don’t miss it at all. In the past few weeks, I’ve even found myself watching it–usually something on Netflix–but not enjoying it. I’ve always known most of TV-watching was a waste of time, but it’s starting to feel like a waste of time, if you know what I mean.
I might be getting ahead of myself. To quote Joshua Becker again, he wrote, “Modern culture has bought into the lie that the good life is found in accumulating things–in possessing as much as possible. They believe that more is better and have inadvertently subscribed to the idea that happiness can be purchased at a department store. But they are wrong. Minimalism brings freedom from the all-consuming passion to possess. It steps off the treadmill of consumerism and dares to seek happiness elsewhere.”
In that he obviously addresses materialism. That’s the stuff that “moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal.” While having less stuff is the very basics of minimalism, let’s not underestimate how difficult it is to give up stuff and consume less. We read a story in Luke 18 of rich guy who had a really tough time with this. He asked Jesus how he might inherit eternal life. Something that is commonly missed in this passage because it’s not explicitly addressed is that eternal life cannot be inherited through human works.
When the man asked about getting eternal life, Jesus answered, “Thou knowest the commandments, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour thy father and thy mother.” That’s the law of God. Of course, we are told elsewhere that keeping the law is not how we are saved from our sins. Jesus knew whether this man had eternal life or not. Jesus was simply instructing him on how to live like one who does have eternal life.
Well, what does that look like? First, you avoid doing those things God has told us not to do. For instance, don’t covet. Don’t steal. Second, we have to do what God has told us we should be doing. For instance, Jesus told the man, “Sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.” The Bible narrative then says the man walked away very sorrowful. It’s one thing to avoid sin and another to do good works.
It’s hard to let go of material possessions because so many of these things bring us pleasure–as temporary as that pleasure may be. Plus, it requires we combat our nature. It’s not as simple as making a choice. We’re essentially at war with our own flesh. It’s hard which explains the imagery in Luke 9:23 when Jesus said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily…” Shifting our focus and our lives from earthly things to spiritual things is the equivalent of carrying a cross to your own crucifixion. Discipleship isn’t easy but it is eternally rewarding.
I won’t spend a lot of time on this point, but let me read some more of Becker’s description of minimalism:
“Although nobody intentionally chooses it, most people live in duplicity. They live one life around their family, one life around their co-workers, and another life around their neighbors. The lifestyle they have chosen requires them to portray a certain external image dependant upon their circumstances. They are tossed and turned by the most recent advertising campaign or the demands of their employer. On the other hand, a simple life is united and consistent. It has learned a lifestyle that is completely transferable no matter the situation. It is the same life on Friday evening as it is on Sunday morning as it is on Monday morning. It is reliable, dependable and unfluctuating. It works in all circumstances.”
The only thing I want to say about this is that it very much describes the type of genuine person every Christian disciple should be. If we want to simply our lives, we should be genuine. Imagine a person who is constantly lying. They have to lie more and more just to cover up their former lies. It quickly makes things very complicated. The same is true for someone who changes their personality in different environments or for the sake of different people.
There’s a reason I don’t use the term Christian nearly as often as I do disciple. When most people think of a Christian, they think of someone who goes to church–maybe not even that. Disciple has a different connotation in most people’s minds. When I hear the word disciple I think genuine follower of Christ. When I hear the word Christian I think generically of someone who lays claim to Christ but doesn’t necessary reflect it. They may be at church on Sunday morning, but there’s very little evidence of their faith anywhere else in their lives.
Moving on, I love this line from Becker. He wrote, “While most people are chasing after success, glamour, and fame, minimalism calls out to us with a smaller, quieter, calmer voice. It invites us to slow down, consume less, but enjoy more.” Honestly, you could replace the word minimalism in that statement with God and it would perfectly harmonize with the Bible. As God’s children, we are called out of the typical lifestyle lived by the world.
Romans 12:2 says, “Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” As believers and discipleships of Christ, we’re not supposed to be like everyone else. Peter described us as a “peculiar people.” We should be a counter-culture. That doesn’t mean we have to be so strange that everyone avoids. It just means our focus is different so our lives are going to be different. Jesus said, “A good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good” and vice versa. If our hearts are in heaven, our lives will reflect that.
As a matter of fact, that’s the last point Joshua Becker made in defining minimalism on his website. He said “I have learned that minimalism is always a matter of the heart.” He said that to express how minimalism is more than bodily exercise, to use biblical terminology. Ultimately, it’s a shift in priorities and focus.
While minimalism might be nothing more than a fad to some people, I’m actually encouraged to see this increasingly popular trend. Perhaps more of us in the church need to jump on the bandwagon. We have been living lives of excess. We’ve been in line with everyone else on Black Friday to get great deals on more stuff we probably don’t need. We likely spend as much time in front of the television or on our smartphones as anyone. We consume ourselves with work and worry in order to maintain a standard of living above and beyond what we need to truly be happy. We even rob our families of our time because we feel like we’ve got to get a few more items on the to-do list done before the day’s over.
We’re not here for very long. This place isn’t our home. We’re just passing through. There will be no iPads in heaven. There will be no expensive SUVs or sports cars. There will be no Starbucks. There will be no Facebook. There will be no political elections, no football games, no shopping, no meals to prepare or eat, no houses to clean or cars to wash, or any other thing which might currently consume our lives. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with any of these things so long as they are kept in the right place on our priority lists.
What will be in heaven is our family in Christ and Christ himself.
Ladies and gentlemen, that’s it for today’s episode. If you want to learn how you can support Discovering Grace and this ministry, stay tuned. I’ll explain how in just a moment. Links to some of the things I’ve read today can be found at JeremySarber.com/DiscoveringGrace14. Until next time, may God continue bless.
Links from this episode
What is Minimalism? | Becoming Minimalist
About Josh & Ryan | The Minimalists
Making Money as a Writer Is a Curious Thing | The Minimalists
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