By Jan Johnson
Excerpt from “Abundant Simplicity: Discovering the Unhurried Rhythms of Grace”
People marvel that the apostle Paul could be content while chained in a prison cell for years. This former Pharisee probably lived in filth and darkness, ridicule and loneliness. At best his movements were restricted under house arrest by the Romans.
But it’s just as bewildering that Paul was content in times of plenty. When he stayed with rich folks such as Philemon or Lydia, he didn’t envy them or think, “Jesus was poor. Don’t they know that?” When he moved on from their homes to less opulent situations he didn’t think, “I sure do miss all that great food and the beautiful home.” He was truly content with whatever he had.
Contrary to what we usually think, having plenty does not make us content. Instead, a taste of plenty makes us want a little more than what we’ve got. When offered an increase in salary, who among us would say, “No thanks. I’m content with what I have. I don’t need a thing.”
Self-indulgence grows when we give in to excess, often by spending money or eating certain foods. We repeatedly give in until that activity becomes a settled behavior and we’re unable to resist gratifying even the smallest whim. Giving in to small, seemingly benign, culturally acceptable temptations leads to enslavement. People of faith are not exempt; those in whom the Word of God has been sown may find that the “care of this word … and deceitfulness of riches” choke out the life of God in them (Matt. 13:22).
For example, I’ve always wondered how King David could commit adultery with Bathsheba and murder her husband when he lived such a faithful life overall; he was a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14). But while reading his whole story again recently, I saw that this evil didn’t come out of nowhere. For David’s entire adult life he practiced polygamy in violation of God’s law, marrying six wives and keeping numerous concubines (2 Sam. 5:13; 1 Chron. 3:1). Every time he took a wife or concubine, he gave into the enslavement of that inner voice: “I must have her.” Committing adultery (and having to cover it up) was the next logical step.
Self-indulgence is self-destructive. It destroys integrity one good intention at a time and eats away at the capacity to think about loving God and others. Self-indulgence invites us to be not only in the world as Jesus was, but also of the world with characters and habits that look just like everybody else’s (John 1:10; 9:5; 17:11; 1 John 2:15–16).
Disciplines of simplicity invite us to “lay aside every weight” that hinders us (Heb. 12:1). Sometimes those weights aren’t bad things. This was evident in Paul’s life. Before he burst forth that intentional, determined declaration, “I want to know Christ and the power of His resurrection” (Phil. 3:10), he first explained he had laid aside the helpful weights of his rich heritage — the fact that he was circumcised on the eighth day, a Hebrew of Hebrews and so on (Phil. 3:4–6). Formerly these blessings were a “profit” but he came to consider them a “loss.” Once he had cast them aside, he was ready for the treasure of knowing God.
If we choose to journey with God carrying unnecessary weights, God will let us do it. God does not force us to lay unnecessary burdens down. But transformation into Christlikeness is much more difficult when we’re encumbered by multiplicity of words, cluttered schedules, decathlon vacations or the cellphone surgically attached to our ear.
Disciplines of simplicity are powerful because they move us away from self-indulgence just for today: don’t buy this one thing; don’t sign up for one more activity; don’t mention this last accomplishment to anyone. Even when we practice these restraints only temporarily, they still train us not to grab what we want now.
In the midst of our discomfort during these little experiments, something beautiful happens within us: the enormous river barge of our life that’s flowing toward self-indulgence is turned around and begins to move upstream toward self-giving Christlikeness.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Taken from “Abundant Simplicity: Discovering the Unhurried Rhythms of Grace” by Jan Johnson. Copyright 2011 by Jan Johnson. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA. www.ivpress.com.