Simple Living: Toward God’s Great Shalom

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Maybe you’re thinking of your hippie neighbor who’s relentless about recycling and saving water.

I’d like to hazard a guess right here and now that the majority of you who have read the title to this article have already formed some pretty vivid impressions about what “simple living” means. It’s fair to say that for many it suggests some kind of bucolic scene, perhaps a bygone era not fit for the myriad challenges of the present day.

Maybe in your mind’s eye you see a family of homesteaders, Laura Ingalls Wilder style, feeding the woodstove so they can prepare a dinner from food planted, tended, and harvested by their own hands. There they are, gathered by the fire after dinner, piecework in their laps, a hushed silence descending as they mend, knit, and sew. Or maybe you’re thinking of your hippie neighbor who’s relentless about recycling and saving water and riding her bike and who sells the eggs produced by her backyard hens. There are many riffs on this theme, but I’m betting that “simple living” makes you think about a lifestyle that’s different from yours.

This is no cause for alarm, but it is cause for thought. You see, I’m convinced that living simply is the only way of living that leads to the kind of shalom most of us are so keenly seeking. For Christians, the injunction to live simply begins with the Scriptures, where God’s intent for our lives is woven through stories, letters, visions, and admonishments. Many writers have helped us think through the biblical requirements for us to tend and care for the whole of God’s creation (see “For Further Reading” for just a few of them).

So what does “living simply” entail? Here’s one phrase people have used to define simple living: I choose to live simply so that others might simply live. It sounds helpful, but what does that really mean? I believe that negotiating a fuller description of what belongs under the banner of simple living requires us to recognize this starting point: In North America, we’re part of a system of wealth creation and retention—consumer capitalism—that inherently degrades our own humanity as well as the humanity of other people, creatures, and environments around the world. Speaking coherently about what simple living entails means acknowledging our participation in this economic system and allowing it to alter our way of life.

Making these connections for ourselves and for one another is the most vital key to unlocking the puzzle of simple living. Until we’re willing to admit that our fraught, consumptive lifestyles are degrading life for other people all over the world, until we know it with our minds and feel it with our hearts, we will not care enough to change.

Where do we start? Let’s begin with where we find ourselves right here and now, living in a time and place that places great expectations on us every single day. We’re supposed to be wonderful bosses and coworkers, parents, friends, cooks, wives, children, neighbors, cleaners, party hosts, Facebook friends, and Tweeters. In short, society asks us to live disintegrated lives. Simple living, on the other hand, calls us toward integration and the call for shalom that is at the heart of God’s Word.

What’s for Dinner?

Simple living affects each and every corner of our lives. But to help us think more clearly and concisely about making the kinds of connections we need to make between our lifestyles and the creation, I want to place one particular aspect of our lives under the “simple living microscope.” We’re going to engage in a bit of careful thinking about dinner. That’s right—we’re going to consider the implications of putting dinner on the table.

That’s one of the more mundane aspects of our daily existence and therefore one we usually don’t endow with much consideration. But there are all sorts of ways of putting dinner on the table that can diminish the lives of other people and of the creation as a whole. We must become good at asking difficult, time-consuming questions about our food and about our habits of eating.

Let’s start by recognizing that the way we eat does affect the lives of other people. When, for example, we eat out of season, we are participating in the system of energy-intensive transportation that’s necessary to ship food from far away so we can eat what we want when we want it. When we shop with only price as our bottom line, buying foods simply because they are cheap, we’re ignoring the hidden costs that allow for such savings. The reason it’s cheaper to buy industrially produced foods from large manufacturers is precisely because they participate in practices that degrade the creation. If we want to be part of a food economy that does not diminish either people or the environment, we must be prepared to pay the real price. That requires an almost complete paradigm shift. For decades North Americans have seen the average household food expenditure as a percentage of all other expenditures fall lower and lower. When you find green beans at the grocery store for under a dollar a pound, you can safely assume that there’s a sinister reason for this, a reason that diminishes some other person and some other place.

But there’s good news too. There are ways we can experience God’s healing embrace for ourselves and for the whole of the creation as we gather food and prepare and consume it. It’s my belief that food we have prepared ourselves over time, food we have sourced responsibly and carefully, food that we share with our neighbors and friends connects us in some quietly profound ways with God.

Here’s how that might look. Perhaps one night a week you could choose to eat simply—say, beans and rice. With this act you stand in solidarity with those around the world whose only sustenance is beans and rice; it connects you to God’s people. Perhaps you could choose to eat meat for dinner only half the time, knowing that it takes more resources (animal feed and water) to grow meat than it does grains and vegetables. As a result, you will be more grateful for the meat you do eat. Or maybe you could plant just one of the foods you like to eat—say, kale or basil—and feel deeply connected to God as you tend, harvest, and eat that bounty. It’s also possible that none of these suggestions is right for you in your endeavor to live more simply. That’s part of the glorious diversity in God’s creation. If we ask the Lord to show us how to live more simply, he’ll do so.

Ultimately, I hope that we can see simple living as an invitation, not as a burden or a fad, not something only for the rurally inclined. The invitation to us today is to go back to those first thoughts we had about what simple living looks like and try, with grace for ourselves, to image our lives lived more simply for the glory of God—and then to begin.

For Further Reading

Steven Bouma-Prediger, For the Beauty of the Earth, Baker, 2001.
Doris Janzen Longacre, Living More with Less, 30th ed., Herald Press, 2010.
Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed., Fortress Press, 2001.

About the Author

Helen Aupperlee and her family live in Grand Rapids, Mich., where they work, grow vegetables, eat with neighbors and friends, and try to live more simple lives.

See comments (5)


I should start by saying I appreciate, and in life tend toward, so-called "simple living." I'd rather stay home than travel (plus it costs less), I love working in my backyard and our neighborhood's park (I'm the primary volunteer caretaker), we have a huge garden from which we get a lot of our food, we compost our leaves and grass, we have chickens that lay eggs (well, until someone 'turned us in' so now we need to get the county law changed), and my clothing choices are probably objectionably simple  to many.

Still, I don't understand why this article title equates "simple living" with "God's Great Shalom."  Huh?  I've often said that if everyone lived like me, there would be a lot of people out of jobs, and so I appreciate those who make up for my lack of buying stuff. Why? When fewer and fewer people in a particular society are required to provide the truly necessary goods and services, either lots and lots of people will be jobless or those people will become part of the "economic circle" by producing goods and services that are NOT "truly necessary" (e.g., restaurants, meat [although I think that's necessary], toys, movies, entertainment, beer, etc etc etc etc etc). Given that choice, I would prefer that society not choose to live so simply that half the population must be jobless.

I suppose a rebuttal to my above might be that a few people just shouldn't be so efficient at producing the truly necessary goods and services so that that food, clothing, housing, etc., might be literally produced LESS efficiently, thereby producing higher employment rates.  Well, OK, but that approach takes more natural resources in many respects. It means having city populations decentralized to a large extent and spread out to the country, which is quite the opposite that many natural resource conscious experts wants.  Inefficiency is inefficiency, and in the long run, inefficiency consumes more natural resources per capita.

There is a streak within the CRC that promotes this "simple living" theme.  Indeed, its one of the somewhat predictable left-of-center themes promoted by our Office for Social Justice.  The problem is that if simple living, while a valid choice, is adopted in a wide spread way, it would in fact create more problems than it would solve.  It would create unemployment, reduce tax revenues, negatively impact the "poor" (fewer taxes = fewer benefits) and caused death for millions or billions on a global scale (can you imagine the greater degree of poverty in India, China, etc, if those evil consumeristic Americans didn't buy their stuff?).  Certainly, this article won't appear on the internet, because the internet is a quintessential result of "complex living," as are higher efficiency cars (even cars), food surpluses, greater quantities of energy production, colleges (Calvin, Dordt, etc), medical care, aircraft that allows grandparents to visit their kids and grandkids, cell phones (or just telephones), etc.  (Yes, this list could go on a really long time). 

The Amish have certainly adopted a life style that seems to work for them, but one really has to wonder whether that life style could be lived in a modern, highly populated world, if the Amish weren't surrounded by a national population that didn't adhere to the Amish lifestyle.  I've bought Amish furniture and wood baseball bats (yes, they produce them for Akadema).  Indeed, the Amish sell lots and lots of Amish-specialty products to a the same society they condemn.  And they benefit, largely without paying for it, from "English" police, medicine, national defense, etc. Today's "simple living" advocates are really not so differerent.  It can be done but only if not adopted in a wide spread way.  Certainly, it isn't appropriate to designate it, as this article does, secret pathway to "God's Shalom."  In some ways, its actually a bit selfish.

To be just a be more on the contrary side of things, if there is one population group that "simple living" should be taught to, it would be that population group that seems content to live on little but lots of free time because the economic aspects of their lives are subsudized by money from others, via subsidized housing, food stamps and other government assistance.  The national food stamp program is often disparaged as providing too little food to live on.  At the same time, I just have to shake my head when folks in front of me whip out their Oregon Trail Card (the foodstamps debit card in my state) to predominantly buy chips, pop, and processed food.  A number of problems could be solved if foodstamp recipients learned -- or were taught -- how to buy much less expensive, unprocessed food ingredients to prepare better tasting food that was better for them.  So why doesn't the CRCNA start food education programs for those with low food budgets instead of lobby against any congressional bill that does something other than again rachet up the food stamp budget?  Certainly, the current system isn't effective: government taxers people, spends 50% of the revenue before finally giving the other 50% to people who then persistently use those funds to buy highly processed (inefficient and unhealthy) food products.  Perhaps simple living advocates should start programs that educated food stamp recipients so that they make their revenue stretch, make better food for them family, and learn living skills.

The devil is in the details. If we live simply and stop buying Chinese and Indian manufactured products then how will those two billion people simply live? On the edge of starvation as in their last 1000 years? 

"The reason it’s cheaper to buy industrially produced foods from large manufacturers is precisely because they participate in practices that degrade the creation... When you find green beans at the grocery store for under a dollar a pound, you can safely assume that there’s a sinister reason for this, a reason that diminishes some other person and some other place."

I am getting so tired of these holier than thou's callously throwing around their ignorant insults.  In addition to the sheer absurdity of this premise as pointed out in DVD's earlier comment, quotes like the example above ooze contempt for those of us who make our living in industrialized agriculture by providing hundreds of millions of people with healthy, safe food each and every day.  By the way, those of us in Ag form a huge portion, if not a majority of this denomination, and the money generated by us has built and maintains many of our institutions.  Our money also subsidizes this magazine.  Perhaps in the interest of saving the planet we ought to stop printing it.

I'm all for simple living (it was called being Dutch thing before it became a fad), but please stop promoting your lifestyle in a way that "diminish[es] the lives of other people".

Holier than thou is probably the best way to describe it. The author makes a bold assertion  'In North America, we’re part of a system of wealth creation and retention—consumer capitalism—that inherently degrades our own humanity as well as the humanity of other people, creatures, and environments around the world." and doesn't even seem to feel that that is worth supporting as though she assumes everyone reading The Banner automatically believes this, arguably extreme, left-of-center view and it is the premise that the rest of her article rest on.

Helen, thank you for this thoughtful article that challenges each of us to consider our deeply personal role in restoring creation and most importantly, to ponder how we can "love our neighbor" through our actions, not just words. Each day, we are presented with a myriad of choices in which we can choose to heal or harm this broken world. I'm not saying there is a "right" or "wrong" choice, simply stating that our actions and choices DO matter. There is no perfect universal choice for every situation, but awareness and thoughfulness can reveal to us ways we can show love to others, instead of exploiting others.  Until we face the uncomfortable truth that we are responsible for how our actions effect others, we will not be willing to change and put off our selfish nature. We are not perfect and never will be.  Thankfully, we have a loving, compassionate God who is full of grace and forgiveness, who will gently guide and direct our efforts.  Thank you for encouraging us to "consume with care".