(Check out other articles in the Silly Things Christians Say series.)
Rethinking “God Will Provide”
When it comes to preaching on money in the Church, we usually talk about being "good stewards" by getting out of debt and of course giving money to the church. Of course, neither of these are bad, but I think there is one passage that is either ignored or quickly glossed over in most situations. In Matthew 6 we have a portion of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus speaks his famous words,
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:25-34)
Jesus is clear: do not worry about these things, because God has provided and will continue to do so.
So many of us love to stop right there, though, because that’s easy. Rather than letting these verses challenge our relationship to our consumption, we assume that the standard of living we have come to expect need not be changed. We walk away with a generic, shallow, and bland spiritual platitude that has no more depth than a Bob Marley song - “Don’t worry about a thing, cause every little thing is gonna be alright.”
When Jesus said not to worry about food or drink or clothes or even their lives, he was speaking to a crowd of people who literally had to worry about not having these things. I think many of us need to shift our focus from the command not to worry and the reassurance that God will provide and ask ourselves what it means for God to provide in the first place.
What does it mean that God will provide? To learn this, we may need to stop money on new clothes - many of which are made by laborers under abusive conditions - and start shopping at Goodwill. And that is God providing. We may need to forego spending a thousand dollars on the latest iPhone for the used hand-me-down that is three or four generations old. And that is God providing. Rather than a $12,000 car that’s 3 years old, we might have to buy one that’s $1200 and 13 years old. And that is God providing. We might have to give up the 1500 square feet in St. John or Bedford for 500 in Lansing or Manchester (I’ve lived in New Hampshire and Illinois, but feel free to substitute your own “rich” and “poor” towns). And that is God providing. We can even come to know God’s provision when we have to go to the food pantry to make ends meet.
Jesus is calling us to have our bank statements be as much of a witness to the Kingdom as our sermons. (Click to share on Twitter)
We might need to do all of this because we can't afford better. However, we might not need to do any of it, because we have more than enough to live the life we want. But in another very real sense, we can and must choose to make decisions like these to be able to be generous with our funds in the service of God. Because if we are to be part of the Church, we must be generous; and it is not truly the kind of generosity God desires unless it costs you something.
Generosity over Greed
When we handle our money the way Jesus taught, we do not only witness to God’s provision; we also witness to his generosity. The point of the radically counter-cultural teachings on possessions that we find in the New Testament is not asceticism - denying oneself pleasure and earthly goods to earn God’s favor or because they are inherently bad. Rather, it is to free us from the hold that these things have on our lives and empower us to be no longer self-centered, but others-centered when it comes to the way we use our resources. Martin Luther defined “sin” as a soul incurvatus in se - curved in on itself. Well, I think a sinful handling of money looks like a wallet curved in on itself.
Jesus is calling us to have our bank statements be as much of a witness to the Kingdom as our sermons. In many ways, our spending can preach louder than our words as we literally put our money where our mouth is.
Martin Luther defined “sin” as a soul incurvatus in se - curved in on itself. Well, I think a sinful handling of money looks like a wallet curved in on itself. (Click to share on Twitter)
The fact is that “God will provide” often means “God will provide through us.” Using the examples above, you might have enough money to provide all of those things - but what if you chose to shop at Goodwill to give some nice clothes to others? Or if you chose to go to the food pantry to give another family grocery money? Or if you’ve already got the nice house, what if you shared a spare room for free with a person in need?
I have found that the very best way to witness to God’s provision (and to rethink what that means altogether) and cooperate with God’s generous heart is by reorienting my view on possessions to become more and more of a minimalist.
Minimalism over Extravagance
Minimalism - the “new” hipster trend. The commitment to reducing the number of possessions to live the most simple and full life possible has gained a lot of momentum recently. The most recognizable faces of this movement are Josh Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus - “The Minimalists.” Their documentary, book, and podcast have taken on American consumerism and materialistic greed and, against all odds, scored a major victory.
When I first saw their film Minimalism: A Documentary, I was surprised that so many of the converts to this movement came not from poor backgrounds in which they had to struggle to make ends meet, but from wealthy - sometimes extravagantly wealthy - situations. I thought Minimalism would be about a way to live life fully with a shortage of income, yet so many of the interviews were with people who had stories similar to Josh and Ryan, who write, “Nearly a decade ago, while approaching age 30, we had achieved everything that was supposed to make us happy: six-figure careers, luxury cars, oversized houses, and all the stuff to clutter every corner of our consumer-driven lives.” Yet, in spite of all this, they found themselves left with “a lingering discontent.”
This discontent with all the fittings of the American Dream was the one common thread that ran through every single interview. It’s actually the one thing that stood out to me most about the film. The Minimalists continue, “And yet with all that stuff, we weren’t satisfied. There was a gaping void, and working 80 hours a week just to buy more stuff didn’t fill the void. It only brought more debt, stress, anxiety, fear, loneliness, guilt, overwhelm, depression.”
The dramatic and revolutionary idea of minimalism is to make a total priorities pivot regarding our view of “stuff.” The Minimalists explain it well,
At first glance, people might think the point of minimalism is only to get rid of material possessions. But that’s a mistake. True, removing the excess is an important part of the recipe—but it’s just one ingredient. If we’re concerned solely with the stuff, though, we’re missing the larger point.
Minimalists don’t focus on having less. We focus on making room for more: more time, more passion, more creativity, more experiences, more contribution, more contentment, more freedom. Clearing the clutter from life’s path helps make that room.
Minimalism is the thing that gets us past the things so we can make room for life’s important things—which aren’t things at all.
How is it that so many people who do not consider themselves part of the Church are taking hold of this truth while so many evangelicals in the United States are still playing by the worn out rules of consumerism? How are people “in the world” coming closer to the heart of Jesus’ teachings on money and possessions while many Christians here are still literally buying into the view that more wealth and material comforts are always God’s blessings? (Maybe we need to rethink our assumption that the world is “ignorant” to God’s built-in patterns of the universe.)
I would even go so far as to say that this commitment can be more (trans)formative than daily Bible reading or "quiet time" - since it is actually living out Scripture.
Christian Minimalism versus "Secular" Minimalism
But there is one major difference between Christian minimalism and secular minimalism: Christian minimalism is both a crucial witness to the Kingdom of God and a profoundly transformative spiritual practice. How is reducing possessions and financial entanglements a spiritual practice? Because “where your treasure is,” Jesus said, “your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:22) I would even go so far as to say that this commitment is more spiritually (trans)formative than daily Bible reading or quiet times - since it is actually living out Scripture.
Secular minimalism is about pivoting our priorities to reduce clutter and stress, to live our fullest life, and to “make room for more.” Christian minimalism embraces all of these, but redefines what they mean by centering our priority not on self, but on Christ, his Kingdom, and his Body. Christian minimalism is about giving, “for it is in giving that we receive.” It is about sacrificially taking up the Cross, “for if you try to hang onto your life, you will lose it.” (Matthew 16:25, NLT)
Christian minimalism is not asceticism, which often looks like self-denial for its own sake, many times to earn God’s favor. Instead, in its fullest form it embraces the perspective of New Monastics like Shane Claiborne, whose book The Irresistible Revolution about his intentional community, The Simple Way, left a permanent impact on my faith when I read it at 16. Shane lives in an intentional community in a poor part of Philadelphia. Some of them make their own clothes, they grow as much of their own food as possible, and they share a common purse, making money available so that there is enough to supply the needs for each one. They all contribute in various ways, and they are relentlessly committed to being a presence of peace among a community that so desperately needs it.
What makes Christian minimalists like Claiborne “irresponsible” to us might say more about our own hearts than the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. (Click to share on Twitter)
While Claiborne’s particular form of minimalism is beautiful and inspiring, it is also extreme. It can be easy to write off this man in baggy, hand-sewn shirts and pants with a bandana covering his dreadlocks as just an extremist. Indeed, Claiborne himself identifies as an extremist, citing Martin Luther King’s famous quote on being “extremists for love and justice.” It is ironic that his radically counter-cultural way of life has led him to become an internationally known and highly regarded speaker while simultaneously making it easier and easier to dismiss his way of life as unrealistic or even irresponsible.
But what do we mean when we say irresponsible? What are the cultural values and narratives we have embraced that make it so easy for us to marginalize the way of life that Claiborne and so many other monastics - new and old - have chosen? The truth is that this form of Christian minimalism reaches closer to the heart of the gospel and the practices of the early Church in Acts than the gospel of prosperity, preservation, and self-sufficiency that we all too often accept without any qualifications. What makes Christian minimalists like Claiborne “irresponsible” to us might say more about our own hearts than the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ.