Simplicity — 4

Monday, August 19

Read: Exodus 20:1-6

Consider: It may seem like a tangent, like we’re veering away from the main point. But we’re not swerving to the margins, we’re going to the heart—the essence—of our concern. In these weeks of considering the art of simple living, we’re going to spend a couple of days talking about one of the gravest sins addressed in the Bible. Now, hang in there with me. This won’t be guilt-inducing. It will be liberating.

I know we can’t really rank sins. We always want to, because we want to assure ourselves that we only participate in the minor ones—you know, a little gossip here, a short-term stinky attitude there. Nothing major. And even our larger sins are common ones, so we figure we’re no worse than anyone else.

Obviously, some sins are more grievous than others because of the resulting damage. So, don’t hear me being light-hearted about this. Sin has devastating consequences in our lives, our families and our world. But, because we can’t always understand intent and motive, we have a hard time ranking the sins.

Having said that, after decades of reading and studying the Bible, I have discovered a few things that seem to be especially offensive to God. If I were to judge them on the frequency with which they are mentioned, and the intensity of the words used by the prophets and by Jesus, a few things would rise to the top.

Jesus used his harshest words to denounce neglect of the vulnerable, and religious hypocrisy. (If you don’t believe me, read Matthew 23:13-33. Wow!) Of course, these sins are the very antithesis of Christ-like love—the essence of our calling. In the Old Testament, we see the same things expressed in different ways. Continually, Israel was called to care for the poor and oppressed, and the nation’s rulers and people were excoriated by the prophets when they neglected the vulnerable (particularly when they enriched themselves in the process).

But, there was a foundational sin that brought about these and all the other sins. Though using different words, Jesus and the prophets spoke clearly and forcefully about the sin of idolatry.

“Idolatry” is a word we don’t often use. But we sure know how insidious it is. The “idols” we create may not be the altars, sacred stones, Asherah poles and carved images described in Exodus, but our idol worship is just as devastating. It rips us away from all that God has for us and all that God wants to do in us and through us.

In today’s reading, God describes himself as “a jealous God” (20:5). That’s not the kind of jealousy that we experience. Ours is self-centered, insecure and pitiful. God’s “jealousy” is for us not to have our lives stolen from us while we’re bowing down to the wrong gods.

We’re going to see that simplicity breaks down the idols. And the destruction of our idols simplifies our lives.

Pray: “Lord, in the days to come, open my eyes so I can understand which idols are trying to seduce me—which gods are easy for me to worship. And help me today, and every day, to keep the most basic command of all, to have no other gods that stand beside or in front of you.”

 

Tuesday, August 20

Read: Exodus 34:10-14

Consider: The Bible doesn’t spell out a working definition of idolatry. That’s not the way our scriptures give us truth. We get it through story, image, metaphor and a vision of the God who came to us in the flesh—Jesus Christ. But since you and I are still influenced by The Enlightenment—the Age of Reason—we still think in systematic ways. So, my “definition” of idolatry is not taken from one particular verse or passage. It is simply my feeble attempt to describe what separates us from God.

I describe idolatry as looking to something or someone else to give me what God wants to give me. It may be security, peace, joy, significance or meaning. Those are things God wants for me. And God is able and willing to pour this grace into my life. But too often I look for those wonderful gifts from other sources.

Take, for example, significance. Have you ever, without realizing it, looked for increased self-esteem to give you a sense of significance? Again, without really examining it, you assumed that if you raised your self-esteem, you would have a sense of worthiness that would bring you real joy. (This was at the core of so much of the self-help literature of recent decades.) And how did we usually look for self-esteem in our culture? Well, we often looked for the approval and esteem of others, thinking that if they liked us more, we would like ourselves. Either that, or we looked for self-esteem and significance through accomplishment. Get that degree. Land the important job. Make a name for yourself in the community.

Crazy, isn’t it. We so easily make an idol out of how we are perceived by our culture. And, of course, our culture can never give us the sense of meaning and significance for which we were created.

That’s why God hates idolatry. He loves us beyond what we can comprehend, and he knows that false gods never deliver the goods. What is more, those idols steal from us what God is trying to give us.

We need to develop a healthy skepticism of the promises that pour into our consciousness every day from what scripture repeatedly refers to as “worthless idols.”

Pray: “Lord, the beauty of Christian simplicity is clearly seen when I compare it to the kind of lives we live when we’re chasing all the other gods. Thank you for loving me too much to give me over to those gods. Clarify my vision today, giving me eyes to see and ears to hear.”

                                     

Wednesday, August 21

Read: Matthew 6:19-24

Consider: Simplicity is not easy. Although we often use “simple” and “easy” as interchangeable words, following the path of Christian simplicity is not an easy thing, especially at the outset of the journey. It takes a reorientation of our thinking—what Paul called “the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2). And it also takes some concrete action (which we’ll look at in the days to come).

The reason simplicity of heart and life is so challenging is that the pull toward idolatry is so pervasive and so subtle. As we’ve seen over the past two days, simplicity and idolatry are constantly at odds with one another.

To get a handle on it, yesterday I shared my belief that idolatry can be described as looking to something or someone else to give me what God wants to give me. I’m always trying to put things into words—to define and describe. But Jesus—the master communicator (the Word)—used a simple image to liberate us from the pursuit of false gods. He said…

“No one can serve two masters.” (Matthew 6:24)

Jesus was speaking to people who knew what a master was. A slaveowner came to their minds. And if they weren’t envisioning a harshly treated slave who was captured from another country, they were thinking about a destitute man who was working (perhaps along with his whole family) to pay off his debt and stay out of prison. In other words, the master had full power over the servant or slave. So, it was evident that, of course, you couldn’t serve two masters.

And then Jesus opened their eyes…

“You cannot serve both God and money.” (6:24)

The master owned the slave. So, if you’re serving money—or any other idol—you are owned by it. You are owned by what you serve.

We keep coming back to why God hates idolatry—why he is “a jealous God” (Exodus 20:5). Like any one of us, he would hate to see his children enslaved.

Pray: “Lord, as idolatry is honored by our culture, help me to see through the deceit of the false gods. Thank you for calling us to something bigger and better than these lesser masters can ever give. I’m amazed by your love.”

 

Thursday, August 22

Read: Matthew 6:19-24

Consider: Jesus called us to have “eyes that see” and “ears that hear” (and we’ve prayed for that this week). In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explained why he repeatedly told us to keep our eyes open.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness.” (6:22-23)

These words are sandwiched between Jesus’ teaching on what to treasure and his statement on the absurdity of trying to serve two masters. As we saw yesterday, this was a warning against being owned by something or someone other than our Creator. And Jesus spoke of this duplicity—the giving of ourselves to competing masters—as living in darkness.

Have you ever had so many things running through your mind that you felt helpless to focus on one thing? I think we’ve all had that crazy experience of lying awake at night, unable to sleep because we couldn’t quiet our minds. Our brains were on overdrive, but we couldn’t think straight. The sheer volume and speed of our thoughts kept us from really thinking through the issues that were bothering us. So, eventually we fell asleep only to wake up exhausted, and no closer to the answers we needed.

Now, I’m not calling stress-induced insomnia a sign of sin. I’m just using this mental picture to illustrate a spiritual reality. I think that kind of cluttered mental state is a good picture of the spiritual darkness that can descend upon us. If our “eyes are unhealthy”—if our spiritual vision is cluttered with competing values—we can’t really see anything at all.

So, Jesus teaches us to follow one Master. He tells us to “treasure” what is eternal and to let go of things that have no real lasting value. He teaches us to simplify our desires, our values and our love. And he tells us that, in so doing, our life will be “full of light.”

This light is not a reward that is dangled in front of our eyes to get us to do the right things. No, it is not something we earn. It is simply the result of removing the clutter that blocks the light.

Pray: Ask the Lord to help you discern if there are things that may be blocking the light. Are there competing claims on your affection? Are certain desires taking mastery over you—owning you? Are you trying to go two directions at one time? The beautiful thing is, if we are willing to obey, the Holy Spirit will gently reveal these things to us. And the Lord will empower us to walk into new light with him.

 

Friday, August 23

Read: John 4:23-24

Consider: As we’ve considered idolatry this week, we’ve looked at it from a couple of perspectives. We’ve seen it as the act of looking for good things in all the wrong places. Remember, idolatry is looking to something or someone else to give us what God wants to give us. It is the delusion that security, peace, joy, significance or meaning can be found anywhere else. That produces false gods.

We’ve also seen it in Jesus’ image of a person attempting to “serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24). So, we don’t only have the issue of serving the wrong gods, but of serving too many gods. Masters are owners and God doesn’t want any person or thing to own us. He alone wants sovereignty over our lives, for he alone can be trusted because of his love for us.

But we haven’t looked at the main image of idolatry that is found throughout scripture—the image of worship. Idolatry is almost always described as worship. Sometimes it is the worship of “worthless idols” that are made by the hands of men. Sometimes it is the worship of God’s handiwork—worshipping the creation instead of the Creator.

So, as I have pursued the life of Christian simplicity, one of the things I’ve learned is the necessity of simplicity of worship.

Over the years, I’ve read about worship, thought about worship, gone to worship seminars, discussed worship with friends and co-workers, taught and preached on worship, and, oh yes, worshipped. And what I keep discovering is that worship has a whole lot to do with affection. The object of my true worship is also the object of my affection. What do we worship? We worship what we love the most.

Keeping that in mind gives us a purity and simplicity of worship that honors the God to whom we bow. We don’t perform worship to appease God or beg him for favors. That would be idolatry. We simply love God, which is what we do when we worship him “in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:23-24).

This Sunday when you gather with the Body of Christ to worship the Father, keep it simple. Don’t worry about the kind of music you’ll hear or sing. Don’t look for an emotional experience. Don’t judge worship based on your preferences. Don’t worry about the “quality” of worship (this is, don’t worship the act of worship). Just love God. Bask in his love for you and your affection for him. Then do that in your time of private worship—your time alone with God. Then learn to do it every moment of every day.

Pray: “Lord, take me deeper. I want my life to be filled with acts of love and affection for you and for all who are made in your image. That is the worship you desire, and it is the worship I will to offer to you.”

 

Saturday, August 24

Read: James 4:7-8

Consider: The word “integrity” shares its Latin origin with the word, integer—a whole number. “Duplicity” is from the Latin word, duplicitās—being double. In other words, we use the concept of “one” to describe honesty and all that is good, while the concept of “two” is what we use to describe deception and corruption (as in being two-faced).

Duplicity is what James was talking about when he wrote, “purify your hearts, you double-minded” (4:8). In the Greek language in which James wrote his letter, the term “double-minded” can also be translated “two-souled.”

I share these fascinating words for a reason. For me, the concept of simplicity is increasingly associated with “oneness” and integrity. And I’m starting to see the clutter of the soul—the opposite of simplicity—as duplicity.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not judging anyone, nor am I disparaging myself. I’m not saying that, until we reach a certain level of simplicity, we’re being deceitful or dishonest. We’re all on a journey. We’re all learning. I have so much simplifying yet to do. I’m a novice.

What I am saying is that simplicity of heart and mind empowers us to live integrated lives—lives of integrity. Simple living has a way of purifying our motives, our desires and our joy. We’re free to love without calculating what we can get in return.

Soul clutter does the opposite. When I’m double-minded—or two-souled—my priorities are distorted. I am worried about things that don’t really matter, which makes me defensive and protective of the wrong things. I can begin to value what is cheap and de-value what is precious (Matthew 6:19-20).

In recent years, I’ve tried to learn from one of the great teachers of Christian simplicity, Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). His beliefs have been summarized in various ways. The one that resonates with me is that Francis approached life as one who was naked, little and poor.

Naked — nothing to hide

Little — nothing to prove

Poor — nothing to lose

To me, that’s the life of simplicity, integrity and freedom—a single-minded pursuit of God.

Pray:“Lord, I present my heart to you for your purification. Deliver me from double-mindedness and grant me a single soul with single-minded love for you.”