In his break-out comedy film, The Jerk, Steve Martin plays Navin R. Johnson who stumbles into fortune and fame through his invention of the Opti-grab, a combination handle and nose-brace for eyeglasses that makes them easier to put on and remove. He is eventually sued because the Opti-grab makes its wearers cross-eyed. And just as quickly as he gained his fortune, he loses it.
Navin Johnson leaves his mansion a broken man, desperately clinging to the remnants of his wealth, grabbing bits of stuff, and proudly declaring, "I don't need anything... except this ashtray. All I need is this ashtray. That's all I need... And this chair. All I need is this chair and this ashtray. That's all I need. And this..."
If, like Navin, you lost everything, what would you grab on the way out? How would you fill in the blank: "All I need is ________"?
The film raises an important question: If you shave away all the extras in your life, what do you truly need in order to live a peaceful and contented life?
When viewed from this perspective we may find we need a lot less than we think.
We all know that it is possible to amass lots of material possessions and still be empty. Simply watch an episode of VH1's popular Behind the Music series which chronicles the rise and fall of many popular musicians. A running theme is that material possessions don't necessarily bring happiness. Or look at the waning years of billionaire Howard Hughes. Or watch an episode of Hoarders. If personal peace and contentment could be attained through the accumulation of wealth, these examples would not exist. And yet the illusion persists in our culture, perpetuated by the bombardment of endless advertisements that attempt to convince us of our inferiority if we fail to keep up with the Joneses.
But there is a better way.
And that way is repeatedly proclaimed throughout the ancient book of Proverbs - a collection of Hebrew wisdom sayings that shed light on ways to practically apply the truths of God in the routines of daily living.
Each one of the simplicity proverbs are "better than" proverbs. They draw a comparison between two ways to live. One way is markedly inferior and the alternative - the better way - is, well, better. (Superior would be saying too much.)
The simplicity proverbs clearly point to a better way. In order to recognize the better way, we must think carefully about our current way of living. In order to keep from pride, we must recognize that the better way is not always the "best" way. It is simply better. Wisdom does not conclude that there is only one "best" option, but rather, that there are markedly better ways to live. We must discern, not what is best, but what we truly need. And then choose to live peaceful and godly lives of contentment, not simply for ourselves, but for the well-being of our neighbor.
The Simplicity Proverbs
No matter what our lot in life, we all have dreams of a better life - and this sometimes hinders our ability to enjoy our present blessings. We imagine the family down the street (or further away in the better neighborhood) and assume that life must be better for those with more material possessions. But without condemning material possessions, Proverbs 15:16-17 and 17:1 expose this for the illusion that it is:
Better is a little with the fear of the Lord
than great treasure and trouble with it. (15:16)
Better is a dinner of vegetables where love is
than a fatted ox and hatred with it. (15:17)
Better is a dry morsel with quiet
than a house full of feasting with strife. (17:1)
In these proverbs, two extremes are contrasted - that between humble poverty and pampered luxury: A few sparse possessions are set over against great riches (15:6) and a simple meal is set over against luxurious provisions (15:17; 17:1).
Without condemning material possessions, these proverbs reveal that having more is not necessarily better than having less. Sometimes less is more. Especially when the "more" lacks priceless items like "the fear of the Lord" (16), "love" (17), and "peace and quiet" (18).
The "fear of the Lord" is a major theme in Proverbs (and in the Bible, for that matter). "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom" (Proverbs 1:7; 9:10). There is no wisdom without reference to one's relationship with God. And that relationship is not one between equals (God is God and you are not) but between covenant partners. Since God is God and we are God's creatures who've entered into covenant with God by God's grace, we are to live all of our lives in the presence of God - thanking, praising, and following God's will. The result should be "love" and "peace" with our neighbor.
One could summarize these three proverbs in this way: A simple meal that is eaten in peace with people you love and that love you is to be preferred over a luxurious meal that is accompanied with conflict, hatred, and strife. Without God, the goods of this world may become disordered. They may become more important than they should be - more important than people. But love and gratitude sweetens our meals, no matter how simple they are. Love is a much better seasoning than hate. The greatest meal of all - the Lord's Supper - is not an elaborate meal of fine delicacies but a simple meal of bread and wine shared among friends and in the presence of incarnate love.
A second batch of simplicity proverbs highlights the value of integrity:
Better is a little with righteousness
than large income with injustice. (Proverbs 16:8)
Better to be poor and walk in integrity
than to be crooked in one's ways even though rich. (Proverbs 28:6)
Clearly, preserving one's integrity is more important than amassing one's possessions. Obeying God's commands to do justice to others may require one to lead a very simple life. A just person may only own a little, but that is to be preferred to the wealth of those who profit from injustice and oppression. It is important to note: The proverbs do not condemn wealth and riches. Instead they argue that wealth and riches must not take priority in one's life. Justice matters more than wealth.
Taken as a whole, these proverbs demonstrate what is at the heart of the good life - what it is that we truly need in life. If we desire to walk in wisdom, we must reflect upon their significance to us in the modern world.
One dominant narrative of modern culture is "More is better." The good life is often defined by how full, busy, and complicated our lives are. One could simplistically define modern life as the incessant need to always be adding one more thing to our lives as we strive to have it all, surrounded by the constant bombardment of advertisements to create and fuel our desires into dissatisfied frenzy. The end result is that we are possessed by our possessions: "The more we have, the more we want; and the more we want, the more we are possessed by our possessions."
In our secular culture, success is often defined by secular goals. The successful are those who have accumulated the most wealth and therefore are the most affluent, comfortable, and secure. When we allow this to be the measure of our success, we are increasingly dissatisfied with what we own, have, and have achieved. It is tragic when our minds are preoccupied more with what we don't have, than on what we do.
But the simplicity proverbs offer ancient wisdom: More is not always better. More is sometimes simply more and nothing else. More stuff does not necessarily translate into more love, peace, contentment, or gratitude. Therefore treasures, riches, and wealth should not be solely defined in material categories. The treasures of knowing God in Christ, the riches of loving others, and the wealth of gratitude that wells in our hearts are all - as the MasterCard commercial tries to convey - priceless. As long as I have my faith I have a great treasure. As long as I love others, my life is enriched. As long as I remember God is the giver of all good gifts, both great and small, I possess great wealth. You can be rich without money! And you can have money and not be rich in that which matters most.
More is not always better. And better is sometimes less. Anthony de Mello tells a story that communicates this well. It is called The Story of the Contented Fisherman:
The rich industrialist from the North was horrified to find the Southern fisherman lying lazily beside his boat, smoking a pipe.
"Why aren't you out fishing?" said the industrialist.
"Because I have caught enough fish for the day," said the fisherman.
"Why don't you catch more?"
"What would I do with it?"
"You can earn more money" was the reply. "With that you can have a motor fixed to your boat and go into deeper waters and catch more fish. Then you would make enough to buy nylon nets. These would bring you more fish and more money. Soon you would have enough money to own two boats... maybe even a fleet of boats. Then you would be a rich man like me."
"What would I do then?"
"Then you can really enjoy life."
"What do you think I'm doing right now?"
More is not always better. And better is sometimes less. How has the "more is better" mentality shaped you? When have you downsized? What was it like for you? If you don't learn the discipline of simplicity now, you will most likely have to one day. As in most things, aging forces us to face spiritual issues we may have neglected at a younger age. Aging demands that we simplify our possessions, learn to let go, and hold on to what really matters.
The One Time More is Always Better
More is not always better (less is more). And better is sometimes less (more is less). But sometimes more is always better (more is more). In Paul's very first epistle to a church, he recognizes that the believers in Thessalonica "love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia" (1 Thessalonians 4:10a). Paul recognizes that this is evidence that they are listening to the voice of God (4:9). But he does not settle for this. He continues, "But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more" (4:10b).
How are they to practically do this? By aspiring to live a simple life! Paul continues: "Aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one" (4:11-12). Everyone has ambition (here translated "aspire"). The ironic twist Paul places on ambition is that he says, "Make it your ambition to live a quiet, simple life. How is one to be ambitious but at the same time to seek a quiet life? Our culture has a hard time processing this. But Paul sees this focus on "the simple life" as a better way.
This ambition is not only good for its practitioners, but also for the welfare of others. The goal of Paul's command for self-sufficiency is that believers may "behave properly toward outsiders" (4:12). That is, that believers may learn to be generous to others. We strive to be self-sufficient, not only for our own welfare, but also to express love to others. One of the ways we do this is by giving. The Beatles were right: We can't buy love. But money can express love.
Mother Theresa once said, "Live simply, that others may simply live." Living simply is not only good for the soul, but it is good for the world. It touches on social issues of equity, conservation, and justice. Those of us who are wealthy have obligations to the poor. One of the fruits of living simply is a conscious commitment to helping the poor. When we find our greatest wealth in our relationship with God, we no longer need to make every effort to protect ourselves from being vulnerable through amassing possessions. "A conscious commitment to trusting in God will almost always lead to a life of greater simplicity."
Remember Navin Johnson. Broken and desperate he loses everything. Unable to see beyond his possessions, he clings to fragments of his lost wealth, saying "All I need is..." Its often in times of crisis that we discover our true needs - what really matters - because we often don't know what riches we truly possess until they are gone. In Navin's time of crisis, he could not see beyond a few petty items. But for most of us, the time of crisis has not yet come.
Will you choose the wide path of being caught up in the spiraling cycle of satisfying our insatiable desires? Or will you choose the better way of simple faith, love, and gratitude? Will you stumble through life, grasping at all the stuff? Or will you walk purposefully through life, seeking those things which are priceless?
If you shave away all the extras in our lives, what do you truly need in order to live a peaceful and contented life?
And as you answer these questions, don't forget Jesus' haunting words based on the simplicity proverbs, "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?" (Matthew 16:26)
Don't make the mistake of getting everything you want but nothing you really need!
 Unlike moderns, ancient Israelites rarely ate meat. Livestock was more important for work, wool, and milk than for meat. To kill one's livestock was unthrifty, and thus, it was only done for good reasons. The most common reason was the act of sacrificing livestock to God as an act of worship, often followed by eating the sacrificed animal together as a family.
 Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning (New York: Bantam Books, 1992), 33.
 Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird (New York: Image Books, 1982), 132-133.
 John D. Roth.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2010