Simplicity: Freedom from Self-Enslavement
Writing my latest book Abundant Simplicity affected me in several ways. Besides finding the boldness to stop coloring my hair (I’d tried to do that 4 times previously), I saw how self-indulgence poisons our life. We drink little bits of it every day by giving into excess here and there, spending or eating a little too much. As we repeatedly surrender to our whims and desires, certain activities become settled behaviors and we are no longer able to resist gratification. Self-discipline, restraint or limiting ourselves in certain areas (e.g. in what we say, in use of credit cards) seems impossible. Advertising’s use of humor and sentimentality makes this deadly message of self-indulgence seem harmless - even funny or cute. Very easily we become the kind of people who do what it takes to have our way. This is what causes church squabbles, family disagreements and corporate implosions - wars of all kinds.
Such self-enslavement begins by giving into sin in small, seemingly benign or culturally acceptable temptations. King David’s downfall is an illustration of this gradual entrapment of self-indulgence. Haven’t you wondered how he could commit adultery with Bathsheba and murder her husband, his friend and loyal soldier, when he lived such an overall faithful life? After all, he was a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14)!
This evil didn’t come out of nowhere. For his entire adult life he practiced polygamy over and over in violation of God’s commandment, marrying six wives and keeping numerous concubines (2 Sam 5:13; 1 Chron 3:1). Every time he took a wife or concubine he indulged that inner voice a little more: I must have her! Committing adultery (and having to cover it up) was simply the next logical step.
I’m coming to realize that self-indulgence is self-destructive. It destroys integrity, obliterating one good intention at a time. It eats away at a capacity to think about loving God and others. The more I worked on the book, the more I wanted complete freedom from it.
Simplicity practices help us find this freedom by interrupting our habits of automatically doing whatever makes us happy, without regard to how it affects our character. These sometimes short-term interruptions make us aware of self-excused excesses: don’t buy anything for just this week; don’t sign up for one more activity for 6 months; don’t mention this last accomplishment to anyone; don’t check phone messages now because you can’t pay attention one more second to this long-winded person talking to you. To decide to set limits by checking phone messages only twice a day just for today teaches us to die to self by rejecting the urge to insist on doing whatever I want when I want to do it. Such decisions free us from self-indulgence and nurture us in selflessness, which is probably why pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James advised us to deny ourselves a little something each day. Then when our will is thwarted in major ways, we don’t become crabby or manipulative. We are free to respond in faithful, loving ways rather than getting people back or being filled with quiet resentment.
At the end of each chapter of Abundant Simplicity feel uncomfortable, something quite beautiful is happening within us: the enormous river barge of our life flowing toward self-indulgence is being turned around in a great river and will soon be moving upstream toward self-giving Christlikeness.
Grace and peace,
©Jan Johnson excerpted and adapted from chapter 2 of Abundant Simplicity.
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