Less Is More

Matthew 6:19-21, 25, 33
19“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; 20but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
25“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
33But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Barry Schwartz, professor of psychology at Swarthmore College, says in his book The Paradox of Choice that the official dogma of our culture is that the more choice people have the more freedom people have and the more freedom people have the more welfare they have. This is what we have always believed about choice, freedom and happiness.

Here are some examples. Go to your supermarket. 75 dressings not to mention the olive oil and vinegars available and all the options you have.
At work, we are blessed to work from anywhere. Our cellphone, our iPad, our laptop are always with us and available. At our child’s soccer game or football game we are constantly bombarded with the choice of “should I respond to this email, phone call, etc. Even if the answer is “no”, it makes the experience of the child’s ball game very different for us.

All of these choices have two effects on us.

First, paradoxically, all these choices produce more paralysis rather than freedom. With so many options and choices in life, we find it hard to choose at all. Here is an example: A study was done on investments in voluntary retirement plans for Vanguard. They studied 2000 workplaces and found that for every 10 retirement funds they offered rate of participation went down 2%. Offer 50 funds, 10% fewer participants. It was too hard to decide so they put it off! Even if we choose, we are less satisfied than if we had fewer choices because we always wonder if we made the right choice and regret enters in wondering what difference would be if we made another choice!!

Secondly, all these choices in life cause our expectations to be escalated through the roof! Any middle age man who has had to go shopping for a pair of blue jeans will find the person at the store ask, “Do you want straight cut, boot cut, relaxed fit, stone washed, slim fit, button fly, acid wash, tapered?” To which the middle age man replies, “I want the kind that used to be the only kind.” Spend an hour trying on jeans and ultimately you find a great pair of jeans. Truth be told, with all these choices you find the best pair of jean you’ve ever bought. All the choices allow for a better outcome and do better. But you feel worse. Why?

We feel worse because with all these options available our expectations go up. All the options in life can’t help but raise our expectations! This means less satisfaction with results even when they are good results!

With perfection the expectation for us all, you merely hope things will be as good as you hope. We are never pleasantly surprised because we expect perfection.  With all this information, Barry Schwartz gives us the secret of happiness…
The secret to happiness is…low expectations.

Truly the secret to happiness is realistic and modest expectations. There is nothing wrong with hoping tomorrow will be better than today, but we have given up on that and gone straight to the expectation of perfection.  We have this naïve notion to think we are not slaves to comparison – we are always comparing ourselves to others and how we did yesterday and how we hoped to do.  It is true that some choice is better than none, but it doesn’t follow that more choice is better than some.

The anxiety and worry in our lives about so many things and so many expectations, leads to paralysis and disappointment. We are afraid, we are stuck, and we are unhappy so often in this life. There is no peace when our lives are out of control. We live in fear of simplicity. We fear simplicity because we are creatures of comparison who measure our worth on what we have and where we stand in comparison to those around us. But here is the paradox Jesus presents to us. It is in simplicity that we find freedom. It is in less that we find the answers to our out of control lives.

Jesus during this Sermon on the Mount heard and saw the birds. The birds can’t reap or sow, but God provides for them. They still have to work for their food, but it is there. If they seek it, then they find it. He looks on the ground, he sees the flowers. The wild flowers, especially the red poppies, are brilliantly colorful. They’re the color of King Solomon’s robes–radiant and stunning.  I’ve always wondered about Jesus using birds and flowers as illustrations – they don’t have mortgages and payments for braces last time I checked. But that isn’t the point. It isn’t that we are supposed to become the birds and flowers, we are supposed to consider and look at (two very strong verbs for Jesus to use) to see how God cares so much for these little things. And if he cares for them, then think how much more God cares for us! Jesus reminds us of God’s providence for all creation – including birds, flowers, and human beings.  After Jesus teaches about storing up treasures, the birds, and the flowers, we are left with a very clear focus from Christ. Seek first the Kingdom of God. All this stuff and all these expectations cause us to forget God’s role. And when we forget God’s role in our lives, we forget to depend on God. Our insatiable appetite for more, leads to less freedom because we depend less and less on God.

There are two things you can take with you today that can help you.

First, downsize your life. Live more simply. I have a friend in Columbus who made a conscious decision to do this. He and his wife have great jobs and make great incomes. But for a while, they bought too big a house and too much car and lived extended to the limit. They weren’t happy at all. One day, he and his wife decided to actually try this lesson. They sold their home and bought a smaller home. They bought less cars. And he doubled the amount of money he gave away to the church and to help others. His life changed. It was amazing to see how God became the center of his life even more simply because he simplified his life.

Second, get control of your expectations. We really need to work on this! Discontentment in the grocery store line, with family and friends, at a restaurant, with your pastor, with your government – all this misery and frustration and disappointment are rooted in unrealistic expectations. We judge others by their actions and we judge ourselves by our intentions – we see the splinter in others’ eyes and miss the log in our own eyes – we have got to challenge our expectations if we want to find peace and contentment.

Downsizing our lives and managing our expectations will allow us to depend more fully on God. To seek first the Kingdom and God’s righteousness.

Thomas Merton on Asceticism and Sacrifice, Part 2

2 Thessalonians 3:6-15
6 Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. 7For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, 8and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. 9This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. 10For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. 11For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. 12Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. 13Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.
14 Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed. 15Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers.

From Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island, Chapter 6: Asceticism and Sacrifice (Part 2, pp. 106ff)
• The real purpose of asceticism is to disclose the difference between the evil use of created things, which is sin, and their good use, which is virtue. We must gain possession of ourselves, by asceticism, in order that we may be able to give ourselves to God.
The only sacrifice of ourselves that God accepts is the purity of our love. Any renunciation that helps us to love God more is good and useful. In order for us to spiritualize our lives and make them pleasing to God, we must become quiet. Peace of the soul does not depend on physical inactivity – some people are perfectly capable of tasting true spiritual peace in an active life. Our culture does not provide ideal conditions for entering ourselves. Everything in modern life is calculated to KEEP us from entering into ourselves and thinking about spiritual things. The whole mechanism of modern life is geared for a flight from God and from the spirit into the wilderness of neurosis. There is a world of difference between work and agitation. Work occupies mind and body and brings peace to the soul that has a semblance of order and spiritual understanding. Agitation, on the other hand, destroys the spiritual usefulness of work and frustrates its physical and social purpose. Agitation is a fruit of tension in a spirit that is turning dizzily from one stimulus to another and trying to react to 15 different appeals at one time. Work leads to peace (if there is balance). Agitation leads to the death of the interior life.
• Good habits are only developed by repeated acts – we cannot discipline ourselves to be consistent with any degree of intelligence unless we go about it systematically. We must have structure. To desire the spiritual life is to desire discipline.
• Asceticism is utterly useless if it turns us into freaks. The cornerstone of all asceticism is humility, and Christian humility is first of all a matter of supernatural common sense. It teaches us to take ourselves as we are, instead of pretending (as pride would have us imagine) that we are something better than we are. Pride makes us artificial, humility makes us real. In II Thessalonians 3, work and supernatural acceptance of ordinary life are seen by the Apostle as a protection against the restless agitation of false mysticism. We are to work and live in simplicity, with more joy and greater security than others, because we do not look for any special fulfillment in this life. We are to live in peace among transient things. It is supreme humility to see that ordinary life, embraced by perfect faith, can be more saintly and more supernatural than a spectacular ascetical career. Such humility dares to be ordinary, and that is something beyond the reach of spiritual pride. Pride always longs to be unusual. Humility not so. Humility finds all its peace in hope, knowing that Christ must come again to elevate and transfigure ordinary things and fill them with his glory.
• God is more glorified by one who uses the good of things of this life in simplicity and with gratitude than by the nervous asceticism of someone who is agitated about every detail of his self-denial.