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 Ascetism and Sacrifice, Part 1

I’m continuing to post thoughts from Thomas Merton that we are using for our time of spiritual formation at Wesley staff meetings. Tommy always causes deep reflection and a lot of discussion in our time together.

Romans 8:1-10
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2For the law of the Spirit* of life in Christ Jesus has set you* free from the law of sin and of death. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin,* he condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.* 5For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit* set their minds on the things of the Spirit.* 6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit* is life and peace. 7For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit,* since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit* is life because of righteousness.

From Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island, Chapter 6: Asceticism and Sacrifice (Part 1, pp. 96ff)
• The spiritual life is not merely a negation of matter. When the New Testament speaks of the “flesh” as our enemy, it takes the flesh in a special sense. When Christ said, “The flesh profits us nothing,” in John 6:64, he was speaking of flesh without spirit, flesh living for its own ends, not only in sensual but even in spiritual things. As long as we are on the earth, our vocation calls us to life spiritually while still “in the flesh.”
• We cannot become saints merely by trying to run away from material things. To have a spiritual life is to have a life that is spiritual in all its wholeness – a life in which the actions of the body are holy because of the soul, and the soul is holy because of God dwelling and acting in it. When we live such a life the actions of our body are directed to God by God Himself and give Him glory, and at the same time they help to sanctify the soul. The saint, therefore, is sanctified not only by fasting when he/she should fast but also by eating when he/she should eat. He/she is not only sanctified by his prayers in the darkness of the night, but by the sleep that he takes in obedience to God, Who made us what we are. Solitude not only contributes to union with God, but also God’s supernatural love for friends and relatives and those with whom we live and work.
• It gives God great glory and pleasure for a person to live in this world using and appreciating the good things of life without care, without anxiety, and without inordinate passion. In order to know and love God through His gifts, we have to use them as if we used them not – and yet we have to use them. To use things as if we used them not means to use them without selfishness, without fear, without afterthought, and with perfect gratitude and confidence and love of God.
• Self-denial is sterile and absurd if we practice it for the wrong reasons or, worse still, without any valid reason at all. Therefore, although it is true that we must deny ourselves in order to come to a true knowledge of God, we must also have some knowledge of God and our relationship with Him in order to deny ourselves intelligently. First of all, our self-denial must be humble. Otherwise, it is a contradiction in terms. It must also be supernatural – ordered not only for our own perfection or the good of society, but ordered to God.
• Although the grace of the Holy Spirit teaches us to use created things “as if we used them not” – that is to say, with detachment and indifference, it does not makes us indifferent to the value of things in themselves. On the contrary, only when we are detached from things can we really value them as we should. It is only when we are “indifferent” to them that we can really begin to love them. The indifference of which I speak must, therefore, be an indifference not to things themselves but to their effects in our own lives.