By Pastor Glenn Pease
I've always loved the Cinderella story, and have read it to my granddaughter, and listened to it on record many times. It is a story that fits so well in our culture. From rags to riches is the American dream come true. The poor little servant girl escapes from the wash water to live in elaborate elegance with the prince, and because of all that wealth, presumably, lives happily ever after.
Denise George in her book, The Christian As A Consumer, points out that the story would, no doubt, be a flop if it was reversed. If Cinderella started as the wife of a prince, and ended up as a poor servant girl, few would get interested in a second reading. Yet the greatest story ever told, the story of Jesus, involves a reversal of the Cinderella theme. Paul tells it in one verse in II Cor. 8:9, "You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich."
Jesus, the prince of the heavenly palace, became a servant, and by His voluntary poverty and service He gave us the greatest life ever lived, and the greatest sacrifice ever offered. He did so that all people might have the potential of being a prince or princess in that heavenly palace forever. So what you have in the Gospel story is Cinderella reversed, but also retold and revived so that it becomes a two way street, and both ways can be good, for after Jesus became poor for us, He was again exalted to the right hand of God, and eternal riches. It can be good to go from riches to rags, and it can also be good to go from rags to riches. Neither of them are always good, but both of them are potentially beautiful roads to travel.
Modern Christians in a materialistic culture tend to see successful living as only a one way street, and it is the road from rags to riches. Many Christians, however, have rebelled against this kind of Christian life-style that is culturally enslaved to the materialistic mind. They have sought to promote and practice what is commonly called the simple life-style. In some cases it is radical, and there is a going from riches to rags as people give up good jobs, big houses, expensive cars, and other possessions to live in communes where they share everything with one another. This does not appeal to the masses, however, and so the major effort is to get Christians to rethink their whole relationship with things, and develop a more simple, and less possession dominated, life-style.
If everybody was happy with the concept of success that dominates our culture, even the Christians would probably be content to conform, and go along with it, because the fact is, everybody enjoys prosperity better than poverty. Unfortunately, not everybody gets a fair share of the pie. Not only is our country full of people who live in poverty, but we live in a world where the haves have more, and the have nots have less than ever before. The world view has forced many Christians to question the economic policies that promote world poverty for the sake of prosperity for the few. The materialistic drive for success has put an enormous burden on the self-image of millions of Americans. Teen-age suicide has been growing, and much of this tragedy is tied to the pressure to succeed, according to the value system of our culture.
To follow Jesus literally in His life-style is so radical that few Christians could handle it, or have any desire to attempt. We read in Matt. 8:20, "Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has no where to lay His head." We can rough it camping for awhile, but to have no place to call our own to come back to is not our idea of the good life. Nor do I think Jesus would expect us to try and imitate what was so appropriate for Him, and His disciples, at that point in history. Imagine a traveling evangelist today trying to live by Christ's command to His disciples in Luke 9:3: "Take nothing for your journey, no staff, no bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not have two tunics." Nobody ever traveled lighter than this, for this was the simplest life-style. To urge this on anyone in our culture would be unrealistic.
Ronald Sider, is one of those who wrote the book, Rich Christians In An Age Of Hunger. He came out of the Brethren In Christ, who are very close to Mennonites, and he became professor of theology at Eastern Baptist Seminary in Philadelphia. He, and his wife and child, are part of the Jubilee Community which is a non communal church. They do not share everything, or live in a community together, but they are more of a family than most churches. What they do would not be acceptable to most churches. They love small groups where they talk about each others finances and family budgets, and discuss them in the light of Biblical priorities. The idea is to strive to overcome the self-centered approach of most American Christians, where money belongs to the individual, and no one else has the right to know how it is used.
They do not feel that a raise in income means you must raise your standard of living. A raise in income can help you be a key to raising somebody else's standard of living from dying to survival. Sider feels churches should spend as much on helping the needy of third world countries as they spend on themselves in comfortable buildings and furnishings. What he says, we all know is true, that we tend to live up to the level of our income. For many years we ate out only at McDonalds, but as our income grew we began to eat out at more expensive places. We never gave the idea a second thought that our life-style should not improve with our level of income. We see Christians with a much higher income living in larger houses, with better cars, and staying at more expensive hotels, and eating at more expensive places, and we except this as the logical conclusion to success. God has prospered them and so we assume they will live on a higher level. The Gospel of prosperity is as appealing as the story of Cinderella.
We like the road from rags to riches, and so we seldom ask if this is the direction we ought to be going? We would prefer not to be bothered with hearing about all the starving, and suffering masses of the world. Sider says we cannot escape being part of the problem, for we live in a world where there is structural evil. That is, there is nobody in particular you can go after, for the evil is built into the very system that we all support. You may buy coffee or fruit from South America harvested by workers who barely get enough pay to survive. Everybody profits from their labor, and many get rich, but they live in poverty. This gets to be a complex mess of selfish policies that make it nearly impossible to change.
Sider says the system is evil, and so drop out of it, and stop eating Honduran beef, for example. Other Christian scholars respond, but if you stop, and the profits go down for the company that exports it here, they will eliminate jobs for Honduran peasants, and all you do is make their lives worse by not cooperating with the evil system. It is too hard for any of us to really know what is best for Christians to do in many situations, and so the way of wisdom that makes sense, is to simplify. This is the theme of most evangelical Christians who are writing on the subject. Lois Ottaway, of Wheaton College, stresses these points:
1. Resist the pressure to purchase.
We live in a culture where we are bombarded constantly with adds to make us feel a need. We say, I need this or that, but do we really, or is this a result of brainwashing?
2. Recycle what you tend to throw away.
3. Responsible managing of existing possessions.
We need to stretch the life of usefulness of what you have, and do not join the throw away philosophy of our culture. Vance Packard in The Waste Makers, points out that the American culture is enslaved by a deliberate and calculated plan to design products to become obsolete. We could design them to last longer, but that is contrary to the whole idea that expansion is the highest good. If your going to sell more light bulbs this year than last year, you have to make them burn out faster. The Christian is to resist this by striving to make things last longer.
It is no simple task to live simply. I have many shirts and ties that I would be embarrassed to be buried in, because they are so out dated. They are still very wearable, but I would look so behind the times that I would not be a good testimony for Christ. So I am caught in a paradox where I should wear them for the cause of Christ, and yet if I do I would detract from the cause of Christ. We are caught in psychological warfare in trying to live the simple life. That is why we tend to be moderate at best, and not radical in our simplicity.
The appeals to give more also bothers the consciences Christian, for there is too much evidence that more giving only leads to a higher life-style for those in leadership of the programs to help the unfortunate. More giving does not mean that more poor people are lifted, and until that is established, the Christian has a right to be reserved about the wisdom of sacrificial giving to help the rich get richer. Does it make sense for poor Christians to give more so other Christians can live on a higher level?
The simple life-style is not easy, but it has all kinds of wisdom. The more you study how you use money, the more you can do with less. You can get food that is a waste of money at any price, because it has no more nutritional value than saw dust. To pay good money for what is worthless to your body is not good economy. It is cooperation with those who exploit the human race. We are all guilty sometimes, and that is why it is hard to be simple. Kathryn Lindskoog says she tries to save money by neglecting things. She lets things go to pieces before their time, and so they need to be replaced at great cost. She admits it is a stupid kind of frugality. This points out the danger of how being simple can lead us to being a simpleton. Balance is needed to become wisely simple.
One of the greatest problems missionaries have when they come back to America is how to fight the temptation to be judgmental, and to be critical of the very people who support them. They come from four or five years of laboring with people who live in poverty, and then they see Christians spending thousands of dollars for trinkets and extravagant expenditures. We do not see from their perspective, and, therefore, we do not feel the least guilty by the money we waste on non-essentials.
Lory Lutz said when she came back from Africa she was very critical, but in no time she was caught in the trap. She got her visa card, and felt the power that comes with the freedom to buy whatever you want. She had to keep reminding herself that Jesus addressed the issue of wealth and poverty more than He did the subjects of heaven and hell. On the other hand, she recognized the need for balance. In Africa they lived so simple that it took so much time just to live that they had little time for serving. The modern conveniences of Americans could mean more time for actual Christian service, and so a blanket condemnation of American materialism is not legitimate.
Each individual Christian needs to keep asking themselves, how can I simplify my life, not for the sake of simplicity, but for the sake of the kingdom of God. This may call, not for giving up things, but for getting things. You may need a second car to do what needs to be done. You may need a computer to get things done more efficiently. Simplicity is not an idol we are to bow down to, but an ideal we are to live up to. Different tasks in the kingdom will make Christians go different ways in their simplicity. You do not impose your idea of it on others, but strive to do with your own life and resources that which you feel is pleasing to God, for the pleasing of God is the only success that really matters. The simple life is to strive to need only one thing desperately, and that is the need to please God.