The Doctrine of the Simple Life
The call of God to the human is a call of love that demands a response--and there can be no doubt that the most important response is an answering love. The prologue to the Ten Commandments speak of God's love and our answering love (Ex. 20: 6). Early Christians were expected to say Deut. 6:4-5 three times a day--and, in Mk. 12:29, Jesus took Deut. 6:5 as "the most important" commandment:
You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
The doctrine of the simple life is nothing more than an attempt to deal biblically with the question of how to make the everyday decisions of life in a manner that is responsive to God's love. As such, it is distinct from other doctrines that deal with worship and the mission of the church--those doctrines certainly impact the way the person who loves God will spend their time and make significant decisions--but the doctrine of the simple life deals with the ordinary matters of existence.
When the question of living to please God is put to the student of history, visions of asceticism and monasticism are likely to appear--those who oppose God have done their best to perpetuate the lie that God is a strict disciplinarian who wields power over his subjects with lightning bolts an eternal fires. But the biblical approach to the simple life is centered in a desire to return to the garden of Gen. 2, before all the trouble began, and to seek a life that cooperates with God rather than one which opposes God. And the surprise is simply this: those who have devoted themselves to living the simple life bring a testimony of happiness and joy. But why should this be a surprise? The fact that we can experience and recognize happiness is a testimony to the fact that God created us that way. We were also created to be obedient to God. So, therefore, the greatest happiness comes from a life that is lived in obedience to God. So it is a win-win situation. We achieve happiness just as we respond to God's very big love for us with the (much smaller) love that we can manifest toward God. Jesus says that that was the very reason that he came. "I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (Jn. 10:10).
Many over the centuries have attempted to articulate how one might live a life pleasing to God. Asceticism has already been mentioned, but Jesus, himself, was not a very good ascetic, making wine at weddings and dining with sinners and tax collectors. The Pietists that followed the Protestant Reformation, a group who were disappointed by the lack of any evidence that Christians really lived more righteously after the Reformation had run its course, tried to find a solution in devotional living. Then there were the Puritans--another group that tried to purify life in a sort of mass-medicine manner.
Like all doctrines, the doctrine of the simple life is handled within the house church community by finding its thread in the Scriptures. This is not to say that Pietists and Puritans did not care about the Bible--the former decorated their houses with Bible verses, and the latter named their children with Biblical virtues. But doctrinal development uses the Bible in a different way, attempting to draw from the Bible a synthesis--an overall understanding--of a particular issue from the Word of Truth.
One very good place to begin is in the wonderful little book called Ecclesiastes. The superscription of Ecclesiastes (Eccl. 1:1) identifies its author as "Qohelet," the Hebrew participle of the verb "to call." So he was "one who calls." Calls whom? Nobody is actually sure, but from what little else is known about Qohelet from the epilogue (Eccl. 12:9-14), he was a man who was very wise. Perhaps the name comes from his having a role of calling the synagogue to order. But, when the whole book is taken into account, it is even better to see Qohelet as one who taught the young men of post-Exilic Israel (that is, those who had returned from Babylonian captivity) the ways of Judaism and the wisdom of "fearing God and keeping His commandments." In short, he was teaching them the "simple life"--calling them into obedience to God.
It is common in evangelical circles to identify Qohelet as King Solomon. Few who have actually worked with the very late Hebrew that comprises the book itself will subscribe to that notion. The Hebrew vocabulary in the book contains many Babylonian--that is, Aramaic--words that did not enter into the Hebrew lexicon until the Babylonian captivity and thus well after Solomon's time. And, of course, one needs to deal with the fact that the book attributes itself to Qohelet--not Solomon.
Eccl. 1:12 is the best evidence of Solomonic authorship, but the tense of the verb is qal. perfect--"I, Qohelet, when I was king ...." But Solomon died a king--so if it was Solomon who was reflecting over his own life, he would have had to have written this book in Sheol. It is best to use the next verse (and subsequent material such as in 2:1, 2:3, 2:12, and 2:14) to interpret 1:12 and the "king fiction" passages in Eccl. 2. Qohelet, using the tools of wisdom, was able to place himself in various roles through the guiding of his mind. Put simply, he was imagining himself in the place of Solomon and asking whether he was really any better off.
Needless to say, ascribing the book to Solomon does not change its interpretation. If you are more comfortable with that understanding, that is certainly okay.
Qohelet was much less interested in Law and Prophets than he was interested in life. He looked as objectively as he could at the many possibilities of living in his culture and drew conclusions about wisdom (being obedient to God) and folly (being against God). It would not be completely unfair to call Qohelet a "user's manual" for living a simple life.
|The Chiastic Form of Ecclesiastes|
The figure at the right shows a very simplified overview of Ecclesiastes in the form of a . The "frame" verses are written about Qohelet, rather than by Qohelet, and resemble the dust jacket of a modern book (Eccl. 1:1 is the title page and Eccl. 12:9-14 are the jacket notes). Just inside the frame is a remarkable literary device that contains the Hebrew word (some call it a "motto"), (pronounced "hével") which our English translations deal with by such attempts at translation as "meaningless," "vanity," and so on. Whole articles have been written about what this word actually means, but Qohelet tends to use it in three ways, depending on context:
- "Fleeting," like the appearance of one's own breath on a cold day. You see it one second, but when you look again it is gone.
- "Unsubstantial," or
We not only find "hevel" in these starting and ending verses, but throughout the book. It is a kind of garbage can into which Qohelet consigns those aspects of life that he deems complicated--things that have no real value. The "hevels" in 1:2 are seven fold not because there actually are seven instances of the noun, but because some of the instances have the Hebrew "dual" form, which brings the number of hevels to the perfect number of completeness--so Qohelet begins very pessimistically, telling us that all is completely hevel. That he ends the book similarly seems to draw it into a circle of hevels, the same kind of circle that begins his discourse in Eccl. 1:4-11 and which shows the endless cycles of God's creation in which humans are utterly insignificant by comparison.
But let's get on to the theme question,
What do people gain from all the toil at which they labor under the sun?
Meditate on that a minute. "Under the sun" (a phrase Qohelet uses over and over) means being alive. On the whole, Qohelet thinks it is good to be under the sun. Yes, there is toil under the sun--without toil, there would be no sustaining of life. But Qohelet wants his young audience to be laboring for the right reasons--so that they can get the most out of being under the sun.
As the chiasm above indicates, the whole core of the book deals with answering that question. The answer comes in affirmatives and negatives (the book is heavily dialectic). But one outstanding affirmative overshadows all the rest simply because it is repeated over an over again.
There is nothing better for humans than to eat and drink, and to find enjoyment in their toil. (Eccl. 2:24)
I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God's gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. (Eccl. 3:12-13)
So I saw that there is nothing better than that all should enjoy their work, for that is their lot.... (Eccl. 3:22)
This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us, for this is our lot. (Eccl. 6:18)So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun. (Eccl. 8:15)
In short, the simple life is one that seeks enjoyment in the ordinary things of eating, drinking, and working for a living. The one who can find satisfaction in these simple things is the one who will, in the end, live a happy and enjoyable life that is compatible with God's intentions. Wisdom, pleasure, and even money are fine when they come as a result of the simple life, but are hevel when sought for their own sake. The simple life message is developed over twelve chapters during which Qohelet looks at, and discards, complicated things. It would be pointless to attempt a complete enumeration of these, but here are just a few:
1:12-18 Wisdom Imagining himself to be Solomon, the man who was the wisest man who ever lived or who ever will live (1 Kings 3:12), Qohelet concludes that "with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief." This conclusion may sound strange from a wisdom writer, as wisdom is, on the whole, treated as an asset in the book. But true wisdom is a gift of God and the one who seeks it for its own sake will be miserable. 2:1-11 Pleasure the person who seeks pleasure will find that pleasure eludes him. Again using his mind to put himself into Solomon's shoes, Qohelet says, "I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure." Yet, looking back on the hedonistic life brings him to say, "When I surveyed all that my hands had done, and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was hevel, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun." 2:18-23 Accumulation If one labors to excess--beyond what is needed to sustain life--in order to accumulate wealth, he will die before he can enjoy that wealth. Not only is this hevel, but the inheritance is as likely to fall into unworthy hands as into worthy ones. 4:13-16 Power and Popularity Seeking power and popularity is just a "chasing after the wind." It, too, is hevel. 5:8-5:20 6:7-9 Money The NIV translates this beautifully: "Whoever loves money never has money enough." Qohelet understands seductive trap of materialism. The more wealth, the bigger the appetite for more wealth. Since one can never actually achieve wealth as rapidly as the appetite grows, the one who loves money is condemned to an impossible quest for a goal that can never be reached. The laborer, however, sleeps well--his income has matched his expenses, and his heart has none of the frustration of the one who loves money. In the end, the ability to actually enjoy the fruits of labor is a gift of God, so humans need God in order to find enjoyment in life. 7:1-6 Frivolity Even though Qohelet places a premium on joy and happiness, when these are sought for their own sake they are folly and hevel. The wise one is serious and contemplative in his approach to the world. For that reason, it is better to reflect over the passing of a full life than to thrill over the potential life of a newborn. 7:14 Fortune Telling The future is in God's hands; humans are powerless to know it. 7:16-20 Extremes Zealotry, even in matters of God, is folly. Don't be under-righteous, but don't be over-righteous either. It is impossible to be completely righteous, and anyone who tries will only find the frustration of seeking an unreachable goal. The simple life is one of moderation. 8:17 Philosophy After Qohelet has viewed the full extent of God's works, he proclaims that it is impossible to comprehend it. That is the tragedy of the philosopher--God's works are too big for any human to comprehend.
It would be very wrong to leave Ecclesiastes without touching upon its final two chapters. The teacher sums up his message to the young people who have returned from exile. They are to truly enjoy their life under the sun, for it is "sweet" (Eccl. 11:7). As these young people get older, life will become more difficult--hevel--but even so, the gift of life should still be treasured (Eccl. 11:8). This is brought home in the aging-and-death allegory of Eccl. 12:1b-12:7, in which the aging person is compared to a house that is starting to fall apart--teeth few, eyes blurred, and hearing diminished. Then, like a grasshopper who struggles to get to his meal but finds he can no longer enjoy it, the aged one has no more appetite for marital relations (Eccl. 12:5). The walk of the aged is no longer steady on the road, and a funeral procession is described (Eccl. 12:5). And who can read Eccl. 12:6-7 with dry eyes, as the life is finally over, its silver cord snapped, and we have the tragic picture of smashed vessels--a golden oil lamp and a clay water jar--both of which have spilled their precious contents onto the desert floor. The dust returns to the ground and the breath returns to God (Heb., "the one who creates"), completing the process that began in Gen. 2:7. Again, life is fleeting. It is like the vapor of visible breath on a cold day--there one minute, and then gone without a trace, without a memory, without so much as a ripple in God's grand cosmos. Hevel, hevel, hevel, hevel.
Yes, says Qohelet, the light of living under the sun is sweet. And he is no party-pooper. He tells his young audience to "be happy ... while you are young and let your heart give you joy..." (Eccl. 11:9). He even tells them that they should follow their hearts and their eyes in reaping every ounce of pleasure from the wonderful gift of life that God has granted them. Just at that point the Hebrew text has an athnah--a strong disjunctive accent that is like the old man taking a deep breath--and the words of warning come: "But know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment."
So here is Qohelet's bottom line. Carpe diem! Seize the day! Attack life with gusto, for it is a wonderful gift of God and not something to be wasted. But do so wisely--seek the simple pleasures, and seek God (Eccl. 12:1). Avoid the many pitfalls of complexity that are hevel. They rob you of the simple life. They rob you of the true happiness that centers in God. And, in the end, they bring judgment.
I center on the Old Testament for this doctrine because that is the way I learned it at the feet of Prof. Stan Nelson and subsequent studies in Qohelet under Prof. Samuel Tang. Many in the house church movement, however, have derived the doctrine of simple life from the New Testament. Vernard Eller's The Simple Life takes that approach, citing also some of the many writings of Kierkegaard, who also used the New Testament for his own extensive study of this subject. We are fortunate to have that book on House Church Central as an on-line resource.
This is an equally valid approach, and yields precisely the same doctrine (Remember? Nothing in the New Testament contradicts the Old). The teachings and parables of Jesus regarding possessions, placing the Kingdom of God first, and so on, all teach the same thing as Qohelet. But Qohelet lived before God revealed himself in Christ, and did not see that God had a cure for his pessimism. The New Testament adds a dimension to the simple life that Old Testament writers did not know; the fact that one can live "in Christ" and begin life with God while still being "under the Sun."
Eternal life is a free gift from God. But let us not forget that life, itself, is also a gift from God. He would not have us waste it.
A Case Study in the Simple Life
One group that is descended from the same roots as the House Church is the Amish. They make a fascinating case study because of their intense focus upon ridding themselves of the complicated and keeping the simple (although it is certain that the Amish themselves would admit that merely living within an "older" culture is no guarantee of that one is actually living a "simple" life in the theological sense).
Few outside of the Amish themselves will agree that it is necessary to freeze progress in order to achieve the simple life, but it must be said that the choice that the Amish people have made enriches us all because we can look at their successes and failures and draw lessons. With respect to the doctrine of the simple life, there is only one real question for the Amish--are they a happy people who have found joy in a life style that we have let pass us by, or are they a miserable bunch who persist in anachronism and obscurantism? It is not an easy question, as one will not get a helpful answer by walking up to an Amish person and debating who is the happier--those inside or outside of the Amish community. But one modern author has made a respectful and loving study of the Amish that is very highly recommended even though it is not strictly proper to describe it as a "Christian" book. For this writer, Sue Bender's Plain and Simple was a "page turner." No attempt will be made here to paraphrase her words, but Mrs. Bender's account of her pilgrimage into the Amish community gives us a way to answer the question, "is there happiness and joy in the simple life?".