Cultivating a spirituality of simplicity

By Jasmine Kwong |
You don't need it but you want it
Jon Tyson / Unsplash

We live in a world of paradoxes and tensions. In our consumer driven world which screams, “Buy! Buy! Buy!,” we see a growing undercurrent towards minimalism where, “Less is more.” We feel the tug-of-war between needs and wants. And on opposite ends of the spectrum, sit those with seemingly endless choices and those who have just about none.

Tensions of living in a consumer driven world

Capitalist consumerism has led some people to reflect seriously on current lifestyle choices. We see a push towards zero-waste, a desire to support local, organic farmers, and a new crop of home gardeners.

It’s true that these practices help us reconnect our relationships with people and land. They also help us take a stance on eating good food and producing less waste. But there is also valid critique about whether such lifestyle choices are accessible for all. Doesn’t this lifestyle favour those with more money and time than those with less?

Achieving these lifestyle choices may be harder than one thinks. For example, a zero-waste lifestyle requires access and ability to travel to specialized shops that sell products with less packaging. Supporting small-scale, local farmers often requires a higher budget to pay the actual cost of labour to produce the food we eat. Growing food at home requires access to soil, seeds and of course, time and effort.

I live in the big metropolis of Manila, Philippines. The everyday reality of living with a bombardment of traffic, pollution and crowds makes it difficult to know where to access and travel to find cleaner, healthier, less packaged food and other products. Moreover, I’ve learned that the size of one’s wallet, free time and daily responsibilities could be barriers to making changes in one’s lifestyle.

Even when we have the best of intentions, it is impossible to make perfect choices; we are forced to operate within our limitations. We may only be able to make one good choice at a time. This choice might include traveling farther to the wet market, instead of the nearby grocery store where food is wrapped in more plastic; or being willing to pay more to support organic food from small-scale farmers rather than big commercial producers. Sometimes, our only option is to make imperfect choices.

Cultivating a spirituality of simplicity

What would be different if we approached consumerism not merely as a material issue but also as a spiritual one? If we took time to look inward, we may discover that this is actually a matter of the heart.

Do our actions reflect what we say we believe? How does our spiritual journey with God connect to how we live? Answers to such questions may not come easily, especially when some choices are out of our control or reach. However, the invitation may not be about achieving a perfect eco-conscious and just lifestyle; rather, it is about paying more attention to how we live and to whom we live for.

If we believe that God created the world and loves everything in creation, then these issues of consumerism and lifestyle choices can be addressed in terms of relationships, rather than just things.

Do we understand God as loving all creation? Have we observed how Jesus lived and do we strive to model our lives after Christ? If we consider creation care as part of our Christian discipleship, then we know that our actions are informed by our relationship with God. Knowing the why may help us better understand the what, as our actions flow out of our minds and hearts.

Cultivating a spirituality of simplicity does not happen overnight. It takes time to root deeply. It’s about ongoing transformation. A choice to live more simply eventually leads to outward changes in our lifestyle. In the same way, when we allow what we do to be informed by who we are and whom we know, change can also happen in our hearts.

What the poor in spirit can learn from the materially poor

Years ago, I read Greg Paul’s1 Twenty Piece Shuffle. This statement from his book stayed with me: “The poor and the rich need each other.” Since moving to the Philippines from Canada, I constantly witness the wide gap between the materially rich and the materially poor – often juxtaposed within the same neighborhood. Now I have come to agree that Greg’s statement is true.

I think that the materially poor are actually very rich in other matters of life. And I wonder whether other parts of society could pay more attention to what they have to offer. This doesn’t mean that the materially rich cannot also be rich in spirit; however, I want to point out that those usually associated with only receiving from others, actually have a lot to give.

Here are some valuable lessons I am learning not only from the materially poor, but by living in a collectivist society:

*   Repurposing: A lot of products we have at home can be upcycled. What some may easily throw out, others find creative ways to reuse or redesign for another purpose. For example, drink bottles are commonly repurposed into protective covers for outdoor lights, plant containers, or boundaries for garden beds.

*   Interdependence: In a collectivist society, daily life is lived with more than one individual in mind. This happens not only within a family, but also within a barangay (neighborhood). For instance, some provincial villages share a common water source – a well pump or nearby river – for all household chores, from cooking to cleaning. When a resource is shared, there is usually a greater understanding and practice to conserve and care for it.

*   Beauty in small things: When living in tightly packed buildings and shared rooms, the idea of personal space, or even green space, is inconceivable. And for those living on a daily wage, a trip out of the city to open green space is rare. So while others save up their paychecks to take vacations to beaches, mountains and forests, many urban poor find beauty in smaller, yet still significant, things. For example, they may care for a few potted plants on their windowsill, take in a stray cat or dog, or pick and share the harvest from a neighbourhood mango tree. They care where they are planted.

*   Shared suffering: Cultivating a practice of lament is important. While some people visit a professional counselor to sort through a specific crisis, others can only rely on the community around them. For example, annual typhoons and flooding events are common in the Philippines. These are times when communities bond together and help the most vulnerable around them. When tragedy strikes, there is shared pain. Lament is about bringing our pain to God – not only our own but that of other parts of creation.

*   Generosity: Some of the materially poor are some of the most generous people around. Many times, I have experienced the generosity of the materially poor. What touches me most is that many share out of their scarcity. This reminds me of the story in Mark 12 where the widow offered her two small copper coins. She gave out her poverty, not her abundance. And Christ saw her heart. The materially poor are seen and understood by Jesus. They are rich in Christ.

Choices and actions informed by our hearts

How can these lessons also translate into our care for the rest of creation, including land, sea and wildlife? Do we live out our interdependence with all of creation? Do we lament with our Creator God for the most vulnerable in our midst?  Do we live generously considering our co-existence with the natural world?

In a recent critique2 shared by Professor Musa Dube from Botswana, she challenges Christians to remember that “community” goes beyond people. It includes the whole of creation. Our lament is in solidarity with the earth, with the disproportionately impacted, and with Creator God. She says that “lamenting is naming oppression, calling for change and justice for the earth.”

My prayer is that we respond to a world demanding our participation by offering thoughtful choices and actions that are first informed by our hearts. How we live our lives through our care for our neighbors and our land is a reflection of our relationship with God.

In spite of our limitations, may our actions – big or small – emerge from a wellspring of hope in Christ. The one who promises full restoration for all creation one day. For now, let us hold hands with both sorrow and joy as we bring shalom wherever we are planted.

Jasmine Kwong is a creation care advocate with OMF International and a catalyst for creation care with the Lausanne Movement. She is based in the Philippines.

1 Greg Paul is the founder of Sanctuary – a church and community for both the homeless and the housed in Toronto, Canada.

2 Prof Musa Dube shared a critical reflection on Abundant Community Theology (ACT) at Tearfund’s ACT launch event on March 27, 2024.