Opening Up Space in Our Lives by Practicing Simplicity
Do you feel overwhelmed by an overscheduled calendar or the time and effort that it seems to require to take care of all your stuff? Although we may be productive when we are busy and we need stuff to live, both can overtake our lives in such a way that we find that we may have little or no time to spend on what really matters to us. In her book on “Abundant Simplicity,” Jan Johnson encourages becoming intentional on envisioning what kind of life we want and then moving forward with a plan to turn that vision into reality (1).
Engaging in the practice of simplicity is one approach to open up more space in our lives. The spiritual discipline of simplicity has been defined as “[cultivating] the great art of letting go” by intentionally loosening our attachments to “owning and having.” (2).
On writing about this spiritual discipline, Richard Foster emphasizes that “simplicity is freedom;” for as we develop this inward reality of a simpler life, it changes our lifestyle (3). You may be familiar with the old Shaker Hymn about simplicity:
‘Tis the gift to be simple,
‘Tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
Because of our attachments to stuff, you may find practicing simplicity easier to manage by starting out in little ways. I began to intentionally practice simplicity a few years ago after encountering duplicate shoes in my closet.
Late one morning, I was getting ready to drive downtown to volunteer at Austin Street Youth Ministry. I glanced in my closet and realized I had two pairs of shoes almost exactly alike. How did that happen? Did the first pair become buried under the other shoes that I had? A still small voice urged within me, “Take one of those pair of shoes along with you – someone may need a good pair of walking sandals today.” I hesitated at first because the second pair of sandals was quite nice, and I thought, “I could wear the second pair when the first pair wear out.” The problem with that rationale was that I hardly ever wore either pair.
So, I packed them up and took them over to the church downtown where the youth were meeting for lunch and Bible study. Shortly after the doors opened, a young woman limped in. I glanced at her feet and was horrified at the condition of her shoes and feet. Within a few minutes, she was wearing the extra sandals from my closet with tears in her eyes. “These sandals feel so good on my feet!” she exclaimed. That day, I had learned important lessons about simplicity and the joy of giving. “Develop a habit of giving things away.” When I shared this story with my husband later in the day, he promptly searched his closet for shoes that he no longer needed, and I took those pair along the next week to the street youth ministry.
Jesus cautioned against developing deep attachments to riches and material things. In his Sermon on the Mount, he encouraged his listeners to “stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them. Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21).
Along with cluttering up our physical spaces with stuff, we can also fall into the busyness trap of overscheduling our time. Do you think that you have sufficient “white space” in your calendar to spend time with God and in cultivating relationships that truly matter to you?
In her book on “Making Room for God: Decluttering and the Spiritual Life,” Mary Elizabeth Sperry gives three reasons for decluttering: 1) it saves time; 2) it saves money; and 3) it reduces stress (4). I would like to add that decluttering opens up an opportunity for us to share clothing, shoes, and other items with others who need but cannot afford to buy them.
Calhoun, Foster, Johnson, and Sperry all offer suggestions on how to declutter and simplify our lives, and I recommend reading their books listed below to learn more. I have included several of their ideas that resonated with me:
1. Buy what you need with respect to clothes and other items and refrain from buying what you don’t need. (I found that cleaning out my closet was helpful in knowing what I need.)
2. Develop a habit of giving things away. (One way of keeping your closet decluttered and taking care of others is that for every pair of new shoes or piece of clothing you buy, take out shoes or clothing to give away.)
3. When you are asked to take on another activity that will go on your calendar, simply say “yes” or “no” to keep yourself from becoming overscheduled.
4. Avoid using boxes to store things you are organizing. I found this suggestion particularly interesting. What can happen is that you may forget what is in the box and have to go through it again. One way to get around that would be to label the contents in storage boxes.
5. As with the item above, do not stack papers in piles. I used to do this when I worked in state government and conducted a sizeable amount of investigative work. One of my colleagues, who had a sense of humor, moved one of my stacks to another part of my office unbeknownst to me. We had a good laugh after I noticed months later that that particular pile had been moved.
Are you ready to make more space in your life for what really matters to you? Practicing simplicity might be the remedy.
1. Jan Johnson, Abundant Simplicity: Discovering the Unhurried Rhythms of Grace (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 39-40.
2. Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 74.
3. Richard J. Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth (New York: HarperOne, 1998), 79.
4. Mary Elizabeth Sperry, Making Room for God: Decluttering and the Spiritual Life, (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2018), 1-2, 4.