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Simplicity and prayer

Lynne Baab • Tuesday May 23 2023

Simplicity and prayer

God of beauty and peace, help me to uncomplicate and untangle my life so I can focus on what really matters.

In that prayer for simplicity, I am using Adele Ahlberg Calhoun’s words from her wonderful Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. She writes that our desire in embracing the spiritual practice of simplicity is “to uncomplicate and untangle my life so I can focus on what really matters.” [1] I love that the words “uncomplicate and untangle” can refer to many things: our physical possessions that can feel overwhelmingly cluttered, our schedule that can feel endlessly complicated, and our relationships that can feel hopelessly tangled.

When considering the spiritual practice of simplicity, it can be easy to get sidetracked into a Marie Kondo-style perspective that focuses primarily on de-cluttering our living spaces and storage closets. Her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, was published just over a decade ago and profoundly influenced people who feel that the possessions in their home are out of control. Yes, the spiritual practice of simplicity can motivate us to reduce the number of possessions surrounding us, but this ancient practice goes much deeper.

A few years ago, I wrote an article for a magazine about simplicity. I called it "Seven Days Toward Simplicity,” and I focused on seven areas where we can practice simplicity. To figure out those seven areas, I did some reading about the Christian monastic movement, which began more than 1500 years ago. Monks and sisters practiced many forms of simplicity in their personal and communal lives so that they could pray with fewer distractions and offer abundant hospitality to people in need.

To write the article I also studied the four-page section on simplicity in the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. Calhoun cites several scripture verses to help us ponder simplicity.

Jesus tells his followers: “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No.’” (Matthew 5:37). This refers to what I call simplicity of speech. Calhoun encourages us to stop making excuses and unnecessary apologies. She encourages taking ten minutes to make decisions rather than instantly saying “yes” or “no.” For those of us who tend to be talkative, simplicity of speech also includes reining in our tendency to give a great deal of background information every time we tell a story or make a statement. We can pray to simplify our speech.

Calhoun cites the Apostle Paul’s words in Philippians 4:11-12 about being content in all circumstances. Simplicity is not an end in itself. One of the goals of simplicity is to increase our contentment with the essential things in life. We can ask for God’s guidance to perceive the areas of our life that we could simplify in order to experience more contentment in Christ.

Calhoun also quotes Jesus’s famous words in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. . . . For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19-21). For me, these verses are at the heart of the spiritual practice of simplicity. This practice helps us identify where our true treasure is. It helps us perceive pseudo-treasures that might be satisfying in the short run but are less satisfying over time. Some of these pseudo-treasures actually prove to be harmful.  

The challenge here is that the very same possession or activity can be joyous and life-giving one time, and energy sapping and destructive another time. A related challenge is that a possession or activity can connect me to Jesus, while it is harmful for a friend. We need the Holy Spirit’s perception and guidance in each moment to help us make choices that are consistent with the true treasures that we value. This presents a significant call to prayer that comes from the practice of simplicity. God, help us value your true treasures so much that we rely on your Spirit's guidance when we make choices.

To stimulate your prayers, I’ll list the seven areas I wrote about in my article:

  • Simplicity of words
  • Simplicity of possessions
  • Simplicity and nature
  • Simplicity with money
  • Simplicity and relationships
  • Simplicity and silence
  • Simplicity in prayer

You may have very different thoughts about these areas than I did when I wrote the article. Hopefully, one or two of them will stimulate your prayers.

Since this post focuses on simplicity and prayer, I’ll give you the suggestions I wrote about that topic:

At its simplest, all verbal prayer can fit into two categories: “thank you” and “help.” For today, watch your patterns of prayer. Which do you find easiest, thank-you prayers or help prayers? What kind of thank-you prayers do you pray most often? What kind of help prayers? Do you get lost in too many words as you pray? Pray for those who live in spiritual poverty and do not know that God welcomes “thank you” and “help” prayers from them.

I had a limited word count when I wrote the article, so I couldn’t expound on another related topic: the feeling that we are supposed to be eloquent when we pray, especially when we pray with others. One of the many beautiful aspects of the Lord’s Prayer, that Jesus taught his disciples, is its simplicity (Matthew 6:9-13). That simplicity was virtually unknown in the ancient world, where flowery and long-winded prayers were common in the various religions that surrounded the Mediterranean Sea.

One of Calhoun’s reflection questions asks, “How has the ‘more is better’ mentality shaped you?” I encourage you to ponder this question and pray for God’s guidance that your life choices will reflect where your true treasure is. God of beauty and peace, help me to uncomplicate and untangle my life so I can focus on what really matters.

(Next week: hospitality and prayer. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” below.)

Previous posts about simplicity:

This is the second post in a series about spiritual practices and prayer. Last week's post, where I describe what spiritual practices are and why they matter, is here. You can also find a list of all the posts in the series.

[1] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun’s section on simplicity in the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, 2015 edition, is pages 84 to 87.

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