Just listening with John Stott | On simplicity, generosity, and contentment (2/4)
LICC’s founder John Stott called us to triple listening – to the Word, the world, and one another – in our particular time and place. As we do this, we become wise peacemakers: followers of Jesus who embody his just way.
Dr Ruth Valerio, Global Advocacy and Influencing Director at Tearfund and Canon Theologian at Rochester Cathedral, revisits Stott’s book Issues Facing Christians Today– focusing on the chapter on ‘Simplicity, Generosity and Contentment’.
This four-part series accompanies Wisdom Lab: Just Listening, in which each of the authors delivers a TED-style talk on their topic. Wisdom Labs help churches and small groups explore issues facing Christians today.
I feel enormously privileged and humbled by the invitation to contribute to this series in honour of John Stott, looking at some of the topics he tackled. Reading the particular chapter I have been asked to comment on, I am struck again by just how much of an incredible leader Stott was, with his outward-looking vision and prophetic challenges – all coming from being deeply rooted in a knowledge and love of God’s word.
Stott’s chapter on ‘Simplicity, Generosity and Contentment’ is actually a chapter about poverty, both in the UK and globally, and he writes strongly and powerfully about the harsh fact of poverty in the contemporary world.[i] He reminds us that there are people in the UK living on the margins of society who aren’t able to access decent clothing, food, or housing, and are therefore excluded from participating meaningfully in society. And he depicts the absolute poverty of those in economically poorer countries, living in slums or on rubbish dumps, not able to access schools or safe water provisions. And whether in the UK or elsewhere, he highlights the inequality that exists between wealth and poverty – an inequality that is only increasing.
Stott goes on to explore how we as Christians should respond to such poverty, and this leads to a brilliant exposition of the different types of poverty in the Bible and a clear call to the church: ‘The church should concentrate its mission where the need is greatest, and move from the centre out “towards the periphery”, to the “sinned against” – in other words, to the poor and the oppressed.’[ii] What emerges from this exposition is that there are two types of poverty in the Bible: the material poverty of the destitute and powerless, and the spiritual poverty of the humble and meek. The role of the church is to oppose the one and encourage the other.
So then – what about us rich Christians? Stott considers the options of ‘voluntary poverty’ on the one hand, and what might be called ‘prosperity theology’ on the other, which sees wealth as a sign of God’s blessing to be claimed and used however we like. Whilst recognising that some may be called to voluntarily give up their possessions, Stott is very clear that maintaining wealth is deeply problematic for the follower of Jesus, and he does not mince his words:
‘In the light of these additional biblical truths, and of the contemporary destitution of millions, it is not possible for affluent Christians to ‘stay rich’, in the sense of accepting no modification of economic lifestyle. We cannot maintain a ‘good life’ (of extravagance) and a ‘good conscience’ simultaneously. One or other has to be sacrificed. Either we keep our conscience and reduce our affluence, or we keep our affluence and smother our conscience. We have to choose between God and mammon.’[iii]
Rather than those two options of becoming poor or staying rich, Stott encourages us towards a life of simplicity, generosity, and contentment as the most appropriate way of responding to poverty and living ‘in solidarity with the poor’.[iv]
Listening to the Lord of justice
I have deeply appreciated reading this chapter and being reminded again of some fundamental truths around the call of the people of God to be actively engaged in the situations of poverty that we see in our world. At the start of my adult life, I came to my own understanding of this as God led me deeper into his word and into a realisation that the God I worshipped was the Lord of justice, who expected his people to be ‘spending themselves on behalf of the hungry and satisfying the needs of the oppressed’ (Isaiah 58:10). Spending time sitting on the pavements of Cambridge with homeless folk, walking through the slums of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, and moving to live on a council estate in my home city, all contributed to a deep desire to follow Jesus where the need is greatest.
Dave Bookless from A Rocha is focusing on Stott’s chapter on ‘Caring for Creation’,[v] so I shall leave him to speak to that, as I know he will do eloquently. But as we consider these issues of poverty and Stott’s challenge to a life of simplicity, we cannot talk about poverty without considering our current ecological crisis, as the two are absolutely interlinked. We cannot care about people without thinking about the land they live on, the seas they fish in, the air they breathe. And we cannot care about ecosystems and other species without thinking about the people that share those spaces and the impact they/we have, whether through extreme poverty or extreme wealth.
The link with poverty is not the only reason for caring for the wider natural world – I believe that wider creation care is important because the whole world, fundamentally, is loved by God and valuable to him. Nonetheless, although Stott located his thinking about simplicity, generosity, and contentment primarily within the context of poverty, for me, my own thinking on those subjects has gone hand-in-hand with both poverty and our worsening environmental crisis (and I know Stott would not disagree with me on that).
Poverty and simplicity, now…
How needed are John Stott’s words for us today!
Prior to the arrival of Covid-19, the number of people in extreme poverty was below 10% of the global population. The fall-out from the Covid-19 pandemic, however, has created ‘the greatest shock to poverty reduction this century’, tipping more than 100 million people back into extreme poverty (earning below $1.90 USD per day), and potentially also tipping hundreds of millions more below the $5.50 USD poverty line. This means 2021 has the highest number of people (over 700 million) in extreme poverty since the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals were created in 2015. This poverty shock is leading to job losses and dramatic reduction in incomes, with the urban poor particularly hard hit. We are faced with a growing tragedy of climate breakdown, conflict, migration, failed states, food and water insecurity, and gender-based violence.
This is not how the world was created to be.
At Tearfund, our understanding of poverty is rooted in a biblical understanding of relationships: that we were created for shalom – to be in relationship with God, other people, the wider natural world, and with ourselves – and that poverty comes from those relationships being broken:
Poverty is the result of a social and structural legacy of broken relationships with God, a distorted understanding of self, unjust relationships between people, and exploitative relationships with the environment. These broken relationships not only affect individuals’ lives, decisions and actions, but also create broken systems, leading to problems such as power imbalances and corrupt governments. These fractures are made worse by conflicts and natural disasters, many of which also have roots in the broken relationships between God, humanity and wider creation.[vi]
For me, it is that relational framework that has taken me deeper into understanding the call to simplicity, generosity, and contentment – a call that I have tried, however unsuccessfully, to live out in my own life.
There is so much that I could write about here (so much indeed that I wrote a whole PhD thesis on simplicity and consumerism!), but I want to pull out three things that for me have been important as I have attempted to discover a Christian understanding of simplicity, and live it out on my particular frontline:
First, simplicity is not Christian simplicity unless it is rooted in justice. [vii]
I have discovered that simplicity can actually be fundamentally selfish – rooted in a desire to avoid the more harmful trappings of consumerism in order to build a better and more fulfilled life for oneself. That in itself need not be wrong – Jesus came to give us life to the full, and we are not called to a life of extreme self-abnegation. Our contemporary society can lead to us feeling overwhelmed and mentally crowded as we face pressure to conform and demonstrate a perfect life with a beautiful house, beautiful family, beautiful holiday, and beautiful body. Focusing instead on living more simply can be incredibly releasing and beneficial to our wellbeing. There are steps we can take to help us move towards that. Avoiding magazines or online platforms that put out pressurising messages; developing practices of Christ-focused meditation and mindfulness; resisting the desire to impulse buy; and spending more time connecting with the natural world are all helpful.
But for simplicity to be truly Christ-centred, it should also be other-centred: focused on limiting our consumption and on consuming in ways that do not damage other people and the wider world. I have written about this much more fully in both Just Living and L is for Lifestyle, but this emphasis challenges us to think about things like the food we eat, the clothes we buy, how and where we go on holiday – doing these things in ways that are mindful of the impact we have and making choices both to consume less and to consume better.
Second, simplicity walks a fine line between loving the material world too much and not loving it enough.
Following on from the first point, as Christians living in our globalised consumer culture, we are faced with two extremes. The one is that we become immersed in the culture around us and our faith becomes a ‘therapeutic narcissism’ whereby Jesus is there to meet my needs and give me what I want. Of course, there is some truth in that – I do believe God is a good God who wants good for me. But Jesus also told us that following him would involve ‘carrying our cross’, and so living sacrificially is a key part of the Christian faith. Where do you see that tension in your own life? Maybe at work… maybe at church… are there areas where God asks you to follow him in ways that are uncomfortable and challenging? How will you respond?
The other is that we take simplicity so far that we retreat into a world-denying, self-depriving Gnosticism. Many of us will have inherited a theology that denigrates being involved in issues of societal and environmental care and that fails to appreciate that this world is ‘very good’ (Genesis 1:31), coming from a God who is himself very good. Biblical simplicity teaches us a healthy attitude towards the material world so that we can enjoy it but not abuse it. So take some time to get out into God’s world! Go for a slow walk and notice what you see, smell, hear, and touch. Get your hands into the soil and grow something in your garden or balcony or in a public space with a community group. Learn the birdsong and the wild flowers that are sharing your spaces.
Third, the micro and the macro work together in a life of simplicity.
The challenges of poverty and environmental breakdown are huge and overwhelming and will not be solved by lifestyle changes alone. We also need to be calling on governments and businesses to put into place policies and practices that work in favour of both people and planet and bring about change at the macro level. This year in particular is a key year, with the UN Climate Change talks (called COP26) taking place in Glasgow in November. The steps towards simplicity we must all take play an important part in building a movement that tells our politicians and business leaders that we want change. But on their own they are not enough.
Tearfund has put together a whole set of excellent resources to help us advocate in this area: resources to get your church learning, talking, and taking action, and resources to help you pray for this crucial year. Have a look at them here and let’s stand and work together in prayer and action for a better world.
Conclusion: just listening today…
Simplicity releases us into a life of generosity – towards God, other people, the wider natural world, and even ourselves – and contentment releases us into a life of simplicity. It has been my experience that undergirding all of that is gratitude: gratitude leads to contentment, which leads to simplicity, which leads to generosity (Philippians 4:10–13; 1 Timothy 6:6–10).
Attempting to live such a life brings its challenges for sure, but my goodness, it also brings joy and laughter.[viii]
Global Advocacy and Influencing Director, Tearfund
[i] Chapter 11 in John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today [hereafter IFCT], 4th ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006 ), 295–321.
[ii] IFCT, 308. The citations are Stott quoting Professor Kosuke Koyama’s expression at the 1980 World Conference on Mission and Evangelism, held in Melbourne 1980. See Your Kingdom Come (Geneva: WCC, 1980), 161.
[iii] IFCT, 313.
[iv] IFCT, 315. [Ed. – this conviction of integrity in witness through adopting a materially humble way of life, was similarly carried by the Lausanne Movement which Stott indelibly imprinted as Chairman, in the 1980 consultation and consequent Lausanne Occasional Paper 20, ‘An Evangelical Commitment to Simple Life-Style’, online here.]
[v] Chapter 5 in IFCT, 135–160.
[vi] See Anna Ling and Hannah Swithinbank, with Seren Boyd and Paul Sturrock, ‘Understanding Poverty: Restoring Broken Relationships’ (Tearfund, 2019).
[vii] For much more detail and nuanced exploration of these first two points, see my Just Living: Faith and Community in an Age of Consumerism (London: Hodder, 2016).
[viii] I have written much more about all the issues in this article in my various books, such as L is for Lifestyle: Christian Living that Doesn’t Cost the Earth. Please do take a look: https://ruthvalerio.net/publications/. [Ed. – see also Ruth’s LICC talk, ‘Everyday Ethics’, from March 22, 2021, where she explores how our discipleship informs our ethics and how our ethics shape our lives, day by day.]