By W. David Holden
In the 20th and 21st centuries the practice of voluntary simplicity has rightly become a central virtue for Christians and others for whom social justice and environmental stewardship are vital concerns. The concept and practice of voluntary simplicity, however, are much older. Voluntary poverty has been a central tenet of monasticism since the days of the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the fourth century. Voluntary poverty received renewed emphasis in the poverty movements of the Western Church in the late Middle Ages, most notably the asceticism of St. Francis of Assisi and his order of "lesser brothers." The Mennonites, among whom are the Amish, and the Society of Friends (better known as Quakers) also made it a central practice of their traditions.
While the phrase "voluntary simplicity" is modern, the concept is to be found in the Scriptures of Judaism and Christianity.
The writers of the Bible taught that human beings are to treat the earth as a garden, and in the past century it has become obvious that the earth will not be a garden for long if we continue to practice unbridled consumerism.
The Bible's authors taught that wealthy people have obligations toward the poor. They also taught that gluttony, greed, and vainglory are obstacles in the relationship of human beings with God. These vices contradict Biblical teaching about wealth, which is always a gift to human beings from the boundless riches of God. They also refute the trust that the Lord will provide for human beings.
When researching biblical concepts, students customarily explore key words, in this case the terms "simple" and "simplicity" and the like, to see whether they refer to voluntary simplicity in a way similar to the way that phrase is used today.
The words "simple" and "simplicity" do in fact occur in English translations of the Bible, but they do not refer to voluntary simplicity in the sense that we have come to understand it in the past century. In the New Revised Standard Version, for example, the English word "simple" translates forms of the Hebrew word peti (). This word comes from a verb that means "open." It refers to a person who is open to outside influences, whether for good or for bad. As an illustration of this meaning, Proverbs 14:15 reads, "The simple believe everything, but the clever consider their steps." The same translation also has the adverb "simply" in three passages and the noun phrase "simple-minded" in one, but never in reference to the virtue of voluntary simplicity.
If the concept of voluntary simplicity is to be found in the Bible, it is more elusive than finding a word or word-family. If it is to be found, it must be embedded in other teachings. It seems to the present writer that it is found in three contexts: in the those passages that might be called the simplicity proverbs, in teachings about modesty, and teachings about quietness.
The Simplicity Proverbs:
The writers of the Bible taught the concept of voluntary simplicity in sayings in the wisdom literature that I call the simplicity proverbs. These are found in the books of Proverbs, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Sirach. All of these proverbs declare that it is better to live a simple life than to perpetuate some kind of evil. Here are four such proverbs.
Proverbs 15:16: "Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble with it." The fear of the Lord is, as Scripture says several times, the beginning of wisdom. The "trouble" referred to here is of a very particular kind. The Hebrew word is mehumah (), which refers to a tumult or uproar. The meaning here is perhaps indicated by Amos 3:9-10,10 which reads:
Proclaim to the strongholds of Ashdod, and to the strongholds in the land of Egypt, and say, "Assemble yourselves on Mount Samaria, and see what great tumults are within it, and what great oppressions are in its midst." They do not know how to do right, says the Lord, Those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds.
The point of the proverb is that obeying the divine commands to do justice to others may require one to lead a simple life.
Proverbs 17:1: "Better is a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife." The second half of this proverb has been paraphrased in the New Revised Standard Version. The Hebrew literally says, "than a house full of the sacrifices of strife." The ancient Israelites ate little meat. Livestock were more important for wool, milk, and work than for meat. To kill one's livestock was unthrifty; one would do so only for good reasons. One reason to kill an animal was as an act of worship. When an animal was offered in sacrifice, the person who offered it usually ate it. Therefore, a house full of sacrifices would be a house full of feasting on choice food. But strife ruins any feast. The proverb means that a very simple meal, the merest mouthful of dry bread, when accompanied by some prosperity and peace and quiet, is to be preferred over delicacies with conflicts and legal disputes.
Psalm 37:16: "Better is a little that the righteous person has than the abundance of many wicked." (Septuagint: 36:16) The word for "wicked" (reshaim, ) can also be translated "cruel." The proverb means that if a person obedient to God owns only a little bit, it is to be preferred to the wealth of many people who oppress others.
Ecclesiastes 4:6: "Better is a handful with quiet than two handfuls with toil, and a chasing after wind." The writer of Ecclesiastes seems to have regarded all work as no more meaningful than a child's game of catching shadows. He said, "I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person's envy of another." While he may overstate his case, to the extent that envy motivates someone to work, his next observation is certainly on the mark: "This also is vanity and a chasing after wind." The toil to which he refers is meaningless, pointless work. In this proverb the Septuagint is somewhat more literal in its understanding of the Hebrew than is the English. The Septuagint reads, "Better is a handful of rest than two handfuls of trouble and waywardness of spirit." The meaning is that it would be better to have a single handful of anything than twice that much gained from a meaningless task.
The terms “modest” and “modesty” are rare in Scripture. They are not used in the New Revised Standard Version in its translation of the Hebrew Bible. The terms are used, however, to translate Greek terms in the books that Protestants call the Apocrypha and in the New Testament. Four Greek terms lie behind the English word, all of which may be translated with other English terms. Aidos in I Timothy 2:9 is a sense of shame; the cognate verb aideomai in II Maccabees 15:12 and IV Maccabees 8:3 means “to be ashamed to do something” or “to stand in awe, fear, or respect of someone.” These terms are used of both men and women: Paul in his letter to Timothy refers to the modesty of women, while the writers of the Books of Maccabees refer to the modesty of men. Another Greek term is aischynteros. which in Sirach 26:15 and 32:10 is an adjective meaning “bashful.” Also in Sirach (in 26:24) is the term euschemon, which means “elegant in figure,” “graceful,” or “becoming.” St. Paul uses the term for the virtue of temperance, sophrosyne, with the meaning of modesty in I Timothy 2:15.13
Clearly, the concept of voluntary simplicity can be derived from other teachings in the Scriptures. In the case of the teaching on modesty, however, St. Paul realized these implications himself. St. Paul wrote to Timothy, “Women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes” (I Timothy 2:9). The logic here is: If you are going to practice the virtue of modesty, then you must to some degree practice the virtue of voluntary simplicity. St. Peter gave a very similar instruction, but without referring directly to modesty. St. Peter, addressing the women in his churches, wrote, “Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing; rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God’s sight” (I Peter 3:3-4). In other words, if you wish to have a quiet and gentle spirit, then you must to some degree embrace voluntary simplicity.
Clearly, the concept of voluntary simplicity can be derived from other teachings in the Scriptures. In the case of the teaching on modesty, however, St. Paul realized these implications himself. St. Paul wrote to Timothy, "Women should dress themselves modestly and decently in suitable clothing, not with their hair braided, or with gold, pearls, or expensive clothes" (I Timothy 2:9). The logic here is: If you are going to practice the virtue of modesty, then you must to some degree practice the virtue of voluntary simplicity. St. Peter gave a very similar instruction, but without referring directly to modesty. St. Peter, addressing the women in his churches, wrote, "Do not adorn yourselves outwardly by braiding your hair, and by wearing gold ornaments or fine clothing; rather, let your adornment be the inner self with the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in God's sight" (I Peter 3:3-4). In other words, if you wish to have a quiet and gentle spirit, then you must to some degree embrace voluntary simplicity.
These verses, especially when combined with St. Paul's teaching about the length of hair that is appropriate to the two sexes and to the propriety of a head covering for women, have fueled controversies about how men and women should dress, in church and elsewhere. Some Christian traditions have been very strict, insisting that women should never cut their hair, never do anything with it other than wash and comb it, and never wear any kind of jewelry or make-up. Other traditions have been less strict, but have still taught that male-female differences should be mirrored in dress and grooming. The questions raised are not merely relics of the ancient world. Modesty for both men and women is connected with the practice of voluntary simplicity. However cultures may differ on the details of modesty, the practice of voluntary simplicity as it is understood by the Apostles will be expressed in clothing as well as other aspects of ordinary life.
The simplicity and modesty texts already noted connect the virtue of living simply with the virtue of living quietly.
Proverbs 15:16: "Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble with it."
Proverbs 17:1: “Better is a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife.” The word translated “quiet” is not common in the Hebrew Bible. The word is shalvah and it refers to being in a state of quiet, abundance, prosperity, or peace. The Septuagint reads, “Better is a morsel with pleasure in peace [meth’ hedones en eirene].”The term in the Septuagint (and the concept in the Hebrew text) connects voluntary simplicity with peace and peacemaking, one of the central concepts of the theology and ethics of the entire Bible.
Psalm 37:16: “Better is a little that the righteous person has than the abundance of many wicked.” Hamon is the Hebrew word translated “abundance.” The word also means “sound,” “murmur,” “rush,” or “roar.” It suggests loud and ostentatious wealth.
Ecclesiastes 4:6 contrasts quietness with trouble and futility: “Better is a handful with quiet than two handfuls with toil.” The author uses the Hebrew term nachat – more often translated “rest” than “quiet.” This noun is related to the verb nuach, which the Fourth Commandment uses in reference to the rest of the Lord after creating the world. The Septuagint translates that Hebrew word in Ecclesiastes with the Greek word anapausis, ordinarily translated “rest” in English. In the Fourth Commandment, the Septuagint uses a similar Greek term, katapauo. The Greek term in Ecclesiastes is also used in the great invitation of the Lord Jesus: “Come to Me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Ecclesiastes connects voluntary simplicity with the Sabbath, itself a foretaste of the Kingdom yet to come.
St. Peter, in his teaching on the dress appropriate to women, says that women should seek “the lasting beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (I Peter 3:4). The word translated “quiet” is the adjective hesychios. St. Paul used the verb related to this adjective when he said, “Aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your own hands” (I Thessalonians 4:11). In other passages of the New Testament the English versions translate it and its cognates not only with the term “quiet,” but also with the terms “cease,” “hold one’s peace,” “rest,” “silence,” and “peaceable.” This term is especially beloved to Orthodox Christians, who have developed a profound system of prayer and ascetic practice around the cultivation of inner quietness.
Living quietly and simply are not, strictly and logically speaking, the same thing. It is possible for a person to live simply, but also very much in the public eye. But the passages under consideration teach that this is not ordinarily the case. Ordinarily people who seek to live simply will also seek to live quietly, out of the view of the public and the powerful. Voluntary simplicity is therefore not only about avoiding sin and wrongdoing and expressing solidarity with the poor. It is a way to embody peace and peacemaking, to anticipate the Sabbath rest of the coming Reign of God over the world, and a way to practice the deep silence of attentive listening to God.
No single word or phrase in the Bible teaches the concept of voluntary simplicity. Concepts are not always designated, however, by single words or phrases. Sometimes people hold to a concept without using these linguistic conveniences.
Voluntary simplicity is such a concept. Voluntary simplicity is taught in some of the proverbs and in connection with the concept of modesty. Furthermore, when the concept of voluntary simplicity is presented in the Bible, it is often connected with the concept of quietness, which itself has connections with the great Biblical themes of peace, Sabbath, and silence before God. In this light, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that while voluntary poverty may be a special calling, a way of life that only a few people are to follow, voluntary simplicity is a universal obligation for those who already live prosperously.
The slogan "Live simply, that others may simply live" and similar modern sayings are more than worthy sentiments. Living simply, from a biblical viewpoint, is an ethical obligation of a high order.
W. David Holden studied biblical languages at Duke University and received a Master of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. His spiritual journey brought him to Orthodoxy in August 1999. He is a professional counselor and clinical addictions specialist. He and his family live in the country outside Boone, North Carolina.