Simplify: A Word from the Sand About Cutting the Chaos and Complication of Life

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Simplify

Last year results were released from a significant study on simplicity.[i] Father and son Thom and Art Rainer asked more than one thousand Americans about their pace, their schedules, and their quality of life.  The Rainer’s found that a vast majority of us are longing for simpler lives.  We long for more balance and less busyness, for increased flexibility and decreased complexity.  We yearn for time to just enjoy life.  We long for simplicity.

Specifically, the Rainer’s found that we seek simplicity in four areas:

  • Schedules.  We want a better balance in our schedules so that we have time for areas of life that really matter to us.
  • Relationships.  We long for better and closer relationships and friendship.
  • Finances.  We dream of a life free from past-due bills, diminishing income, or increasing debt.
  • Spirituality.  We are too busy for God and need a simpler life in order to get closer to him.

This national study found that we seek simplicity in our schedules, relationships, finances, and spirituality.

The authors write “Busyness has consumed us. In our survey we were amazed to see that approximately 44 percent of respondents agreed that if their daily life continued at the current pace, they would probably have health problemsOf course, not just our physical health is suffering. Our families are also impacted…Some 57 percent of married survey respondents admitted that they rarely are able to go on a date with their spouses…We asked if their family members were able to relax and enjoy one another. Only 13 percent agreed strongly that they could…In our survey more than 45 percent of the respondents admitted that they did not have enough income for their lifestyles. For many of us, money is a ball and chain attached around the ankle, limiting our life’s movement. Nearly seven out of ten…said that they needed to spend more time on spiritual matters. We seek simplicity in our schedules, relationships, finances, and spirituality.

This morning we begin a three-part series to address this need.  Our text will be Matthew’s account of the temptations of Jesus: 1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”  5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and set him on the pinnacle of the temple 6and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written, “‘He will command his angels concerning you,’   and “‘On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.’”  7Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. 9And he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” 10Then Jesus said to him, “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, “‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’”  11Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him. (Matt. 4:1-11ESV)

This story has three scenes.  The first scene, the focus of this morning’s lesson, takes place in the wilderness.  It’s the temptation on the sand.  The second scene takes place at the pinnacle of the temple.  Our modern equivalent might be a church steeple.  The final scene takes place on a very high mountain.  It’s the temptation on the summit.  Three scenes: sand, steeple, and summit.  And in each scene, we hear a word from Jesus.

This may seem like a story that has nothing to do with simplifying our lives.  But there are three reasons why I believe we need to hear this story.  The story of Jesus’ temptations empowers simplicity because 1) it speaks from poverty, 2) it speaks to purpose, and 3) it speaks about piety.

First, this is a story that speaks from poverty.  We witness Jesus at his poorest.  He is poor on the outside.  He has no closet full of clothes or pantry full of food.  He has no friends nearby.  No neighbor next door.  And he is poor on the inside.  More than a month has passed since he has eaten anything.  One hundred and twenty meal-times have come and gone without Jesus pulling up a chair to a table.  Jesus speaks to us in this text from poverty.  And that’s exactly what we need.  For many of us, the insanity of our lives is tied to the standard of our living.  For many of us there is a direct correlation between our wealth and our worry, between our budgets and our busyness.  We need a word from someone who has nothing.  We need someone to speak out of poverty and provide a radically different perspective.

Second, this is a story that speaks to purpose.  As Jesus walks into the wilderness, his hair is still dripping from his baptism.  The spirit descended upon Jesus and a divine voice proclaimed, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”  That baptism was Jesus’ inauguration.  It was his coronation.  It was the beginning of his public ministry.  But before Jesus takes another public step, he must face challenging questions of purpose.  What will his ministry focus on?  How will his ministry focus on it?  Each temptation is linked to some aspect of Jesus’ purpose—his ministry and his mission.  And for many of us, the chaos of our lives is a function of our struggle with purpose.  The purpose we are pursuing by its very nature brings with it chaos and clutter.  We need a chance to reflect on our purpose if we are to gain serenity and simplicity.

Finally, this is a story that speaks about piety.  By “piety,” I mean the spiritual world.  There are many resources available to help you simplify your life.  From Oprah to Amazon there are thousands of resources telling you how to simplify life.  But what many of them miss is that the stress of our lives is a spiritual issue.  The story of Jesus’ temptations reminds us that one of the primary sources of chaos is an evil being called the devil.  If we truly seek simplicity we will have to deal with the devil.  Chaos and frenzy are spiritual problems which demand spiritual solutions.  And the story of Jesus’ temptations gives us that perspective.

Let’s return to the scene from the sand: 1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

This discussion between Jesus and the devil focuses on “life.”  Jesus says, “Man shall not live by bread alone.”  The word translated “live” is the word zoe.  There is another Greek word for “life” or “live.”  It’s the word bios. Bios is the word we use for “biology” or “biography.”  Sometimes zoe and bios can be synonyms. But at other times there is an important difference.  C. S. Lewis writes about this difference:[ii] The Biological sort which comes to us through Nature, and which (like everything else in Nature) is always tending to run down and decay so that it can only be kept up by incessant subsidies from Nature in the form of air, water, food, etc. is Bios. The Spiritual life which is in God from all eternity, and which made the whole universe, is Zoe.  Bios has, to be sure, a certain shadowy or symbolic resemblance to Zoe: but only the sort of resemblance there is between a photo and a place, or a statue and a man.”  Bios is the natural life which winds down and decays.  Zoe is the spiritual life which persists and remains vibrant.  Bios compared to Zoe is like the statue compared to the man.  And the word Jesus uses in the scene from the sand is zoe. Jesus wants to talk about what it means to have zoe—real and abundant life that doesn’t wind down.

Author Michael Schut provides a similar distinction.  He writes that most of us have chosen to pursue the “good life” and are missing the “abundant life.”[iii] The “good life” is the American dream.  It’s the two-story house, two-car garage, two-children, two-pets and two-incomes.  It’s vacations out of town.  The lake house.  The gym membership.  The golf clubs and cruises.  Many of us are pursuing the “good life.”  But like bios, the “good life,” winds down and must be constantly propped up.  And it leads to chaos and fatigue and busyness.  But there is another life—the “abundant life.”  It’s a life of simplicity and generosity.  It’s the life of having little and loving a lot.  Like zoe the “abundant life” is deep and vibrant and constant.

And when Jesus speaks in the sand, he speaks of zoe not bios.  He speaks of the “abundant life,” not the “good life.”  What we will learn in the sand is that simplicity is a product of abundant life rather than the good life.  Jesus wants to talk on the sand about how to live.  And what he means by “life” is not what we often mean by “life.”  He means zoe.  He means something that’s deep and vibrant and everlasting.  He means something more akin to “abundant life” than the “good life.”

And this calls for a choice.  Because simply put, most of us cannot hold on to the life we’ve chosen—the “good life”—and find simplicity.  The harsh reality is that a simple life is incompatible with the “good life” most of us are pursuing.  You cannot achieve the American dream and have a simple life.  Simplicity and serenity will only come when exchange the “good life” for the “abundant life.”  If we truly want to live, we’ll need to pursue the “abundant life.”

But what does that look like?  Let’s return once more to our scene from the sand: 1 Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

The devil focuses Jesus’ attention on Jesus’ hunger.  Jesus has fasted forty days and nights.  The tempter focuses Jesus’ attention on that hunger.  He tells Jesus to turn the stones to bread.  “What really matters,” the tempter seems to be saying “is the satisfaction of your needs.”  “Jesus, what you ought to do is focus on the satisfaction of your needs.  Turn those stones into bread.”

And that’s what the “good life” is about, isn’t it?  It’s about the satisfaction of our every need.  The good life is about pursuing all that stuff we feel is necessary to living the life we are entitled to live.  Yet a life spent satisfying our needs will ultimately bring chaos and heartache with it.  James Dobson tells this story:[iv] Several months ago, I talked to a man who described one of the most painful experiences of his life. When he was 17-years-old, he was one of the stars on his high school football team. But his father, a very successful man in the city, was always too busy to come see him play.  The final game of the season came around, which happened to have been the state championship. The boy was desperate to have his dad there. The night of the big game, he was on the field, warming up, when he looked into the stadium just in time to see his father arrive with two other men, each wearing a business suit. They stood talking together for a moment or two and then left.  The man who told me this story is now 58 years of age, and yet he had tears streaming down his cheeks as he relived that moment so long ago. It’s been 40 years since that night, and yet the rejection and pain are as vivid as ever. I was struck again by the awesome influence a father has in the lives of his children.  My friend’s father died not long ago, and as he stood by his dad’s body in the mortuary, he said: “Dad, I never really knew you. We could have shared so much love together—but you never had time for me.” Much of the chaos and clutter of our lives is caused by the fact that we’ve chosen to focus on satisfying our needs as the good life defines them. We’ve gotten caught up in fulfilling our dreams as the good life defines them.  But a life focused on satisfying our needs brings only wreckage.

Jesus denies Satan’s request.  Instead, Jesus says that humans do “not live by bread alone “—by satisfying our needs.  Abundant life or zoe life results from “every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  The first time those words were spoken they came from the mouth of Moses as he reminded the Israelites about their time in the wilderness.  They had been thirsty.  They had experienced hunger.  But what they most needed in the wilderness was God.  Bread and water could bring them bios.  But only God could bring them zoe.  Thus Moses told them that if they truly wanted to live, what they needed was God.

Jesus is showing that the abundant life comes from prioritizing submission to God over satisfaction of needs. When we prioritize satisfaction of our needs, the result is the chaos and frantic life we are so used to.  But when we prioritize submission to God, the result is real life, abundant life.

Notice that the devil did not merely tempt Jesus with bread.  He tempted Jesus to turn those stones to bread by himself:  “Command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  The devil was tempting Jesus to take matters into his own hands.  Not only was the satisfaction of need of greatest priority.  But if that need was going to be filled, Jesus would have to do it himself.  If Jesus was going to eat, it would be all up to him.

And that is another root of the chaotic lives we live.  We tend to live with this sense that “It’s all up to me.”  “If the needs I’ve defined in my life are ever going to be met, it’s all up to me.  So, I’m going to have to work extra long, I’m going to  have to do whatever it takes to get the job done, and I’m going to have to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to see things through.  It’s all up to me.  If bread is what I want, then I’m going to have to turn those stones to bread myself.”  That’s our attitude at work—“If that’s going to get done, and done right, I’m going to have to do it myself.”  That’s our attitude at home—“If this family’s problems are ever going to be resolved, it’s all up to me.”  That’s our attitude in school—“If I’m ever going to be popular it’s all up to me.  I’ll have to play a sport, make straight A’s, join the student council, buy the best clothes, and have the latest technology.  It’s all up to me.”

I think this is what lies behind our constant phone-checking.[v] According to a 2009 survey by Qwest Communications, 47 percent of Americans say they can last an hour at most before feeling “antsy” about checking email, instant messaging, or other social networking sites.  We can’t stay out of the loop, because something might happen that we might miss.  An email might come in with critical information we need.  “If this job, if this relationship, if this family’s going to succeed, it’s up to me.  So I’m going to make myself available every second of the day and check my phone every single hour.”

But Jesus shows that the abundant life comes from exchanging “It’s all up to me” for “It’s all up to Him.” When Jesus says, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” he’s saying, “Life comes from God.”  Remember that these words were first spoken by Moses.  Here’s some of the context: And you shall remember the whole way that the LORD your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness…And he…fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.  Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years. (Deut. 8:2-4 ESV).  Moses reminded the Israelites how God provided for them.  They did not feed themselves.  God fed them.  They did not fill their needs.  God did.  In the same way, Jesus is telling the devil that the Father is the one who led him into the desert and the Father is the one who will lead him out. [vi] God provided in Moses’ wilderness.  And God would provide in Jesus’ wilderness.  The Tempter is trying to get Jesus to buy into “It’s all up to me.”  But Jesus responds with “It’s all up to Him.”

When we prioritize submission to God over satisfaction of our needs, a more simple life follows.  And when we give up thinking “It’s all up to me” and start trusting “It’s all up to him,” a more simple life follows.  That’s the word Jesus has for us in the sand.

But how does this play out in practical ways?  I’ve spent the last few weeks reading through resources about simplifying life.  I’ve compiled a list of the best practical steps these authors recommend.  There are several ways you can receive these steps and pray about them: 1) follow me on Twitter or befriend me on Facebook and I’ll tweet and post several of these simple tips each day for the next three weeks; 2) visit the church website to see a tip of the day and the entire list; 3) I’ll provide a paper copy of all of these tips on the final Sunday of this series.

[i] Thom S. Rainer & Art Rainer, Simple Life (B & H Publishing, 2009).

[ii] C. S. Lewis Mere Christianity (Touchstone, 1980), 139-140.

[iii] Michael Schut, “The Good Life and the Abundant Life,” in Simpler Living, Compassionate Life edited by Michael Schut (Earth Ministry, 1999), 24-26.

[iv] James Dobson, Coming Home (Tyndale, 2000)

[v] Anne R. Carey and Sam Ward, “USA Today Snapshots: When do you start fretting about messages?” USA Today (5/28/09).

[vi] Dale Bruner, Matthew Volume 1: The Christbook Matthew 1-12 (Word, 1987),108.

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