I’ve been waiting to hear you address this question, Pastor John, and I’m glad we got around to it this summer. It’s a question that comes in from a listener named Kelsey. “Hello, Pastor John! What are the differences and possible similarities between ‘wartime living’ and what has recently been called ‘minimalism’? Is wartime living minimalism? Perhaps minimalism, while broadly popular, is a passing fad for the elite. In your mind, what distinguishes them from one another?”
I understand a little bit of this newer expression called minimalism. It seems to me to be a loose trend in our culture to own fewer things and strip down the complexities of life to the basics. It seems to largely be driven by a desire for greater self-realization and greater happiness. The New York Times describes one advocate like this:
He gave up his permanent home, life goals and negative emotions. He threw away his college diploma, which had been gathering dust in storage. (“I don’t hold onto all the things society tells me to hold onto.”) He now carries nothing but a bag of clothes and a backpack containing a computer, an iPad and a smartphone. “I have zero other possessions,” he writes, and thanks to this, he has found peace as a wandering techno-ascetic — Silicon Valley’s version of Zen monkhood.
The article goes on like this:
From tiny houses to microapartments to monochromatic clothing to interior-decorating trends — picture white walls interrupted only by succulents — less now goes further than ever. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the minimalism glut, as the word can be applied to just about anything. The nearly four million images tagged #minimalism on Instagram include white sneakers, clouds, the works of Mondrian, neon signs, crumbling brick walls and grassy fields. So long as it’s stylishly austere, it seems, it’s minimalist. . . . Minimalism is now conflated with self-optimization.
That’s a glimpse from the New York Times summarizing what we’re talking about. It appears that it’s no single trend or movement but a loose set of tendencies in our culture to react against the complexities and pressures of ownership and maintaining lots of stuff in the modern world that saps our strength, makes us feel like slaves to our possessions rather than masters of our fate.
“Any kind of austerity pursued in a wartime lifestyle is not based on any intrinsic evil in the created world.”
Of course, at 71 years old, this is not the least bit new to me. In the ’70s, I can remember so clearly because I was part of it, there was a great outburst of simple living. Literature had just been rolling off the press with the same kinds of arguments about the same kinds of things with not as much technology to deal with. I suspect this will last for a while and then fade until another form of the same reaction and tendency breaks out.
Kelsey’s question, I think, is “How does this recent expression differ from wartime lifestyle?” I’ve been talking about wartime lifestyles for about thirty years. I think it first came out of my preaching in the mid-1980s or so, and it had a very definite origin, which I’ll mention in a minute. Let me say six things about what I mean by wartime lifestyle. I think with every one of these six, it will be manifestly clear how, in terms of worldview at least, it differs from the current minimalist fad.
The World Is Good
First, a wartime lifestyle, as I mean it, is rooted in a view of this world as created by God and intended by him to be subdued, as Genesis 1 says. Paul says in 1 Timothy 4:4–5, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” Any kind of austerity pursued in a wartime lifestyle is not based on any intrinsic evil in the created world.
Life in the Middle of War
Second, a wartime lifestyle is rooted in the biblical conviction that since the fall of the world into sin, futility, and corruption, a war has been going on of the most serious kind between God and Satan — between God’s purposes of redemption and Satan’s purposes of destruction. We read in Ephesians:
Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. (Ephesians 6:11–13)
One of the aims of wartime teaching, as I have tried to represent it, is to wake up the church, especially in the West, that has simply settled in to a peacetime mentality with no sense of urgency for the warfare we are in. I mean, if you took the temperature — the military-warfare temperature of the average Western Christian — I doubt that it would sound too urgent.
A World Full of Enticement
Third, since we are fallen now and sinful in our desires, the world that God created around us with all of its cares and pleasures is not only a created good to be subdued and enjoyed; it is a danger to be guarded against.
“The ordinary pleasures of life are not simply good; they are also mortally dangerous to the soul.”
Jesus in the parable of the soils tries to explain why so many people don’t mature in hearing the word of God. The third example goes like this: “And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life” — he’s not just taking about sinful ones. “And their fruit does not mature” (Luke 8:14). In other words, the ordinary riches that John Piper has all around me — the ordinary pleasures of life — are not simply good; they are also mortally dangerous to the soul.
The wartime lifestyle puts us on red alert not to be naïve that God’s good creation is not only good. Because of our sin and because of Satan, anything good can destroy us. A wartime footing is essential lest the enemy of our souls get the upper hand.
Pick Up Your Cross
Fourth, therefore Jesus calls us to a real self-denial in following him. He says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). In other words, genuine discipleship in this kind of embattled world necessarily includes self-denial.
“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God,” says Paul in Colossians 3:3. We are now exiles and sojourners on the earth. Our true wealth is in heaven. Our aim here is to glorify Christ by showing him to be supremely valuable — not our possessions. That is going to imply a certain level of self-denial.
Not the Status Quo
Fifth, this is where the truth of wartime living really took root and came from in my teaching thirty years ago. The aim of wartime living is not that we go without. We are able to accomplish more things by a reallocation of resources from self-gratification to mission penetration. That’s where it began.
“The aim of wartime living is not that we go without, but to glorify God, for the good of other people and our joy.”
It began with Ralph Winter, one of my favorite missionary heroes who is now with the Lord. He was great statesman in this day. Huge influence on me. He pointed out that in the Second World War the luxury ocean liner, Queen Mary, was transformed into a troop transport. This was wartime use of a luxury liner, and he described in detail the dramatic changes. How so many people slept in a room — like twelve instead of three. The kind of utensils that were used in the now-called mess hall instead of the beautiful dining room. On and on he goes, creating a sense for us that during World War II there were changes. Life didn’t just go on as usual.
He stressed that God’s people, in a prosperous land like America, simply cannot live as though there were not thousands of unreached people groups who are under enemy control. We have from our commander in chief a commission to go. We have the most powerful liberating bomb in the world called the gospel. Therefore, to just carry on our lives in this country as though it were a peacetime shows how out of touch we are with biblical reality.
For Our Joy
Sixth, the last thing is that the New Testament makes abundantly clear that in all our recognition of satanic reality and in all of our awareness of the danger of riches in this world and in all of our embrace of self-denial and in all of our pursuit of missions and the reallocation of our resources, we find, in fact, the greatest joy both in this world and in the world to come.
Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). It is more joyful to advance the cause of Christ than accumulate wealth and comforts. When God calls us to the Calvary road of cross bearing and ministry (this is why Desiring God exists to make this point), he calls us onto the road of maximum joy, even if it costs us our lives. Jesus made that clear in Matthew 13:44 with that little favorite parable that we love saying: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”
I’m sitting here waving my arms because this is just so much what I want. I want to be one who knows how much I need to sell — how much I need to give away — not because I’m going to be unhappy, but because this is the path to true joy.
In his joy, in his joy, he embraces the lifestyle that will glorify God. Rescue people from suffering — especially eternal suffering. That’s the goal of wartime living. Wartime lifestyle lives to glorify God, for the good of other people, and for our joy.