Combating False Simplicity

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I just wrote a post where I argued that we make life too complicated. We allow ourselves to get bogged down in vague doubt instead of doing what we know to do. But we also have a problem with clinging to simplistic narratives. Sometimes our Christian rhetoric starts to seem hopelessly out of touch, as if loving Jesus more makes all of our problems go away and we live happily ever after. There’s a tension here, because there is something delightfully simple about the gospel. But too often, what we think is beautiful simplicity is really just tired platitudes stuck on repeat. While it might seem strange for me to be writing an article on false simplicity as the sequel to an article about the simplicity of doing, I’m not sure this is as ironic as it sounds. Sometimes it’s a false simplicity that clouds our vision and keeps us from making choices that truly are simple.

As you read this, you might be wondering if you should change churches, start a new job, or enter a new relationship. Such questions can be agonizingly difficult. In such cases, it’s not helpful to pretend there’s a straightforward answer. We all have dilemmas like this that we’ve faced and are still facing. But simultaneously, there are things in our lives where we know what to do. We know to walk in sexual purity. We know to cultivate a consistent prayer life. We know to refrain from telling lies. So for a little definitional clarity, when I speak of true simplicity, I’m referring to when it’s clear what we ought to do. False simplicity occurs when we pretend that the solution is straightforward but can’t point to any clear action we should take. 

I should detail a little more about this false simplicity, though. Much of it stems from a belief that our walk with God is something primarily mystical, disconnected from clear effort on our part. Often statements are made that are true on a broad level, but not in how they are applied. For instance, someone might say something like, “If we’d all just love God and each other, then we wouldn’t have all these problems in the church.” Now clearly a love for God and each other will indeed put us on a good track if we’re wanting to resolve conflict. But this is a kind of truism, and doesn’t acknowledge the reality that well-meaning brothers and sisters who believe in loving each other still have difficulties to work through. In the middle of a challenging situation, saying something like this is unhelpful, likely a symptom of conflict avoidance. Or maybe someone is considering their personal life and noticing that bad habits have been building. Saying, “If I could just love Jesus more, then I wouldn’t be in this mess” is obviously true in one sense, but can easily be a deflection of personal responsibility. 

Sometimes we make rather grandiose statements that on the surface seem to show that we’re taking our spiritual lives very seriously. For whatever reason, we’re slow to call this out, even in cases where it’s obviously hyperbolic. If someone makes a commitment to do something practical, like making sure they get up earlier for a better quiet time, reaction is often muted. But if someone says they’ve renounced living for themselves and are only going to live for God, people get excited. Now I don’t want to discredit radical conversion experiences and moments of deep transformation where the core of one’s being changes and everyday life truly does undergo radical shifts—this can happen. But let’s face it: most times we hear a statement like this, it dies down after a couple of weeks. Someone who has been truly transformed is going to live differently, not just make touching statements at church services. It would be better to make a concrete commitment than to allow emotion to carry us away with a commitment that’s vague and doesn’t clearly lead to different actions tomorrow. 

True simplicity is disarmingly beautiful, speaking directly to us, yet with a kind of depth we could explore for a lifetime. This is what makes being a Christian unlike anything else in the world. The reality of God’s love and forgiveness makes the complexities of life pale in comparison. Life makes sense, but in a way that we know will keep us returning for more. Perhaps nothing illustrates this paradoxical simplicity and unfathomable depth more than the two greatest commands, as given in the Mosaic law and reiterated by Jesus. We’re to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and then extend the same love to our neighbor. There’s something about this that resonates deeply with us: we know what it means, yet the mystery of fully knowing what it means can only begin to be discovered in a lifetime. 

But I want us to think about this. If we say we love God, this is going to take over our whole being. There isn’t room for either cold intellectualism or mere displays of emotion. If we truly take just these two commands—loving God and each other—and take time to let them sink in, we’ll avoid a host of bad doctrine and personal error. Too often, though, we’ll hear someone make an impassioned statement about God—or a detached attempt to articulate doctrine—that entirely misses one of the elements in these verses. There’s talk of a love of God with no attempt to think about what he says. Or there’s talk of loving others disconnected from a biblical view of God’s holiness. And this is where a supposed attempt at simplicity goes wrong. Quite frankly, it isn’t simple to think that emotional feelings about God—without thoughtful application—will lead to a transformed life. It doesn’t; we’ll expend a lot of energy repeating something that would be true if viewed in fuller light but is woefully inadequate when reduced to something trite.

If we have a view of God that doesn’t transform both our heart and mind, then we’re likely to miss what should be simple. But sadly, we regularly see people who are stuck in a rut of making emotional statements about loving God without knowing how to apply it. Many times such people are well-intentioned and they no doubt grow discouraged when proclaiming their love for God fails to lead to consistent change. And no, continuing to make disconnected emotional statements about loving God isn’t going to help. 

I rush to add that the issue isn’t that these people are too emotional. We know that we are to love God with all of our heart, so we should be people of deep emotion. But that’s just it: there’s something refreshingly different about emotions rooted in a love for God that has been tested and applied through action. This is where we marvel at God’s wisdom in making us people who both think and feel. When God asks us to love with all of our heart and mind, there is the implication that full involvement of both should happen simultaneously. Nor is it possible to think or feel too much; better thinking regulates our emotions while healthy, vibrant emotion clears our thinking.

In short, I think much false simplicity is rooted in failure to have beliefs that lead to action. As Christians, there’s an appropriate mystery in our view of God and his plan for the world; a pure love for God is filled with wonder at his beauty. But we can’t confuse this delight with mystery that thinks that abstract emotion for God will magically transform our existence without intentionality on our part. When we love God well, we are changed, becoming more and more like him (2 Cor. 3:18). There is something magical about this process! But it’s also truly simple, because God is faithful and rewards those who diligently seek him (Hebrews 11:6). We will still be imperfect, but we will rejoice as we see God’s transformative work.

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About the Author:

Drew Barnard is a musician, writer, and a lover of good conversation. He believes that a pursuit of God should lead to a whole-hearted engagement of the mind and emotions. Raised in a Christian home, Drew watched his parents move into the Anabaptist circles at a young age. After his father left the family when he was sixteen, Drew faced many questions about his purpose in life and learning how to discern God’s will. As a result of these experiences, he is passionate about seeing others faithfully serving Christ, regardless of trying circumstances.

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