Practices of Simplicity: Engagement and Abstinence

by Jan Johnson

van gogh (noon)

Noon – Rest from Work (after Millet), by Vincent Van Gogh

Practices of simplicity keep us from becoming bloated and swollen—unable to digest or use what we have taken in. Only as we say no to certain things do we create space to say yes to God and live adventurous, abundant lives full of relationships and meaning.

This process of choosing the engaging, relational life we were built to live is described by Pedro Arrupe:

Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you will do with your evening, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.

When people emphasize engagement disciplines to the neglect of abstinence practices, they may feel "filled up," but in reality they are likely to become agitated when things don't go their way or when others don't do what they want. They may know, practice and teach spiritual disciplines, but they still find themselves being impatient, egotistical or pushy.

This is because they have not blended engagement disciplines with abstinence disciplines, which prune away self-indulgence and willfulness—in other words, stubbornness (Jn 15:2). They train us to be sweet and content when we don't get what we want, whether it's a doughnut, a deserved recognition, a particular possession or others doing things our way.

Disciplines of engagement are like breathing in, and disciplines of abstinence are like breathing out. We need to exhale as well as inhale.

If we don't practice abstinence disciplines regularly, we find ourselves stuck. We become reliant on our own devices (yelling, manipulation) to get people to do things, or we turn to inappropriate sources of satisfaction (our job, Internet porn). We're unable to experience transformation no matter how much we pray or meditate because there's all this stuff in us that needs undoing.

We may not even be aware of the ingrained patterns of behavior we use to crush others and sabotage ourselves. We don't realize we're using words, possessions and busyness to feel important, to manage other people's opinions of us and, most of all, to get people to do what we want. An inner neediness of soul pushes us to indulge ourselves and get people to like us.

Think about how you felt the last few times you did something that led to twinges of regret: you said or spent too much, you tried too hard to impress someone, you put too much effort into trying to have fun, or you spent too many hours wandering the Internet or watching television because you were bored.

Simplicity disciplines empower us to temporarily give these things up. When we do, we see how deeply we have counted on them to (falsely) feel nurtured and acceptable. We also see how they suck up our time, drain our energy and create craziness in our inner life. Simplicity's undoing process creates space for God to work with our motives and thoughts. We begin to ask ourselves, Can I let go of this grudge, this dessert, this role, this incredible phone and rely on God to meet my needs instead? Then, once our neediness of soul becomes clear, we can turn to disciplines of engagement to find the specific kind of nourishment we truly need from God.

Jan Johnson, a spiritual director and a frequent speaker at retreats and conferences, is based near Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of numerous books and Bible studies, including Invitation to the Jesus Life, Enjoying the Presence of God, Growing Compassionate Kids and When the Soul Listens. She is also coauthor (with Dallas Willard and Keith Matthews) of Dallas Willard's Study Guide to The Divine Conspiracy.

This text is taken from chapter one, "Abundant Life with God," of Abundant Simplicity: Discovering the Unhurried Rhythms of Grace by Jan Johnson. Copyright 2011 by Jan Johnson. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA.

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