It seems everyone is feeling fragmented these days. Has the human life ever been more perforated between disparate spheres: family and friends, virtual and physical, social media and social circles, urban diversity, suburban squalor, work and life and play? At least in America, there’s always been an opposing tendency toward simplicity. The Puritans defined themselves around a simple life that culminated in simple worship on Sunday morning. We see it in Henry David Thoreau’s deliberate self-exile in the Connecticut woods, from which he returned with the famous proclamation to “simplify, simplify, simplify.” He was arguing that the good life is revealed in the alarmingly simple tasks needed in order for one to survive, and that such simplicity is better than the fragmented life complicated by the emerging technologies of the mid-19th century. (From our perspective in the 21st century, we say, you have no idea.)
Search for Simplicity
The search for the simple life continues today, particularly in the educated class: simple clothing, minimalist design, local dining, and thinking about these things while thumbing through the latest edition of Real Simple magazine. But the effect is limited. We set out to to eat, pray, love, but we often end up with binge, purge, regret. All of this interest in simplicity is fine, and a lot of it is wise, but notice the logic. It’s working from the theory that if we can simplify things outside ourselves—our style of dress, the furniture in our houses, our travel, our food, our relationships, our children’s schedules—then we will find ourselves becoming simpler. In short, this simplification is aimed at our circumstances, the world around us. Not that there’s anything wrong with this approach. It can be gratifying, but the Bible talks about a quite different kind of simplification. The Scriptures call us to a simplicity that springs up within the heart of the one who loves the God who is one. There’s nothing wrong with eating a diet of only raw food and wearing only underwear sewn from locally grown cotton. But the biblical notion of simple living doesn’t arise from the character of our lifestyle. Rather, it arises from the character of the God who gives us life.
The God Who Is One
In fact, this is the theology of Deuteronomy: the character of the God who loves us should and does make claims on who we are and what we love for ourselves. There’s a section in Deuteronomy known as the “Shema” after its first word, which in Hebrew means “hear” or “obey.” And it’s been considered ever since to be the core, the beating heart, of the covenant under Moses:
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deut. 6:4-5)
The Shema provides a simple summary of every claim the Lord makes on the life of his people. The claim is simple in many senses of that word. It’s marvelously simple, challengingly simple, terrifying and life-giving in its simplicity. God’s character as one and whole and simple demands a response of undivided and simple love. Whether public or private, individual or corporate, spiritual or carnal, God’s people are to be simply and wholly in love with him. Ever since the fall there’s been a general and constant slide toward the divided life. The most obvious image of humanity’s shattered simplicity is the scene of Adam and Eve, the images of God, hiding behind the hedge when their Lord calls them in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8-13). Fragmentation must be maintained by careful secrecy and deceit.
Simple Life, Simple Love
Moses is saying in Deuteronomy 6 that the Lord hasn’t abandoned his call for simple love but that, through a relationship called covenant, he seeks to restore and expand the relationship he always meant to have with his people. This relationship must happen on his terms, and it must reflect his character. Any other attempt at simplicity will fail. The Lord’s identity and character require a response of wholehearted faith and simple love. The wholeness of the people’s love is the only appropriate response to the oneness of God’s character. This is why the Shema cannot end with verse four but must continue to verse five. Knowing the truth about God is not the focus of this confession; the focus is on how to respond to that truth in kind. Mere recognition of the truth is not equal to faith. The apostle James quotes the Shema in order to make the same point: “You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!” (James 2:19). Faithfulness is not synonymous with theological familiarity. Faithfulness responds to the character of God by giving birth to a life of simple love and worship.