The frugal Christian


To be Christ’s disciple is to live clutter-free

By Katie Funk Wiebe

To be frugal, says Jeff Smith, host of The Frugal Gourmet television show, doesn’t mean cutting back or using only lower-cost ingredients. It means wisely using resources and avoiding excesses: Don’t use a cup of butter when a half-cup will do, but use butter if the recipe calls for it.

In Smith’s view, frugality is not living as cheaply as possible and hoarding the excess. It doesn’t mean putting everything on our plate at a buffet line to get two meals for one price.

Being frugal, I would add, is not asceticism, self-denial for the sake of self-denial. It is not living in a kind of phony poverty in order to be commended for doing so. Frugality does not stem from the belief that riches are evil, poverty is the greater good and money is dirty and dehumanizing. “The love of money is the root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10). This hunger for money can be as strong in a poor person as in a rich person.

Living frugally does mean releasing ourselves from our love affair with the clutter in our lives that keeps us from serving God wholeheartedly. The frugal Christian is one whose outward lifestyle is built on the inner reality of being a child of the kingdom and who has heard Jesus say, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33).

So let’s talk about clutter.

Stuff: We program children to believe that boredom and discomfort can be relieved by something external—a McDonald’s Happy Meal gadget, a new sticker book, the latest action figure. Adults have the same approach to life: Uneasiness can be relieved by a new recreational toy or house gadget.

We older adults cling to our clutter as if it means our salvation. We’re convinced that a moving van will accompany the hearse to the cemetery. We buy souvenirs and take pictures when we travel, only to store them in over-filled closets for children to get rid of after our death.

Noise: Is noise a necessary clutter for you? What is the first thing you do in the morning? What is the first thing to be upgraded in your home: CD player, cell phone, stereo, car radio? What sustains you? Live a week without noise clutter to find out.

Everyone is assaulted daily by the clutter of sound—from TVs, radios, DVDs, cell phones and loud throbbing beats from the car alongside at the intersection. Joggers carry a radio. There has to be background noise of some kind when we wait by the phone, go shopping, paint the house or vacuum. Living with our own thoughts, uncluttered by noise, seems impossible.

Activity: Then there is the clutter of meaningless activity that fills time but not life. Lonely? Go to the mall, buy a video or new pair of shoes or knock the tires on new cars. Bored? Check out the refrigerator, buy a magazine, surf the Net. Dissatisfied? Eat a snack, buy a new lipstick, take a trip.

None of these activities is wrong in itself, but pursuing them trains us to believe that to find fulfillment and meaning requires being a consumer.

Motives: Add to this the clutter of motives, or the lack of a main principle to guide our decision-making. In church we accept any teaching if the presenter is lively, enthusiastic and amusing. We develop a kind of “coffee break” theology, believing what everyone else believes, especially people with strong opinions. We live comfortably with a kind of double-mindedness—against abortion but for war, for abortion but against capital punishment, against homosexuality but okay with divorce and remarriage.

Beware of clutter. When we let go of clutter, we open up space in our lives for something new to happen. Consider these few principles of the uncluttered life that make that new thing possible.

The law of the manna jar or “enough is enough.” In the wilderness the Israelites grumbled about food. Slavery in Egype looked great compared to their present existence. Were they going to die here in the desert? They complained to Moses: “Why did you bring us here?” They wanted to return to the leeks and garlic of Egypt. God answered by feeding them daily with manna and quail.

Years later Nehemiah talks to God in Babylon about this time: “You did not withhold your manna from their mouths, and you gave them water for their thirst. For 40 years you sustained them in the desert; they lacked nothing.”

Nothing? C’mon! They were living a stripped down life. Yes, they never had to decide what to make for dinner or which suit to wear to tabernacle worship. But they were wandering in the wilderness.

We think of any wilderness experience as a place of deprivation, as tough, hard times. But for the Israelites, the wilderness was a place of sufficiency, of enough-ness and of economic equality because God provided. No one lacked enough food to eat. Enough was enough.

Years ago, when my husband was seriously ill and we were without income, friends brought us boxes of canned peaches and tomatoes, plentiful in Ontario at the time. We ate peaches for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We ate tomatoes, drank tomato juice and stewed them with everything as if the tomato was the only food in the world. I was tired of our manna of peaches and tomatoes. Yet, in that desperate time, there was enough because God’s presence was with us. Enough was enough.

The law of carefree living, freed from anxiety and burdens.

Many burdens are related to clutter. We face possession overload. A student told me that the night before the big trip, her high school tour leader had each student wear the clothing they planned to wear the first day and walk about a mile carrying all their luggage. The next day each person’s luggage was remarkably lighter. Fancy shoes were exchanged for more comfortable ones. Unfortunately we don’t get a trial run in life. To be overburdened by the clutter of things, noise and motives is to be spiritually endangered.

Our culture invites, encourages and scares us into a life burdened with things to make us seem safe and comfortable. While on a Mennonite Central Committee learning tour in Central America, we toured a wealthy section of a huge city; the city was also home to many poor people. Wealthy homes were surrounded by sturdy stone fences topped by a metal fence that was then topped by barbed wire. Few thieves bother with an old model car. The simpler life ensures peace of mind.

The law of covenant community.

God told the Israelites to stay away from the Canaanites in the new land, to remain a separate people. Former missionary John Driver writes about Christians being “God’s contrast society.” We’re different. We have a different lifestyle because we have a different purpose in life. We are a people, the body of Christ, not just a group of individuals each enjoying our private faith.

The uncluttered life has to do with how we fit people into our lives. I was a guest in a home where all chairs were facing a behemoth TV set. We guests were obviously obstacles to the host watching a football game and indifferently trying to keep conversation going. In another home, the man of the house watched TV with a radio nestled in his lap to catch two games at the same time. At dinner he brought the radio to his end of the table while he caught the TV game out of the corner of his eye. I felt like an intruder.

Clutter diminishes the value of relationships. Clutter substitutes for people. Clutter encourages us to live apart from the covenant community and spend time and energy on our things. Clutter encourages us to lose sight of the dream of shalom, a harmonious caring community. A simpler life frees our schedules to invite people into our lives.

The law of justice for the dispossessed, the poor, stranger, widows and Levites.

Quaker John Woolman saw the roots of slavery deep in the desire to have more of this world’s goods, so he set himself against ownership of one human being by another. This meant setting himself against those who supported slavery. The frugal Christian is concerned with putting justice for men and women above property.

How can we fight clutter? John V. Taylor, author of Enough Is Enough, suggests that Christians start a joyful resistance movement against everything that militates against the simple life. But to avoid being too serious about it and pushing a load of guilt on others he recommends three slogans as part of our daily offensive ritual against clutter.

Every time you watch TV with the children and a commercial comes on, holler together: “You’ve got to be kidding.”

When you are tempted to buy something, tell yourself: “The price tag is too high, not just in terms of my budget but also the environment and what it will take to maintain it.”

When you are about to add to the clutter, remind yourself: “I can’t take it with me.”

The prophet Isaiah says it simply, “Why spend money for what is not bread?” Yes, why?

Katie Funk Wiebe, of Wichita, Kan., where she is a member of First MB Church, is a prolific Mennonite Brethren author and is still on the speaking circuit in her 80s. She is a Tabor College professor emeritus and a former Christian Leader columnist. Wiebe’s newest book, You Never Gave Me a Name, was published this summer by DreamSeeker Books, an imprint of Cascadia Publishing House, and co-published with Herald Press.


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