A few years back it seemed like minimalism was the topic du jour. In a world weary of being owned by their possessions and searching out the simple life, the philosophy of less is more was a welcome antidote. The tiny house movement dovetailed nicely with this budding mindset and the reality shows quickly spread the ideology of a simpler way of life.
Kim and I had only been married for a couple years and the only home we had ever known together was a tiny apartment in our hometown in Southeast Michigan. Before we were able to even begin thinking about owning a house seminary called. So we made the move out to Southern California, where the living is easy and the rent is soul-crushing.
After a year donating a substantial portion of our meager income to an apartment complex, Kim and I met a couple at church who had four kids and were living in an RV park. After having lunch with them at their home one Sunday after church, the wheels of our minds started turning, “Could we live like that?”
It wasn’t like we were hard-up for cash. We could continue to make the apartment work if we needed to. But that image of downsizing and saving some dough lodged itself in our brains. Unbeknownst to the other, each of us began thinking about the possibility of RVing privately. It was several weeks after visiting our friends before we ever even talked about it. It was Kim who brought it up again out of the blue one day.
“What’s the point of all these halls?”
“What?” I said, lifting my head from the couch armrest to look at my insane wife. She was standing behind the couch with her arms stretched out.
“The halls. Why do we have so much empty space in this apartment?”
Turns out she was talking about RV living. She had reasoned that living in an RV was basically the same as living in an apartment if we just eliminated all of the empty space. And, she told me, she actually liked the idea of being able to reach everything in the home without getting up. I let her know I had been thinking that way too, not about the halls, but about RVing. So, we begin our research in earnest.
Several months of research and a lot of spreadsheets later we realized that even if we purchased and stayed in an old RV for only the 2 remaining years of my M.Div., the amount we saved in rent would far exceed the upfront costs. Plus, we reasoned, an RV opens the door for travel while we’re living on the West Coast.
So, we took the plunge, bought an old Winnebago, and moved into a pay-by-month campground about 10 minutes from our old apartment. And travel we did! Yosemite, Zion, The Grand Canyon, the Oregon Coast, you name it and we’ve taken the RV there. It’s been a blast and one of the best decisions we’ve ever made. We are still living in an RV and I would do it again 100 times over. But it hasn’t been easy. The reality of living small is not as rosy as it seems in prospect.
One thing we didn’t account for was just how selective we would need to be with what we brought. Thus, it was by my miserliness and Kim’s dream of a world without hallways that we stumbled rather accidentally into minimalism. But the Lord has taught me a lot through the experience of living with less. He’s taught me about contentment, my sinful heart, and the realities of disappointment.
Need is a Strong Word
One of the things you have to deal with when downsizing is a redefinition of the word “need.” When all of your possessions are spread out on the living room floor and you have to keep revisiting the “keep” pile to make it smaller, you discover that your evaluation of what is necessary is relative.
At first, it felt like a massive sacrifice. How were we going to get rid of all of this stuff and still live? We sold or gave away about 80-90% of our stuff. But after the initial shock, we were surprised again to find that even with the things we did bring on the RV, we still had an insane amount of conveniences. Not only do RV’s already come equipped with conveniences that would have been outrageous to most people 100 years ago (fridge, toilet, shower, A/C, Television), but we had enough room to bring excesses like a KitchenAid mixer and bread maker too! We aren’t exactly living in squalor.
Obviously, there are conveniences we wish we could fit in the RV. We would love to have a washer-dryer, a desk, or some more counter space, but the point is we realized that even though we dwelt in a breadbox, we were living in comfort and convenience. We had far more than we really needed.
A verse that has come to mind a lot since we began our adventure is 1 Timothy 6:8. “But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” People all over the world make do in much worse living conditions. What are the things I demand as necessities that are really just expressions of my discontentment? What do I really need?
The answer should be that I am content with whatever the Lord gives me because my satisfaction is in belonging to Jesus Christ. “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5). It’s hard to remember that sometimes. I’m just thankful that the Lord has used this living situation to reveal that my definition of “need” still needs a lot of work. I’m trying to be more thankful for all the conveniences, but to keep them in that category of nice-to-have, not need-to-have.
Having Less Doesn’t Always Mean Wanting Less
Love of money is a common temptation, especially in America. With all the commercials telling us what we need, social media screaming how much better everyone else’s life is, and neighbor’s newest toys, it’s hard to keep the thought out of our head: What life would be like if I had a bit more money? Maybe if we could just walk away from all of that, we wouldn’t feel the pull of greed and envy.
But what I’ve learned is that intentional deprivation does not cure a covetous heart. It’s funny, when we lived in an apartment, we would look online at bigger and nicer apartments. Now that we live in an RV, we browse ads for bigger and nicer RV’s. And I have no reason to believe that if we lived in a mansion, we wouldn’t be jealously researching larger mansions, too. Changing living situations didn’t somehow abolish the greed in my heart.
This shouldn’t have been surprising. Asceticism is not the means to shrinking covetousness (not that living like opulent motor-gypsies really qualifies as asceticism). Paul says in Colossians that “self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body,” are of “no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col 2:23). Legalistic self-flagellation has the appearance of religion, but it’s only the enchantment of a greater affection that makes a man deny himself, take up his cross, and follow Jesus. Our hearts will continue to hunt out idols for temporary joys, only to be disappointed and return to the hunt for more.
“More, more, more.” It’s the anthem of the covetous heart swimming down the stream of diminishing returns. The only way to slake that thirst for fulfillment is to fly straight to fount of all blessings Himself, the One for whom our hearts were made. Jesus Christ is the One who satisfies, not a deeper bank account, a nicer car, or a bigger yard, just Him.
The Severity of Simplicity
Once we were all in on this living little thing, I thought I would eventually experience a Zen moment. You know that rapture aspiring minimalists feel when they look at clean desks or photographs with a lot of white in them, that feeling of being finally free from earthly possessions, at peace. Then I remembered I was a Christian not a Buddhist and the problem wasn’t that stuff it was this sinner. And unfortunately, my sinful heart was on the keep list and we brought it with us to the RV.
I think people romanticize the simple life. You see the person Instagram living on a farm and think, “Ah the easy life!”
Here’s a fun dare, go find a farmer and ask him about how easy his life is.
It’s natural when looking from afar to think simplicity = serenity. Don’t get me wrong, I think having a world that is less cluttered and hurried leads to a mind that is more focused. But foregoing certain conveniences for “the simple life” often comes with more problems than us city-folk might anticipate. I learned that the hard way.
First, RVs are garbage. I mean, who is overseeing quality controls on these things? Something is always broken, and there is real potential for truly nasty fix-it jobs since there’s a straight up portapotty in your bedroom. When you drive it anywhere something always breaks. In fact, one time I had our motorhome in for repairs and the mechanic turns to me and says with a smile, “Hey, you know what RV stands for, right?” Stepping into the trap I replied, “No, what?”
But that’s life. Stuff breaks down. That’s just how the entropy crumbles in a fallen world. Reality is much more severe than the romanticized simple life. And it goes to show that the grass-is-always-greener mentality which the world feeds us is simply not true. The photos beautiful people posing in the mountains, coffee mug in hand, surrounded by grand vistas and morning fog, look enticing. But if you were there with them at the moment the photo was taken, you would realize that they are freezing cold or being eaten alive by bugs and their legs feel like jello from the 12-mile hike it took to get to that serene location. There’s a severity to simplicity.
If you are constantly searching for the simple life, the perfect place to live, or the next life hack that’s finally going to make everything click for you, it’s not out there. You won’t immediately become happier if you just have less stuff. Downsizing won’t fix you because minimalism isn’t your savior. Don’t go searching for an earthly El Dorado, learn to be content regardless of the situation (Phil 4:11).