Living With Less
by Jen Hatmaker
My husband, Brandon, and I have undergone profound transformation in the last three years. Let me sum it up: God really messed us up. We were happy-go-lucky; Brandon was a pastor at a big ol’ church making excellent scratch, and we spent our money however we wanted (on ourselves). We were climbing the ladder, baby. Fortunately, we didn’t have to worry with the poor because we were paid pros serving the saved. We spent so much time blessing blessed people, there was nothing left over. Besides, that wasn’t really “our thing.”
Then, let’s see, a bunch of stuff happened, the Holy Spirit leveled us and laid our motives bare, we turned into crazy people, yada yada yada . . . we started a new church centered on justice. Our adventure in relearning the essentials of faith, Austin New Church, has been on the ground for two years. It’s a little faith community that has, quite simply, changed my life. Our mantra is “Love your neighbor, serve your city.” Taking a cue from Francis Chan, we take the Scripture “love your neighbor as yourself” seriously, and we give away half of all we receive. We won’t spend more on ourselves than our poor neighbor.
But before you launch a parade, let’s revisit my description in the first paragraph. Granted, we descended many rungs in the last three years, and transformation did not come cheaply or without pain. We suffered loss— relationships, reputation, position, security, approval, acknowledgment— all the stuff I used to crave. But here is what I gave up the least:
I might have disagreed two years ago when having a conversation with a homeless man was the most uncomfortable situation I could envision. When God first sent us to serve the poor, every moment was awkward. However, God changed me and grafted genuine love for the least into my heart. I looked forward to every encounter, rejected service that was labor-intensive rather than relationally focused. I became a girl who loved the marginalized. I couldn’t get enough of them in my personal space.
So what used to be comfortable (being a big fat consumer Christian) became uncomfortable; then what was uncomfortable (engaging the poor) became comfortable. That said, a new tension began lurking. The catalyst was the week we housed twelve evacuees from Hurricane Ike. Our little church, four months old at the time, took in eighty strangers from the coast that had nowhere to go. We moved our three kids into our bedroom, washed sheets, blew up mattresses, rolled out sleeping bags, and readied the house for an onslaught. As carloads arrived and we welcomed them in, one ten-year-old boy walked into our home, looked around with huge eyes, and hollered: “Dad! This white dude is RICH!”
For years I didn’t realize this because so many others had more. We were surrounded by extreme affluence, which tricks you into thinking you’re in the middle of the pack. I mean, sure, we have twenty-four hundred square feet for only five humans to live in, but our kids have never been on an airplane, so how rich could we be? We haven’t traveled to Italy, my kids are in public schools, and we don’t even own a time-share. (Roll eyes here.)
But it gets fuzzy once you spend time with people below your rung. I started seeing my stuff with fresh eyes, realizing we had everything. I mean everything. We’ve never missed a meal or even skimped on one. We have a beautiful home in a great neighborhood. Our kids are in a Texas exemplary school. We drive two cars under warranty. We’ve never gone a day without health insurance. Our closets are overflowing. We throw away food we didn’t eat, clothes we barely wore, trash that will never disintegrate, stuff that fell out of fashion.
And I was so blinded I didn’t even know we were rich.
How can I be socially responsible if unaware that I reside in the top percentage of wealth in the world? (You probably do too: Make $35,000 a year? Top 4 percent. $50,000? Top 1 percent.) Excess has impaired perspective in America; we are the richest people on earth, praying to get richer. We’re tangled in unmanageable debt while feeding the machine, because we feel entitled to more. What does it communicate when half the global population lives on less than $2 a day, and we can’t manage a fulfilling life on twenty-five thousand times that amount? Fifty thousand times that amount?
It says we have too much, and it is ruining us.
It was certainly ruining me. The day I am unaware of my privileges and unmoved by my greed is the day something has to change. I couldn’t escape the excess or see beyond my comforts though. I wrung my hands and commiserated with Brandon but couldn’t fathom an avenue out. We’d done some first-tier reductions, freeing up excess to share, but still . . . the white dude was really rich.
I am an extremist. I don’t learn lessons easily, subtly, or delicately. I can’t be trusted with loose boundaries. If God gives me an inch, I will take a marathon. Dipping one toe in doesn’t work for me; it simply hastens my return to the couch where I can return to my regularly scheduled program. I am a difficult student who is a lot—okay, extremely—bullheaded. Total immersion is the only medium that can tame me.
I was where all my best ideas happen (the shower), and in forty minutes 7 was birthed. It had sloppy edges and “undeveloped” is too kind, but I realized this extreme social experiment was my ticket out of nauseating consumerism. Or at least it would start the engine.
I ruminated for six months, letting it marinate, forcing my friends to discuss it with me. I started praying about what God wanted; what would move me closer to His agenda and further from mine? How could this be meaningful, not just narcissistic and futile? What areas needed the most renovation? How am I blind and why? Where have I substituted The American Dream for God’s kingdom? What in my life, in the lives of most westerners, is just too stinking much?
Food • Clothes • Possessions • Media • Waste • Spending • Stress
Seven months, seven areas, reduced to seven simple choices. I’m embarking on a journey of less. It’s time to purge the junk and pare down to what is necessary, what is noble. 7 will be an exercise in simplicity with one goal: to create space for God’s kingdom to break through.
I approach this project in the spirit of a fast: an intentional reduction, a deliberate abstinence to summon God’s movement in my life. A fast creates margin for God to move. Temporarily changing our routine of comfort jars us off high center. A fast is not necessarily something we offer God, but it assists us in offering ourselves.
Here we go.
“‘Even now,’ declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love” (Joel 2:12–13).