#21 Too Little Is Almost Always Better than Too Much

MY CHILDREN PROBABLY DIDN’T appreciate me mentioning it so much, but from time to time I would say to them, “Too little is almost always better than too much.” That saying was not in harmony with the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, in which we were living then—or are living now. In the United States, as in most of the “developed world,” the winds of capitalism have blown over the land so strongly that, fanned by the ubiquitous commercials on television, radio, and newspapers, the desire of most people is for more and more material things.

Generally, people don’t like to think about or use the word greed, especially in referring to themselves, but upon careful analysis it is hard not to think that that word is applicable to much of the consumerism rampant in capitalist societies. Of course, greed means the excessive desire to acquire more, especially more and more material possessions, than what one needs. But the question is always about what is enough and what is, truly, excessive.

Compared to the vast majority of the people in the world, most of us middle-class people in North America, Europe, and Japan possess much more than we really need. And considering the sizeable portion of the world’s population who live in poverty, the middle class, to say nothing of the upper class, definitely have excessive possessions. (Of course, many of those middle-class people, especially in this country, have excessive debts as well.)

So it is in thinking about the problem of economic imbalance in the world, about matters of justice and equality, that led me to say to my children that too little is almost always better than too much. What seems like too little is usually enough; what is too much is usually wasteful and/or extravagant. Consuming too much is a problem for those who take seriously the words of the Bible admonishing people to love their neighbors as they love themselves.

The Extreme Example of St. Francis

One of my favorite people of all time is Francis of Assisi. As I write this, I am reflecting on my recent reading of some books about him. I am impressed all over again at the way Francis lived out of what he thought was obedience to the example and teaching of Jesus Christ. And for Francis that meant, among other things, a commitment to what he called Lady Poverty.

The Last Christian is a book I had heard of for years but just read for the first time shortly before initially writing this chapter.[1] The author’s point is that perhaps no one else before or after Francis ever lived so much like Jesus, so if following Jesus is what it means to be a Christian, perhaps he was, indeed, the last Christian.

Jesus said, in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, “Don’t worry and say, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ The people who don’t know God keep trying to get these things, and your Father in heaven knows you need them. Seek first God’s kingdom and what God wants. Then all your other needs will be met as well.”[2] Francis lived as though he really believed those words to be true.

Francesco Bernardone (1181/2-1226), whom we know as Francis of Assisi, grew up in an affluent home in central Italy. His father was a wealthy cloth merchant, and in his youth Francis enjoyed the “good life” that his father’s money made possible. But when he was in his early twenties, he decided that a life such as he had been living was not satisfactory. He felt that he must seek to live much differently.

Although it probably was not as dramatic as depicted in the movie “Brother Sun, Sister Moon,”[3] Francis’ break with his affluent lifestyle, which meant a break with his father and his abundance, was a “big deal.” And his “downsizing” was permanent. So his was, and is, a clarion call to a simple lifestyle.

Of course few, if any now, can live completely in the way Francis did. Even those of his own group during his lifetime, and especially those who lived later and came to be known as Franciscans, were not able to live as simply as Francis did. But Francis’ example has been influential among many people who have sought to live a simpler lifestyle than they previously lived and/or than most of the people around them live. They live more simply than would likely have been the case without Francis’ example.

So even though extreme, through the centuries and still today Francis of Assisi has helped many people to see that when it comes to material things, too little is almost always better than too much.

The Simple Living Movement

In the 1960s and 1970s there was considerable talk among some Christians about “simple living.” A prominent British missionary and theologian wrote a book published in 1975 called Enough Is Enough,[4] and another book I remember reading back then had the unlikely title No More Plastic Jesus.[5] One of the significant parts of the latter book is about the Shakertown Pledge, written in 1973, which includes the promise, “I commit myself to lead a life of creative simplicity and to share my personal wealth with the world’s poor.”

In addition to Francis, whom we have just considered, during that time some Christians, and Christian groups, who were rooted in the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century also made considerable emphasis on simple living. In the early 1970s, I first read, and was significantly influenced by, The New Left and Christian Radicalism, a small book by Arthur G. Gish.[6] Simple living, as well as pacifism, was a part of the focus of that powerful work. So in addition to opposition to the Vietnam War, which was a part of the emphasis of Gish’s work, along with some other Christians during that time I became quite interested in the simple living movement. That is when I first started saying to my children, “Too little is almost always better than too much.”

Also in the 1970s, “Live simply so that others may simply live” was a quite popular slogan in some circles.[7] The idea behind that statement, of course, is that those who voluntarily choose to live simply will have more resources to share with those who don’t have enough to live on.

There has been some emphasis on simple living in more recent years. For example, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Simple Living was published in 2000.[8] And even more recently, and more specifically related to Christianity, Francis Chan, the founding pastor of a megachurch in California, has written about the implications of loving others as self in his bestselling book Crazy Love.[9] But more than writing about that concept, which is so often talked about but rarely implemented to any significant degree by Christian preachers and others, Chan and his church have exemplified what that means in actual practice.

According to reports, Chan gives away about ninety percent of his income and has not received a salary from his church. In addition, by 2009 he had donated all of his book royalties, which totaled about $500,000, to various charities. Much of his charitable giving went to help rescue sex slaves in foreign countries. As for the church he founded, in 2008 it was reported that it would give away 55% of its income to charitable causes. The church also decided to build an amphitheater rather than go to the expense of erecting a large and expensive building.

David Platt, an even younger pastor, has written Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream, which was a bestselling book in 2010[10] and even attracted the attention of the New York Times op-ed writer David Books.[11] One chapter of Platt’s challenging book is “How Much is Enough?” In that chapter he calls on readers to cap their lifestyle. He suggests that people live as if they made $50,000 a year and give everything else away.[12] There are, of course, many people in this country, and most people in most countries around the world, who would very much like to live on $50,000 a year but can’t—because their income is less (and often far, far less) than that. Still, for many people in this country to give away all above $50,000 a year would be a move in the right direction toward a simpler lifestyle.

Loving Neighbor as Self

The two examples given in the previous section make reference to loving one’s neighbor as oneself. But what does that really mean, and is that something that can actually be put into practice?

There are some secular people who try to implement simple living primarily for their own benefit. And it has to be recognized that from Francis of Assisi to Francis Chan part of the motivation of Christians to live simply has been for the sake of being freed of the burden of possessions, liberated to enjoy life more by focusing on non-material values. So, simple living is not completely for the purpose of helping others, although it invariably leads to that in most cases. In its most sublime form, simple living is primarily for the purpose of seeking to love neighbor as self.

And, still, there is the age-old question, “Who is my neighbor?” But Jesus answered that question pretty well, saying in effect that one’s neighbor is anyone in need whom one has the opportunity of helping.[13] In response to the lawyer’s question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

Then the lawyer, wanting to justify himself, asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus responded by what is usually called “the parable of the good Samaritan.” Someone has suggested that if he were telling that story in the U.S. today, Jesus might have told about the good Muslim. The point is that “neighbor” doesn’t refer to someone like us or someone who lives in our neighborhood. Our neighbor, according to Jesus, is someone in need that we have the means and opportunity to help. So in Jesus’ parable it was a Samaritan, a person who was generally looked down upon in Jewish society of that day, who was the one who acted neighborly.

Caring for the poor has a long history in the Christian church. The current Catechism of the Catholic Church makes the church’s position clear, saying that the church’s love for the poor “is a part of her constant tradition.” That love “is inspired by the Gospel of the Beatitudes, of the poverty of Jesus, and of his concern for the poor.” The same Catechism clearly declares, “Love for the poor is incompatible with immoderate love of riches or their selfish use,” and then it cites the stinging words of Archbishop John Chrysostom (c.349~407): “Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life.”[14]

The language is not quite as strong, but centuries later Thomas Aquinas, the eminent thirteenth-century Catholic theologian, wrote, “One should not consider one’s material possessions as one’s own, but as common to all, so as to share them without hesitation when others are in need.” Those words were cited by Pope Leo XII, who went on to declare, “But when what necessity demands has been supplied and one’s standing fairly provided for, it becomes a duty to give to the needy out of what remains over.”[15] By implication, not doing our duty to help the needy is the same as stealing from them.

There are many ways in the modern world that the rich steal from the poor, and over-consumption is one of those ways. That is the reason one of the things important for everyone to know now is that, when it comes to middle-class peoples’ use of material things, too little is almost always better than too much.


[1] (Doubleday & Co., 1980). Written by Austrian Catholic theologian Adolf Holl (b. 1930), this book was first published in German in 1979 and then translated into English by Peter Heinegg.

[2] Matthew 6:31-33, New Century Version. I have used this translation because the words usually translated God’s righteousness is here rendered what God wants, which is the meaning of God’s righteousness in this case.

[3] This 1972 film was directed by Franco Zeffirelli and starred Graham Faulkner and Judi Bowker. Zeffirelli’s movie attempted to draw parallels between the work and philosophy of Francis and the ideology that underpinned the worldwide hippie movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. It has a bit different “feel” when viewed in the second decade of the twenty-first century.

[4] John V. Taylor was the author of this book published by SCM Press after he had been consecrated the Bishop of Winchester. This is the same man who wrote Go-Between God, a book I referred to earlier in the chapter on the Holy Spirit.

[5] The subtitle of this book by Adam Daniel Finnerty is Global Justice and Christian Lifestyle (Orbis Books, 1977).

[6] (Eerdmans, 1970). Gish (1939-2010) grew up in the Amish community and later became an active member in the Church of the Brethren.

[7] Those words are often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), and it is easy to think that perhaps he did speak those words from time to time, but it seems that the first person on record to make that statement was Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821), who, in 1925, was the first person born in the United States to be canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.

[8] Written by Georgene Lockwood and published by Alpha Books. She is the author of nine books, including two more in the Complete Idiot’s Guides series.

[9] (David C. Cook, 2008). Chan was born in Hong Kong in 1967. In 1994 he and his wife started what is now the Cornerstone Church in Ventura County, California; they left that ministry in 2910.

[10] Platt (b. 1979) became the new senior pastor of the 4,300-member Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham, Alabama, in 2006. It was reported that perhaps he was thereby the youngest megachurch pastor ever. From 2014 to 2018 Pratt was the President of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.

[11] Brooks’ article “The Gospel of Wealth” was published in the September 6, 2010, edition of the Times.

[12] It was somewhat disconcerting to read an article in the Wall Street Journal the very next today after Brook’s article appeared that said that happiness increases for those have increased income up to about $75,000 a year (Robert Frank, “The Perfect Salary for Happiness: $75,000”).

[13] What is generally called “the parable of the good Samaritan,” was Jesus’ response to the “lawyer” who asked him, “And who is my neighbor,” according to Luke 10:29.

[14] Chrysostom (c.347-407), one of the Church Fathers, is recognized both by the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church as a saint and a Doctor of the Church. Reference to Chrysostom was made in the first chapter of this book.

[15] Leo’s statement was made in Rerum Novarum, the highly significant encyclical he issued in 1891. The statements of both Pope Leo and Thomas Aquinas are cited in “Stealing from the Poor,” an article by Tito Edwards in the July 30, 2010, issue of “The American Catholic.”

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