Simplicity is not all it’s cracked up to be

Peering into the nebula
Peering into the nebula (Wikimedia Commons).
I once heard a pastor talking about how Jesus’ ministry was all about simplifying things. One of the examples was that Christ took the entire Mosaic Law and summarized it in the Great Commandment.

On the surface that sounds reasonable. Cramming the essential meaning of reams of passages into two sentences is quite a feat. But is loving the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength simple? What about loving your neighbor as yourself?

People talk about the simplicity of the Gospel, but how simple is the Incarnation? God becomes man. That’s not simple; that’s mysterious. Think about the Virgin birth. Not so simple. The exorcisms and miracles? Also not simple. Dying and rising again, not to mention descending into hell and liberating the captives? Anything but simple.

The idea that God values simplicity for its own sake is baffling. If that were true, why is the Bible written the way it is? God could have given us a four-page FAQ. That’d be simple. Instead he gives us various histories, legal dictates, rituals, poetry, wisdom literature, prophecy, letters, etc., written by dozens of different authors over many different centuries in at least two different languages.

All Christians agree on the number of books in the New Testament portion of the Bible. Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox Christians read and revere twenty-seven books. But that unanimity breaks down in the Old Testament, where Protestants count thirty-nine books, Catholics forty-six, and Orthodox forty-nine. One thing’s for sure: It didn’t drop out of the sky in a unified, simple format like the Koran. It’s a wonderful, beautiful, holy mess.

And that says nothing about understanding and interpreting all those books. There are passages that are so difficult to understand that even a great exegete like St. Augustine could say that many differing interpretations were valid provided that they didn’t violate the rule of faith, the basics of Christian belief. In other words, we may not ever definitely know the right answer; entertaining several possible right answers is the best we can do. And we haven’t much improved on the situation in the 1,600 years since Augustine gave us that encouraging thought.

Simplicity is clearly not a high value here. And so what? Simple isn’t better if it’s wrong. Complexity isn’t a problem if it’s right. Why should we expect simplicity? God is beyond comprehension. I think it’s safe to say that simplicity was off the table from eternity.

I wonder if our desire for simplicity is really a desire for ease, to make God less difficult, to make faith less of a stretch, to make belief a cinch. But God apparently doesn’t have any interest in our belief being easy. Pretty regularly in fact, God makes it hard—harder than we think we can handle. But God is working us, pulling us, growing us.

If God is unconcerned with our ease, he is profoundly concerned with our relationship with him and our growth in Christ. That’s not simple or easy. That’s the Christian life, and it’s one of mystery, nuance, complexity, and wonder. And wherever we find ourselves in that life, we haven’t even scratched the surface.

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  • Paul Spite

    When I am not attempting to be a writer, I am an architect. I have long noted that the more exhaustive the building code, the more loopholes are created. So long as I “met the code,” where everything is prescribed to me, I am legally exempt from responsibility. The writer’s of the code took that liability from me by demanding I meet their specifications. The worst code legally would be a one line code that said, “Design a safe that is safe for public use.” That would be open to every possible interpretation and require far more care.

    I find nothing comforting in the two great commandments, because they encompass every act in my life. Far easier to have a specific and exhaustive set of rules by which to live my life. Then, like the rich young ruler, I could smugly say, I have kept all these since my youth.

    Then all I would need to hope is that my God did not question my heart, my love for my neighbor and my love for God.

    I agree, but from a little different perspective. I don’t believe simplicity is all it’s cracked up to be either.

    • Great perspective. Jesus lays open the Pharisees about their meticulous observance of the law and their simultaneous disregard. You’re touching on the same point.

  • This is a fantastic post. A classic. My favorite two lines, “Simple isn’t better if it’s wrong. Complexity isn’t a problem if it’s right.” Amen to that!

  • There is nothing simple about the solution for our sin. How is it that Jesus’ death on a cross covers all of my sins? I have heard theological discussion about why God chose to do it this way, but I am convinced I will never know. As you said it is just as mysterious as the one who created us. But like Peter I will believe because where else will I turn?

  • Simplicity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, yet it is!? That’s the complexity of it. God is both: simple, yet extremely complex. Unsearchable, yet knowable. Inexhaustive, yet comprehendable by a child. Beautiful post. (When it becomes so much, I lean on Deut. 29:29)

  • That’s the Christian life, and it’s one of mystery, nuance, complexity, and wonder. I like these lines. And you are right when you say we haven’t even scratched the surface regarding the things of God!! Oh what a Great God we have and the miracle is he speaks to us in the way we understand..

  • I think simple does not mean easy. A lot of people think that the two word are synonymous, which are not at all! In my opinion, the Gospel is simple, but not easy. Take basketball game for example. The game is pretty simple, in a way, the general rules are understandably quite simple, to put the ball in the hoop. But it isn’t easy at all, both to be played and understood. Same is living our life to Christ.