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Simply Blessed: Mastricht, Minimalism and the Messiah

Epicurus sought blessedness either in external and carnal delights, or in inner tranquility of soul, or in both at once; Muhammad sought it in all sorts of external delights; and neither of the two sought it in the possession, communion, enjoyment, and glorification of God. By that fact neither acknowledges that God is sufficient to make him blessed, nor consequently that God himself is blessed.

Petrus van Mastricht, Theoretical-Practical Theology, 2:491

The Modern Messiah: Minimalism

Consumerism “is perhaps the most powerful religious movement at work in the West today.”[1] Coursing through its veins is the lifeblood of globalization and postmodernity. The production of unprecedented wealth in the West has been wedded to a rejection of an overarching story or worldview that gives meaning to our lives. Consumerism is their offspring. It has been borne to the high places from where it reigns supreme, decreeing a culture of consumption—nothing is off-limits, everything is desirable, all are on the hunt for more.

But the never-ending hunt of consumerism has, for tired souls, given way to the simple house-cleaning of minimalism that prioritizes control and seeks inner tranquility.

YouTube (verb) “minimalism” and begin scrolling. But be warned: it doesn’t end. It’s a dismal descent, deeper and deeper into that virtual black hole—you will not escape its gravitational pull until it’s 3 a.m. and, like Nebuchadnezzar driven from among men, your reason finally returns to you. Ironic, though, how minimalist sages have maximized on YouTube’s algorithm, and the very same secular prophets who decry consumerism for its financial obsession have come away with a nice profit of their own. 

Netflix even features a film, “Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things.” The trailer opens with these words: “We spend so much time on the hunt, but nothing ever quite does it for us. And we get so wrapped up in the hunt that it kind of makes us miserable.” Barbaric Black Friday footage ensues—consumerism unhinged—climaxing with insight that nails consumerism’s coffin shut, “You’re not going to get happier by consuming more.” How should we then live? Cue the messiah who will save us from our consumerism: minimalism.

Note, it’s not consumerism in principle that minimalism combats, but consumerism in its failed state: it promised happiness, but never delivered. “It makes us miserable” and “You’re not going to get happier” bookend the perceived plight of consumerism. Minimalism, therefore, is heralded, proclaimed, even preached as the messiah who will make good on consumerism’s unfulfilled promise to make us happy. The titles of these videos with hundreds of thousands of views tell the story: “5 Ways Minimalism Improves Our Happiness,” “A Minimalist Lifestyle Will Make You Happier,” “Why More Stuff Won’t Make You Happy,” and “Less stuff, more happiness.”

Blaise Pascal is again vindicated when he wrote,

All men seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

So too the Dutch-Reformed theologian, Petrus van Mastricht:

[T]here is no one who does not desire his own blessedness. … [N]othing is desirable apart from blessedness; indeed, nothing is desirable except for the sake of blessedness. For why do people desire wealth, honors, pleasures, and so forth, except for the sake of blessedness? And likewise, why do we turn from and avoid every adversity, except that they impede and disturb our blessedness?

Theoretical-Practical Theology, 2:493-94

The pendulum has swung from external delight to internal tranquility, from consumerism to minimalism in hopes of finding peace and contentment, blessedness and happiness, satisfaction and fulfillment. The hunt has been exchanged for the hammock. 

But is minimalism our liberator or the same captor in a new guise?

Before scorching minimalism by placing it before the true Savior whose eyes are like a flame of fire (Rev. 1:14), there is much to commend about it—not, of course, as a modern messiah who can secure our blessedness, but as encapsulating some biblical wisdom according to God’s common grace.

Commandeering Minimalism

In what ways can we commandeer minimalism as Christians to aid us in our service to King Jesus and pursuit of God’s glory in all things? Here are a minimum of six ways.

1. An Apologetic against Consumerism, Confirming Job and Ecclesiastes. Minimalism exposes the futility, emptiness, and deception of consumerism. Consuming more of what already doesn’t make you happy will not make you happy—just ask Solomon in Ecclesiastes. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” But if consumerism face-plants against the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, then minimalism does the same with the wisdom of Job. The point of Ecclesiastes and Job is the same from opposite ends: God alone is my blessedness whether I have everything or I have nothing—in him I rest satisfied (Ps. 16:11; 73:25).

2. Imitates God’s Simplicity. Minimalism even imitates—on a finite, creaturely level—the simplicity of God. The following quote may prove Mastricht (1630-1706) a minimalist long before it became trendy:

The divine simplicity teaches us to acquiesce to our lot, however simple it may be. For the more simple anything is, the more constant it is, and durable, whereas the more composite, likewise the more dissoluble and corruptible. Thus, God is most immutable because he is most simple…. When it comes to our lot, the exact same is true: the more simple, the more solid, and the more variegated from compositions by wealth, honors, friends, the more mutable, and the more you are distracted by so many objects, the more you are liable to cares and anxieties (Luke 10:41), for the more you possess, the more you can lose. It is thus on this account that we should, in godly self-sufficiency, accustom our soul to simplicity, and should substitute, for the variety of things, the one God who is most sufficient in every way for all things (Gen. 17:1), who is accordingly for us the one thing necessary (Luke 10:42). So then let us possess him as our lot, with a simple acquiescence, and other things as corollaries (Matt. 6:33), looking to the apostle, who urges this contentment (1 Tim. 6:6) and lights our way in it with his own example (Phil. 4:11-12).

Theoretical-Practical Theology, 2:152

3. Glorifies God’s All-Sufficiency for Himself and Us. Not filling our lives with distractions upon distractions, even being willing to forgo good things and comforts for the sake of the gospel and Christian love, magnifies God as our sufficiency. Pascal observed that we fill our lives with diversions and distractions to console ourselves from our miseries, and yet this is the greatest of our miseries. “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” But the person who has been reconciled to God in Christ draws near to the throne of grace with their once-guilty conscience now cleansed by the once-for-all shed blood of Christ. His blood has also obtained for us the right to eat from the heavenly altar and so have our hearts strengthened by grace. “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13:14).

4. Fits a Pilgrim Lifestyle. The letter to the Hebrews situates the church in the wilderness between redemption and consummation. The wilderness is marked by want and lack, barrenness and emptiness—a perfect place for God to test the faith of his people. But while the wilderness makes us acutely aware of what we do not have, the author of Hebrews reminds us of what we do have. Note the verb “to have” (ἔχω) bookends the rich theological core of the letter that expounds the heavenly high priesthood of Jesus Christ (4:14–10:25). That we have Jesus Christ as our high priest is the indicative (statement of fact) from which the imperatives (statement of command) arise. “We have … therefore, let us…” is the basic gospel pattern of the letter.[2] As we reckon with our present redemptive-historical situation as pilgrims in the wilderness who are seeking a city that is to come, even as strangers and exiles on earth who are seeking a homeland and desiring a better country, that is, a heavenly one, we draw strength from knowing that we already possess Jesus Christ as our high priest who bears our names on his heart in heaven before the Father, unashamed to call us his brothers. Though I may not have many comforts or much security and my possessions and freedom may even be taken from me (Heb. 10:32ff.), I have him, and because I have him, I can persevere and will one day arrive on the shores of that longed-for heavenly country where he is. If minimalism may be understood as foregoing earthly pleasures for heavenly rewards, a kind of transcending of the temporal sphere, then Moses would be a minimalist: “By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (11:24-25). This kind of minimalism fits our identity as a pilgrim people. 

5. Promotes Prayer. Luke reminds us that Jesus frequently withdrew to the wilderness to pray (5:16) and Mark tells us that Jesus rose early in the morning, while it was still dark, left the house and went off to a solitary place to pray (1:35). While there is much more to this, we can at least see that removing distractions and quieting ourselves before God promotes and prioritizes prayer in our lives—something all-too elusive in our distracted age.

6. Boosts Productivity, Improves Organization and Reduces Stress. Practically, minimalism will make you more productive, which is good and desirable as a means to honor God in the stewardship of your time. As a matter of fact, a clean, organized desk that is used not as an additional bookshelf but as a workstation will probably speed up your sermon prep, keep your mind focused on the task at-hand so you can think more deeply about it, and make your study overall more efficient. Check out Matt Perman’s How to Set Up Your Desk: A Guide to Fixing a (Surprisingly) Overlooked Productivity Problem.

Unmasking Minimalism

So minimalism has its benefits, but as a messiah who will make us blessed, it must be wholeheartedly cast into the fire. Minimalism is the same captor as consumerism, but in a different guise. Both enslave us to ourselves. Both make self-realization the path of happiness. Both seek fulfillment in the creation apart from the Creator. Neither can deal with the source of our misery: our sin that has alienated us from the God who is forever blessed and the source of all blessedness. External delights or internal tranquility is proclaimed as that which will make you happy and blessed, but neither can make you right with God who created you for himself. 

Furthermore, minimalism cannot be absolute since it can only thrive in the wake of the exhaustion of consumerism. Minimalism presents itself as our savior from consumerism. The hammock allures the man exhausted from the hunt. Minimalism realizes the misery that possessing and pursuing more things brings, but instead of turning to the one thing that can satisfy and give you rest, God himself, it turns to an abstract principle of renunciation. It addresses the symptoms, but not the disease; in fact, it has no intention of ever healing you. 

The True Messiah: Mastricht contra Minimalism

Neither consumerism nor minimalism can make us happy. When either is raised to messianic proportions, their disciples are left dry and doomed. But there is a tertium quid (a third option) that only the Christian can see. Mastricht is again our guide:

Epicurus sought blessedness either in external and carnal delights, or in inner tranquility of soul, or in both at once; Muhammad sought it in all sorts of external delights; and neither of the two sought it in the possession, communion, enjoyment, and glorification of God. By that fact neither acknowledges that God is sufficient to make him blessed, nor consequently that God himself is blessed.

Theoretical-Practical Theology, 2:491

There is nothing new under the sun. Minimalism is as ancient a lifestyle as any, and God himself always remains the answer. Consumerists and minimalists will always be restless until they rest in God. Blessedness, happiness, satisfaction, fullness are to the world as mythical as Atlantis or the Holy Grail or the fountain of youth, for they are not found on earth, but with God. Although the distance between God and us is infinite, we can enjoy him as our blessedness and reward because he has voluntarily condescended to us by way of covenant (WCF 7.1). “I will be your God and you will be my people” is the joyful chorus of Scripture.

“Blessed are the people whose God is the LORD!”

Psalm 144:15

Furthermore, as Mastricht observes, “[The blessedness of God] convinces us that the blessedness of the rational creature is possible, because not only is God most blessed, and thus able to communicate his blessedness, but he has also endued rational creatures with an appetite for blessedness, and certainly he did not do so in vain (Ps. 4:6)” (Theoretical-Practical Theology, 2:493). Whether we possess everything according to the wisdom of consumerism or nothing according to the wisdom of minimalism, we will always feel our extreme misery as long as we are destitute of God and are the enemies of him who is the source of all joy (Isa. 59:2; Eph. 2:12). 

Where, then, can I find true happiness? Mastricht steers us in the right direction: 

(a) in union or possession of the most blessed one (Ps. 73:25; 16:5; 33:12; 144:15);

(b) in communion with God (1 John 1:3; 2 Cor. 13:14), by which he is with us, in us, for us, and, as our God, devotes himself and all his attributes to us and to our blessing (Rom. 8:32);

(c) in the enjoyment of God, which embraces, first, the perfect knowledge (and as it were the vision) of God (John 17:3; 1 Cor. 13:12; Job 19:26-27), and of our blessedness as well, in union and communion with God (2 Cor. 3:18; 4:6), and second, a perfect repose and joy arising from this union and communion, together with our knowledge of it, that is, a perfect fulness of joys and pleasures with God’s face, and at his right hand (Ps. 16:11; 1 Cor. 2:9; Ps. 84:11);

(d) in the sweetest glorification of God (Isa. 6:3; Rev. 4:8, 10-11; 5:9ff.). 

Theoretical-Practical Theology, 2:493

If that is where true happiness is found, then how do I make it my own? Mastricht opens up God’s Word and exhorts us to… 

Pursue reconciliation with God with all our effort, through faith in the blood of the Mediator (2 Cor. 5:19-20; Col. 1:20), that we may be freed from all evil, which is the first part of blessedness.

Strive for union with Christ, that at the same time we may be united with God, in which is the foundation of blessedness for all, for blessedness comes through faith (Phil. 3:9; John 14:6).

Strive with all our effort for uniformity with God and with his will (Rev. 2:6; Ps. 40:8), which best procures his friendship.

Yield ourselves in covenant with God by receiving the conditions of the covenant offered to us, that namely God should become our God (Gen. 17:1), in which every point of our blessedness consists (Ps. 33:12).

Walk with God in the light, and thus we will have communion with him (1 John 1:3, 6-7).

Zealously employ those means by which we are brought closer to God: faith, hope, love, repentance, prayers, and the duties of public and private worship (James 4:8).

Theoretical-Practical Theology, 2:494

God has promised in his covenant of grace, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” He has fulfilled his promise in his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. When God is our God, when he is our chosen portion and cup, then out of the overflow of our heart, our mouth speaks, “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance” (Ps. 16:6).

Whether I have much or whether I have little, I rest in him. The one who rests in God and walks in his ways “is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither” (Ps. 1:3).

Now come diseases, come poverty, persecution, death, and any great evil, they will say, “If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31). Those things may take away the verdure and the foliage of blessedness (which [we] possess in hope and in some way in reality), yet they will never rip out root and trunk. [We] will exult in triumph with the apostle, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? … I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor anything, shall separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:35, 38-39).

Theoretical-Practical Theology, 2:495

Only the Christian can taunt disease, poverty, persecution and death—powers before which consumerism and minimalism cower—because only the Christian has Christ. By grace alone his perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness has been credited to me as if I had never sinned nor been a sinner, and as if I had been as perfectly obedient as Christ was obedient for me (Heidelberg Catechism 60).

The source of our misery has been fully dealt with in Christ our Savior. He alone brings us into God’s presence where there is fullness of joy, even to a place of sonship at his right hand where there are pleasures forevermore.

[1] Michael W. Goheen, A Light to the Nations: The Missional Church and the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 14.

[2] The middle section of Hebrews begins with 4:14-16, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but [we do have] one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” The main point of the section is summarized in 8:1-2, “Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.” And the section ends with 10:19-25, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let ushold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”


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