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Posted by on Aug 14, 2015 | 0 comments

Renunciation and Simplification

Renunciation and Simplification

William Blake, "Out of the Slough of Despond."

William Blake, “Out of the Slough of Despond.”

Two of the most devastating things to a dynamic spiritual life are a lack of responsibility and an overwhelming sense of self worth displayed as guilt and shame. In his book Prayer, Hans Ur Von Balthasar describes a man who is caught up in this cycle of despair, and the ever patient and present promise of God’s restoration that seeks to draw him out of his despondency:

“he is so submerged in life’s distractions and bustle, in secret desperation, that nothing he does is right, nothing is of any importance; he is incapable of doing the one thing that is essential. His entire spiritual life can be clouded by despair, it can poison his prayer, giving him a negative and unfruitful air of mourning and resignation, the vanquished victim of his own self. But none of this stops faith from being and living within him, unfailingly offering him both the demand and possibility of fulfilling it. Faith’s table is always laid, whether the invited guest sits down or stays away with a thousand excuses and pretexts. The entire, objective world of God’s word, i.e. the world of God’s love which comes near to man, revealing itself so that he can understand and grasp it, is always there. This world in itself is never remote or dimly perceived, even when man, in the very midst of it, shuts his eyes and pretends not to be there.[1]

In this post I wish to argue that simplification and renunciation are two main tasks in battling these most prevalent types of despair.

Simplification, as the 20th century mystic Evelyn Underhill has defined it, is “that perfect unification of the self which is characteristic of the life of the Spirit, all… behaviour is brought into one stream of purpose, and directed towards one, transcendent end.”[2] In other words, simplification is the directing of all of one’s energy towards a goal; it is recognizing that the joys promised through suffering and work are far greater than the pleasures that can be achieved by grasping at whatever is easily accessible. Renunciation is a rejection of all that hinders the Christian from their goal: participation in the life and work of God in the world. This participation is most notably achieved in simplification. This does not just mean a rejection of sin; the practice of renunciation is not just promising to not participate in peccadillos anymore; it is also a dismissal of all the things, even seemingly good things, that draw us away from God.[3]

Simplification and renunciation go hand in hand. Simplification is achieved through renunciation and renunciation is propelled by simplification. Perhaps it is easier to think of them as a narrowing of focus through prayerful consideration. They are a way to seek the direction of the Holy Spirit for guidance on how our spiritual life has grown stagnant. An overly rigid or a stagnant spiritual life can be as heavy of a weight as a career that is not working out, an addiction you can’t quit, and a failing relationship. All are products of disordered affections. It is a role of the Holy Spirit, as the giver of life, to guide us into a better way to participate in the life of Christ in the world. This request will evidenced in our spiritual lives. It may also help us discover fulfillment in a career that once seemed so deadening, it may satisfy desires that seemed impossible, and heal relationships that took on dysfunction from the start.

To do this, seek the Holy Spirit in prayer asking where you are most burdened. Perhaps it may already seem obvious to you. Still, this is an important first step because it is asking the Holy Spirit to enter into the whole of your life; it is placing control of your spiritual life in the hands of God. Next ask the Spirit to reveal to you the nature of your dissatisfaction. It is necessary to accept responsibility in this step for the way your desire controls your action. By asking the Spirit to help you focus these good desires you will be inviting God into the parts of your life that are most weighed down by despair. This stops you from shifting the blame onto others; it also prevents the development of a crippling sense of guilt. There is freedom to be found in renunciation and simplification. By asking the Spirit to help you focus your desires you are ceding control of the things you could never control. To quote Underhill again, “this simplification alone means for him a release from conflicting wishes, and so a tremendous increase of power.”[4] Through the acts of renunciation and simplification, the promise of life found in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life eternal, has the possibility to begin now. A Christian participating in the life of the Spirit has the freedom to renounce the complexities of the world that lead to despair in order to participate in the simplified life, a life focused on partaking in the “world of God’s love” being poured out even now through the power of the Holy Spirit on the daughters and sons who seek it out.


[1] Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Prayer, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 34-35.

[2] Evelyn Underhill, “The Life of the Spirit and the Life of To-day” in Light from Light: And Anthology of Christian Mysticism, ed. Louis Dupré and James a Wiseman, O.S.B. (New York: Paulist Press, 2001), 437

[3] In the City of God, Augustine defined any type of misdirected longing as the disordering of love; the author of Hebrews put it this way, “let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith.” Therefore, it is not only sin that draws us away from God, but also any inordinate desire that entices our focus away from participating in.

[4] ibid.

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A.A. Grudem

I am a coffee drinker, book reader, and horrid speller.

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