Simple is not the same as simplistic

Simple is not the same as simplistic. This principle, which I first heard from David Powlison (former Executive Director of CCEF), is one to which I have often returned. The idea is, well, simple! It says there is a crucial difference between a ‘simplistic’ approach and a ‘simple’ one.

A simplistic approach is one that hasn’t looked at things carefully. It is ill-considered and superficial. And, because it has failed to grapple with complexities, provides a perspective that is profoundly inadequate – we are right to call it simplistic.

A simple understanding is different. It’s a perspective that arises after careful thought. One that has grappled with complexities and engaged with detail. One that has wrestled with issues which, at first sight, seemed confusing and contradictory. But, after careful puzzling, it’s a perspective that has arrived at an understanding that is both rich and full, accurate and elegant. Which makes it seem gloriously simple – causing those hearing it to say: ‘yes, of course, I see that, it makes perfect sense’.

Addison Leitch, adapting a quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes, puts it like this: “On the near side of complexity is simplistic. On the far side of complexity is simple.”

Simplistic thinking creates many difficulties. Consider, for example, the unhealthy tendency in our culture to refer to people by their diagnosis. ‘They are autistic’. ‘They are a schizophrenic’. It narrows and limits our perspective. People become one dimensional – as if their diagnosis is all that needs be said about them.

Yet the reality is that someone who struggles has much more to them than their diagnosis. Everyone has strengths, weaknesses and a rebellious side. All people are simultaneously vulnerable to discouragement and, at times, exasperating to others. Or, to put it another way, every one of the categories listed by Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:14 apply to everyone, no matter what diagnosis may or may not have been attributed to them.

Many have been helped by David Powlison’s article Familial Counseling. Using the categories of 1 Thessalonians 5:14 he highlights a critical issue in pastoral ministry, that different people need different things. An unruly person needs to be warned; a disheartened person needs to be encouraged; a weak person needs to be helped. The article shows the danger of applying the same pastoral approaches to very different individuals.

But take this thinking in a different direction. The fact is that each one of us will, at times, be a funny mixture of all of these things. The same person can simultaneously be unruly and difficult, discouraged and dismayed, weak and unable, and in all these things require great patience from others. Some diagnoses will certainly point us in the direction of ‘weak’. Certain ways of thinking or relating may be difficult, even impossible. Yet if all we see and respond to is this weakness, there is much we will be missing.

A person with a diagnosis is also (like all of us) a rebel – they have an unruly heart that will at times need to hear rebuke. That is true of every one of us this side of the fall. A person with a diagnosis gets disheartened and, when disheartened, they need, like anyone else, to be encouraged.

The ‘simple’ on the far side of this particular complexity concerns identifying each of us as creatures brought into being by the might of our sovereign creator God. It involves the priority of living in right relation with our creator – restored to him through the mediating work of Christ. We are spiritual beings whose greatest need is redemption. If a diagnostic lens causes this truth to be obscured because we begin to see a person purely in terms of their psychological struggles, then our understanding of that person is diminished, not enriched.

The struggles that our society identifies as autism or PTSD or schizophrenia, to name but a few, are both very real and very hard. We should want to engage with those struggles seriously, thoughtfully and compassionately. We should want to be well informed and skilful. We should be eager to learn all we can about effective ways to offer help.

But whenever a diagnostic category begins to blinker us, or even to blind us to the many other things going on in a person’s life, we have mis-stepped. Our detailed engagement with a person’s problem won’t be a sign of sophisticated understanding. It may in fact be a sign that our thinking has become simplistic. We have reduced this person to their diagnosis and we have lost sight of all the other things – especially the spiritual realities – that are also true of them.

There is a way of saying ‘what x really needs is the salvation that is found in Christ’ that doesn’t just sound simplistic, but really is. Because it is the simplistic that is this side of complexity. But it is also simplistic to say, ‘this person’s only problem is their diagnosis and that’s it’. The far side of complexity is a recognition that alongside the diagnoses are all the other problems which constitute the human condition. And simple is the truth Jesus declared to sophisticated Nicodemus: ‘no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again’ (John 3:3).