This is the second post in the series on Comparison cures. To read the first post, click here.
In the previous post, I talked about the disease I termed “why-me-itis” which is caused by a lack of essential spiritual nutrients. The first and most foundational of these nutrients is contentment.
Our high-powered culture tells us that if we apply ourselves and work hard, we can have the American Dream—2 (or more) new cars, a fancy-schmancy house in a good neighborhood, highly talented children, a fat 401(k) and all the latest and greatest toys. If you fall short of this dream, the unspoken assumption is that you are unmotivated and lazy. You should have more, you deserve more, you need more.
America has drawn people from all over the world with the prospect of gain through persistence. Stories abound of men and women who began with nothing and proceeded to build financial empires (all through their own blood, sweat, tears, and fierce motivation, of course).
The mantra today says the only thing holding people back from wealth is laziness, incompetence and unrighteousness. If you would just work harder/take an extra job/get that degree/follow these ten steps/win the Powerball, then you can be like [insert millionaire’s name]. There are several prominent Christian teachers promoting the notion that if you live a godly life, then you should have wealth, and prosperity; your sin and incompetence are holding you back. You can have more if you are godly enough.
These ideas—which are not all inherently bad (I am referring to the hard work part)—create a competitive environment. These things may drive people to excel, but, more often than not they create stressed-out, worried, debt-ridden and discontented people who look around at their shiny happy neighbors and wonder why they have it so easy while they themselves are struggling. We compare our lack of happiness to the perceived happiness of others. This type of comparison steals our priceless joy and replaces it with cheap ingratitude.
As Christians we deserve better things. These better things cannot be bought with money—they are the riches of Christ. Love. Joy. Peace.
If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.
But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.
But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
1 Timothy 6.3-10, ESV, emphasis mine
Instead of a consuming covetousness, Christ calls us to satiating contentment.
Notice what Paul says: “godliness with contentment is great gain.” It doesn’t say godliness with contentment will bring you great gain. No. The gain is in the discovery. That powerful combination creates an abundance mentality. It says, “I have what I need, and I will also share it.” If our motivation for being godly is to acquire more creature comforts, power, authority, romantic love, children etcetera, then we have it all backwards and God (who knows the secrets of our hearts) will not count us righteous anyway.
Let’s do a heart check to see if we have contentment deficiency.
Take a moment and answer the following questions:
1) Name 3 great people. What makes them great? Do you want to be like them. Why?
2) Make a list of all the things going wrong in your life, then make a list of your blessings.
3) If you were relegated to making just enough to keep your family in a small house, fed, clothed and with a roof over your head, would you still be thankful?
So, now that you’ve answered those questions, consider: why do you admire those great people in question one? If you admire them because they are rich or talented or because they accomplished some amazing feat, then you might have a contentment deficiency. I admire talented people, but that does not make them great people. I stand in awe of Navy seals, but, as Yoda sagely observed, “wars do not make one great.” I am amazed by the way some people acquire and manage their wealth, but that doesn’t mean they have character. Great people are those who have given everything for something far greater than themselves. (Read Hebrews 11 for a few ideas).
How does your list of problems compare with your list of blessings? Which one is greater? If, under your blessings, you have salvation through Christ, it should make that long list of problems look teeny. If your list of problems is longer and weightier, you might have a contentment deficiency.
If you had to live with nothing more than the bare essentials, would you still be happy? The easy answer is yes, but I think the harder and more accurate answer is that it would be a challenge. My own learning curve would be steep! If your essential needs would not satisfy, then you likely have a contentment deficiency.
3 things to consider about contentment:
1) With great power comes great responsibility
I believe point 1 is a quote from Spiderman, but I have heard similar sentiments throughout literature. Many who desire power and wealth do not necessarily know how to handle it. It takes prowess to effectively manage money and leadership. Many Major League Baseball, NFL and NBA players make millions of dollars per year playing sports, retire young (or get injured) then end up broke soon afterward. Doesn’t that shock you? In one year they make more money than some people make in twenty and after ten years of such exorbitant salaries they go broke?! It comes down to poor management and greed. They were ill-equipped to handle the great responsibility they were given. Recall the above passage: “But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction…”
What do most of us do with our wealth? We buy high-priced, lattes, new clothes, nice cars, vacations, new technology, better houses, good food, invest in college savings plans and 401(k)s—in short, we spend our wealth on ourselves. How much of that wealth is given to others? How much is set aside to make provision for your family’s future security or your own health?
In America, most of us have more than basic food and clothing. We have abundance. We possess great wealth and yet we still grasp for the next big thing. We need to be better stewards of what we do have before acquiring what we don’t.
Instead of bemoaning your current lack of wealth, focus your mind on giving thanks for what God has given you. Make a list of things that are troubling you—your marriage, your children, your debts, whatever—and take them to the Lord in prayer. Ask him to help you be a better steward of what he’s given you. If your marriage is on the rocks, make fixing it a priority. If your money is the problem, turn to a good financial advisor and learn how to budget. Ask God to help you manage the things that are within your circle of influence before expecting or reaching for more.
2) Contentment is learned.
The American culture may be unique in that people of any class, race, gender and creed have the ability to become powerful and wealthy, but it is not unique in fostering the desire for fame and fortune. It seems to be inherent in us humans to crave more than what we have.
Eve lived in the garden of Eden—a literal paradise. The temperature was so pleasant she didn’t even need clothes (and didn’t know what they were). Food was abundant and didn’t even have to be paid for (what’s money?). She had a husband who kept her company (she didn’t have to go win his heart as there was no competition) and God walked and talked with them every day.
She had it all.
And yet, there was something she didn’t have. And it was on that tree that God said not to touch.
The serpent fanned the flames of curiosity and discontent. “When you eat of it…you will be like God…” Hissed the serpent. “The tree will make me wise,” she thought, forgetting the commandment of God in her craving for more. (Read the full context here).
Now, being like God and being wise are inherently good things, but the fact of the matter was, God had already made her like him and wisdom would be supplied in ever greater measure as they continued to spend time together. But the seeds of craving were sown. Eve disobeyed God in her desire for more. I often wonder if, after losing paradise, she learned contentment or if her life was full of bitterness and sorrow.
Let’s fast-forward now to Paul, who wrote the above-referenced passage to Timothy, and also wrote the following passage to the Philippians:
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
~ Philippians 4.11-13, ESV, emphasis mine
He said, “I have learned… To be content…. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
How did he learn contentment? He learned through experience. He discovered he could only do it through Christ who strengthened him. Only through Christ can we maintain a state of contentment. It is not our circumstances that create contentment, it is submission to Christ.
3) Contentment is not resignation or laziness
Proverbs speaks a great deal about lazy people and the concept that diligence leads to wealth. It also talks about how it is better to be poor with love than rich with strife. Sometimes what we do not have (even marriage, children, authority etcetera) may be for our own good. If someone is not married, does that mean they are too lazy to get a wife or husband? I suppose it’s probable, but highly unlikely. Even the apostles recognized that there are times when singleness would be more preferable than marriage. So it is with any earthly blessing.
Consider something with me for a moment. You may not agree with this, but it’s food for thought: Righteousness does not entitle people to earthly ease. God gives the righteous prosperity and power only when it serves His purpose.
Think of the righteous people in the Bible who were prosperous. I think of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (on occasion), Joseph (late in life), Boaz, David, Daniel (on occasion) Job (before and after testing). There are probably more, but these are the only ones I can think of off the top of my head. There were some wealthy Christians and people who believed in Christ. As Margaret Thatcher sagely pointed out, “No one would remember the Good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.” Money, influence etcetera is sometimes needed to bring about God’s purpose, On the flip side, people often demonstrate more influence and character by what they do when they lack these things.
Job, for example, did not “curse God and die” as his wife advised. Do you know what he said? “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” In earlier verses he also remarked, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” There was a man with his head on straight.
Now, consider those in the Bible who were righteous and lacking in creature comforts: Joseph (in his early years), Moses, Joshua, Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, most of the prophets, John the Baptist, the apostles, many of the early Christians (who often had their wealth confiscated after being imprisoned), and—most notably—Christ. They did not have cushy lives, nor were they lazy or godless. You see, the two are not mutually linked. Jesus could have been born into a powerful royal family and he could have brought his message to the most influential and intellectual thinkers of the day. Instead, he was born in a nowhere town in despised Judea under the crushing might of the Roman Empire. His parents were so poor they could only sacrifice a pair of doves. During his ministry he had nowhere to lay his head. He died a shameful death.
Are we more righteous than the Son of God? Are we more diligent than he?
On both points, I have to give a most emphatic “NO!”
In that case, do we deserve more than Jesus?
The point is this: if we have been given wealth (which, as I said earlier, most of us have), then we have a great responsibility. The people in the Bible who prospered had similar blessings granted to them in order to accomplish a specific purpose. Those who were deprived of such things had a different purpose and were not burdened or ensnared by riches. God supplied their needs. Jesus, though poor, resonated with people because of how he taught, the love he demonstrated, the miracles he performed and the absolute paradox of it all. He had such sway that those in authority feared him and yet he had no standing army or organization.
Contentment, then, is making the most of the gifts we’ve been given and not bemoaning what we’ve been denied. Contentment is the ability to find God’s blessings in any and every circumstance and harboring gratitude for them.
There is nothing wrong with building wealth or working hard to prosper, but don’t forget the most important things. If you neglect your family, your faith and/or your God, it will all be meaningless. You will have gained the lesser, temporary gift and lost priceless treasures.
How do we learn contentment?
Practice gratitude. Find something to be thankful for in every situation. Say it. Write it. Whatever. Verbalize it in some way.
Create a thankfulness jar. Each day, have every person in your home write down something they are thankful for. At the end of each month, go through the jar and give thanks in prayer for those blessings. (I liked this idea here.)
Truly rejoice with those who rejoice. When feelings of resentment or envy creep in tell yourself (out loud if necessary) that it is wonderful that God has blessed them. You may not actually feel that way, but make it a habit to express it. Then, take your heartache to the Lord and ask Him to help you destroy those feelings of envy and bitterness. Write them in your prayer journal and only pray about it when it comes to mind. At some point you’ll look back and be surprised you felt that way! You may feel that this is dishonest in some way. It is not. Sometimes the right action has to come ahead of the emotion in order to properly train the internal response.
Analyze why you want a certain thing and place your request in God’s hands. Remember, if it doesn’t happen the way you think it should, God desires to give you better things. He wants you to become like Him and draw closer to Him. If your particular request will draw you away from either purpose then ask God to defeat it. This may seem counterintuitive, but we have to train our minds to be aware that God really is wiser than us and has our best interest at heart. I’d rather hear no and trust God’s plan then get a yes and be lead astray by my selfish desires.
Do you have any regular ways of practicing contentment and gratitude? Please share them in the comments below!