Is the secret of contentment to have more than we need? Or does having more than we need prove that no amount of material success can keep us from wanting more of what we have enough of already?
Thoughtful people have offered many suggestions for dealing with addictions, jealousy, covetousness, and the problem of envy we talked about in an earlier post. I’ve tried to list some of those perspectives below. See if you agree, that when considered together, it’s possible to conclude that, while contentment is not always a virtue, and while none of us ever masters the desires and fires of emotional hunger, contentment may be more of an option than we think it is.
Ask for help. Let’s start with the obvious that is easy to overlook. Experience has shown that those who struggle with serious addictions have discovered the wisdom of not trying to deal with runaway desire on their own. The prayer of many recovery groups is the well-known: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” With this request, many have begun to find peace in the middle of chaotic and stormy circumstances. It is advice which parallels the teaching of Jesus, who asked His disciples which of them, by worrying, could add length to their life or height to their stature (Luke 12:25).
Put a price on what you already have. Someone has said, “There are two ways to be rich. One is to have all you want. The other is to be satisfied with what you have.” While some would consider such a comment bad for the economy, I remember the words of a friend who observed, “I have found that the desire to have is soon replaced by the fear of losing.” He echoed the words of Solomon, who said, “When goods increase, they increase who eat them” (Eccl. 5:11), and “Better a handful with quietness than both hands full, together with toil and grasping for the wind” (Eccl. 4:6).
Change your expectations. Some have linked dissatisfaction to frustrated expectation. According to them, “Unhappiness is not found in what we experience, but in what we expect.” Pushed to an extreme, “Nothing is more discouraging than to expect ‘heaven’ now.” With this truth in mind someone has wisely observed, “The only way to find satisfaction is to have this expectation: Each day is an opportunity to delight in the Lord.”
Put trouble to work for you. Consider these sayings: “The happy person is the one who can enjoy the scenery when taking a detour,” and, “The pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.”
Paul gave us his own example of someone who in terrible circumstances found that what is good about weakness is that it gives an occasion to depend on the strength of God. So he wrote, “Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).
Worship God alone. Through the ages some have found contentment in a simple belief that, “When God is all we have, we will find that He is all we need.” The New Testament seems to indicate something like that when it says, “Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you, nor forsake you'” (Heb. 13:5). Beyond that Paul also wrote that covetousness is idolatry (Col 3:5). The implication seems to suggest that there is a relationship between the first and last of the Ten Commandments. The first is to worship only the one true God. The last seems to warn against the mirror opposite of worshiping God alone– thinking instead that our life lies not in God– but in something we don’t yet have.
Know what to be content about. Contentment is not always desirable. According to the Bible, there’s no virtue in being satisfied with this broken world (Rom 8:18-22), with our own accomplishments (Phil 3:12), or even with the approval of others. Nor should we be content when we see others in need and living without justice or mercy. The Apostle Paul acknowledged the he was often troubled by the needs of others, and had found himself in situations where he even despaired of life– so that, in his words, “we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2Cor 1:9).
Yet on another occasion Paul wrote, “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content” (Phil. 4:11).
So let me ask you, do such perspectives sound like just so much theory to you? Along the way, have you found these or any other insights to be especially helpful?