The Uphill Struggle of Contentment – Part II: Times of Want

A Hawaiian tour guide recently told me, it’s not the place that makes the people, it’s the people that make the place. When the author of “Treasure Island,” Robert Louis Stevenson, made his first trek to Western Samoa, he described the people and way of life there as incredibly happy despite a lack of material possessions. Unclothed and destitute, these people found their happiness in their family and way of life, enjoying what they had and not what they didn’t have. The appeal of contentment was so strong for these people, that beyond a good healthy family, the land, and church, the people were decidedly happy with what they had despite how much they were lacking. These people found what many of us seek: contentment. (In fact, Stephenson found their approach so immensely appealing that he moved there for the remainder of his life.) Last week, I wrote that contentment is the desire to be satisfied with what one has, and how if we can reach contentment, we will never want more than what we have. Continuing with last week’s verse, Paul in Philippians 4.11-13 describes his achievement of contentment despite the horrible aspects of his physical life: “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Contentment relies not on what is around you but on your inner state, your mindset, your spiritual disposition. Can a rich person be discontent? Of course, as we explored last week. If we look to our money, our possessions, or our environment for contentment, we might find contentment temporarily, but we will not achieve it. But, can a poor person be content? Absolutely. Last week I described contentment when you have everything, but how can you be content when you have nothing? How can you be at peace when everything has been taken from you? One aspect is that if you have nothing, you have nothing about which to worry. Without material possessions, there is nothing to think about. Some of my happiest moments at the beach is when I’ve left all my things at home and I’ve nothing but a bathing suit, towel, and bicycle. It’s a simplicity that is truly enjoyable, as experienced by so many who abandon their ways of life and give up all their possessions.  But what about when we have nothing against our will, when it’s not our choice? What creeps into the discontented person then is envy, the true enemy of contentment during times of want. What separates envy from jealousy is the idea that not only do I want what you have, but I don’t want you to have what you have. One of the tests of contentment in times of want is your ability to be happy for other people and their accomplishments. As a father, I am very happy for my son when he gets things that I wanted. I am content without getting it, as most parents would be. But that may not be the case with others. When envy arises, contentment disappears and resentment for others develops. It’s always interesting to watch injured players on the team’s bench when their fellow players are successfully scoring, and see whether they choose to cheer their team’s victory or wallowing in their own injury. Thankfully for us, contentment comes from above, as Paul realized. By keeping our eyes on the prize above, we begin to realize that this life is brief and transitory, so our contentment is then based on heavenly treasures, not earthly ones. Although we may not find total contentment in this world, keeping our eyes on Him shifts our attention to His accomplishment on the cross.  This week, ask for God to shift your focus from earthly achievement to heavenly attainment. Contentment, despite this life, will soon follow. Amen.

The Uphill Struggle of Contentment – Part I: Times of Plenty

When I ask my students how much money they want to earn in life, the answer is surprisingly not millions. Most wish to have just enough to do what they want to do in life.  They want money to the point that they don’t have to worry about money.  What they seek, and many of us do, is contentment, or the desire to be satisfied with what one has.  If we can reach contentment, then we will never want more than what we have.  However, what few fail to realize is that if you are not content with what you currently have, you will never be content.  I was recently speaking to someone about a friend who is trying to pursue her dreams, has so many of the pieces set up, but no matter where she goes or what she achieves, she is never content.  She has so much going for her, but she cannot be satisfied with what she has.  I mentioned that if she isn’t content no matter the circumstance, she will never be content.  Contentment is something that is achieved despite your current situation.   As an example, Paul in Philippians 4.11-13 describes his ability to achieve contentment despite being shipwrecked, imprisoned, tortured, and rejected: “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”  Paul’s contentment came from above, not from around him.  Whether he was successful or unfortunate, he was content because of his relationship with God.  So how do you know if you are content?  How can you measure and test it?  Well, it’s not in our surroundings, as it’s easy to feel contentment when things are going your way.  And outward events often mask the true inward nature.  Having everything doesn’t equal contentment; we feel content, but that feeling isn’t necessarily a reflection of actual contentment.  Instead, during times of plenty, the contented person is thankful and humble, praising God for all great things, attributing his or her riches to Him.  The discontented person during these times of blessing doesn’t attribute these events to God, as the sinful nature produces pride and arrogance, wanting to take credit for these events often through bouts of self-righteousness.  Our eyes turn away from God and instead turn to ourselves.  Discontented people puff themselves up with their accomplishment, out to prove to the world and themselves that these great events are happening because of who they are, not because of who God is.  Additionally, lack of contentment in times of plenty produces jealousy, with jealousy being the idea that you have some but want what others have in order to increase what you have.  Jealousy means that the amount you have is not enough and you are willing to take from others to increase what you have.  During a time of plenty, should jealousy, pride, or arrogance arise, maybe we are not as content as we thought.  If we look deep enough into our hearts, we soon realize that it’s a standard none of us can achieve.  In truth, only one was so content in this life that He died for our sake, so as broken people, we should forgo outward appeasement and seek inner gratification.  Only through a close personal relationship with Christ can true contentment be found, so ignore your surroundings and look to Him.  Although we can never be completely content, like Paul, we can strive for contentment through a closer walk with Him.  Amen.

Success, and Short-Sighted Visionaries

Whenever I’m driving to an unfamiliar location, I don’t like to wander my way there, and end up programming the location into my phone for directions so that I don’t get lost.  I don’t like entering a driving situation unguided, as it tends to waste time and effort.  The same can be said for the role that vision plays in life and how it helps us to reach a plannable future.  Vision is the bridge between the present and the future, a guiding mechanism that shows us the way and keeps us on the path towards our goals.  A good vision dictates our every word and action.  To develop vision, one must take an honest look at what the present situation holds, see where he or she would like to be in the future, and then make plans to work towards that future.  Having recently met television producer Norman Lear, the man responsible for creating such landmark television shows as All in the Family, Maude, and The Jeffersons, I listened to him reflect on his life and his vision for changing the world through television comedy.  He spoke about the endless hours he poured into his television families, developing challenging characters who made Americans think, reflect, and process complex ideas.  He spoke of how he saw the country struggling with racism, and then envisioned Archie Bunker as someone whose satiric ignorance made viewers take a harder look at their own core racial values.  He talked about how the country possessed tremendous gender inequality, and how he responded with the upstanding Maude as a champion for sexual impartiality.  And he discussed America’s view of the American Dream, how it was only achievable by whites, and how the Jefferson family showed an empowered black family achieving the American Dream.  His vision helped change the television landscape and the way we think, with his shows as the vehicle for that vision.  The author of Habakkuk 2.2-3 writes about how powerful a clear vision can be: “Then the Lord answered me and said: ‘Write the vision and make it plain on tablets, that he may run who reads it.  For the vision is yet for an appointed time; but at the end it will speak, and it will not lie.’”  Vision sets forth a clear plan for the upcoming years, one that guides us through struggle and uncertainty.  However, what we often fail to realize, as Lear failed to realize in his own life, is that vision should not be regulated to our occupations, institutions, and country, but should be applied to all areas of our lives, especially our relationships.  Despite being successful, Lear remorsefully confessed to us that he spent so much time working with his visionary television families that he neglected his own family at home.  As such, his wife Frances, a woman with whom he fell deeply in love when they met, silently struggled with manic depression, attempted suicide, and finally divorced him.  Because he applied vision only to his work, his family suffered.  Many of us have desires for growth in our job performance, the looks of our house, or sometimes even our own personal improvement, but we often forget that our relationships need vision, too.  Most of us take our relationships and marriages for granted, viewing them as a place where we can retreat and unwind, be ourselves, and avoid work.  We forget that even our relationships require work, and fewer of us think about where we would like our relationships to be in five, ten, or twenty years.  If we really care for others, we must assess the now and plan for the future, or we risk relationship stagnation and atrophy.  And it’s never too late to develop vision. At age 93, Lear still works on his visions with his relationships.  Maybe now’s the time to develop a vision for your relationships, too.  Amen.

Total Dominance with Just a Trace

Whenever I’m watching a TV show, and the main antagonist is defeated but isn’t dead, I know I’ll be seeing that person again in a future episode.  The same goes for movies, where if the villain isn’t dead, he or she will be back in a sequel.  Unless I see them die completely, a return is inevitable.  Similarly, in the firefighting world, the smallest oversight in a doused fire can lead to the most disastrous outcome.  Firefighters have to make sure that when a fire is out, it is completely out.  There can be no trace of warmth whatsoever, or they run the risk of reignition.  When a house is completely doused, they go through the drenched dwelling, tearing open walls, ripping up floors, and getting rid of furniture, making sure there are no remaining embers.  Should the smallest possible spark still exist, the fire could rekindle and the dwelling catch fire once again.  Similarly, in the medical profession in dealing with cancer, doctors need to make sure that all traces are completely removed so that the patient can be healthy and cancer-free.  If even a few cells are left behind, the patient can be stricken again years later, and all of the previous efforts will be for naught.  These examples all have a common thread: when harmful things exist, in order to get rid of them completely, you need to diligently eliminate every bit of it or risk its return.  If even a trace exists, the job is not complete, and a return to harm is inevitable.  God maintains a comparable mentality in 1 Samuel 15, having us heed a similar warning with King Saul of Israel.  In the beginning of the story, God tells Saul that He will make him the anointed king of Israel, but must first obey this one command: Saul needs to completely destroy the Amalekites, a nation that had worked against Israel.  Saul obeys and attacks these people, killing each and every one of them, but instead of killing their king, he captures him, sparing his life.  Furious with Saul’s disobedience, God turned to the prophet Samuel to approach Saul and remove him from leadership.  Once done, “Samuel said, ‘Bring Agag king of the Amalekites here to me.’ So Agag came to him cautiously.  And Agag said, ‘Surely the bitterness of death is past.’  But… Samuel hacked Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal” (15.32-4 NKJV).  Although seemingly harsh in judgement, God’s decision is the correct one.  Like Samuel, when we are trying to eliminate something harmful from our lives, it is important that we too hack it to pieces.  If we don’t, we run the risk of it returning to re-harm us.  The same can be said when we try to eliminate our bad habits.  Like weeds that we pull at the tops of and do not get the roots, these bad habits return on us and regrow despite our best intentions.  King Agag’s plea to Samuel reflects the seemingly harmless nature of simple remnants of our past bad habits, the small things we leave around that we think can’t possibly hurt us, but we should remain wiser than that, knowing that these remnants will build in strength over time to reignite those bad habits.  Yet, our closets, drawers, and out-of-sight corners are filled with the leftovers of these past lives of ours, just waiting to take hold of us again.  If we want to truly conquer harmful and evil practices in our lives, we need to hack those habits to pieces, making sure to get rid of every trace of it.  Now’s the time to find those habitual leftovers and make sure they are gone from our lives before our weakness sets in and their power dominates us.  With God’s directive, we can make sure our habits never return.  Amen.