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.

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