Sep 26

Rev Gav

How can I find contentment?

Don’t we just long to find contentment in our lives? The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Philippians says he’s “learned the secret” of contentment. Can we?

1 Timothy 6:6-19

How can I find contentment?

Contentment is not something we seem to hear much about, let alone talk about. In the face of rampant, out-of-control, consumerism and materialism, contentment is a swear word. Ask any brand marketing or advertising manager if they want their customers to be content and the answer will be a resounding, “No!” Why? Because if you are content with the products you currently own then you will not buy their better, bigger, more efficient, exciting, fashionable, more functional, higher-specification, or effective products! Runaway capitalism breeds discontent. It has to. Consumerism depends wholly on your discontentment — whether it is a washing powder or a family home — you are told consistently that what you currently own is not enough.

It is true to say that never before in history has there been such a pursuit of worldly wealth and possessions. Never before have we had such consumer choice in products — all striving for our attention and vying for our credit cards. Nelson Rockefeller, former US Vice President and one of the richest men to have ever lived, was asked how much he needed to live comfortably. He answered, “Just a little more than I’ve got,” and I expect that is a sentiment with which most of us can agree!

So strong is the tide of consumerism that it can even shape our identity — how we see ourselves and project ourselves to others. We literally become what we consume, for example, wearing a particular brand of clothing, eating in a particular restaurant, or driving a particular brand of car.

The reason we become discontented is through comparison with others. Marketers and advertisers want you to compare what you have with what they can provide, and they will want you to compare what you have with that which is owned by your neighbour — to keep up with the Joneses — whether that is the fictional neighbour on the television screen or your physical neighbour in real life.

We are told that the pursuit of happiness is our goal and we have believed and whole-heartedly endorsed the idea that we become happy through gaining wealth or possessions, and to some extent this is true. Happiness is a transitory emotion, and yes, new things and acquired wealth can provide us with temporal happiness. However, there is a fly in the ointment — a story that does not fit this narrative.

You see, there are people who find they have contentment no matter what their circumstances, what they own, or what they earn. Surely such people should not exist!? They experience a permanent or long-lasting contentment, and when we analyse the nature of this contentment we discover that it is an overarching mood that transcends their state of emotional, personal, or in-the-moment happiness. This is why the Apostle Paul, unjustly tortured and imprisoned, can write that he is content. Surely he should feel discontent at his circumstances? Yet, we discover that it is possible to be poor and be content, broken and be content, and yes, even be sad and content.

To be content does not mean to settle for what we have or settle for our circumstances; to be visionless, apathetic, or lack ambition. Contentment transcends our successes and our failures. The Apostle Paul, though he found contentment in his appalling situations, did not forget his incarcerations, give up on his mission, nor did he fail to make representations for justice to those who upheld the law.

In the same way that ongoing forgiveness mitigates our bitterness, resentment, and desire for revenge, contentment is also for our benefit. Obtaining an internal reconciliation in the midst of our personal circumstances — be it our level of wealth and possessions, our social standing, or our relationship status — mitigates envy, jealousy, and greed.

So, how can we learn to be content? The Apostle Paul teaches that we need contentment combined with godliness, not self-sufficiency on its own nor spirituality on its own. Contentment is to be holistic. In other words, we are not only to be mentally and physically content but also spiritually content. Therefore, contentment is an ongoing process and requires us to do two things:

The first thing we need to do is detach ourselves from our worldly possessions. We do this by consciously recognising, as Paul quoting from Job does, that we, “take nothing into the world and take nothing out of it.” We come naked into this world, and we will leave the world naked, and this detachment is not just a biblical assertion. In a study published in the Journal for Happiness Studies (yes there is one), it was found that higher levels of contentment were correlated with low levels of the need for material things. Detachment is key.

The second thing we need to do is re-attach ourselves to God, and we achieve this through offering gratitude and thankfulness for that which we have. Paul, when he was unjustly imprisoned, sang songs and wrote letters expressing his gratitude. Being thankful in our present circumstances is a decision and an action. Like love or forgiveness, gratitude and thankfulness are not just things that we feel but things we actually do.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul sums contentment up like this: “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, and I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:11-13)

To be content is countercultural. The Apostle Paul, in his letters, quietly reminds us that there is a different way and that the church is called to model this different way. Paul’s small voice, one that most have never heard and emanating from a letter in a book that most have never read, is set against today’s monstrous, phenomenal, and ferocious tide of consumerism and materialism. Dare we listen and respond?


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