The Unexpected Path to Contentment
What if you could possess “a state of mental peace where we want for nothing.” Is this possible? Yes.
|Mar 2, 2020|
Photo by Karsten Würth.
In his autobiography, Just as I Am, the late Billy Graham tells a story about the time he and his wife, Ruth, were invited to visit with one of the wealthiest men in the world at his vacation home on an island in the Caribbean. Graham recalls the lavish accommodations, including a helipad and huge yacht docked in a private bay below the home which overlooked the sea.
The view was spectacular.
Over lunch, the Grahams’ host offered a confession. Yes, he was unimaginably rich and had every material possession he could want. Yet at the same time, he was “miserable.”
During an excursion of the island, Ruth and Billy met an old widower who spent most of his time caring for two invalid sisters. Dr. Graham recalls how, unlike his neighbor in the grand mansion on the hill, this man of simple means was filled with palpable joy and a deep sense of peace that Billy eventually ascertained stemmed from his faith in Jesus.
What struck the Grahams was the stark contrast between the two men. One was rich but miserable. The other was poor but content.
While we may not be able to relate to the extravagance of the rich man’s wealth, we know what it is to be discontented and miserable. We long for what the dictionary describes as “a state of mental peace where we want for nothing.”
That is contentment.
This post is an excerpt from our book, The Grace of Giving: How the Cross of Jesus Empowers Generosity (with Small Group Discussion Guide). You may access a free copy of this chapter as a downloadable ebook to print here.
The Old Testament hymn-writer Asaph describes spiritual contentment in Psalm 73:25, where he says to the LORD, “Earth has nothing I desire (want) besides you.”
“A state of mental peace where we want for nothing.”
That is one of the deepest desires of the human heart. But the fulfillment of that desire is elusive, isn’t it? Like a mirage in the desert.
What is it that you think would get you to that place of contentment? When I m honest, the answer is probably found in money. “If I only had a little more money — maybe a lot more — then I would be content.”
If that is your answer, you are not alone.
But what if we are wrong? What if the path to genuine contentment has nothing to do with money? In fact, what if the desire for more and more money actually is a barrier to contentment?
Instead, what if financial and material generosity is a gate that puts us on the unexpected path to contentment?
It is this path that we find in 1 Timothy 6, a message written by the apostle Paul to a pastoral protege named Timothy. In verses 6–10, Paul challenges common assumptions about contentment and in verses 17–18 provides apostolic instruction for how to take practical steps on the path toward true contentment.
6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. 8 But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. 9 Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
THE ROLLING STONE’S FRUSTRATION
The lure of finding contentment in wealth is not a modern temptation. Since the garden has had humans singing the Rolling Stone’s famous refrain, “I can’t get no satisfaction… but I try, and I try, and I try. But I can’t get no satisfaction.”
And like the Stones, we try, and try, and try. Whether in a relationship that we think will make everything right with the world or by achieving success and recognition. Or by accumulating more… money.
Why is it that regardless of how much we make, there still is something festering in our souls like an itch that can’t be reached.
We try and try, but still “can’t get no satisfaction.”
And some of us feel… miserable. Just like the rich man in the mansion.
THE HOOK ON THE LURE
As we’ve said before, money is not the problem. Verse 10 is clear: the hook on the lure is the love of money. We don’t love money because we enjoy rolling around in gold coins. What we long for is the contentment we believe money will provide, whether future comfort or present possessions.
Some of us have taken the lure — hook, line, and sinker — the lure that says, “More stuff leads to more joy and less stress.”
But we know that equation does not compute. The relationship between possessions and stress is not more stuff = less stress, it is more stuff = more stress… and less joy.
Even William Henry Vanderbilt said, “The care of two hundred million dollars is too great a load for any brain or back to bear; it is enough to kill a man. There is no pleasure to be got from it. I have no real gratification or enjoyment any more than my neighbor.” (James Burnley, Millionaires and Kings of Enterprise, p. 500)
We also know that the pursuit of wealth as a means to worldly contentment is, in Paul’s words, “a root of all kinds of evil.” It is not the root cause of every evil, but many evils, such as envy, anger, bitterness, hatred, cheating, slander, dishonesty, and much more. The love of money is never alone but brings with it a myriad of self-destructive and faith-destroying tendencies.
If you ask investigators why people commit murder, it usually is over love or money. Or the love of money.
This is why Paul follows this warning in verses 1 with the admonition, “But you, man of God, flee from all this!”
Paul knows that the pursuit of contentment through wealth is a trap meant to do the very opposite of what it promises. Rather than contentment, the pursuit of riches becomes an ever-increasing thirst that can’t be quenched.
Satisfaction is always around the corner of the next raise, the next commission bonus, or a rise in the stock market.
NEEDS VS. WANTS
If you make $32,400 a year, you probably don’t feel rich. But that annual salary is the line of demarcation that separates the top 1% of wage earners in the world from the 99%, a figure that puts global economic disparity in perspective.
A 2012 article from The Atlantic observed that over the past 120 years we have turned yesterday’s luxuries into today’s necessities.
In 1900, less than 10 percent of families owned a stove or had access to electricity or telephones.
In 1915, less than ten percent of families owned a car.
In 1930, less than ten percent of families owned a refrigerator or clothes washer.
In 1945, less than ten percent of families owned a clothes dryer or air-conditioning.
In 1960, less than ten percent of families owned a dishwasher or color TV
In 1975, less than ten percent of families owned a microwave.
In 1990, less than ten percent of families had a cell phone or access to the internet.
But now, all of these former luxuries are considered necessities.
I wonder if what I call a need should be classified as a want — or as a convenience.
Do I really need five streaming services and add-on channels? Do I really need any? Do I need more clothes? Do I need a new car? Do I need a new computer or the latest smartphone?
I’m not saying purchasing these things is wrong or having the latest and greatest is a sin. Not at all! The last thing we want is for Christians to become the “new product police.” I have just found it helpful to be honest with myself when I use the word need.
If your job demands travel, you need reliable transportation.
If you are a writer, you need a workable computer.
If you are in sales, you probably need suits, ties, and pressed shirts.
If you have a newborn, there are certain necessities that are required to care for the infant.
When it comes to true contentment, Paul speaks of necessities in the most minimal of terms: food and clothing.
LACKING FOR NOTHING NEEDFUL
Someone has said, “Contentment comes not so much from great wealth as from few wants.”
For those who know Jesus as the Great Sheperd who has laid his life down for the sheep, we can testify confidently with Psalm 23:1 that with the LORD as my Shepherd, I lack nothing but have all that I need.
If there are believers in our midst that are lacking basic necessities, it may be that the rest of us are not taking heed to the apostolic instruction of verses 17–18.
17 Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.
In verse 17, Paul addresses two potential side-effects of wealth.
The first is arrogance, which represents an attitude of superiority where I use economic measures to categorize a human being’s rank in the world. Like we rank college football teams. The more wins, the higher the ranking. In the same way. we could rank humans, whereby whoever has the greatest wealth is at the top and worthy of recognition, honor, and praise.
But in the economy of heaven, these distinctions do not exist. Each of us is equally impoverished with regard to the righteousness needed to be accepted into the citizenry of God’s Kingdom.
We are all spiritual beggars dressed in filthy garments of sin. We need someone to take our rags and replace them with righteousness. This is what Jesus does as our substitute, where on a cross, he takes our rags upon himself, and in exchange, covers us in his perfect record — garments of righteousness.
When those who have received this new wardrobe of grace stand before the cross, human pride should evaporate like dew in the desert when the sun comes out to rid the earth of moisture. The only way for pride to remain is if I refuse to gaze upon the crucified Jesus and gaze upon stock market numbers. This, of course, leads not only to arrogance but also to a misplaced hope.
This is the second potential side-effect of being rich in this present world: putting hope in our wealth, where our emotional well-being is tethered to net worth. For those invested in the market, that emotional well-being will rise and fall from day-to-day depending on stock values. For those dependent on commissions, my emotional well-being depends on the deals I close. Yet we know that the market could crash and we could lose our major clients.
As Paul says, wealth really is “uncertain.” With my hope in wealth, it is no wonder that I’d be stressed and anxious.
Yet there is a way to be content even if our financial resources fluctuate or even evaporate in the midst of economic turmoil and uncertainty.
That contentment is experienced when we put our hope in the God who provides everything we need — even things for us to enjoy.
Paul does not rebuke us for being in the global 1%. The challenge is for how we use the money God provides. Thankfully, there is a way to enjoy the benefits of material wealth without it becoming our essential joy. But the only way we will be able to enjoy wealth without it becoming the ground of contentment is for us to practice the antidote for materialism, which is generosity.
Of all steps of faith that require trusting in God to provide, giving away monetary resources may be the most practical… and the most challenging.
But also, it is one of the most rewarding aspects of living by faith in the provision of God. When Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive,” he held out a powerful motivation for generosity — not just the blessing it is for others but the blessing it becomes for the giver.
We will talk more about this next week in verse 19 as we discuss the rewards of generosity.
Stepping on the Plane
For now, I want you to recognize that consciously putting your hope in God is like stepping onto a plane. Those who fear flying know how difficult this can be to put your full trust in someone else to get you to your destination.
You may be standing at the boarding gate with a ticket in hand, but your fear of flying may stop you from actually stepping on the aircraft. In that case, you wouldn’t only miss the flight, you would miss the joy of the destination.
In the analogy, if we are not generous — if we don’t step on the plane of trusting God in this practical way — we will miss the opportunity to experience what Paul calls in verse 19, “the life that is truly life.”
A life of contentment, peace, and joy.
To Savor and Celebrate
Speaking of joy, did you notice that Paul says God provides everything for our enjoyment. If it really is more of a blessing to give than to receive, our Father in heaven is the most blessed for he is the greatest giver. He also is a giver who wants the recipients of his gifts to enjoy them — especially the gift above all other gifts.
1 John 4:9–10 reveals this gift, as the apostle writes, “9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
In his gospel, John puts it like this, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”
When God sent Jesus he was giving Jesus — not just to teach us but to save us as a substitute for us, himself fulling the command to be generous and bearing the judgment for our adulterous love of money.
Jesus’ challenge wasn’t just to step on a plane. It was to be nailed upon a cross.
Oh, Jesus understands the practical challenge of generosity — the one who didn’t just give away some excess funds but sacrificed the entirety of his life as a gift for those whom he loved with his whole heart.
As a result of this singularly extravagant act of generosity, we are given a gift to enjoy that far surpasses any yacht or second home with a helipad. And the Father wants us to enjoy this singularly lavish possession with full-hearted abandon!
That is the invitation for you today — to receive Jesus’ righteousness as your wealth that you may savor and celebrate the riches of grace that are yours through his life, death, and resurrection.