Contentment in an Age of Excess
The biblical understanding of wealth, possessions and stewardship is not easily summarised in a short essay. But even a very brief examination of these issues should certainly include the biblical theme of contentment. The Christian life is to be characterised, at least in part, as one of contentment. It is this particular theme which I here wish to explore in more detail.
Now contentment is difficult in an age of rising expectations. Not only does everyone want to keep up with the Jones, but they want to surpass them as well. Our modern consumer society, aided and abetted by the corporate advertisers, creates an insatiable appetite for more, more, more. Indeed, it is in part because of our extreme historical amnesia that we seem to be so discontented. Even a cursory understanding of history reveals how well off we all are in the West.
The fact is, the kind of lifestyle most people live in the West today would have been unheard of just a few short centuries ago. Only the most wealthy of the aristocracy could have enjoyed the comforts and pleasures which most Westerners enjoy today. As an example, in any given week, most Westerners would have eaten an array of fine foods and drinks which only kings and princes would have enjoyed several centuries ago. Other indicators could be mentioned, such as increased longevity and the vast improvements in natal health. Peter Berger offers one glimpse into the remarkable differences we have experienced in the past few centuries:
“Through most of human history, most children (even the children of the very rich) died before reaching adulthood. Today, in advanced industrial societies (and increasingly in the less-modernized ones), most children (even children of the very poor) live to become adults. This one fact, all by itself, provides a measure of the revolution in human life that has taken place.”
While modern capitalism has created an unprecedented rise in the standard of living, it has also created a seemingly insatiable appetite, a set of rising expectations that appear limitless and unable to be fulfilled. One can understand how the nonbeliever can get carried away in this perpetual discontent with one’s material lot. The sad fact is that so many believers seem equally discontented.
Of course the false gods of materialism and consumerism have been around for a long time; both Old and New Testaments warn about such dangers. A quick look at just a few passages may help to remind us of these truths.
Consider the Old Testament. Many of the prophets had to deal with the idolatry of consumerism. Micah is one such prophet. He preached against the sins of the people, with economic exploitation leading the list.
The false prophets in Micah’s day spoke a word that pleased the people of the southern kingdom – it was in fact a type of prosperity gospel. The false prophets spoke of God’s blessing on the righteous (a familiar enough theme) but divorced the blessing from the covenant conditions. As one commentator remarks, “These merchants of blessing misapplied truth, like Job’s comforters.” They were “ready enough to repeat such liturgical promises of material blessing meant for the faithful, but neglected to add the underlying conditions or to relate them to spiritual values. And how eager their hearers were to swallow such lies as gospel truth.”
Believers today also face this temptation. As David Henderson puts it, we have tended to turn the Christian faith into “a relationship through Christ with a God who is the divine vending machine in the sky, there to meet our every need. ‘Unhappy? Unattractive? Unsuccessful? Unmarried? Unfulfilled? Come to Christ and he’ll give you everything you ask for.’ We forget God is not primarily in the business of meeting needs. When we make him out to be, we squeeze him out of his rightful place at the center of our lives and put ourselves in his place. God is in the business of being God. Christianity cannot be reduced to God meeting people’s needs, and when we attempt to do so, we invariably distort the heart of the Christian message.”
True discipleship involves seeking to do the father’s will, and following that wherever it may lead. For Jesus, the prophets, the disciples, and most Christians throughout church history, that did not lead to luxury and a life of ease. Yet who would call Jesus discontented? Who would argue Paul was unhappy with his lot? Who would suggest that Mother Teresa was less than fulfilled? The point is, we have adopted the world’s notions of contentment and fulfillment. Thus we are ever seeking satisfaction and gratification, only to find it slipping from our fingers. The more we get, the more we want.
Consider also 1 Timothy 6:6-8 in this regard: “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”
The idea of, and the term for, contentment was quite popular in Greek philosophy, especially the Cynic/Stoic tradition. However the Christian version of things is different from its secular counterpart. It is not a kind of aloofness from life’s challenges, finding sufficiency in self, nor is it a manly resignation and adequacy in the face of life’s difficulties. Indeed, it has nothing to do with self at all. As Gordon Fee put it, Paul’s use of the term “turned the tables on the Stoics” because real contentment is “not self-sufficiency but Christ-sufficiency”.
Moreover, Paul makes it quite clear that Christian contentment has nothing to do with material gain, or the love thereof. The false teachers Paul refuted had associated godliness with material gain. But Paul points us in a better direction. As he says in Phil. 4:11, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances”.
The Christian message of contentment is today a counter-cultural message. It rubs against the grain of our greedy and materialistic world. All the more reason for Christians to resist the temptations of consumerism and materialism, and the temptations of gospels which cater to it.
The true disciple of Christ finds contentment in only one source – the risen Christ. Instead of blowing the flames of greed and covetousness, we should be inviting people to be discontent in another area – to be ever unsatisfied with their relationship with God. To develop a hunger for God will result in abundance. To develop a hunger for temporal treasures will only disappoint.
Thus at a fundamental level, any message or any gospel which keeps us fixated on our material wants can be said to be a false gospel. By creating dissatisfaction with our material standing, we are robbed of the legitimate hunger, a hunger for relationship with God. The psalmist declared these passionate words: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God” (Psalm 42:1). That is the only legitimate discontent we should have as believers.
8 Replies to “Contentment in an Age of Excess”
Thanks Bill. This is very true. Luke 12:13-21 is the parable which gives a very clear demonstration of this. Here a man stores up wealth so he can live the high life. But his life is taken from him.
I think also of Matthew 24:37-39 “As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away.” (NIV).
Here again people were thinking of themselves and looking at the account in the OT, particularly Genesis 6:3 it is pretty clear that here again they were living the high life, doing what they pleased, not content with what they had. This leads to destruction.
The thing that has helped me enormously in the last couple of years is to switch off the TV. I used to watch 5 – 20 hours a week, now I wonder how I could even sit down to watch an hour anytime. I find myself significantly less prone to being made to feel like I’m missing out if I don’t own (or borrow money so I can at least gain possession of) the latest stuff. It’s much easier to be content when you don’t listen to the messages that you’re missing out.
Furthermore, I’ve recently had a strong revelation of how God works (at least in part) in terms of His Kingdom. It can be frustrating sometimes to feel like your life is stagnating, but I believe that if you place God first, along with His righteousness, He is fully aware of your exact situation, but you must always keep in mind that His plan is not for you alone, it’s for your part in His Kingdom plan. Like a piece on a chessboard that doesn’t get moved for the longest time, it may very well be that at the right time, it becomes a critical piece that needs to be there for something truly amazing to take place – directly or indirectly involving you. (don’t read too much into this, btw, it’s just an analogy!) Read the Book of Esther – God is never mentioned, and yet you can still see how He was directing things.
The great thing about this lesson is that, unlike the secular worldview which basically makes me a small meaningless cog in a huge impersonal machine, everything living part of me becomes a valued part of His Kingdom. Poles apart.
My advice: if you’re not sure if you’re where He wants you to be, ask Him about it. And don’t give up easily. Actually, don’t give up at all! If you trust Him in all this, the ebbs and flows of your own feelings will not dictate your actions anywhere nearly as much. Learn to put your own whims and fancies in their place. Unfortunately this world relies on whipping up those feelings to sell you pretty much anything, including black sugar water with bubbles that probably only costs a few cents per litre to make! (It’s a kinda funny example, but it does show the power of the marketing machine.)
I agree, Bill, “a hunger for temporal treasures will only disappoint.”
“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” -2 Cor 4:18
But doesn’t God want us to be the “head and not the tail”, and have plans not to harm us but to “prosper” us, and we need to have money not for our own comfort but so we can bless others, and give to the church, and you can’t do evangelism without money, and…….
But enough sarcasm. Good article Bill.
Ewan McDonald, Victoria.
I take up some of your concerns here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2001/11/02/a-review-of-the-prayer-of-jabez-by-bruce-wilkinson/
Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch
Ewan. I don’t have a problem with the idea of prosperity. I have a problem with what people tend to consider prosperity. The prosperity of a Christian is not determined by material wealth.
Bill it’s not so much consumerism that is tearing the heart out of us: I’ll have that because I am worth it;” but human rights: “I’ll have that because it is my human right to have it.” This coupled with being able to claim that one is a victim and disadvantaged makes is virtually impossible to be refused anything.
David Skinner, UK
I think that if we all took the Sermon on the Mount literally then it would turn our picketted-fenced Christian lives up-side down and change our world. If you haven’t done so read ‘There is always enough’ by Roland & Heidi Baker. It is truly mind-blowing what God will do through us when we get on board with His way of seeing things. The only thing that God needs to transform our lives and the lives of those around us is our hearts.
We are fixated on our rights and on how we deserve so much more. Yes, we are the King’s kids but it’s pretty clear that His Kingdom is not of this world and the treasures that we are to be laying up are not those which rust or decay – nothing wrong with them if they don’t get between us and God, but it seems pretty conclusive to me that material wealth for most people does have a way of getting between us and God. We just don’t like to admit that our trust is more in our material securities than in God.
The problem is not that of prosperity. There have been many godly people who have gained great riches and then used them to advance God’s Kingdom.
What matters is where the individual has their treasure.
The wealthy man who treasures Christ will find that his heart is in Him as well. On the contrary, the poor man who treasures the things that he lacks (ie consumerism) will find that his heart is idolatrous. Such a person will not find any lasting contentment.
I wonder how much consumerism/materialism has seeped into the contemporary church’s Christ-sufficiency?