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.