Possessions, Contentment and Discipleship

Admittedly, contentment is rather difficult to achieve in an age of rising expectations. Not only does everyone want to keep up with the Joneses, but they want to surpass them as well. Our modern consumer society, aided and abetted by the corporate advertisers, create 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.

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 wealthiest 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.

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 unfulfillable. 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.

And this has not been helped by the Health and Wealth Gospel. This teaching really seems to offer us a steady stream of discontent – it leaves the follower dissatisfied with their health (or lack of it) and their wealth (or lack of it). By making grandiose promises about what believers are supposed to be entitled to, temporal and material cravings and desires are constantly being cultivated.

Neil Postman, in his devastating critique of television, shows how the televangelists exploit and perpetuate such a state of affairs (and how television, by its very nature, of necessity contributes to the problem). I quote at length:

“I think it is fair to say that attracting an audience is the main goal of these [religious television] programmes. . . . To achieve this goal, the most modern methods of marketing and promotion are abundantly used. . . . The preachers are forthright about how they control the content of their preaching to maximize their ratings. You shall wait a very long time indeed if you wish to hear an electronic preacher refer to the difficulties a rich man will have in gaining access to heaven. The executive director of the National Religious Broadcasters Association sums up what he calls the unwritten law of all television preachers: ‘You can get your share of the audience only by offering people something they want.’ You will note, I am sure, that this is an unusual religious credo.

“There is no great religious leader – from the Buddha to Moses to Jesus to Mohammed to Luther – who offered people what they want. Only what they need. But television is not well suited to offering people what they need. It is ‘user friendly’. It is too easy to turn off. It is at its most alluring when it speaks the language of dynamic visual imagery. It does not accommodate complex language or stringent demands. As a consequence, what is preached on television is not anything like the Sermon on the Mount. Religious programmes are filled with good cheer. They celebrate affluence. Their featured players become celebrities. Though their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings, or rather, because their messages are trivial, the shows have high ratings.”

But this god of materialism and consumerism has been around for a long time. Of course both the Old and New Testaments warn about such dangers. Let me offer just two passages (one from each Testament), can be examined in some detail here.

Many of the Old Testament 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. It might be argued that such a situation is not the same as that of the HWG. True, but many of the same underlying problems can be found there: the temptation to put wealth ahead of righteousness, the ease in which wealth becomes a snare, and the danger of preaching a message that soothes the ears of the listeners instead of challenging them.

The false prophets in Micah’s day spoke a word that pleased the people of the southern kingdom – it was a type of prosperity gospel. The false prophets spoke of God’s blessing on the righteous (a familiar enough OT theme) but divorced the blessing from the covenant conditions.

Leslie Allen comments, “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”. Indeed, as Bruce Waltke says, “Micah rakes both the false prophets and his audience”.

Is there really that much difference between the message and manner of the false prophets of Micah’s day and some of the prosperity teachers today? Says Peter Craigie, “False prophets with their feeble preaching will ever be with us. . . . They can quote Scripture glibly along with the best masters of the pulpit, and their words offer soothing consolation. But ultimately they offer only a placebo; they have no medicine for the soul. . . . [F]alse preaching can only prosper where people want to hear it.”

Quite right. If we are to censure the prosperity teachers, how much more a gullible and receptive audience that demands such teaching? To reduce the Christian gospel to a means of getting rich is a distortion and a deception. It not only lets believers down, but it becomes false advertising when we present it to non-believers. And of course it bears false witness to God. As David Henderson puts it,

“It is also a great temptation to make Christianity attractive to seekers by misrepresenting the faith as 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.”

Promising people material riches as a reward for their faith is both deceptive and unspiritual. Recall that the one with the most faith and therefore the one most likely to experience God’s material blessings had nowhere to lay his head. Why do we presume to merit more than our master? As John Cowart incisively notes, “The God of the Bible is likely to give us just as many gold watches as Jesus wore. Jesus is our Master; we are his servants. Can servants expect to live better than their master?”

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.

The second passage I want to look at is found in 1 Timothy 6: “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” (1 Tim 6:6-8). While the message itself seems straightforward enough, a few remarks are in order.

The idea of, and the word 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 puts it, Paul’s use of the term autarkeia “turned the tables on the Stoics” because real contentment is “not self-sufficiency but Christ-sufficiency”.

Moreover, even if Paul “did borrow the term, he quickly transforms it, for his understanding of contentment is very different: autarkes expresses his independence of external circumstances, but only because he was totally dependent on God”.

The Christian message of contentment is today a counter-cultural message. It rubs against the grain of our globalised world. All the more reason for Christians to resist the temptations of consumerism and materialism, and the temptations of gospels that 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.

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4 Replies to “Possessions, Contentment and Discipleship”

  1. How, How true!

    How many people seem to just have to have the latest thingamijig or another, rather than asking for an increase in the things that truly matter, (knowledge, intelligence, wisdom).

    I have my T.V and DVD player, so I can watch the weather, and occasionally a decent doco (if they ever come on that is), We have a computer mainly for my wife to conduct her cottage business online (it helps extend my disability pension), occasionally the interweb (designed by Al Gore of course according to some joke I heard about) is useful to get a start on some subject or another that is useful. Apart from those three “consumer items” we find no need for all the latest “things”.

    Give me a good, well written book that increases my understanding of the world and all that’s in it rather than a gimmick which will be outdated at the next “gadget show”, oh and the scriptures of course, need that, my memory isn’t good enough to memorise that many pages.

    Or another way to look at it is to make a list of what is “important” and what is “necessary”. Many things depending on what it is can be classified as “important”, but is rarely truly “necessary”, on the other hand, if something is truly “necessary” then you need to make that the top “important” priority.

    Bill, you have a good way with words, perhaps, if you understand what I mean, could be so kind as to make it understandable to normal humans who aren’t as crazy as me.

    Good article as always, well thought out.

    Neil Waldron

  2. Must add too, (sorry for a second post). We see a warning about material possessions when King David told God he wanted to build him a “house”, God told David he did not need one, and attempted to talk him out of it, as is my understanding of it. If God himself preferred obedience to “things” and was more than happy to continue in a cloth tent, then we should follow God’s good advice. Obedience to God’s commandments are better than rituals, a good standing with God is better than all the worlds riches. God is no respector of persons, or things, or pretty much anything the “world” holds in high regard, God gives respect to those who love him and find “joy” in his word, his law, his judgement and walk in his ways all their days. This is his message over and over, he doesn’t say it so many times to hear himself speak after all.

    Neil Waldron

  3. Bill,

    I mostly agree but also wonder about some of the benefits that ‘discontentment’ with more than (sufficient) ‘food and clothing’ as a motivator of human activity. For instance a/c units (discontentment with excessive heat or cold), telephones (discontentment with smoke signals), or anasthetic (discontentment with pain) etc.

    Although St Paul is focused on Christ as the ultimate end for all human contentment, is there room for a type of ‘discontentment’ which is not ‘content’ with just ‘food and clothing’?

    I once heard a Jewish scholar that he wanted to be grateful (to God) for his blessings /gifts but discontent with his efforts.

    Paul Connelly, WA

  4. When I pray the Lord’s prayer different parts of what Jesus is teaching us strike me. How is the father’s will done in heaven? With total and joyful agreement and compliance I imagine. So if its to be done that way on Earth how should that happen? Well clearly, as far as concerns me, it has to start with me. How did I measure up today ? How can I do better tomorrow? Prayerful discernment can’t happen from a defective knowledge base so what informs my thinking? To what extent is my thinking influenced by aspects of the culture which are in conflict with the Gospel (as actually found in Scripture)? If that’s happening is it because I’m reading the wrong books or watching the wrong programs on T.V. If that’s the case then what am I going to do about it? In my denomination we call it examination of conscience to make that sort of review quite frequently. For those of us who do it sincerely I’m quite certain that it saves us being deceived by the prosperity gospel or the notion that we can have “heaven” here on Earth.
    Anna Cook

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