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.