When I have the opportunity, I like to lead a Sunday School Class on the topic of Contentment. I usually start with an opening exercise, asking the class to finish the sentence for themselves, “If I were truly contented, then… The responses come from all over the place, since I don’t put any restrictions or focus for the answers. The comments usually include:
If I were truly contented, then…
… I wouldn’t have to worry.
… emotions wouldn’t rule.
… I would worry about the right things.
… we would be concerned with what concerns God.
… there would be peace in all circumstances.
… there would be no comparing with others.
… I would cooperate more with God.
… advertising wouldn’t hook me.
… there would be no “if onlys.”
… we would accept what God gives as enough.
… there would be no anxiety, less selfishness, more acceptance.
Looks and sounds wonderful—who wouldn’t want all those perks? Did I miss any? What would you, the reader of WGA blogs put at the end of this sentence: “If I were truly contented, then…
Contentment is “An internal satisfaction which does not demand changes in external circumstances.” (Holman Bible Dictionary)
“From where does contentment come?”
With a little thought, several sources come to mind:
- we can learn from others who are content – pick their brains, study their lives,
- by paying attention — to what we are thinking and what motivates us, reflecting and comparing ourselves with the ideal,
- by experience—we learn much from our experiences of both contentment and discontentment,
- by reading the Bible. (Author’s Note: I confess I was tempted to edit this list and put this point at the top of the list; I am discontented with my own priorities of thought. Why do I think of the Bible last, I wonder?)
Let’s look at a few Bible verses that speak to contentment:
1Tim 6:6—“in godliness with contentment there is great gain”.
Timothy wrote this sentence in the middle of a chapter, first describing the importance of godliness … by describing ungodliness. In 1 Tim 6:3-10, the people described were not content with the simplicity of Christianity, they were conceited and ignorant, and given to controversy and quarreling. They wanted to get more and more, bigger and bigger (which ultimately results in wasted resources and miserable people.) To pursue righteousness as it relates to contentment, according to this passage by the apostle Paul, the good fight would look like…
- not confusing “gain” (increase of wealth or status) for godliness
- living what you believe; and encouraging others to do the same (“professing and confessing”)
- awareness would increase
- faith would need to increase
- there would be down-sizing involved – the discipline of simplicity
Another couple of familiar passages:
“I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:11-13
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” Matthew 6:25-33
An Early Quaker once wrote something that seems to echo, underscore, and apply the principles in the passage we just read.
Rufus Jones, The Quaker’s Faith and Practice: In . . . . generations of Quakerism, the ideal aim and the controlling expectation of the wiser members have been to live the simple life. It is, of course, a vague and indefinable term. It is not a magic phrase by which one can do just the opposite of the miracle of Aladdin’s lamp, and suddenly leap from the extravagance of palatial living to the quiet Eden of a one-roomed cottage, with bark dishes and wooden spoons. The simple life does not begin outside, with the house or the spoons. It begins inside, with the quality of the soul. It is first and foremost the quality of sincerity, which is the opposite of duplicity or sham. Emerson’s famous line, “Your life talks so loudly that I cannot hear the words you say,” makes the idea pretty clear. The fountain must be right, if we want the water to be clear. Unclouded honesty at the heart and center of the man is the true basis of simplicity. The tone of a bell is settled by the quality of the constituent metal, and, if that is wrong in stuff and mixture, you will not get a good bell by putting on a coat of fine paint.
Discontent versus Contentedness, then, when I think about the scriptures and the words of Rufus Jones, is the spirit of selfishness versus the spirit of the simple life. The spirit of selfishness is the pursuit of power, pleasure and luxury for their own sake. The Spirit of the simple life is living for life’s sake, or consecration (setting ourselves apart for personal and social goodness.)
Living for life’s sake:
Making a life rather than making a living. Whatever job one has, whether service or professional, skilled or unskilled labor, mothers at home or in the workplace, making little or making a lot in the way of income, the focus, purpose of it all is to be an avenue of ministering to human life. What would this look like?
Is there room for the simple life in the arts – movies? Poetry? Ballet?
Our speech—what would the simple life call for in the way we communicate, what we say?
Our dress – how might living a simple life change the way we dress?
In recreation – how about how we play? Would that change if we committed ourselves to the simple life?
What about our finances – oops, nothing to see here. (Author’s note: as my first pastor used to say, you’ve quit preaching and gone to meddlin’ when you talk like that, Mary!)
In class, when we have the time, we break up into small groups and discuss making a life rather than making a living. In some of my classes the thoughts expressed challenge and convict me.
One young mother said, “Whatever job one has, making little or making a lot in the way of income, the focus, purpose of it all is to be an avenue of ministering to human life.”
Questions worth considering always come up like: “Where do the arts, poetry, ballet, and our communication, dress and recreation fit into the living of a simple life and what that would look like?”
Usually there is agreement that the primary issue is our attitude toward these things and we ask ourselves and God whether we are investing in life or not.
And always, Jesus’ two commandments are brought up and discussed: loving God and loving our neighbor as the primary laws in which the whole of the rest of the law was fulfilled. Most agree that discontentment separates people from God and each other
Toward building a vision for contentment:
What would it look like to practice growing in contentment. . . to practice making a life. . . ?
- Action rather than reaction (to outside influences, etc.)
- There likely would be some trial and error
- Looking for God’s attitude
- Getting beyond appearances
- Living within your means
- “Live Not By Lies” (Alexander Solzehnitsen)
Let us not let this study of contentment get buried under the concerns of our daily lives. Let’s take Rufus Jones’ statement and practice it this month. “Unclouded honesty at the heart and center of the man is the true basis of simplicity.” Let us consider the life and words of Jesus; if we do this, I suspect we will all find ourselves more content in the midst of the discontent of this world.
Mary often characterizes herself as “a seeker of Truth” and has a long-standing fascination with human behavior and motivation. Her education consists of lay and discipleship counseling, independent study about the integration of psychology and theology, counseling and human sexuality. She also holds a BS in Human Services and an MA in Psychology from Regis University.
Mary attends a Friends (Quaker) Church.
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