How can I find contentment?

1 Timothy 6:6-19

Contentment is not something we seem to ever hear about, let alone talk about. In the face of rampant, out-of-control, consumerism and materialism, contentment is a swear word. Ask any brand marketing or advertising manager if they want you to be content and the answer will be a resounding, “No!” For if you are content then you will not buy their better, bigger, more efficient, exciting, fashionable, more functional, higher-specification, or effective products. Runaway capitalism breeds discontent. It has to. Consumerism depends wholly on your discontentment. Whether it is a washing powder or a family home, you are told consistently that what you currently own is not enough.

It is true to say that never before in history has there been such a pursuit in worldly wealth and possessions. Never before have we had such consumer choice in products — all striving for our attention and vying for our credit cards. Nelson Rockefeller, former US Vice President and one of the richest men to have ever lived, was asked how much he needed to live comfortably. He answered, “Just a little more than I’ve got!” I expect that is a sentiment to which most of us can agree.

So strong is the tide of consumerism that it can even shape our identity — how we see and project ourselves. We literally become what we consume, for example, wearing a particular brand of clothing, eating in a particular restaurant, or driving a particular brand of car.

The reason we become discontented is very simple. It is through comparison. All marketers and advertisers want you to compare what you have with what they can provide, and they will want you to compare what you have with that which is owned by your neighbour — to keep up with the Joneses — whether that is the fictional neighbour on the television screen or your physical neighbour in real life.

The pursuit of happiness has become our goal and we have believed and whole-heartedly endorsed the idea that we become happy through gaining wealth or possessions, and to some extent this is true. Happiness is a transitory emotion, and yes, new things and acquired wealth can provide us with temporary happiness, but happiness is not the same as contentment.

But there is a fly in the ointment, a story that does not fit this narrative. You see, there are people who find they have contentment no matter what their circumstances and what they own or what they earn. They should not exist! If you will, they are truly happy — contentment is true happiness. It is not temporary but permanent or long-lasting. And when we analyse the nature of contentment we discover some truths. You can be sad yet feel content at the same time. Contentment is an overarching mood that transcends your state of emotional, personal, in-the-moment happiness. This is why the Apostle Paul, unjustly tortured and imprisoned, can write that he is content. Surely he should feel discontent at his circumstances! Yet, it is possible to be poor and be content, broken and be content, and yes, even sad and be content.

The word for contentment in Paul’s letters means to be self-sufficient. In other words, it means to not compare yourself, your situation, or your belongings with anyone else. Contentment means detachment or independence from things or possessions. Can you imagine what life would be like if you felt completely content? Is it not something which, deep down, we all want and desire? Yet, for many of us it feels a long way away.

Such is the insidious nature of capitalist greed and consumerism that it even attacks the notion or concept of contentment — it does not want you to know about its transcendent nature — for another of the lies told to us about being content is that it means to settle for what we have and settle for our circumstances, to not have vision, strive for greater things or have higher ambitions, however contentment transcends our successes and our failures.

Perhaps we can look at another example. Forgiveness. It is possible to be hurt by others and forgive others. Yet, forgiveness does not mean that an injustice has not been committed. To forgive does not mean to forget or to not seek justice. Forgiveness is for our benefit. It decreases our bitterness, resentment, and desire for revenge.

In the same way, contentment is also for our benefit and, like forgiveness, is by very nature transcendent. Contentment means having an internal reconciliation in the midst of our personal circumstances — be it our level of wealth and possessions, our social standing, or our relationship status. Contentment asks of us to have peace when comparing our lot with the lot of others. Therefore contentment mitigates envy, jealousy, and greed. Yet, like forgiveness, it does not forget nor fail to seek justice. Paul, though he found contentment in his appalling situations, did not forget his incarcerations, nor did he fail to make representations for justice to those who upheld the law.

So, how can we be content? Paul teaches that we need contentment combined with godliness, not self-sufficiency on its own nor spirituality on its own. In other words we are not only to be mentally and physically content but also spiritually content. Therefore, to be content, I suggest, like forgiveness, it is an ongoing process and requires us to do two things:

The first thing we need to do is detach ourselves from our worldly possessions. We do this by consciously recognising, as Paul quoting from Job does, that we, “take nothing into the world and take nothing out of it.” We come naked into this world, and we will leave the world naked, and this detachment is not just a biblical assertion. In a study published in the Journal for Happiness Studies (yes there is one), it was found that higher levels of contentment were correlated with low levels of greed and the need for materialism. Detachment is key.

The second thing we need to do is re-attach ourselves to God, and we achieve this through offering gratitude and thankfulness for that which we have. Paul, when he was unjustly imprisoned, sang songs and wrote letters expressing his gratitude. Being thankful in our present circumstances is a decision and an action. Like love or forgiveness, gratitude and thankfulness are not just things that we feel but things we actually do.

In his letter to the Philippians, Paul sums contentment up like this: “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)

To be content is countercultural. The Apostle Paul, in his letters, reminds us that there is a different way and the church is called to model this different way. His voice is very quiet. His is a small voice that most have never heard, emanating from a letter in a book that most have never read, set against a monstrous, phenomenal, and ferocious tide of consumerism and materialism. Dare we listen and respond?