Our epistle reading this morning begins with words written by Paul to Timothy, “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.” As I read that, my attention was caught by the word, “contentment,” a word I have given little thought to since I learned what contented meant as a child reading a can of Carnation Milk. (Perhaps some of you remember when the cans of Carnation evaporated milk declared that the milk was from contented cows. It is not a word I see, hear, or use often. When asking how a person is, one seldom gets the response, “Oh, I’m contented.”
Most of us recognize contentment as being an emotional state characterized by satisfaction with and acceptance of one’s circumstances. It is inspiring to witness the contentment that Paul urges, as I did while discussing with a friend her ongoing medical issues. Her verbal response to what could have been a source of discontent was an expression of gratitude for what was being done for her. Her contentment would have made Paul proud.
Contentment is free of frustration, displeasure, disappointment, anxiety, and discomfort. Contentment is easily seen as a major part of the ultimate reward we all seek in the kingdom of heaven.
Not only does the concept of contentment have a powerful appeal as something we all want, a state of discontent can be very distressing. Paul’s advice and other Biblical scriptures urge that we seek contentment, especially as opposed to some specific alternatives.
Let us look at contentment this morning from a variety of perspectives and appreciate where it fits into our lives. These questions about contentment that should help us.
- Is contentment, as suggested by Paul, something to be sought after and valued?
- Can contentment ever be undesirable, something to avoid?
- Can contentment enhance our quality of life?
- Can contentment diminish our quality of life?
- Is contentment easily achieved?
- Is contentment difficult to achieve?In promoting the combination of godliness and contentment, Paul makes an important and valid point, but this point has unstated qualifications, that are demonstrated by the limited scope of his arguments. Thus, we must recognize the circumstances under which his point applies. He illustrates contentment as being satisfied with nothing but food and clothing and contrasts it with a desire for riches. He then shows that contentment, even satisfaction with just food and clothing, is preferable to a desire for riches. He tells us such desire for riches can be fraught with “temptation” that can lead to “ruin and destruction.” He continues by speaking in a condemning way about the love of money, which he describes as the “root of all kinds of evil.”Paul’s compelling case for contentment is not applicable for all times and under all circumstances. The appropriateness of contentment is perhaps most easily determined by applying the Serenity prayer, which begins: “Lord, help me accept the things I cannot change.” To the extent the circumstances in which we find ourselves cannot be changed, acceptance and contentment are valuable, possibly essential. We conclude, “Whatever my lot, … It is well, it is well with my soul.” Words you may recognize as coming from the hymn, we sang earlier whose author wrote them after experiencing a series of especially painful personal tragedies. Those who struggle against unavoidable circumstances with complaints and self pity doom themselves to misery.As we regard contentment as a heavenly reward, we can associate the inability to achieve contentment with eternal punishment.I declared Paul’s illustration in this scripture to be of “limited scope.” This is because he illustrated his point with the only alternatives to contentment being “love of money” and “eagerness to be rich.” As the nursing home example demonstrates, there are places where contentment can be inappropriate or counterproductive. Contentment can even be inconsistent with Christian responsibility.
- It takes nothing from the validity of Paul’s points to suggest that looking at contentment from a broader perspective shows his conclusions to have limited application. Let’s consider again the initial part of Serenity Prayer.
- A familiar example of a situation where one may be wise to seek contentment is the elderly person who must move from his or her longtime private residence to a family member’s home or an institution. Those who find contentment in such situations are most likely to thrive, and vice versa. But this example also illustrates how contentment may be inappropriate. Such a move may be inevitable and the person involved will need to find a way to be content with that. But, there is no need for the person or family to be content with an inferior situation when a better one can be found and used. In such an instance, inappropriate contentment could be detrimental.
- Very often one’s inability to find contentment in what would reasonably be considered an acceptable situation is indicative of an inability to find contentment under any circumstances. Socrates is quoted, “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” When one is focused on material possessions, it is almost inevitable that the more one gets, the more one wants. John Stuart Mill said, “I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.”
- As Paul suggests in referring to people wandering away from the faith, selfish desires and the resulting discontent cost some individuals their integrity, sense of justice, compassion and other qualities associated with our religion, sometimes even religion itself. Such discontent often damages or destroys marriages and other family and social relationships. Many a nominally successful person has regretted neglecting his or her family, especially children, in overzealously pursuing a career. Nor is a lust for wealth the only tragic alternative to contentment. Hedonistic lifestyles, vengefulness, intolerance, bigotry, and lust for power are also inconsistent with both contentment and Christianity. Paul’s warnings are accurate and essential to Christian maturity.
- I suggest that the answer to each of these questions is “YES.”
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
My application of this prayer to the issue of contentment (which closely resembles serenity) is best understood if I substitute the following wording.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
and the wisdom to know what I can change — and whether I should.
The world is a better place because many people were not content.
- If Mother Theresa had been content, the many people she blessed with her work would have lost much, even lives in many cases.
- If Marian Wright Edelman and Father Flanagan had been content, many children would have been denied quality lives.
- If Henry Ford had been content, we might still be driving buggies.
- It some Christians in Germany during WWII had been content, even more Jewish lives would have been lost.
- If some compassionate people were content with ignoring the refugee crisis, there would be much more suffering and death.
- If abolitionists had been content, those who were saved by the underground railroad would have perished in slavery and emancipation would have been much longer in coming.
- If the revolutionists had been content, this unique and blessed nation would not exist.There are many, easily recognizable instances where people should not be content.
- Most worthwhile accomplishments are the result of discontent. Just as discontent can produce undesirable results, it can also underlie healthy ambition and worthy aspirations. Robert Kennedy reminded us of the words of George Bernard Shaw: “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” This attitude is antithetical to contentment.
- Persons who fail to develop their God-given talents and skills should not be content to let these gifts go unutilized.
- Persons who have little more than food and clothing, should not be so content as to not try to improve their standard of living.
- Persons who are aware of evil in its various forms should not be content with doing and saying nothing to combat it..
- Persons who fail to give of themselves and their resources to “the least of these” should not be content to lead selfish lives.
- Anyone not expending exhaustive efforts to better understand God and serve him, should not be content with their practice of faith.
- A church that is not expending exhaustive efforts to find and implement ways to perform God’s work, should not be content.
- None of us should be content with world hunger, pervasive violence, poverty, and oppression.
- None of us should be content with the shortcomings in our political systems, judicial systems, social services, and other essential parts of our organized society It is imperative that we be discontented with everything we know displeases God.
- May it be so.
- I do not disagree with anything Paul intended to convey. He would agree that there is a place for contentment and a place for discontent. Paul was not content with the extent of the distribution of the gospel so he expanded that distribution. Paul was not content with the progress of all of the churches he was developing and advising, so he helped improve their progress. Paul was right to tell Timothy that much is to be gained in godliness and contentment, but that’s not the whole story. It is a blessing when we can find contentment on this earth. But it is permissible, appropriate, and even necessary to be selectively discontented where it is possible and prudent to improve situations for ourselves or others.