We live in a very discontented society, surrounded by discontented people. The media constantly tell us not to be content with what we have. We are constantly told that we need a newer car, a more powerful computer, a smarter phone, and cooler clothes. We never seem to have enough of anything. But then we fill our lives with so many possessions we don’t even use that we have to rent storage units just to hold all our stuff. Living the contented life means being satisfied with what you have, feeling that you have enough. Contented people are at peace with their circumstances and their possessions. Thinking about death and the brevity of life can help give us contentment. Why would you ever want to trust in things? You can’t take even one thing with you beyond the grave.
You’ve seen the bumper stickers: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” A more truthful one would read, “He who dies with the most toys, leaves them all here.” An old Spanish proverb says, “There are no pockets in a burial shroud.” And you never see a U-Haul trailer hooked to a hearse.
When we travel by plane, we wonder how much baggage we are allowed, but when it comes to death, we know the answer already: No carry-ons allowed. After John D. Rockefeller’s death, a journalist bent on determining how much Rockefeller had been worth financially at the time of his death asked one of his top aides, “How much money did Rockefeller leave behind?” The aide responded, “All of it.”
How easily we fall into the trap of thinking that things can bring us happiness and contentment. It is easy to think, if I just had enough things . . . . The Bible uses the word envy to describe the attitude of a discontented person. Proverbs 14:30 says, “A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” If you aren’t satisfied with what you have, you will never be satisfied with what you want. The Bible also has a great deal to say about greed. A greedy person is never contented, always wanting more. Richard Foster thinks that American levels of discontentment and greed have crossed the line into insanity: “We buy things we do not need to impress people we do not like.”
Juliet Schor, in The Overspent American, talks about our desire to “keep up with the Joneses.” She says that the Joneses are no longer the people who live next door—because we hardly know our neighbors any more. Rather, the “reference groups” that we form at work and play are the groups with which we compare ourselves, the groups whose members tell us what we should acquire if we are to be “successful.” She says the desire for designer clothes and expensive shoes begins in preschool. She reports having surveyed a telecommunication corporation that has 85,000 employees. She found that each hour of weekly television viewing reduced annual savings by $208. Those who were surveyed reported that it wasn’t really the commercials—but rather the lifestyles portrayed in the programs—that most affected their attitudes toward spending.
The world tries to seduce us from every television, radio, billboard, and computer screen popup. The message is clear: Don’t be content! You must have more, better, faster, and newer. The world sells discontentment.
One of the greatest skills we need to develop in this culture of discontent is talking back to the TV, especially to commercials and advertisements. You can make it a habit to yell, “I have enough! I don’t need that!” or “I can be happy without that!” One of the greatest negative consequences of living in a culture of discontent is that everyone gets into debt. Much of our debt comes from our discontentment. Preacher David Stone’s acronym for the word debt might help: He says it should stand for, “Don’t Even Buy That!”
REFLECTIONS: Do you have clutter in your life? Simplify your life by getting rid of possessions you don’t need or use. Spend time at the local landfill reflecting on how many things in life are temporary. Do you play the comparison game? Do you play the “when . . . then” game (when I have this, then I will be content)? Choose some phrases you can say when you see something someone else has or when you see an advertisement trying to sell you something. For example: “I don’t need that to be happy!”
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.