Sunday, November 15, 2009

Cultivating Contentment

Keep your lives free from the love of money, and content with what you have; for he has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” So we can say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.” (Hebrews 13:5-6)

And [Jesus] said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. (Luke 12:15)

Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11)

Every year in California, the brush dries out and the Santa Ana winds begin to blow, and every year, we find stories on the nightly news about wildfires burning their way through neighborhoods filled with multi-million dollar homes. When I see these stories, my heart is somewhat torn between two extremes – on the one hand, devastated for the loss of everything these people own; on the other hand, not feeling too bad because people who can afford to live in multi-million dollar homes are usually heavily insured and are going to come out just fine once the insurance claims are settled.

These disasters force us to wrestle with the question, “What is really important in life?” Many of the interviews with the people who have fled their neighborhoods center around their discussions of what they took out with them in the few minutes they had to evacuate. I saw one interview with a man whose family’s home was lost. They lost the house and its contents, but the firefighters managed to save his Porsche in the driveway. He said, “I wish they could have saved my daughters stuffed animals, instead.”

What’s important in life? Family, friendships, relationships, of course. The rest is just stuff. And yet, once the fires are gone, we know these neighborhoods will be rebuilt with bigger and grander homes, filled with more stuff than was in them before.

Today’s sermon is the third in our series Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity. Two weeks ago, we talked about how our pursuit of stuff has led many of us into upside-down living where we are living off credit and spending money we don’t have for stuff we don’t need. Last week, we looked at good principles of financial management according to what God desires. If you didn’t get your cling of “Six Key Financial Principles,” you can pick one up off the table in the narthex. Today, we’re talking about changing our appetites so we’re able to cultivate contentment.

We are reminded that everything in the world is temporary. This is why we say with Jesus, “My life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Yet the culture is shouting that it’s not true. The result is a wrestling in our hearts. Despite the fact that we say we believe Jesus’ words, we still find ourselves devoting a great deal of our time, talents, and resources to the acquisition of more stuff. We say that our lives do not consist in the abundance of our possessions, but we live as if they do. May we pray.

Perhaps you’ve heard of restless leg syndrome, a condition in which one has twitches and contractions in the legs. Restless Heart Syndrome (RHS) works in a similar way, but in the heart—or soul. Its primary symptom is discontent. We find that we are never satisfied with anything. The moment we acquire something, we scarcely take time to enjoy it before we want something else. We are perennially discontent.

Sometimes, discontent is a virtue. There is a certain discontent that God intended us to have. God actually wired our hearts so that they would discontent with certain things, causing us to seek the only One who can fully satisfy us. St. Augustine wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee,” meaning we are intended to desire God. We are meant to yearn to know God more, to cultivate a deeper prayer life, to pursue justice and holiness with increasing fervor, to love others more, and to grow in grace and character and wisdom with each passing day, and we should be discontent so long as we have not fully embodied these.

Many times, however, discontent destroys. Many of you are probably familiar with the book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which has been turned into several movies. One of the characters is an obnoxious spoiled little girl named Veruca Salt. Even when she gets everything she wants from her weak-willed and wealthy father, she responds by demanding more. She sings a song right before meeting an unfortunate demise in the chocolate factory, and that song tells us about her attitude toward life and discontent with what she already has. The girl who already has everything handed to her on a silver platter signs these lines. “I want the world. I want the whole world. I want to lock it all up in my pocket, it’s my bar of chocolate, give it to me now! I want a party with rooms full of laughter. 10,000 tons of ice cream. And if I don't get the things I am after, I'm going to scream!”

The problem is that those things we should be content with are the very things we find ourselves hopelessly discontented with. For example, we find ourselves discontented with our stuff, our jobs, our churches, our children, and our spouses. God must look down on us and feel the way we feel when we give someone we really care for a special gift and then or she asks for the gift receipt. It’s as if we’re saying to God, “I don’t like what you have given me, God; and I want to trade it in and get something better than what you gave me.”

St. Paul – that is, the guy for whom this church is named – is an excellent example of contentment. In his letter to the Philippians, he wrote of the “secret” to his contentment. I have learned to be content with what I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11-13). Like St. Paul, we can learn to be content in whatever circumstances we may find ourselves. Four keys, which include the “secret” Paul referred to in his letter, can help us to do that.

Here’s the first key. John Ortberg, pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in California, says there are four words we should say whenever we find ourselves discontented with something or someone: “It could be worse.” This is essentially the practice of looking on the bright side or finding the silver lining.

Many of you know that back in August, I had a little car trouble. A series of unfortunate and undetected events took place that led my engine to seize up while I was flying—driving responsibly—up I-77 toward Statesville. It was not a good day. But, I chose to look on the bright side. The car gave me the first sign of trouble right at an exit. The car died on the exit ramp and came to a stop at the bottom. Right at the bottom of the ramp, however was a truck stop. The towing company happened to be on site because the driver was getting a cup of coffee. The friend who I was meeting in Statesville came a few exits south and waited with me, and then was kind enough to drive me back to Charlotte. A member of this congregation had a vehicle waiting for me when I arrived in Charlotte only an hour and a half after the car died. Some of you generously helped me pay for the repair so I could get the car back. Now, am I happy I had to go through that? Not really. But, it could’ve been worse. No matter what we may not like about a person or thing or circumstance, we can always find something good to focus on if only we will choose to do so.

The second key involves asking one question: For how long will this make me happy? So often we buy something, thinking it will make us happy, only to find that the happiness lasts about as long as it takes to open the box. There is a moment of satisfaction when we make the purchase, but the item does not continue to bring satisfaction over a period of time. Many of the things we buy are simply not worth the expense. This is why it is a good idea to try before you buy.

The third key is developing a grateful heart. Gratitude is essential if we are going to be content. St. Paul said that we are to “give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18). A grateful heart recognizes that all of life is a gift. Contentment comes when we spend more time giving thanks for what we have than thinking about what’s missing or wrong in our lives.

The fourth key is again the answer to a question: Where does your soul find true satisfaction? The world answers this question by telling us that we find satisfaction in ease and luxury and comfort and money. The Bible, however, answers this question very differently. From Genesis to Revelation—and this is the fourth key, by the way—it tells us that we find our satisfaction in God alone.

O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you . . . My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night (Psalm 63:1,6).

Whatever my eyes desired, I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure . . . Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after the wind (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11).

Jesus said the two most important things we must do are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind and to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37, 39). If we keep our focus on these two things, we will find satisfaction for our souls and lasting contentment. There are so many things we can go after and try to fill the empty places in our lives with, but our focus must remain on living out the greatest commandment, to love God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Contentment is part of it. But in addition to cultivating contentment, we need to cultivate simplicity. Contentment and simplicity go hand-in-hand. There are five steps for simplifying your life I’d like everyone to consider. These will not only help simplify your spending, they will also allow you to spend time with the people who matter most in your life, doing things that matter. In many ways, these things will help contribute toward a better life all the way around – your finances will be simpler, you’ll be spending more quality time with your family, you’ll even find yourself healthier.

First, set a goal of reducing your consumption and living below your means. Set a tangible goal to reduce your own personal consumption and the production of waste in your life. For example, use canvas bags when you go grocery shopping and refuse any extra packaging. I always have the canvas bags in the car, but I usually forget to take them inside, so try to do better than that.

Stop buying bottled water and start using a BRITA filter or pitcher at home instead. Don’t buy individual cans or bottles of your favorite soft drink, buy in the large bottle and drink from a glass at home.

Whenever you are making purchases, look at the mid-grade instead of the absolute top-of-the-line product. If you are buying a new car, aim to improve the fuel economy over your existing car by at least 10%.

During temperate seasons, don’t run your heating or cooling system if you don’t need to. I switched my air conditioning off at the end of September and haven’t turned my heat on yet. Sure, a couple nights I’ve had to put extra blankets on my bed and there were some chilly mornings of getting dressed, but you should see how much my electric bill went down. Program your thermostat to use less energy during times you’re away or sleeping.

Switch to water at restaurants.

Clip coupons, shop specials, and take advantage of double- and triple-coupon opportunities.

Give up a habit that’s probably not good for you anyway. A mocha latte plus tax is over three dollars. A carton of cigarettes are anywhere between $20 and $50.

You can see that many of these reductions in spending will also be good for your health. What’s good for your wallet is good for your health and relationships, too.

The second step in simplifying your life involves asking yet more questions. For every purchase, ask yourself, “Do I really need this?” and “Why do I want this?” These questions will help you to determine the true motivation of your desired purchase. Four and a half years ago, when I moved to Boone, I was driving a 1992 Saturn coupe. It was small, had some miles on it, and had some, shall we say, “cosmetic imperfections.” The best things it had going for it was that it ran, was reliable, and was paid for. Members of the congregation were concerned that I was driving such a small, high-mileage vehicle without four-wheel drive in the mountains, and so I bought the car I’m driving now – mainly because it was newer, lower miles, larger, and had all-wheel drive. I made payments on that car for the next 36 months, during which time I saw my old Saturn around town at least once a month. I had paid thousands of dollars for a car to replace one that was perfectly fine. Moreover, this car had worse mileage, was more expensive to maintain, attracted the attention of cops – that had nothing to do with the person driving it, by the way – and has been involved in three separate accidents in the time I’ve been driving it. Basically, I bought something to replace something that was working just fine because I allowed myself to believe that I really needed it. At this point, I leave it unlocked with the keys in it in bad neighborhoods overnight, just hoping it will be stolen and I’ll get reimbursed from the insurance company. A few weeks ago, when stopped at an intersection on South Boulevard, I almost got rear-ended by an inattentive driver and was disappointed the car didn’t get hit.

Before I bought that car, I should have asked myself two questions. “Do I really need this?” and “Why do I want this?” Is it a need, a self-esteem issue, or something else? You may find yourself wrestling with your true motive and decide that your reason for purchasing the item is not a good one.

Third step: use something up before buying something new. This would have been a good principle in my car decision, as well. Take good care of the things you buy and use them until they are empty, broken, or worn out. Buy things that are made to last – just because something is cheap doesn’t mean it’s a good value. I find churches are notorious about this. We buy things that are cheap because we’re concerned about cost, but end up spending a fortune in the long run replacing them more often or paying expensive maintenance bills to keep them going.

Fourth, plan low-cost entertainment that enriches. When it comes to choosing entertainment for your family or friends, plan things that are simple and cheap. A few years ago, my parents were down visiting from New York, and I planned a special day trip for us to North Carolina’s favorite attraction – we went to Asheville and went to the Biltmore. I was planning to pay. My dad, whose sensibilities are naturally more frugal than my own, hit the roof when he saw that each ticket was over $40. My dad doesn’t pay $40 for anything, and he was appalled that I was about to. As it turned out, he just didn’t want to see the Biltmore. So, I was willing to pay more money than he was comfortable with to get into something he wasn’t interested in seeing. He would have been perfectly happy to pack a sack lunch and spend the day driving and hiking along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which would have been both less expensive and more enjoyable for all of us. You’ll be amazed at how much pleasure can be derived from simple, low-cost activities.

Fifth, ask yourself, “Are there major changes that would allow me to simplify my life?” Consider selling a car and buying one you pay for in full, downsizing your home, or getting rid of a club membership you don’t use. Do you need as many HD channels as you’re currently paying for? Are you using the boat or RV enough to justify the insurance, maintenance, and storage expenses? Ask yourself questions related to your home, possessions, job, and activities to identify some significant changes that will simplify your life. If you are unable to do the things God is calling you to do because you don’t have the resources of time or money, you need to simplify. It’s not good enough to say, “God, I’ll do that in 15 years or so when I’m in better financial standing and can afford to do that” or “God, I’ll be happy to do that when I just have just a little bit more.” That attitude only feeds the cycle, and we can watch a lifetime go by waiting for “just a little bit more” before we are truly free to do the things God calls us to do. If you’re unable to find joy in life, if your heart is restless, perhaps it’s time to simply in some major ways.

Simplifying your life requires the practice of self-control. Solomon wrote, “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a person who lacks self-control” (Proverbs 25:28). In the ancient world, a city’s walls were its best defense against enemies; when it’s walls were broken down, an enemy could march right in and destroy it. There is no longer any protection. Likewise, self-control is a wall around your heart and life that protects you from yourself, from temptation, and from sins that are deadly and can ultimately destroy you. Self-control comes down to making a choice between satisfying an impulse to gain instant gratification and choosing not to act upon the opportunity for instant gratification by stopping to think about the answers to three questions:

What are the long-term consequences of this action?

Is there a higher good or a better outcome if I used this resource of time, money, or energy in another way?

Will this action honor God?

Envision how much better our decision-making would be if we asked those three questions about everything.

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the man who went to the doctor complaining of recurring alternating dreams. “One night I dream I’m a tipi; the next night, I’m a big top. Tipi; big top. Tipi, big top. On and on it goes.” The doctor looked at him and said, “Relax, you’re two tents.”

This morning, you have a choice between two tents. Will you live in discontent, or will you live in contentment? You and you alone determine which “tent” will be yours. Today is the day to stop waffling between two opinions. You choose the tent in which you live in large part by deciding what life is about. If you decide, as one of our Scripture readings for today says, that “life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions,” then you are choosing contentment. Choosing contentment means we look to God as our Source, giving thanks for what we have; we ask God to give us the right perspective on money and possessions and to change our hearts each day. We decide to live simpler lives, wasting less and conserving more, and we choose to give more generously, because we are created in the image of God, and no giver is more generous than God.

I invite you to place your hands on your lap, palm side up. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Pray with me:

Lord, cure me of Restless Heart Syndrome. I’m sorry for times I’ve been ungrateful, unsatisfied with people you entrust to my care, unsatisfied with my loved ones, unsatisfied with my possessions. Forgive me for being discontent. Help me cultivate contentment. Help me to end the cycle of discontent. I choose contentment. I choose contentment in you alone.

Help me to be grateful for what I have, to remember that I don’t need most of what I want, and that joy is found in simplicity and generosity. In Jesus’ name, Amen.


  1. Great series. Solid and lifechanging. So much of our worry is about money and things!

  2. If you want to know what a man believes, read his sermons and then watch his life. May the Holy Spirit be your guide in all things.