"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

Learned Contentedness

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Sermon series on Money, St John the Evangelist
Philippians 4:10-20, October 16, 2011 “learned contentedness”

Let’s Pray. We continue in our sermon series looking at the place of money in our lives, and this week I want to specifically look at one of the ways that the quest for money gets a hook in our lives – this being the cult of consumption that is promoted by our modern culture, and the unhappiness that rules our lives if we’re not following Christ.

To start with, I’m going to break a rule of instructional technique…which says you never start with the bad example, as that’s what’s remembered. But here goes. I heard an interesting quote on the radio: unhappiness is the difference between our desires and reality; unhappiness is the difference between our desires and reality. So, happiness is quite simple, either make your desires fit reality; or make reality fit your desires. That’s it. Any questions?

In researching this question of happiness I came across this book: “The How of Happiness”, written by a psychologist, and documenting her research that tells you how to increase happiness in your day to day life. Her hypothesis is that 50% of our happiness is tied to genetics, which we can’t change. 10% is tied to our particular life circumstance, which are difficult to change. The balance of 40% is a part of our capacity for happiness that is within our power to change. Her plan is certainly interesting, as she promotes gratitude, optimism, positive thinking, kindness, relationship, forgiveness and spirituality as areas that support the development of your residual 40% happiness capacity. It’s science, so it must be true and good, right? This is the wrapping in a form of pseudo-science of the same message I heard on the radio – unhappiness is the difference between our desires and reality. It is a bit of a despairing message as well, for this ‘scientific’ study suggests that about 60% of our happiness is based on a reality we can’t change. That’s not bad news for we who live in a land of plenty…but if you’re a child growing up in a garbage dump in Brazil, the news that you can only bring happiness to the tune of 40% under your control, is probably not too encouraging.

Now, to undo some of this bad example, I’ll just say that all of this is junk, and you should forget it. My only purpose in bringing it out is to highlight Paul’s teaching we’re looking at today, and to highlight a lie of this world: that your happiness is either within your control (40%), and you should be working to make yourself happy; or it is out of your control (60%) and there’s nothing you can do about it. The problem for me is the great message of condemnation that arises from that pseudo-science…if you’re not happy to the tune of 40%, it’s your own fault. Also, if you manage to achieve that 40% of happiness, and your life falls apart, you are left asking yourself what you might have done wrong…after all, your happiness is under your control. What I want to emphasize is a path to contentedness that is: *completely independent of your ability to make yourself happy; *unrelated to what your genetics or particular life situation might be; a way to contentedness that is grounded in the rock of Jesus Christ, and is unchangeable compared to this changeable world. Paul’s learned contentedness encompasses the 40%, the 10% and that unchangeable 50% and renders the changes and chances of this world incapable of altering contentedness in Christ.

There is a strong contrast in the language here I need to make clear up front: for the world speaks of happiness…while Paul speaks of contentedness. The Greek here means: “strong enough or possessing enough to need no aid or support independent of external circumstances, contented with one’s lot, with one’s means, though the slenderest.” This is not happiness, and I’ll note that it is possible to be content without being happy: an example: you’ve just done something that will save your family from death, but in saving them you have guaranteed your own death. I would be content, in the knowledge those you love are safe, but certainly not happy with the way the story will end for me. The promise of Paul is not glee, but that Christ will leave you content regardless of circumstance.

Now contrast this contentedness of Paul with the constant grasping of our culture, the constant need for things. Part of what has made the capitalist approach to democracy such a success is the constant expansion of demand. Historically, that expansion of demand started just after the Second World War, and has continued without any real interruption to this day. I am not going to suggest that capitalism is an intrinsically bad thing, as the present bunch of protestors seems to suggest, but just to point out that anything which is made solely of humankind is subject to our fundamental flaw…we love to turn things into idols. Capitalism, as an idol, is as destructive as any other idol, as is democracy. Capitalism, not submitted to the Lordship of Christ, becomes an unrestrained pursuit for profit above all else.

The cult of consumption, which tells us we can never be happy without (fill in the blank), is a part of that unrestrained capitalism. Paul talks about this too, in chapter 3 of this letter he identifies the ‘enemies of the cross of Christ’ as those who see, ‘their god is their belly…with minds set on earthly things.’ The image here is stark – the cross of Christ represents the denial of all that is earthly, to follow a path of suffering/contrasted with those whose god rests in their stomach (that is, in the worship of physical things). Your god is your next meal, or whatever can satisfy you until the hunger starts again. Which path do you wish to follow?

Commercial advertisements tell us that happiness can be won by buying the right things, and the right number of things. Even pet food commercials promise us happy cats if we but purchase the right brand of chow (as if a cat would ever let you know it was happy). This is a path to emptiness, for the cult of consumption creates in us a hole that can never be filled with anything but more consumption.

Let’s contrast this with what Paul writes to the Christians at Philippi, which is quite a short piece (4 chapters) of instruction about how to live life as a believer. It is short enough that it can be read while making a cup of tea (the proper English way, of course), and I’d suggest you take a read through all four chapters. Our focus today is on the fourth chapter, and I want to specifically focus on Paul’s statement about what I’ll term ‘learned contentedness’, at verse 11, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

Notice how Paul talks about learned contentedness in all situations, and offers three pairs of contrasting descriptors: brought low/abounding; plenty/hunger and abundance/need. There is an important truth here, that abundance is as spiritually risky as hunger. Too much stuff allows us to convince ourselves that we are where we are because we have done it all on our own. Too little stuff can make us bitter and angry, as we know we deserve more than we have. Learned contentedness permits us to rest in the place we happen to be at, and to be content. It is not self-satisfaction based on the abundance of our lives, and the conviction that we have done it all ourselves. It is not self-sufficiency based on our ability to do it all without anyone else’s help. It is self-surrender that brings us to the place of content existence in Christ.

Learned contentedness, as Paul sets out, inoculates us against the threats of too much and too little – and note that these are quite relative terms depending on your mindset. There are many in our nation of plenty who believe they have far too little, and resent the world as a result – I have heard more than one complaint about some people being too rich and how the growing gap between rich and poor needs to be narrowed by wealth redistribution. I find this all quite mystifying and it is made even more so in light of Paul’s teaching of learned contentedness. I do not deny that there are structural injustices in our society, but much of what I hear today seems more based on complaints about other people earning more income, which somehow offends some abstract concept of fairness. I wonder what would happy to the occupy Wall Street movement if the protestors all took learned contentedness to heart? What if the Wall Street bankers, the object of the protest took Paul’s contentedness to heart?
Listen again to what Paul says about that dissatisfaction with systems, with too much or too little income: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” Consider this very radical idea as the counter-point to a culture and a climate that seeks to leave you unhappy and dissatisfied so that you will continue to consume. “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” Learned contentedness.

This teaching comes through in other parts of Paul’s writings. Consider 1st Timothy: 1 Tim 6:6-8: 6Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, 7for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. 8But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” Learned contentedness is Paul’s message of the true path to contentment. Look also at Hebrews 13 – Hebrews 13:5-6 “5Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for God has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” 6So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” With God’s promise to never leave us or forsake us, what can man do?

Now this message of contentedness is not one that encourages a lack of action…it is not a ‘fat, dumb and happy’ type of contentedness, but rather a state of being that permits one to be content regardless of circumstance. So, this does not blunt Christ’s call upon us to transform unjust social structures, far from it. What it does mean is that, unlike just about every protestor I have seen interviewed, our state of being as we seek change in the world is not one that is defined by anger, or hatred, or anxiety, or jealousy, but contentedness.

The message of contentedness strongly contrasts with this culture’s messages of profit and acquisition above all else, including compassion and fairness. Our learned contentedness comes from our understanding of the nature of God, and our sure faith in his promise that he will provide us with all we need, when we need it, and will never forsake us. That does not mean a life empty of danger, or pain, or death, or suffering, but it means a life that is full of contentment in Christ independent of circumstance. Note also that this is not just talking about material things, but also about love, emotional satisfaction, relationships, life companions and anything else that we might desire but not have. I am all things in Christ, and most particularly, I am always content in Christ. Amen.

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Written by sameo416

October 16, 2011 at 4:58 am

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