November 18, 2018
Norwalk First United Methodist Church
Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity
26th Sunday after Pentecost
Enough: Cultivating Contentment
Hebrews 13:5-6 & Luke 12:13-21
We just heard this in our scripture reading: 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.” In recent years we have witnessed a number of devastating natural disasters, including hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and wildfires. Natural disasters remind us that everything in this world is temporary.
If our stuff is taken away by bankruptcy or plundered by thieves or blown away by a tornado or burned in a wildfire, we must remember that material things are only temporary. This is why we can say with Jesus, “[My] life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).
I believe that. I believe it, first, because Jesus said it. I also believe it because somehow I intuitively know that it’s true.
Yet our culture is shouting that it’s not true. The world continually tells us that our lives do consist in the abundance of our possessions. You and I are bombarded with messages such as, If you had a little bit more, you’d be happier. If you had this thing that you currently do not have, you’d find more satisfaction in life. If you had a bigger house or a nicer car or more fashionable clothes, you’d be happy – at least happier than you are right now.
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. The result is Restless Heart Syndrome. More about that in a moment, but first, would you pray with me?
Perhaps you’ve heard of restless leg syndrome, a condition in which one has twitches and contractions in the legs. Well, Adam Hamilton, in his book “Enough” says that Restless Heart Syndrome or RHS works in a similar way, but in the heart – or soul. He writes that “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. This is the nature of RHS, and it is a syndrome that, if left unchecked, can destroy us.”
Now, there is a certain discontent that God intended us to have, a discontent that is actually a virtue. God wired our hearts so that they would be discontent with certain things, causing us to seek the only One who can fully satisfy us. 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.
The problem is that those things we should be content with, our temporary worldly possessions, 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 he or she asks for the gift receipt. It’s as if 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.”
We seem to look for reasons to be unhappy with our stuff so that we can go out and buy new stuff. We love stuff more than we love who we are. The wise writer of Hebrews said this in chapter 13: Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for [God] 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.” Our contentment comes in knowing that God is always with us, not in the fact that our stuff is always with us. We should be happy and content in God and yet we always seem to be searching for that next thing that will make us happy.
Some of us do the same thing when it comes to the church. We have an illusion that things are going to be perfect in the church. So when we begin to see all of the “warts,” usually as we become more deeply involved in the church family and as we begin serving the congregation and the community, we become discontented. There’s that usher who wasn’t very friendly to us, and that time the pastor said something that hurt our feelings, and the incident when no one called after we volunteered for something; and before long, all we can see is what’s wrong with the church. We can’t see the good stuff anymore. We lose our focus on God.
So we go church shopping and find another church. We hang around there for a couple of years until our feelings get hurt or we are disappointed in some way, and then we go looking for another church again. Somehow we believe the grass is always greener on the other side. But we soon learn that that is not true. I think it was the humorous Erma Bombeck who said, “The grass is always greener over the septic tank.” And folks, that is about the only place.
So with all of that in mind, let me outline four keys to cultivating contentment in your life. The Apostle Paul is an excellent example of contentment. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote of the “secret” to his contentment. He said, “I have learned to be content with whatever 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 of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need” (Philippians 4:11-12). When Paul wrote those words, he was sitting in a prison cell in Rome, waiting for the news of whether or not he would be executed.
The first key to cultivating contentment is to repeat these four words: “It could be worse.” Say them with me, “It could be worse.” 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.
When you are climbing into your 10-year-old car, it could be worse. You could have no car at all. When you go to work and are faced with problems and difficulties and disappointments, say, “It could be worse.” You could have no job at all like the 14 million other Americans out there. These four words, “It could be worse,” is recognizing that no matter what we may not like about a thing or person or circumstance, we can always find something good to focus on if only we will choose to do so.
The second key to cultivating contentment is to ask this 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. You’ve all seen it at Christmas time when your kids open their presents. 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. My attic is full of things that I thought would make me happy.
The third key to cultivating contentment is developing a grateful heart. This is one of the most important keys to contentment and happiness in life. Gratitude is essential if we are to be content. In his letter to the Thessalonians in chapter 5, the Apostle Paul said that we are to “give thanks in all circumstances.” Contentment comes when we spend more time giving thanks for what we have than thinking about what’s missing or wrong in our lives. Hamilton says this in his book, “When we begin to be grateful and express gratitude to God, over time we find our hearts have changed and we are grateful for what we have. Then we are able to be content.”
The fourth key to contentment is found in this question: “Where does my 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 the question very differently. From Genesis to Revelation, it tells us that we find our satisfaction in God alone.
Matthew 22: 37 Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If we keep our focus on these two things, we will find satisfaction for our souls and lasting contentment.
Just to review, the four keys to cultivating contentment are:
- repeating the words: “It could be worse.”
- asking the question: “For how long will this make me happy?”
- developing a grateful heart, and
- discovering where your soul finds true satisfaction, in things or in God?
In addition to cultivating contentment in our lives, we also need to cultivate simplicity. Simplicity says less is more. Simplicity says we do not need as much clutter in our lives. More stuff means more maintenance, which involves time, energy, and resources. The truth is that more stuff makes us less happy. There comes a point when we have enough stuff, and everything above and beyond that level only creates stress. Contentment and simplicity go hand in hand. Let me quickly give you five steps for simplifying your life.
First, set a tangible goal to reduce your own personal consumption and the production of waste in your life. For example, when I go to Aldi’s grocery shopping, I take my own canvas bags and refuse any extra packaging. Or whenever you make a purchase, look at the mid-grade instead of the top-of-the-line product. Reduce your utilities by 10 percent by setting the thermostat back a couple of degrees when you are away during the day and asleep at night. You get the picture. Find other ways to reduce your consumption and live below your means.
Second, before making a purchase, ask yourself two questions: “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. Is it a need, a self-esteem issue, or something else?
Third, use something up before buying something new. 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; and, when buying things that have a short lifespan, spend your money wisely.
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. You’ll be amazed at how much more pleasure you derive from low-cost, simple activities.
And lastly, 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. Ask yourself questions related to your home, possessions, job, and activities to identify some significant changes that will simplify your life. Remember, if you cannot do all the things God is calling you to do and you’re unable to find joy in your life, perhaps it’s time to simplify in some major ways.
In closing, simplifying our lives requires the practice of self-control. Solomon wrote in proverbs 25: Like a city whose walls are broken down is a person who lacks self-control.” When a city’s walls are broken through, the enemy can 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 ultimately can destroy you. When temptation knocks on our door for instant gratification we need to stop and ask ourselves
- “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?” and finally,
- “Will this action honor God?”
With all of this in mind, I ask you this: “Which tent will you live in?” Will you live in discon-tent or con-tent-ment? You and you alone determine which “tent” will be yours. You choose in large part by deciding what life is about. If you decide that “life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions,” unlike the rich man in our Luke scripture, 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.
Don’t be like the rich man in our scripture who stored up things in this life and ignored God. God said to him, “You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself? This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”