Real contentment is as rare as it is priceless

By Curtis K. Shelburne: CNJ columnist

During these difficult economic times, I’ve often heard someone say, “Well, one good thing always comes from tough times. People are reminded of what matters.”

I think those folks are saying that difficult times often cause us to reassess our priorities. In tough times we get the opportunity to learn more about what is truly important. And what truly matters is not stuff. People, friends, family, values. Those matter. Generally–not always, but usually–when folks have less money, it’s not quite as tempting to worship money as a god. At such times we tend to see with unusual clarity how foolish it is to tie our happiness to the size of our bank account. We learn that it’s a shame (literally) to trust in our shekels more than our God.

What we’re talking about is contentment that can’t be bought at any price. What we’re re-learning is the truth of St. Paul’s words to Timothy: “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Timothy 6:6-8).

I like Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase: “A devout life does bring wealth, but it’s the rich simplicity of being yourself before God. Since we entered the world penniless and will leave it penniless, if we have bread on the table and shoes on our feet, that’s enough” (The Message).

It’s easier to believe that when we have less glittering gold to blind us. When the bank bag is fat and we’re feeling fiscally fat, prosperous and important, we’re like the powerful men Mother Cecelia, a nun in Ken Follett’s World Without End describes: “. . . men of power never show gratitude; whatever we give them they accept as their right.”

It’s true, isn’t it? We talk about God’s blessings, and even believe what we say to some extent, but it seems that the more we have, the harder it is for us to really believe deep down that we’ve not earned it all, that we don’t deserve it all. After all, we’ve worked harder, been smarter, invested more wisely, etc., than others, haven’t we? So “success” is our right. We might not say it, but we believe it. We’ll throw a sop to God by saying the right things at, say, Thanksgiving, even though both He and we know how hard we’ve worked, and that “success” such as ours could be anyone’s if they were willing to pay the price. And we’ve paid it. We’ve earned it.

Our “prayer of thanksgiving” becomes the fiscal version of the prayer of the puffed up Pharisee Jesus told about who stood praying at the temple not far from a tax collector. Our prayer becomes, “God, I thank Thee that I’m not like other folks–lazy, dumb, poor managers, unresourceful, . . .” And on we go. We wouldn’t say it, of course. We just believe it.

Almost all studies show that folks of low or modest income give a larger percentage of their money away than do the wealthy. They’re not as convinced that it’s their right to have it and that the world would spin backwards and the whole universe be seriously inconvenienced if they were not rich.

Real contentment is almost as rare as it is priceless.

Curtis Shelburne is pastor of 16th & Ave. D. Church of Christ in Muleshoe. Contact him at
ckshel@aol.com