Since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment when numerous scientific discoveries and social advancements were made, Western culture has increasingly been marked by progress, convenience, and abundance. According to the UNU-WIDER study on The World Distribution of Household Wealth from December 2006, America and Europe comprise only 15% of the world's total population yet possess 66% of the world's wealth. Information is accessible at our fingertips or just down the road in a library. We ate breakfast this morning and don't have to worry about where our next meal is coming from. We can travel long distances by car or by plane very economically. This is simply the world that we have grown up in, and if you're like me, you may not really know anything different.
In this light, we must realize that the Lord has put the church in the West in a very unique place. In today's "microwave" generation, it is not uncommon for Christians to continually seek the newest gadget to abate the disquiet within and daily get into our Lexus and stare at the gaping hole in our souls. In stark contrast to today, much of the church throughout history has been persecuted and impoverished. Christianity spread quickly among the poor and the suffering as the promises of the age to come helped them put their hope in the coming Deliverer. Many in the church learned how to live with very little, trusting Jesus for their very next meal as they poured out their lives for the spread of the gospel.
Lest we be overzealous to sell our possessions and live as a vagabond, we must remember that external poverty is not a necessary condition for salvation because both poverty and abundance are a snare to the human heart. The issue is internal, not external. Covetousness in poverty and greed in abundance are gangrene to the heart learning to treasure Jesus above all else (Luke 12:15). Spiritual destitution is what Jesus requires (Matthew 5:3). Though Jesus often spoke about riches and possessions, He always used them to address a deeper condition of the heart (Matthew 6:19-24, Mark 10:22, Luke 14:33). The Apostle Paul said that we could give everything we have to the poor and still be absolutely nothing (1 Corinthians 13:3). So what then must our response be?
The Apostle Paul's response
We do not have to look any further than to the life of Paul the Apostle. A Pharisee of Pharisees and blameless according to the law, Paul was set up for success and his "best life now". It was not until after his encounter with the resurrected Lord that he was able to write indicting statements like this in his letter to the Philippians:
“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, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
(Philippians 4:12 NIV)
Paul learned the secret of being content in any and every situation. Paul was writing this letter to the Philippians from prison in Rome. It was with his ministry career, possessions, and networks behind him that he was able to say he had learned a secret. How? Before we look at an answer, we must remember that Paul is not speaking of contentment with possessions or riches. He was not looking for the next big paycheck or long weekend so he could be happy again. Nor was Paul seeking to live so poorly to show his piety and finally be content. He was in prison! His contentment transcended his abundance or poverty.
Just a few paragraphs earlier in the same letter, Paul boldly proclaimed:
“Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ”
(Philippians 3:8 NKJV)
Paul's foundation of joy was no longer his position, pedigree, or possessions (or lack thereof). Paul's source of contentment was his friendship with a real Person named Jesus, no matter if he was living in plenty or in want.
Immediately we must ask ourselves as copious Westerners a very important question - have we learned the secret of contentment in plenty? Are we learning to treasure Jesus' life and words above our possessions and wealth?
Our barriers to true contentment
“Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity.”
(Luke 8:14 NKJV)
Jesus Himself highlighted several areas where we as Westerners must learn to take heed:
- The deceitfulness of riches choking out a complete hope in the return of Jesus and the age to come - Matthew 13:22, 1 Peter 1:13.
- The weighing down of the heart with cares and pleasures of this life - Luke 8:14, Luke 21:34.
Firstly, riches are deceptive. They provide a false sense of security that causes the heart to "trust in uncertain riches" rather than the living God (1 Timothy 6:17), which in turn blinds our eyes to see that we are so thoroughly dependent, in need of even our very next breath from God.
Sadly, false gospels of comfort, health, provision, and "blessing" have developed in tandem with the abundance of the West. For followers of these messages, contentment of the soul is still obtained in opulence and repose, the same contaminated water the world attempts to slake their thirst with. The way of the cross is conspicuously absent from such preaching. This is one of the reasons why the Lord will shake the foundations of "Westernism" in our Christianity, reaffirming our utter dependence on Him and exposing our romanticized ideas about comfort and provision even at the end of the age. How we prepare and respond to the removal of these things will expose the roots of our contentment.
Secondly, cares and pleasures of this life weigh down the heart. The more possessions one has, the more there is to worry about, thus the more opportunity there is to be weighed down by them. The more one seeks their primary pleasure outside of friendship with Jesus and doing His will, the more they will find themselves unsatisfied and unprepared for the glory of the resurrection and age to come, where Jesus will be the magnificent obsession of every living thing.
It is exceedingly rare to find people who, after inheriting a large sum of money, do not change their lifestyle. Instead, they use their riches to increase their comfort and to experience pleasure in various forms. Jesus spoke a parable to his disciples illustrating the perils of wealth:
“Then He spoke a parable to them, saying: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully. And he thought within himself, saying, “What shall I do, since I have no room to store my crops?’ So he said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build greater, and there I will store all my crops and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease; eat, drink, and be merry.” 'But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul will be required of you; then whose will those things be which you have provided?’
“So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God.”
Then He said to His disciples, “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; nor about the body, what you will put on. Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing.”
(Luke 12:16–23 NKJV)
Without question, this parable has application to our lives as Westerners. Are our possessions and wealth deceiving us and actually robbing us of the joy of contentment in every circumstance? Is our wealth standing in the way of a deeper friendship with Jesus, the true source of contentment?
Though simplifying our lives, giving our money, and selling some of our possessions are very biblical and would be very helpful to many of us, they must not be our only action to tear down the barriers to contentment. We must earnestly give ourselves to the "one thing needed" (Luke 10:42), remembering that all we have comes from His hand (Psalms 145:16) as we grow in the knowledge of Jesus through the diligent study of His life and words. Contentment in all things can only come when our foundation rests on something that can never be shaken (Romans 8:35, 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, Hebrews 12:26-28).
We must diligently take heed to avoid being weighted down by the cares of this life so that the day of the Lord does not come upon us unexpectedly (Luke 21:34). We must earnestly petition Jesus to gently loose our grip on our position and possessions and reveal His glory to us so that we are able to declare that even the finest pleasures of this age are insufficient and paltry compared to our friendship with Him. It is only then that we will be able to long for Jesus in circumstantial ease and confidently profess as Paul did: "I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want."