Our culture pushes us to get more – the Bible prompts us to give more. Our society makes a virtue of self-fulfilment – the Bible makes a virtue of self-denial. ‘Say yes’ to what you want, advise the adverts. ‘Say no’ to what you covet, says Jesus.
Alarming numbers of people in Britain are in serious debt for consumer goods. Credit is more available than ever before. We are used to having things because we want them, rather than waiting until we can afford them. Magazines sell the message that the latest decor, garden furniture, recipes, clothing, shoes and holidays are absolutely essential to personal happiness and social status.
Our lifestyle is based on vast amounts of waste. The average Briton bins £424 of food every year. Add to that the gym fees that remain unused, useless sale purchases, unworn clothes, unread books, unfinished courses – and the average Briton wastes £1,725 a year.
The New Testament warns, ‘The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have … pierced themselves with many griefs’ (1 Timothy 5:10). Human nature does not change, and the apostle Paul wrote this letter to Timothy in a cultural context startlingly similar to our own.
A covetous, selfish and materialistic lifestyle – whether in the first-century Roman Empire or twenty-first-century Britain – leads only to frustration. As a society, we’re getting richer and richer, but no happier.
Contentment eludes us because we keep comparing ourselves with those who have more than us. Greed leads to misery. It makes us haggard not happy. By contrast, the New Testament tells us that godly contentment brings great gain.
Paul experienced extremes of comfort and poverty, security and hardship. Yet he was able to say in all honesty, ‘I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 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 want. I can do all things through him who gives me strength’ (Philippians 4:11-13).
The key to contentment
How did Paul achieve this? He did not rely for his happiness on anything that could be taken away from him. He found his true joy in God: ‘I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’ (Philippians 3:8).
Here is the key to contentment – ‘knowing Christ’. Paul does not just mean knowing aboutChrist, though that is where we must start. He is talking about going further and entering into an intimate and personal knowledge of God’s Son.
Praying to his Father, Jesus himself said, ‘You have given [your Son] authority over all flesh [i.e. humanity] that he should give eternal life to as many as you have given him. And this is eternal life that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’ (John 17:2-3).
It is Jesus Christ himself, then, that we must seek if we are to know him and his sufficiency for time and for eternity. And he promises that those who seek shall find. ‘Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon’ (Isaiah 55:6-7).
Advice to the rich
Surely it is foolish to depend on things that can be taken from us, whether our family, health, home, career, salary, pension plan or savings? Depending on such things leads to an arrogant attitude – we assume we don’t actually need God at all. But then we are devastated if our health is taken, or if we are bereaved, or if our investments are wiped out, or we are made redundant.
Paul wrote, ‘Command those who are rich not to be arrogant, nor to put their hope in wealth but to put their hope in God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment’ (I Timothy 5:17).
He was writing to the leader of a church where some people were very well-off. But they were warned not to trust in their wealth. Rather, he says, ‘Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age’ (1 Timothy 5:18-19).
God sees our credit-card bills
The great Christian thinker Francis Schaeffer warned that too many of us have sold out to the materialistic world view of our time, where personal peace and affluence are valued above everything else.
He was shocked that even many who call themselves ‘Christians’ had a lifestyle characterised by the non-compassionate use of accumulated wealth.
The Bible teaches that we are just stewards of God’s bounty. At the judgement, each of us will be accountable for the way we have used the resources entrusted to us. God sees our chequebook stubs and our credit-card statements. Is he pleased? Or grieved?
Jesus warns us that we cannot serve God and money (Matthew 6:24). Our attitude towards material resources is a telling indicator of where our heart is.
Do we love God more than anything else? Or are we trapped in the worship of material things?