The Navy veteran and octogenarian was a delightful conversation partner when I visited his home in Austin, Texas not long ago. As I expressed some discontentment about a few issues affecting small business, his wise words were, “You live in the world that is, not in the world as you want it to be.” Checkmate, kind sir. In a few words, the retired structural engineer explained a large part of a well-designed life: contentment.
On the return trip, I happened to read an excerpt from Harper Lee’s much-heralded novel Go Set a Watchman. It describes the Alabama residents in the home county of protagonist Jean Louise Finch. “The Federal Government had forced a highway or two through the swamps, thus giving the citizens an opportunity for free egress. But few people took advantage of the roads, and why should they? If you did not want much, there was plenty.”
You can define contentment as the gap between what you have and what you want; the closer the distance between the two, the greater your contentment. For the mathematical mind, contentment is inversely proportional to the difference between have and want. But to the point, it is usually easier to close the gap by moving your wants rather than your haves. In other words, live in the world that is.
“Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim 6:6), we are told, for three reasons. We can’t take it with us when we leave this world. We can be content with the basics of life, i.e. food and shelter. We can fall into a terrible trap of loving money. Note that money is not the root of evil, but to love it is. A bonus reason to be content is that God “will never desert you, nor will (he) ever forsake you” (Heb 13:5).
The godly person prioritizes the pursuit of a more precious treasure: righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance, gentleness, and faith. Will we ever have enough of these? And these noble pursuits of the heart leave neither the time nor the will to gather more wood, hay, and stubble, the things we can’t take with us.
Contentment does not proscribe thrift, hard work, ambition, and entrepreneurship, for these are admirable as well. You play the hand you’re dealt, but you still play to win. So perhaps contentment means acknowledging that some things are either too costly to pursue or simply beyond your reach. Godly contentment is a heavenly reminder to that earthly forgetfulness that misplaces your priorities.
Billy Graham said, “The happiness which brings enduring worth to life is not the superficial happiness that is dependent on circumstances. It is the happiness and contentment that fills the soul even in the midst of the most distressing circumstances.” That contentment comes with faith in Christ that says, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Heb 13:6).