Volume 56, Number 4
Webster defines discontentment as a “lack of satisfaction with one’s possessions, status, or situation. It can be a “sense of grievance: dissatisfaction,” or a “restless aspiration for improvement.” On a personal level, all of us at some point can identify with a restless aspiration for improvement. As the old saying goes, “Room for improvement is the biggest room in the house.” We all have areas in our lives that we need to work on and improve. And in society, many social reforms have stemmed from a growing dissatisfaction with the status quo or with an injustice. At the turn of the 20th century, there was widespread discontent with the poor working conditions and long hours of blue collar workers in big corporations in industrial America. And the people were given a voice. And so, there can be both positive and negative aspects to discontentment. It can push us to try harder, do better and work to improve a situation. Or, it can push us to anger and resentment.
If you are a student and not doing as well academically as you could, discontentment can spur you on to try harder and do better. Or, if you get a poor performance review at your job, it can push you to buckle down and work harder. And many athletic teams are driven to succeed because they don’t want a losing record. And so, if we are not living up to our potential, discontentment can be a powerful motivator. It can help us move beyond a mediocre, lackadaisical, nonchalant approach to life.
But there are limits. How far are we willing to go to enjoy (or ensure) “success?” Most of us have observed people who have pushed themselves (and those around them) to the brink, in order to win a game, or a trophy, or a championship. They become consumed with winning. And if they don’t, they are devastated. Their life and their worth is bound up in the game.
The Bible rather teaches that whatever we put our hand to, we should do it heartily, as unto the Lord (Colossians 3:23). This doesn’t mean that we will always win the game, or the trophy or the championship. But we are asked to do our best with what we have been given, for the glory of God.
And yet how quickly can good intentions and pure motives turn selfish. Solomon observed that “all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:4). Solomon saw that the desire to get ahead is often at the heart of achievement and hard work. Where the focus is no longer the glory of God, but rather outdoing our neighbor.
This then is the other side of discontentment. The temptation to compare our lives with the lives of others has always been with us. But it seems to be magnified in our digital age. Social media has allowed us to post up-to-the-minute updates on all our life events, both big and small. And often what gets posted are the highlights: out on the town for dinner with friends, the vacation, the new house, the new car, the new motorboat. It all seems so glamorous.. .so perfect.. .so happy. And we can be tempted to look at our own lives, and our dinners at home, and our older house, and our older car and wonder why our life doesn’t look like theirs.
Someone has observed that, “The importance and visibility that social media have lent to social interaction…mean that adulthood now often resembles a high school popularity contest. We broadcast our own social lives and resent when we’re excluded from the social lives of others…if it is on Instagram — and you weren’t there — it’s hard not to feel the slight” (Peggy Drexler, “How To Resist Our Age of Resentment,” The Wall Street Journal, January 20-21, 2018, C4).
And so, discontentment can begin to creep in and destroy us when we dwell on the perceived successes, privileges, experiences and possessions of others. And we feel slighted because we have not enjoyed the same lot. Discontentment stems from not being satisfied with who we are and what we have. David expressed his contentment to God in Psalm 16:5 where he said, “Lord, You have assigned me my portion and my cup; You have made my lot secure. The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.” Please read brother Harold Martin’s following article about the cancer of discontentment.
— Eric Brubaker
THE CANCER OF DISCONTENT
By Harold S. Martin
Contentment is the state of being satisfied with one’s lot in life—a willingness to accept conditions as they are. It’s not stoicism—what will be, will be. And it doesn’t mean laziness or lethargy—content just to live as we have always been living; content not to bother cleaning up by working hard, or to keep things in working order. Contentment is not that.
Biblical contentment rests upon an inner trust that a loving God is concerned about His children—and that He seeks their highest good.
The last of the Ten Commandments says, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, or his wife… or anything that is your neighbor’s” (Exodus 20:17). Contentment is a virtue which every one of us needs to cultivate. Contentment applies to money and material things, but it also applies to holding a biblical view regarding the changing circumstances of life that come our way.
Concerning finances, we need to preach a little sermon to ourselves, and be reminded that every person comes into this world without a penny in his pocket (in fact, without a pocket to put a penny in), and we leave this world without taking any material goods with us. Thus the Bible says that if we have food and clothing, we are to be content (1 Timothy 6:8).
Concerning the circumstances of life in which we find ourselves, we must be clear about the Bible teaching concerning the providence of God. Christians believe in the providences of God, whether we can understand them or not. And when heartaches come—and bitter tears fall, and we sit by the bedside of a dearly loved family member, and we hold a fevered hand, and even should we need to follow a casket out into the cemetery—we can turn away from such experiences and look up into the face of God and say, “We know that all things work together for good (for the spiritual welfare) of those who love God.”
R.A. Torrey used to call that verse [Romans 8:28] “a soft pillow for a tired heart.”
The hymn writer says: “Lord, I would clasp Thy hand in mine, nor ever murmur nor repine; content—whatever lot I see—since ‘tis my God who leadeth me.”
Paul had endured hunger and thirst and loneliness and shipwreck, yet he never complained that his life had been a hard and difficult experience. He says, instead, to the church at Philippi, “The things which happened to me have actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel” (Philippians 1:12). Greed and the spirit of covetousness are brought on by discontentment.
If one is really content with what he has, he will not quickly be craving more and more things. Paul wrote to the Philippians (while he was locked in prison), and said, “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content” (Philippians 4:11).
Paul had to learn contentment. He was reared in luxury. He never knew what it was to be in want. He was educated at the feet of a private tutor. But later, as a servant of Christ, he began sometimes to have special needs—and had to learn to be content. He learned that our real sufficiency is in Christ.
The instruction in Hebrews 13:5 is clear: “Let your conduct be without covetousness; be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
1. THE MEANING OF COVETOUSNESS
Just exactly what is covetousness? It is sometimes defined as “the desire to have what someone else has.” But we can covet what we see in a catalog—and so covetousness is not merely the desire for what someone else has. Covetousness is simply the desire for more. It is about the same as greed. It is the subtle determination that we need more than we really do. Covetousness is a sin which kills contentment—and it suppresses a spirit of thanksgiving.
One of the root words translated “covet” means “to boil.” It denotes a fervent and passionate desire; it signifies an excessive appetite for wealth and earthly possessions; it is a feeling of always wanting more. One who is given to covetousness is not satisfied [not content] with his present situation, and has a basic drive to accumulate more. The covetous person assumes that all he earns can be spent any way he wants to spend it. When he gets a paycheck he says, “What do I want? What do others have? What’s new? What would make life easier for me?” The basic motivation behind all sinful covetousness is deep-rooted lack of contentment.
Every human being is to some extent tainted with the sin of greed. Jeremiah says, “For from the least of them even to the greatest of them, everyone is given to covetousness’ (Jeremiah 6:13). Many years ago, near Springfield, Illinois, one of the villagers heard a noise in front of his house. He went to the door to look, and saw Abraham Lincoln walking by with his two sons—both crying loudly. The neighbor said to Abe: “What is the matter?” Mr. Lincoln said, “Their trouble is just what is the matter with the whole world, I have three walnuts, and each boy wants two!”
Our nation has become a nation of coveters. Every state capitol has lobbyists and pressure groups, each wanting the wealth of others, and each group is striving to see how much they can get for themselves and for their group. The purchase of lottery tickets is an extreme violation of the tenth Commandment.
But, of course, each individual has tendencies toward covetousness. A teenager evaluates a friend and says, “I’d give anything to have her money, brains, friends, clothes; personality, etc.” A poor man envies a rich man for his money. A rich man envies a poor man for his health. A factory worker envies a doctor for the kind of life he lives. A doctor envies a factory worker because he can start at 7:30 and quit at 4:30. It always seems like the other person is better off than we are. The grass on the other side of the fence generally looks greener, but usually it is not greener. Covetousness then is a word that means “an excessive desire to have more.” It implies dissatisfaction with one’s lot in life; it speaks of discontent.
2. THE FORMS OF COVETOUSNESS
The word “covet” is a neutral word which sometimes is used in a good sense. We are told, for example, to “covet earnestly the best gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:31). There is nothing inherently wrong with desiring things, but if we desire things out of selfish ambition, then we are violating the Tenth Commandment. We should covet a good name, a sweet spirit, and a Christ-like character. There is a way of coveting which is bad, and there is a way of coveting which is good. It all depends on the goal in view, and the spirit which permeates the desire. It is the, wrong kind of coveting which is prohibited in Exodus 20.
a) The undue desire for money and material things
All., of us must guard against the snare of materialism We must use moderation with respect to worldly goods. Jesus spoke of this form of covetousness when He said, “one’s life does not consist in the abundance of things he possesses” (Luke 12:15). Satisfaction with what we have (contentment) does not come from having all our wants supplied, but rather, it comes from reducing our desires to include only the essentials of life. First Timothy 6:8 says that if we have food and clothing, we should be content.
It is part of our inborn human nature to want more. Jesus says we should not “lay up for ourselves treasures upon earth”—and yet for many of us, those words might just as well not be in the Bible!
It is easy in this age of plenty to become obsessed with the desire to gorge ourselves with unnecessary things—and. many of those things soon become more stuff to sell at the next garage ‘sale. Material things can really get a tight grip on us. It is easy to think that we must have expensive furniture, sleek automobiles, restored antiques, extravagant holidays, up-to-date hunting equipment, etc. It is a sad thing to see persons work themselves nearly to death, seeking to accumulate material things, and then die and let them all behind. Jack Benny used to say, “If I can’t take it with me, I won’t go.” But several years ago, Jack Benny (the comedian) went, like all the rest of us are going to go.
It is natural and lawful for all of us to have a moderate desire for. earthly goods. A desire for creature comforts, and for material sufficiency, is not wrong. It is the inordinate desire that is sinful.
The Apostle Paul balances the whole matter of our attitudes toward material things, in 1 Timothy 6:17, when he says that God has given us “richly all things to enjoy.” The Lord is not saying that we should become ascetics, and live in mud houses, and deny ourselves of every good thing—but He does expect us to be careful about the abuse of money, and He expects us to avoid thinking we must have more and more of this world’s material possessions. All of us need to strive to be thrifty without becoming miserly.
The writer in Proverbs 30 states the balanced view toward material things when he eloquently says, “Give me neither poverty nor riches, lest I… be poor and steal… (or) lest I be full and deny You” (Proverbs 30:8-9). If one is poor, there will be a temptation to steal; if one is rich, there will be a tendency to think he can get along without God. It is best just to have the simple necessities of life—no more and no less. This seems to be “the golden mean” that will help each of us avoid the dangers of prosperity, as well as the desperations of poverty.
b) An excessive appetite for status and position
The scribes and Pharisees desired the chief places in the synagogue. James and John coveted the chief places in the coming kingdom (Mark 10:35-45). This kind of covetousness brings on the corrosive sins of envy and jealousy. Sometimes one person would like to have the more prominent place held by another. He wants greatness for himself and is jealous of another who happens to be a more successful rival. One can covet another’s success, and personality, and abilities—and thus break the Tenth Commandment.
We must learn to say, “God made me as I am and He put me where I am, and He has something for me to do by using just what He has given me to use.” Our job is not to envy someone else’s life, but to make the very best of our own life.
c) An unlawful desire for other persons
Covetousness is not limited to money and position. The Tenth Commandment says, “You shall not covet…anything.” We have no right to the possessions of others, nor do we have a right to the person who belongs to someone else.
King David one time coveted the beautiful wife of one of his soldiers. He had a discontented spirit. His discontent led him to take her, and then place her husband on the front line of battle so that he would meet his death (2 Samuel 11). And just so today, there are men and women who go out after the spouses of others. They invade the sanctity of marriage and drag other households into misery and disgrace. The man who flirts with (and becomes unduly familiar toward) a woman [other than his wife], is a stench before God. It is hard to think of a crime that is more unspeakable and more soul-damning, than that of the man who steals the affections of another man’s wife and wrecks another man’s home, or engages in immoral conduct with young girls—just to satisfy his own lustful desires.
In Colossians 3:5, God includes the sin of coveting right along with a list of sins of sexual impurity. The man who commits fornication with an unmarried girl is a covetous person. He calls it “love,” but really it is greed—a covetous desire to satisfy his own physical appetite. Every woman and young girl needs to be aware that if a man truly loves a woman he will not ask for her body first. Rather, he will want to make the commitment of honorable marriage, and promise to provide for her and to be a companion by her side day after day. And then, after the binding commitment of marriage is consummated, she can share with him the secrets of her body and soul in a binding relationship.
3. THE CURE FOR COVETOUSNESS
Discontent [covetousness] is the root of many other forms of evil. In the case of Achan, it led to theft; in the case of Ahab, it led to murder; in the case of David, it led to adultery. But there are factors which can help us conquer the dangerous sin of covetousness.
a) Covetousness can be cured by putting simple trust in the heavenly Father.
Jesus believed in thrift and hard work, but He warned against becoming anxious about such necessities as food and clothing. Jesus said in Matthew 6 that we should not be like the heathen, and that we must not worry about having enough food and clothing, because our heavenly Father knows we have need of these things, and He will give them to us—if we give Him the first place in our lives (Matthew 6:31-33). Covetousness is essentially distrust in God’s providential care. It implies that that God may not take care of us and supply our needs—and therefore we feel we must grasp and grab and seek to get more.
- b) Covetousness can be cured by cultivating a satisfied and consented spirit.
The word content means “satisfied; happy with what one has; showing no desire for something more.” A wealthy man, driving an expensive car, had a, friend who lived without the luxuries he was enjoying. As he was driving by the friend’s property one day, and saw the friend dressed in over-ails and a straw hat, sitting on a fence by the side of the road. The wealthy man stopped to chat with the farmer. He said: “I couldn’t stand to live here; you don’t see anything, you don’t travel much; I’m on the go all the time.” The man on the fence looked down into the face of the man sitting in his car—and said: “I don’t see the difference between you and me. I sit on the fence and see the cars go by; you sit in your car and ‘see the fences go by! Only I’m much safer than you are, and it’s much cheaper too.”
c) Covetousness can be cured by being conscious of stewardship responsibilities.
The Bible does not condemn wealth if it is acquired honestly and distributed wisely. I rejoice to occasionally meet Christians who have riches, and at the same time, they live modestly and distribute generously to the Lord’s work. The great Christian antidote for the poison of greed is the grace of giving. Jesus designed the whole principle of stewardship to help us conquer the sins of covetousness and greed. Jesus said, as recorded in Acts 20:35, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” God knows the dangers of wealth and the deceitfulness of riches—and so He teaches us to be generous in our sharing with others.
When John D. Rockefeller was a young man, he was a strong and husky farm boy. He later entered business and drove himself almost like a slave. At the early age of 33, he had made his first million dollars. By concentrating every waking moment on his work, by age 43, he controlled the largest business in the world. When he was 53, he was the richest man on earth. But in exchange for all his wealth, he had lost his own happiness and health—and even his hair. His weekly income was a million dollars, but his digestion was so bad that at one point he could eat only crackers and milk. It was generally agreed that he could not live another year. Newspaper writers had written his obituary which was lying in their files.
It was during’ the long nights when John D. Rockefeller could not sleep, that he began to do some serious thinking. He ‘began to acknowledge that he couldn’t take one penny with him into the next world. He made a commitment that he would transform his money into a channel of blessing for others. He began to help worthy causes: He established the Rockefeller Foundation, and contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to hospitals and missions and medical research. It was he who financed the research that led to the discovery of penicillin, and the cures for malaria and tuberculosis and diphtheria.
But not only did Rockefeller’s giving help thousands of others; it worked a miracle in his own life. He began to sleep and eat normally, and to enjoy life in general. When Rockefeller was 53, it appeared that he would never celebrate another birthday. But he started to practice one of God’s eternal laws (the law of giving) and he reaped its benefits. Luke 6:38 says, “Give, and it will be given unto you, good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over.” John D. Rockefeller lived not only until his 54th birthday, but he experienced good measure, running over. He lived until he was 98 years old.
This is one example which illustrates the great truth that enjoyable living is not obtained by grabbing and grasping, but by ‘being thankful and by giving to, others. Each believer should be more concerned about improving his character than increasing his possessions.