May 7, 2008

Balancing Ambition With Contentment

2008 1513 page22 capONTENTMENT IS NOT A VALUE PRIZED in today’s culture. Instead, we are constantly being prodded toward dissatisfaction. “Upgrade” and “makeover” are buzzwords of the new vocabulary defining our discontent. Advertisements persuade us to be dissatisfied with our hair and our clothes, our looks and our bodies, with the kind of car we drive and the house we live in. The result of all this cultural cajoling is that many of us are constantly reaching after more, only to end up with what Henry David Thoreau long ago diagnosed as “lives of quiet desperation.”
But this pervasive inner disquietude is not what the Bible advocates for Christians. God’s Word, instead, tells us to “be content with what you have” (Heb. 13:5). The writer of this Epistle knows something we seem to have lost sight of: the key to contentment doesn’t lie in looking at and yearning for another person’s toys. It rests in being satisfied with what we already have, in being content “with simple things,” as Ellen White recommended in The Adventist Home (p. 156).
“But,” you may ask, “if I am content with what I have, isn’t that a sign that I am complacent and lack ambition?” The answer is—not at all! Contentment does not rule out ambition, trying to improve your own life and the lives of others. What it means is that you are not constantly anxious, always focusing on what you lack. It means that along the road to achievement and growth we can experience an underlying calm. Setting aside cravings, we can acknowledge the good in our own lives and in the world around us.
2008 1513 page22One of my elementary school teachers left me with a lasting portrait of a contented person. He had not been long out of college and intended to go to medical school, but he lacked the money. He didn’t own a car—he rode a bicycle—and we students noticed that he had few clothes, none of them of the designer variety. But whenever anyone greeted him with the customary “How are you today?” he always responded with a resounding, “Wonderful!” His countenance exuded good cheer. This was his attitude even though he was counting pennies to save for his medical education—something he later accomplished, along with financial success and professional acclaim. He was able to radiate a joyful, positive attitude—a crucial part of the warm, caring teacher he was.
So how can we become more content? Certainly not by chasing after it. We can achieve contentment only if we are open to experiencing it in personal and simple ways such as the following:
1. Acknowledging God’s faithfulness: Contented people do this naturally. They have learned from Scripture and experience that God is faithful. It always settles them and quiets their fears when they realize how consistent He is in His morning-by-morning doling out of new mercies just for them. We can begin to appreciate God’s faithfulness in our lives if we count our blessings—and we may find it hard to stop because God’s goodness and mercy are always following us around.
2. Cultivating God’s friendship: Having the companionship of a caring heavenly Friend is one sure way to be contented. An anecdote about a cheerful peasant living in austere circumstances exemplifies this concept well. When the peasant was asked about his relationship with God, he responded, “He’s fond of me.” Such a happy thought! God is fond of us and wants to be our Friend. If we reciprocate, we can have a bond with Him that makes contentment inevitable.
3. Taking a practical step—saving: If our discontentment is based on our never having enough money, we need to do what we can to deliberately reduce our debt level and thereby lower our stress level. We must learn to do without things we don’t really need. We have to avoid buying things in order to appear to have more money than we really do, because keeping up appearances feeds discontentment. Cut back on needless items and save.
4. Sharing with others: The warmth of emotion that comes from giving to others, no matter how small the contribution, is a luxury everyone can afford. And remember, we don’t have to give only things or money. Time, expertise, and friendship make solid gifts. The good feeling that results from giving is medicine for a discontented spirit.
5. Accepting life’s inadequacies: Life is a tapestry of the good and the bad. Our experiences are all part of the big picture. One person writing about his great job, which he absolutely loves, says he relishes and thrives on the good parts and accepts the downsides, which every job has. Accepting the downsides in life along with the good can make a big difference in our attitude and sense of inner peace.
6. Accepting yourself: It is hard for some people to love themselves. If you are one of those individuals, begin today to feel appreciation for who you are: a unique being whom God made and sustains. Add unexpected moments of joy to your life as you savor the special blend that is you.
7. Making a habit of thinking positively: We should spend time considering the things we consider beautiful—the things that bring us joy. “Whatsoever things are lovely . . . think on these things” (Phil. 4:8, KJV). Think of the many unspectacular but life-enhancing miracles that surround us daily. A mind occupied with the praise of the good and beautiful will have little room for the negative contemplations that produce discontentment.
So let’s be content with what we have, even as we look forward to what we may receive in the future through divine providence. Let’s settle into the peace that Jesus bequeaths to us (see John 14:27). When we do, we will not only find that “contentment like a cloud will suddenly surround us,” as poet Rod McKuen wrote in his poem “We Touch the Sky,” but contentment will also be within us.
Judith P. Nembhard is a retired university professor and administrator living in Chattanooga, Tennessee.