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Contentment (3) What’s so Bad about Discontent?

This is the third post in a series. Read the first two posts here and here.

Last time we talked about how becoming content isn’t as simple as practising a set of techniques. You don’t get contentment by writing lists of your blessings (though that can be a helpful thing to do). You won’t become content by wearing a rubber band on your wrist and flicking it every time you complain (that’s one method I read about). And despite what your parents told you, you won’t be happy with brussels sprouts just because you remember people who are starving.

Contentment requires change at the level of our hearts.

But if it’s that hard to be content, why bother trying? What’s so bad about discontent? To answer that, we’ll take a look at one of the three main New Testament passages about contentment (I’ll get to the others later). It’s about a bunch of false teachers motivated by financial greed, and it shows the enormous collateral damage caused by discontent:

If anyone ... does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:3-10)

Did you spot the irony in that passage? There are two kinds of people. One person is happy with what they have, yet they end up with “great gain”. The other person wants to get rich (in this case, by peddling false teaching) but instead they get “ruin and destruction”. Want nothing; get everything. Want everything; get nothing. Discontent is greedy for more, but leaves us with empty hands.

Discontent is incredibly destructive. It ruins three things.

First, when we’re discontent, . If we want to get rich – if we’re greedy for more than we have – we “fall into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires”. We’re plunged into “ruin and destruction”. We “pierce ourselves with many griefs”.

Next time you’re in a doctor’s waiting room, pick up a gossip magazine and read about the lives of the rich and famous. Do they seem happy? Maybe, if you’re reading about a popular princess. But most of them seem pretty miserable. Depression and suicide are far more common in affluent societies.

Second, discontent. Instead of loving other people, they become the competition. We compare ourselves with them. We’re either better off than them, and we become self-satisfied and proud. Or we’re worse off than them, and we become jealous and try to pull them down. We envy. We slander. We argue:

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. (James 4:1-2a)

640px-Pieter Bruegel the Elder- The Seven Deadly Sins or the Seven Vices - Avarice

No relationship can flourish in the atmosphere of envy and competition caused by discontent.

Third, and worst of all, discontent. Those who want to get rich “face many temptations” and give in to “all kinds of evil”. They may even “wander from the faith”. Jesus said,

No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money. (Matt 6:24)

What’s true of money is true of other things too. If we devote ourselves to anything other than God – if we make anything other than God the basis of our contentment – then we will lose that thing, and God as well.

I think we often think of discontent as a “minor” sin. Major sins include murder and stealing. Minor sins include irritation and gossip – and, of course, discontent. But God is having none of that. Discontent isn’t a kitchen knife that sometimes slips in your hand and requires a bandage. It’s a bomb that rips apart your life, relationships and faith until you can’t put the pieces back together. It’s a malignant cancer, not the common cold.

Suddenly, contentment seems a lot more important than we thought.

But how do we get it? How do we choose the path of contentment – the one that leads to “great gain” – rather than the path that leads to ruin? How do we end up with full hands rather than empty ones?

It starts with our hearts. And that’s the topic of my next post.

1. Do you think of discontent as a “major” sin or a “minor” one? How would thinking of it as idolatrous and destructive change the way you respond to it?

2. What impact has discontent had on your happiness, your relationships with others, and, most importantly, your relationship with God?

Image: Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Avaritia

Jean Williams is the part-time woman’s worker at her local church, supports her husband in university ministry, and looks after four kids and a rambling house in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. Her job suits her perfectly because it involves two of her favourite activities: chatting about life and Jesus, and teaching the Bible to women. Her great joys include walking, staring at trees, musing about life, writing in her journal, reading books, and sipping a spiced chai (she can do up to three of these simultaneously). Not so long ago, she fulfilled a 15-year dream when she helped to start Entrust Women conference. An impossibly long time before that, she did a PhD on the Puritan experience of enjoyment of God. You can read more of what she writes at gotherefor.com and her own blog, "in all honesty".


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