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Contentment: How then can we Liv?
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by Laurent J. LaBrie
"There is a jewel which no Indian mines can buy,
No chymic art can counterfeit;
It makes men rich in greatest poverty,
Makes water wine; turns wooden cups to gold;
The homely whistle to sweet music's strain,
Seldom it comes; to few from Heaven sent,
That much in little, all in naught, Content." John Wilbye; Madrigales. "There is a Jewel"
"The natural role of twentieth-century man is anxiety." Norman Mailer.
People gravitate to those who are content. I was in the Internet cafe one day and two guys, about 25 years old were there laughing at something for about 30 minutes. I watched as slowly, one-by-one, people gathered around them. They wanted to see what was making them happy because they wanted some of that. If you cry while reading something, people don't gather around because people are inherently and almost universally selfish. When people see someone happy, they want to be with him or her. If you smile, people will often smile back. That doesn't happen with any other facial expression.
The most popular people aren't the people with the most power or money, but the people that make you happy and laugh. On the flip side, be unhappy and people don't want to be with you, work with you, or have you work for them. The easiest way to get fired is not by being incompetent or unethical. The incompetent and the crooked people will always find a job. But be a grump and nobody wants you around. As Addison Mizner wrote, "Misery loves company, but company does not reciprocate." Nobody may ever tell you this, but years of experience will convince you it is true.
So, everyone wants to be content and most people want to surround themselves with happy people. So, how do we become happy?
"Contentment only comes from God! ...If we keep our mind focused on God in Christ in us and think about the benefits of His Word we will live a joyful life of contentment no matter what the situations in our life." (Contentment. Rev. John Cortright) Is this all there is to it? Maybe it is so for some, but if it were an absolute truth, why is it that many Americans today, most of whom claim a belief in Jesus seem to be vainly searching for happiness in other things? Even many priests, pastors, and missionaries pursue drugs, pornography, power, sex or materialism, taking on heavy debt. Or they just mope in their sadness or in a victim attitude. Instead of agreeing with Cortright, I think William Ames expresses the experience of most in the title of his book: Contentment: One of the most difficult of Christian virtues to obtain.
We have lost the secret of happiness, substituting for it the gospel of health and wealth. As Cortright preached the Gospel of happiness, many pulpits preach that God will bring healing and money to all His followers. I have yet to see these promises in the Bible or in life, even among those who preach them. The bodies of all of these false prophets end up turning to dust. But their followers come to believe that your medical record and bank account reveal your spirituality and they are misled. Perverting the Gospel, setting the wrong standards, and attracting the wrong people has become a plague to the individual and a cancer to the Church. To find happiness when Jesus hasn't seemed to be the solution, people turn to the health and wealth gospel which attempts to remove what people think is the source of misery--sickness and poverty. But this is not consistent with Bible teachings. Riches were not the cure for the rich young ruler who spoke with Jesus. Wealth was part of his problem. Instead of trying in vain to treat what is misconceived as the source of misery, we should treat misery itself.
I must admit that I have experienced the sadness and burnout common to Christian leaders. So, you might rightly ask what qualifies me to write a series on happiness. Well, I'm not going to pass myself off as an expert, but I can tell you what has worked and not worked for me. This literature will not present a pat cure-all. With all do respect to Cortright, I don't think there is one simple answer for all, because God made us all differently. Instead, I would like to present you with the ideas of some famous and not so famous men and women and what they found. I believe that their ideas fit into one of a small number of categories. But first, a few words about my own experience.
Unconcerned and uneducated about emotions, the joy and happiness that I felt for the first ten years fizzled over time. I do think that God was essential to my initial rescue from depression and a source of a constant foundation of joy, and we will discuss why in just a bit. After doing all the things I was supposed to do, I didn't even know what I liked. Highly disciplined, I got my Eagle rank in Boy Scouts and graduated with a 4.0 average in high school (10/10 for those of you in Europe). I got the most difficult major in one of the top 20 engineering universities and entered the US Army which only reinforced duty over desire. At 27, I was about as highly ranked as any of my peers and I left it all. It took me ten years of unhappiness to realize what I gave up. In that time, I sank about as far as you could go. I was earning less and achieving less than ever in my life. I had followed the call of God and abandoned all the talents he had given me to work where I was "needed". I was teaching less developed children how to read Romanian--something I was less qualified to do than most of the population. A Christian counselor encouraged me to find one thing I liked and pursue happiness.
"Pursued" is not the right word because contentment cannot be pursued and caught like a deer in the wilderness. Alexander MacLaren said, "To pursue joy is to lose it." Discovering happiness is more like fumbling around for an object in the darkness. If you look straight at it, you won't see it. Since the cones, located in the center of eye's cornea see color and the rods, predominantly located around the center, see shadow, when you are in the dark, you must not look straight at an object in order to see it. Finding happiness only comes when you are not looking right at it. "Happiness is a by-product. Happiness is faith." Samuel M. Shoemaker: How You Can Find Happiness
Neither is happiness the chief goal of man. If everyone in the world would become Buddhist monks and sit in the lotus position all day smelling incense, who would be able to produce the food to fill their chubby little bellies? A more cynical Thomas C. Haliburton wrote, "Contentment is, after all, simply refined indolence."
But, our spiritual fathers found contentment, so I maintain that it is not outside of God's will for us. I disagree with "God does not love the man who is always happy." Jugo-Slavic Proverb. Helen Keller, a girl blind from birth said, "The world is so full of care and sorrow that it is a gracious debt we owe to one another to discover the bright crystals of delight hidden in somber circumstances and irksome tasks." I would say this is a debt that the Church owes to the world and it is not paying its installments. For, Thomas Moore said, "Earth hath no sorrow that heaven cannot heal." Thus, let's diagnose the problem and find the cure for the lack of peace in the world.
The Contentment Series
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© 2005 Laurent J. LaBrie