We are living in unsettled times. Reports in the media portray a spirit of unease and unhappiness in the hearts of some. It seems that when things go wrong, as they inevitably do in this fallen world, we must find someone to blame and to complain about. We see it as their responsibility to make us happy and ensure we have everything we want. Yet we live in country that, compared to most countries in the world, is wealthy and remarkably secure and stable. We enjoy a considerable degree of freedom to live our daily lives without interference from the authorities. In fact, millions of people from other countries would love to live in Britain and some make great efforts, at risk to their lives, to get here.
Some years ago, I met some friends from West Africa at Heathrow. As we were driving along the M4 they asked, “Where are the soldiers and the roadblocks?” I explained that things that were part of daily life in their country didn’t happen in Britain and that the overwhelming majority of our police were unarmed. They were amazed and, also, could not get over the fact that there were no potholes in our main roads! So, if our lives are so blessed and privileged compared to billions of people in the world, why are we unhappy?
We need to learn the secret of being content. When we are content we are happy, satisfied and fulfilled. It has very little to do with how much “stuff” we have. I was talking to a friend who works in a high-class resort to which many wealthy people come. He told me about a recent holiday in which he and his wife saw people who are much poorer than they are yet, he said, they were content. One man wrote, “Contentment doesn’t come from adding more fuel, but in taking away some fire; not in multiplying wealth, but in subtracting desires.” Socrates said, “The wealthiest person is the one who is contented with least.”
Towards the end of his life the apostle Paul was under house arrest in Rome. In a letter to the Christians in Philippi he wrote, “I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.”
Materialism has been adopted by many people in the developed world as the basis for their lives. They believe that nothing exists except physical matter and that the universe in which we live is evolving. We, too, are caught up in an impersonal evolutionary process. Materialism tells us that we are all essentially animals and that physical things are the only things that exist. As a result, some people have become materialistic, seeking to accumulate wealth and possessions in the pursuit of pleasure and satisfaction.
One very serious consequence of a materialistic life is that the true value of people is lost. The Urban Dictionary defines being materialistic as, “The act of caring more about things than people; judging yourself and others on the cost of your stupid things.” From childhood we are encouraged to believe that the things we possess give us value and worth. Our “stuff” defines us. The sad and tragic lives of some rich and famous people teach us that money and possessions do not guarantee happiness, but may even destroy us.
The Bible warns us of the dangers of being materialistic. Jesus told a man who wanted to inherit a legacy, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” The apostle Paul said, “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.”
The example of Jesus provides a radical alternative to materialism and points the way to true and lasting happiness for us all, as people who have been created by God as both body and soul. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” Jesus left the heavenly riches, that were his of right, in order to come to this world and become poor. On the Cross he suffered the punishment our sins deserve so that we might be forgiven and receive eternal life. Jesus’ life, death and resurrection teach us that every one of us is valuable in God’s sight and that heaven is real.
Jon Vickers has died at the age of 88. He was a world famous tenor singer whose rich and powerful voice was once described as “holding a hundred colours and inflections.” He was given the nickname “God’s tenor” because of the outstanding quality of his voice and his Christian faith. He was the finest Heldentenor of his day and sang the great heroic tenor roles in German opera. He was a perfectionist and was not always easy to work with. At times he made controversial decisions because of his Christian convictions.
Jon was born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, the sixth of eight children. His family was musical but very poor. His parents were so poor that the future Canadian Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker, who was a long-standing friend of the family, offered to care for young Jon. As a child Jon and his brothers and sisters sang with his lay-preacher father at churches near their home. In the summer Jon worked on neighbouring farms where he developed his barrel chest. His success as a world famous tenor, and the honours and wealth that came with it, were in marked contrast with his humble beginnings. When he retired in 1988 he was very content on his farm, surrounded by nature and his family.
Jon’s Christian faith was the guiding principle for the whole of his life. He knew that the gifts he possessed had been given to him by God, so he wanted to use them in a way that pleased God. He knew that the most important thing was not his international success and acclaim but what he was as a man before God. After retiring he had time to return to his roots and to reflect on the things that matter most in life. He also had time to prepare for eternity. He proved with Paul that “godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.”
Jon is now in heaven with his Saviour, and with all those from every nation who have experienced God’s love in Jesus. He has joined the heavenly choirs who joyfully worship God as they remember God’s amazing love and grace to them. To the most beautiful heavenly music they sing, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb. Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!”
Many people in the world experience profound suffering and sadness. Sometimes it comes through natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods and tsunamis in which people lose everything – loved ones, homes and possessions. Some die from deadly diseases like Ebola. Others perish in the deserts of Africa or the Mediterranean Sea as they flee oppressive regimes and persecution. Some are imprisoned or executed by religious fanatics or megalomaniac rulers.
The pictures of the Rohingya Muslim people on boats in the Andaman Sea vividly portrayed human misery and helplessness. They come from Myanmar where they are not recognized as citizens and face persecution. The people have paid people smugglers to take them to Thailand but have been turned away. Malaysia and Indonesia have also refused to accept them. Men, women and children have been trapped on dilapidated boats with little food or water for weeks. Many are sick and dying. No one seems ready to accept them; they have nowhere to turn.
Watching the report of the people on the boat I felt both a compassion for their plight and a deep thankfulness that I, and my family, have never been in such a terrible situation. We have faced difficulties in our lives but have always had someone to turn to for help. It is easy to complain about relatively minor things that go wrong and not to realize the amazing privileges we enjoy. Seeing the people in the boat puts our problems into their proper perspective.
In the Western world today contentment is very rare. Complaining seems to be the norm in our materialistic society. We are encouraged never to be content with what we have and always to want more. Yet no amount of material possessions can ever bring lasting fulfilment. The apostle Paul wrote, “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.”
Every human being is precious because we have been created in God’s image. When everyone rejects the people in the boats, and they have nowhere to turn, God sees and cares. He hears their cries for help and will hold to account those who are so terribly mistreating them. He is also the one to whom we can give thanks for the many blessings he has given us, none of which we deserve. His greatest gift to a lost and dying world was his Son, Jesus, who came that through him we might have eternal life.
A wet spring and a hot summer have meant that Britain has enjoyed one of the best harvest seasons for many years. Dry weather in late August enabled farmers to harvest many of their crops and gather them into their barns. They have been able to “make hay while the sun shines!”The autumn harvest is also very good. British apples are sweet and colourful because the warm summer weather has increased the sugar levels in the fruit.
In many churches harvest thanksgiving services are being held. They remind us that “all good gifts around us are sent from heaven above.” God has made this little planet on which we live a place of wonderful abundance. The past 100 years have seen a massive growth in world population; from 2 billion in 1927 to more than 7 billion today. Yet despite this massive growth more than enough food is produced around the world to feed everyone. In Britain the major supermarkets offer a bewildering variety of foods from all over the world.
It is so important to be thankful for all that God gives us. This is true whether we have a lot or a little. Real life and happiness is not found in having wealth and lots of “stuff”. Children and adults who have everything may learn the value of nothing. Sometimes those who have least are most appreciative of what they have. When my wife was in hospital for an operation there was an elderly lady in the bed opposite hers. One day my wife noticed that the lady was not able to reach the food that had been left on her bedside table. She went over and offered to help her. As my wife held the cup the lady sipped the soup and said “O that’s lovely, thank you so much!”
I have met Christians in very poor countries whose daily life is very simple, but who are a great example to me in the wonderful spirit of contentment they display. Each day they pray to God, “Give us this day our daily bread.” It is a prayer we can all pray. Day by day God does provide our needs. We can bring all our anxieties for today and for the future to him and ask him to provide – and he will. God is also able to give us a spirit of contentment. The apostle Paul wrote, “If we have food and clothing, with that we will be content.”
None of us knows what any day of our life may bring. A few weeks ago our neighbour died suddenly. Friends noticed that his curtains had not been drawn and one, who had a key, went into the house and found he had died. We had been neighbours for nearly 20 years. His wife died just 18 months earlier and since then he had not been well and was lonely. They had no children. The house has been inherited by a nephew. He and his wife have been preparing the house to be sold. They have taken the more valuable things, but many things have been put into a skip on the driveway. It has been sad to see those personal possessions, which once had value for our neighbours, now discarded as of no worth.
Jesus once gave a warning to the people he was teaching. “Beware! Don’t be greedy for what you don’t have. Real life is not measured by how much we own.” We live in a materialistic society in which possessions are prized. We are bombarded by adverts telling us that if we buy certain things our lives will be enriched; the latest smart phone, a new car, electronic devices and designer clothes. But fashion is fickle and moves on. In a very short time all these things are out of date and are discarded.
One of the greatest blessings we can know is contentment. The apostle Paul wrote, “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. People 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.”
Each one of us is infinitely more valuable than our possessions. We were created by God and have a wonderful capacity to relate personally to him. We are not simply the product of an evolutionary process, but are God’s special creation. We have both a body and a soul. When we die our bodies remain, but our souls pass into the presence of God. The life for which we were created can be experienced here on earth and continues into eternity, which is why it is so important to begin to think about it now. Jesus said, “I came that they might have life, and enjoy it to the full.”
One of the early credit cards in Britain was called Access. The adverts encouraged people to apply for an Access card with the strap line “Access takes the waiting out of wanting.” Before the advent of credit cards people saved up for the things they wanted and paid with cash. Having a credit card meant that you didn’t have to wait. A small plastic card gave you buying power. You could buy now and pay later. Somewhere in the adverts it mentioned that you would pay interest on the money you borrowed, but people decided to worry about that later. It was not long before some began to realise that just paying off the interest was very expensive and that buying with a credit card was not cheap!
The present economic crisis in America and Europe is about national debts and repaying money that has been borrowed. America has agreed, after a long debate, to increase its credit limit so that it can “pay” its debts. The total national debt of America amounts to trillions of dollars. It is a debt that will never be repaid and the assessment of America’s ability to keep making payments has been downgraded. The richest country in the world is in serious trouble, as also are some countries in Europe, and all because they have borrowed too much money.
Jesus said, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” He was drawing attention to one of the Ten Commandments, “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his manservant or maidservant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.”
Whether we are adults or children we all want what someone else has. A teenager wants the latest mobile phone or designer clothes, because their friends have them. Adults want that new house, new car or holiday because their friends of neighbours have them. In order to get them we go into debt in the hope we will be able to make the repayments. Today, sadly, many people can’t repay their debts.
Jesus reminds us that true happiness does not come from our possessions. Consumerism is ultimately an empty and unhappy experience. Real life and true contentment are not found in created things, but in knowing our Creator, who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ.