A simple definition of contentment from the Holman Bible Dictionary is "an internal satisfaction which does not demand changes in external circumstances." And not surprisingly, contentment is one of the keys to successful retirement stewardship. In fact, it is an essential part of a successful Christian life.
But contentment can be elusive. I certainly struggle with it from time-to-time. How about you? Have you ever thought to yourself, "I would be happier if I had just a little more money or a little more '_______' (fill in the blank)?"
So how much do we need to be content? For some, it's having food, clothing, shelter and transportation and enough extra in the bank so that if the washing machine breaks down it doesn't rock their world. Others think they need to have a little extra for small luxuries such as an annual vacation with the family.
For many, it seems the most common answer is just a little bit more than we've got! Even though, according to an article titled, "How Much is Enough" in Forbes magazine,
Many of us may have already reached the point of saturation — either with consumption or investments — although we may not even know it.
Money and happiness
You may or may not feel that you've reached the saturation point, probably because it's much lower than most of us realize. According to the Pew Research Center,
…more than half (56%) of Americans were high income by the global standard, living on more than $50 per day in 2011, the latest year that could be analyzed with the available data… almost nine-in-ten Americans had a standard of living that was above the global middle-income standard. Only 7% of people in the U.S. were middle income, 3% were low income, and 2% were poor.
Even if we have reached "saturation," we may still struggle with being happy, even though we would probably all say that money can't buy happiness. (Although someone did once say, "money can't make you happy, but it can make being miserable a lot more fun.") We still sometimes struggle with the relationship between money and happiness and how it applies to us.
Why do you suppose that is?
Well, as always, the Bible provides us with some insights into why we struggle with our motives and attitudes as only scripture can.
We put too much hope in things. We tend to trust in our money and possessions to provide us with comfort, importance, and security. (1 Timothy 6:17-19)
The world influences us. Our culture is always telling us how unsatisfied we are and how more money or things will make us feel better. (1 John 2:16, Romans 12:2)
We are tempted to love the world and the things of the world, especially money. We so easily become attached to the things of this world. They become our treasure, rather than Christ. (Matthew 6:24, Luke 12:33-34, Philippians 3:7-8, 1 Timothy 6:10, 1 John 2:15)
We don't seek God's Kingdom first. We focus instead on building our own personal kingdoms. (Matthew 6:33)
We don't see the real value of contentment. Earthly contentment and godliness are inextricably linked. (1 Timothy 6:6)
We are conflicted. There is a perpetual war in our hearts between our love for the things of this world and our love for God. (1 John 2:15)
Our struggles are obviously issues of the heart. On the one hand, we want to grow in godliness and experience all the blessings of knowing God. On the other, we are sometimes captivated by the things of the world and are drawn toward them. We know from these verses and others that true happiness isn't from our money and possessions – it's in God himself. As 1 Timothy 6:6 says, "But godliness with contentment is great gain."
In other words, godliness is a means of gain as long as that gain comes from a life lived in relationship with God, with its many blessings, and not just more money or things in the here-and-now, which results in discontentment. The apostle Paul wants also to encourage us that there is great gain in godliness when it is combined with contentment with the necessities of life, such as food, clothing, and shelter (see also 1 Timothy 6:8).
Contentment doesn't necessarily produce godliness, as an ungodly person could be content or at least claim to be. But the Christian who pursues godliness with contentment will find it to be of significant gain. That's because a lack of contentment will always be a hindrance to our growth in godliness.
Content, in any circumstance, really?
God wants us to be content in him in whatever financial circumstances we find ourselves. But you may be thinking, "Then why all the talk about retirement stewardship? If I haven't saved anything for retirement, aren't you saying that I should just be content and not worry about it? Can't I just trust God to take care of me?"
Well, I think the answer to the last two questions is the same, "yes and no." Let me explain what appears to be my double-mindedness.
In scripture, we see two major confluent ideas: God's sovereignty and providential care, and man's responsibility to follow biblical guidance and commands. These big theological ideas are just as important to stewardship as they are in any other area of life.
On the one hand, God has promised to care for us, and this includes our basic needs. As I wrote in an earlier article,
One of the most important truths in the Bible – one that can give us great hope and assurance – is that, above all else, God has promised to take care of His children. That's not a possibly or a maybe – it's a promise! It's as certain as God's character is.
As I also wrote, there is another biblical truth in play, and although it seems contradictory, it isn't – both are true at the same time.
…there is a fundamental biblical principle concerning our responsibility to take action and plan for future needs. As my pastor once said, "sovereignty does not mean passivity." God has the propensity to use human agency and action in the accomplishment of His will, and that applies to saving for retirement as well. One of the ways that God cares for us is by giving us wise advice in his Word and through others on how to plan for the future.
It would, therefore, be a mistake to think that the passages condemning love for this world and the love of money, or those about contentment, mean that we should never seek a better job, a raise, promotion, growth of our business, or save for emergencies or our future (retirement).
These can all be good things. But clearly, if we want these things too much because we love them because we want status, luxury, or to feed our pride, that would be wrong and would be condemned by scripture. On the other hand, if we want to earn more money to be able to adequately provide for our families, to give more to our church and other Christ-glorifying causes, to invest in a business that is creating goods and services that help our community thrive, or to wisely prepare for our future as scripture commands, that would not be inconsistent with what the Bible teaches.
Martin Lloyd Jones, in his book "Spiritual Depression", gives us an excellent perspective on contentment in even the toughest financial circumstances:
Contentment does not mean mere indifference to conditions…[it is not] negative resignation [or fatalism]…it means that we are not mastered or controlled by our circumstances. By all means, if you can improve your circumstances by fair and legitimate means, do do; but if you cannot, and if you have to remain in a trying and difficult position, do not be mastered by it, do not let it get you down, do not let it control you, do not let it determine your misery or joy. (Pg. 279)
To be content with what you have, and to resist the love of money and possessions, is not the same as being opposed to every desire to be successful as a business owner or employee, nor does it mean that you should not set something aside for your future in a way that is consistent with biblical wisdom (saving without hoarding).
Lack of contentment can derail retirement stewardship
If you download and read my fee eBook, "15 Principles of Retirement Stewardship," you'll see that three of the principles are "pursue generosity," "live below your means," and "save (but don't hoard)." None of these are possible without some degree of contentment in your life.
Why? Because, in spite of our many material comforts and high standard of living, we reveal our discontentment in our continual desire for, and the pursuit of, more things. That can show up in our lives in a variety of ways, most notably, overspending leading to excessive debt, lack of generous giving and prudent saving for future needs, and just an overall restlessness and yearning for more.
I wrote a three-part series a while back titled, "Your Four Most Important Financial Decisions." The first two dealt with buying houses and cars and general financial lifestyle decisions. We all need certain things, including a place to live and transportation, but if we already have those things but are not content with what we have, it can cause us to become restless and impatient, perhaps even impulsive when an "opportunity" presents itself. That may cause us to buy the wrong thing, at the wrong time, at the wrong price, and for the wrong reason. Which, in turn, can prevent us from being and to give generously and also to save for emergencies and our future needs in retirement.
That's how our lack of contentment can easily derail our retirement stewardship. When it comes to making some provision for retirement, you can't save what you don't have because you spent it all on expensive houses, cars, vacations, and private university tuition for your children, or if you are trying to manage a large debt load.
If you can't save because your income is too low, that's a different matter. In that case, pursuing a new job or a promotion or raise would be very appropriate.
If we pursue worldly contentment, which typically means that more money or more stuff will make us happier, we will always have to have the latest technology, the newest car, the hottest fashions, or the biggest house we can afford.
Chris Brown, who is part of Dave Ramsey's Stewardship organization, wrote:
Let's not confuse contentment with apathy or lack of ambition, but let's also not become so consumed with any pursuit that overshadows our pursuit of God Himself. Contentment is the most important characteristic of people who are successful with money. That's because they think long and hard about the purchases they make and therefore have more money left over to save, invest and give.
How can we grow in contentment?
I think the definition of contentment from The Holman Bible Dictionary that I cited at the beginning of this article ("an internal satisfaction which does not demand changes in external circumstances") doesn't go quite far enough. It's not just an inner satisfaction that is disconnected from externalities; it's not some kind of stoic existence that is immune from circumstances or events. It is a deep experience of assurance of love, peace, and joy that can only come by knowing, loving, and worshiping Jesus Christ!
Our culture tries to tell us that if we just acquire more wealth and things, then we won't need anything else – we'll be satisfied and secure. But the truth is that the more we get, the more we'll want. Those things can't offer us any real satisfaction or security. Only God can provide us with true wealth through Christ and open our eyes so we can see the truth of that.
If this is something you wrestle with, how can you be more content? Well, it probably won't come by just seeking after it, but it can be received by us from God as we pursue him. Here are a few suggestions:
Be patient. Contentment doesn't come over night. In fact, it may be an ongoing work that God does in your heart that lasts a lifetime. We would all like to be able to say with Paul, "I have learned in whatever situation to be content," but that may not be the case all at once.
Pursue the only One who can offer real contentment. Through regular fellowship with the God-of-all-contentment through worship, prayer, and reading his Word, you will find your ultimate satisfaction and joy.
Be grateful and thankful for whatever you have. A fundamental principle of biblical stewardship is that all we have and are is from God and because of God. So cultivating a heart of gratitude and thanksgiving for all that God has done for us is essential to finding contentment with those things.
Realize that you already have the greatest treasure of all. You have the gift of God's only Son, and through him, you have forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life. There is no greater thing!
So, in the end, the path to contentment is relatively simple: Be happy in God! As John Piper wrote,
One of the implications…is the tremendous obligation of every Christian to be happy in God. Whereas I once saw joy as a kind of icing on the cake of my relationship to God, now I could see that without it there was no relationship at all. The first and greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart – and that can mean nothing less than a deep affection for him. To love God means at least delighting in his ways and finding pleasure in his fellowship. Thus the greatest commandment implies, "Thou shalt be happy in God."