When I was a kid, my dad told me two stories all the time.
In the first one, a couple goes to Harvard University and asks to see the president, because they want to give a donation to the university. The president agrees to see them, but he doesn't know them, and because they're from somewhere way out west, he treats them curtly. After enduring the president's rudeness for a few moments, the woman finally turns to her husband and says, "Come, Leland; I think there are better things we can do with our money." The man was Leland Stanford, founder (with his wife) of Stanford University.
Even as a child, I understood that the moral of this story was not, "Be nice to strangers." Instead, this story is about who has real power. The moral is, "If you have money, you can tell anyoneeven the most established, respected, or powerful person in the worldto go fly a kite."
The second story went like this: One day a minister was invited to John D. Rockefeller's mansion. As he drove up the winding drive lined with tall trees, he said, "My, my. This is what the Lord might have doneif he'd had the money."
As a child, I understood the moral of this story, too. The minister, who represents belief in God, is overwhelmed by Rockefeller's wealth. Not only that, he says God himself doesn't have as much money as Rockefeller. Implicit in this claim is that he doesn't have as much power, either. Rockefeller is more powerful than God, because money is more powerful than God.
The stories you hear from your parents as a childespecially the ones you hear over and overplant a seed within you. What grew in my heart was a deep-rooted understanding that money meant independence. Money meant powermore power than the president of Harvard: more power than God. Whatever else you did in life, I knew you should get money.
You may not have been told such stories as a child. But you heard more powerful stories in each of the 40,000 advertisements you saw every year while you were growing up. Today, kids can recognize commercial logos by the time they're 18 months old. One of the first they recognize is the "golden arches" of McDonald's.
John Ortberg says that when you buy your kid a Happy Meal:
You're not just buying fries, McNuggets, and a dinosaur stamp; you're buying happiness. Their advertisements have convinced my children they have a little McDonald-shaped vacuum in their souls: "Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in a Happy Meal."
The problem with the Happy Meal is that the happy wears off, and they need a new fix. No child discovers lasting happiness in just one: "Remember that Happy Meal? What great joy I found there!"
Happy Meals bring happiness only to McDonalds. You ever wonder why Ronald McDonald wears that grin? Twenty billion Happy Meals, that's why.
Ortberg concludes, "When you get older, you don't get any smarter; your happy meals just get more expensive."
So I have to ask you, "What's your Happy Meal?" Maybe you're discontented with where you live. You think it's too small, too shabby, or too far from your office. You believe you'd be happy if you had your own apartment, townhouse, or house. You'd be happier in a bigger house, or in a house in a different suburb. Maybe you're discontented with your mode of transportation. Maybe you have a bicycle, and you want a careven an old rust bucket. If you have an old rust bucket, you may want a dependable car. If you have dependable car, you may want a nice carone that is bigger for your kids, or that you can take people in without feeling embarrassed.
This sermon will tell you how to be content. The Bible's perspective on contentment can really bring freedom in your life.
The audience of the Book of Hebrews was experiencing persecution.
The Book of Hebrews was originally a letter sent to Christians who were beginning to experience persecution. When you realize that these people are persecuted and scared, every phrase gets 100 volts hotter.
For example, Hebrews 13:1 says, "Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it." That seems like an odd command. Why is it there? Because any time there is persecution, informantspeople who infiltrate the church to find out what's going on and who's in chargetry to identify the leaders and turn them in. If you're a persecuted Christian, you can't risk hospitality anymore. You may stop gathering with people in your home for fear of informants. The writer of Hebrews says: No matter what, do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.
Some Christians had been thrown in jail. That's why verse 3 says, "Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured." Since some people were in prison, their spouses were now lonely and sexually longing. So the writer says, "Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers."
Finally, persecution is always financially crippling. You may have a difficult time finding work. You don't get promoted. No one wants to buy from you or have anything to do with you. It is in this context that the writer of Hebrews says, "Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have." We find in these words, written to people scared they could lose their homes or starve to death, the secret to contentment.
Contentment is possible.
Contentment is truly possible. That may be difficult for most of us to believe. We think we'll always long for more. But the Bible says very clearly, "Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have." In other words, the Bible knows that we have the power to keep our lives free from the love of money. We have the ability to be content. The Bible tells us to be content because God knows we can do it, with his help.
Moreover, the Bible gets to the core issue behind our discontentment: fear. According to Hebrews 13:5, the reason we should be content with what we have is that, "God has said, 'I will never leave you or forsake you.' So we can say with confidence, 'The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?'" We struggle with discontentment because we are afraid. We're afraid we'll suffer because we won't have money for something we really need. We won't have money for groceries. We won't have money for rent or a mortgage payment. We won't have money for our kid's braces, college education, or healthcare. We won't have money for our own retirement.
Discontentment is like a mushroom: it grows in the dark and dirty soil of fear. We fear we can't provide, or that we won't amount to anything. We fear we'll be left alone, or that because we live in the wrong kind of house, drive the wrong car, or wear the wrong clothes, people will look down on us.
In The Culture Code, cultural anthropologist Clotaire Rapaille argues that although everybody thinks Americans are obsessed with money, that's not quite right. What we're really interested in is not money for itself, but money that gives us proof. Money proves we've worked hard, that we're worth something, that we are appreciated. In other words, "Money is our barometer of success."
No wonder we're discontented. No wonder we fear not having enough. If we don't have enough money, then we see ourselves as unsuccessful and unappreciated. My dad's fear concerning money was that if he didn't have enough, he couldn't be independent, powerful, or respected. That fear compelled him to tell us those same two stories again and again. It's that fear that leads to discontentment. When our anxiety grows, we want to medicate it with money. We think, If only I had a little more, I'd be happy. I'd be safe. I'd be okay.
The Bible speaks into our deep fear, "You already have more. You have God, who will be with you no matter what you face. God has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you." You may not have everything you want, but the Lord is your helper. You may not have everything you need right now, but the Lord is your helper. When we experience anxiety and think, I'm afraid I won't have enough for_____, God reminds us, "I won't leave or forsake you; I'll help you."
When we feel the sting of comparison and ask, Why shouldn't I have as much as that person? God asks us: Whom could you compare with me? If you have me, you have the greatest treasure. When we feel a sense of entitlement, we think, I really deserve this. After all I've gone through and all the work I've done, it's only right. God says: You have memy presence, my help, my mercy, and my lovewhich is much more than you deserve.
Every day we have to decide whether we are going to listen to God, who promises to be our helper, or to our screaming anxiety, our bitter comparisons, and our frustrated sense of entitlement. In other words, contentment is a choice. It's a daily choice.
Financial contentment is a decision about how to address our fear.
Financial contentment is a choice about how to handle our fear. When we feel fear about things we don't have or about things that are wearing out, we have two options. We can trust in the money we have saved or in our power to earn more; or we can trust in God who has promised never to leave or forsake us.
Sometimes Christians try to deal with their financial fear by thinking, Since I'm a Christian, God will keep anything too bad from happening to me, if I'm good and pray. I used to believe the same thing, but I've learned it's not true. Sometimes Christians get laid off and have trouble finding another job. Sometimes Christians lose their business. Sometimes Christians have their homes repossessed. Believing that you will avoid financial troubles simply because you are a Christian is no more than wishful thinking.
Pretending we won't face financial hardship will not soothe our fear. What soothes our fear is knowing that no matter what happens, God will be with us and help us. No matter how deep our darkness, God is deeper still. We all feel anxiety about money, what we need, and what we don't have. Contentment is deciding that God is enough. Contentment is deciding that you won't give in to fear, because you believe that God will be your helper. You can live with less than you need, because you have God, who is more than you could want.
As you might guess from the stories my dad told me growing up, he spent most of his life working really hard to make money. But then he made a tactical error.
My mom and I were going to an Episcopal Church service, and he decided to come along. The priest was full of old-time religion, and he gave an altar call. Something connected with my dad that day, and he went forward, laid his pack of cigarettes on the stone altar covered with white linen, and began to follow Jesus. He was 60 years old. He began to read a small, blue King James Bible, and for the first time in his life, he began giving with real interest. He told me, in what was a rare sharing of his personal life, "Kevin, I've started to tithe, and it's been a great adventure."
My dad suffered a heart attack at age 70. He lay in a hospital bed for 5 days, and then he died. At the funeral home, they laid him in a casket with his navy blazer and a Lands' End tie. A woman I'd never seen came up to me and said, "You don't know me, but I was in a bad marriage; my husband was beating me, and I needed to get out to save my life. But I didn't know what I would do to support myself. Your dad paid for me to go to junior college and get a degree, so I could be a dental hygienist. He paid for the whole thing, and nobody else knew about it. Now I have a job, and I'm making it. Your dad literally saved my life."
I wonder what would have been my dad's legacy if he had kept loving money and trying to be like Leland Stanford and John D. Rockefeller. He would have died with a lot of money, but not a lot of love. Instead, he took a risk. He tried to learn how to "keep his life free from the love of money." He discovered that God would be his helperGod would be with him no matter what. When he died, he left behind a woman who knows every day when she cleans people's teeth that it's a miracle she's still alive. And she thanks God, who has been her helper.