My Grandpa Colby was a young teen when he was summoned to a neighbor’s farm to help milk a less-than-cooperative cow. Apparently the farmer was off on a drinking binge and had abandoned the cow for days. She was miserably full of milk and unwilling to let anyone touch her.
As Colby arrived at the barn and moved toward the unhappy cow, he must have sensed her tension. He talked to her as he approached and grabbed the milking stool. But when he knelt down to milk the cow, she lurched forward and kicked him in the leg, opening a deep gash. His torn flesh bled severely.
There were no modern ambulances or helicopters to come to his rescue, so getting him to medical attention took precious time—lost time that allowed his young muscles to die from lack of blood. In the end, in order to save his life, his leg had to be amputated.
Colby had ventured down the road toward a neighbor’s farm to perform an act of kindness, not realizing his life would change forever. As I grew up and more fully understood my Grandpa Colby, what struck me was that he wasn’t in the least consumed by his past. I never heard him tell his story firsthand; I had to piece it together from family recollections. He never thought it necessary to tell me how he felt about losing his leg. The grandpa I grew to know could have been bitter about the drunken farmer or the call to take responsibility for someone else’s animal. Yet he never complained about his bad fortune or the fact that the situation left him without a leg. Instead he stayed focused on the future and the abundance of good things he could do—like catch fish with his grandkids and beat me at checkers!
Having the use of two healthy legs is surely a “possession” many of us believe is necessary to enjoy a full, happy, and large life. This was especially true in the community where Grandpa Colby lived, where being able bodied was essential to earning a livelihood. But Grandpa Colby simply found a way, as many people do, of living well without the benefit of the full body he was given at birth. He finished school and became a successful banker and family man. He was at peace. He was content, regardless of circumstance.
Most of us have a vision of what we think is absolutely necessary for us to be happy. As we have noted, there is a measure of truth in those beliefs. But the greater truth is that we can learn to live happily even if we are denied things we consider essential.
Just as our homes have expanded over time, the list of material things we deem important continues to grow longer and longer. British author and trend forecaster James Wallman tells about a formal study by UCLA anthropologists to dig into the stuff that fills American homes. The smallest home in the study measured just under a thousand square feet, yet in the home’s two bedrooms and the living room alone, researchers found 2,260 items. They counted only items out in the open, nothing hidden in drawers or cupboards. Among all the homes in their study they found on average:
- 39 pairs of shoes
- 90 DVDS or videos
- 139 toys
- 212 CDS
- 438 books and magazines
Wallman says of the homes studied, “Nine out of ten had so many things that they kept household stuff in the garage. Three quarters of them had so much stuff in there, there was no room left for cars.” The UCLA anthropologists call this a “clutter crisis.” Wallman calls it “stuffocation,” which he defines as “suffocating under too much stuff.” He adds that the overgrowth of clutter is not solely an American phenomenon: the average British woman “buys 59 items of clothing each year, she has twice as many things in her wardrobe today as she did in 1980, and she has 22 things in there she has never worn.”
We think it’s safe to assert that people-both women and men-in any developed society would recognize themselves in these concrete examples of “longing for more.” Without a conscious change of direction, this is where we live. But how can we move past our insatiable cravings to a genuine contentment?
Confident in Love
We have already encouraged a practice that helps in growing our sense of God’s love—participating in the life of the church, where we regularly hear the Good News of our acceptance and destiny in Christ. We have also noted how personal prayer and Bible reading can reinforce our moment-to-moment appreciation of these foundational truths. Now is the time to reinforce those practices. In particular we want to tie our confidence in God’s love to a new mindset toward money and material things and see how the Bible consistently draws that connection.
Scripture celebrates that God lovingly provides what we need and tells us that things will never satisfy us in any sort of ultimate way. The Bible resounds with encouragement for us to work hard to acquire what we need and to avoid the trap of believing that money or things will make us happy or content. It tells us to use and enjoy things without letting them cause us discontent.
Here are a few of many examples:
“Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless,” says Ecclesiastes (5:10).
And then there are these words from Proverbs 1:19: “When you grab all you can get, that’s what happens: the more you get, the less you are” (MSG).
Jesus talks about the same idea in terms of peace. The calm we all long for doesn’t come from possessions but from him. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you,” he says. “I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27).
The apostle Paul in Philippians 4 puts forth one of the Bible’s more extended teachings on worry and peace. First he says that we should trade worry in for prayer: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (vv. 6-7). (We also like the way The Message puts it: “It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.”)
In addition to prayer, Paul encourages us to focus our minds on things other than what worries us: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me-put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:8–9).
Paul isn’t making up wild theories. His teaching comes from his own experience riding a rollercoaster of joy and suffering, plenty and want. As a result of what he learned, he was able to say, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:11–13).
Paul describes exactly what Grandpa Colby discovered. Peace doesn’t come from outward circumstances but from an inward surrender to Christ.
The fact that Scripture raises the topic of worry and peace so often suggests this is a common human struggle. But to be honest, these verses can both encourage and discourage us! Yes, we should pray. Yes, we should think about more noble things. Yes, we should be content. But how do we get there day to day? The answer lies in putting some practical tactics into action.
The 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey of 30,000 American households found that those who donated to charity were 43 percent more likely than non-givers to say they were “very happy.” This research doesn’t prove which comes first—giving or happiness—but we believe the two absolutely go together. The real-life experience of many generous people fits with the famous insight of Jesus that it is “more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
While the New Testament transcends the Old Testament law that commanded people to give a tithe back to God, the principle remains a common guideline for giving. Tithing means taking 10 percent of what you earn and giving it for God’s work in the world. This is another “generosity discipline” we want to encourage you to consider. It’s a practice for learning contentment regarding what we earn and own. Often the theme of tithing comes up in the context of giving to a local church. We want you to think of it as a yardstick for giving in general—not as a law but as an invitation and challenge.
Many people would agree that this level of generosity is a good idea. Most recognize it as a stretch. The sacrifice often seems so great, however, that the most common reaction to this proposal is, “I just don’t have enough left over to give any of it away.” If we haven’t established a habit of proportional generosity, we look at that 10 percent figure and gulp. It seems impossible to recast our budgets to give that much. But recent research suggests there may be a way forward, and at first it may entail giving less!
The research was described in a book called Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. The Heath brothers make their living as research professors, studying how human behavior can be changed. One of their insights is called “Shrink the Change.” Take housecleaning, for example. They encourage us to clean for ten minutes and then stop, considering that a success. If we tell ourselves we need to clean the whole house or unclutter the entire overstuffed garage, we might never get started. By making the goal easily attainable (who can’t spend ten minutes cleaning?) we get ourselves started.
When it comes to being generous with money, if giving 10 percent feels out of reach, start with one percent more than you give right now. Aim to increase by one percent every three to six months until you reach your goal. As you connect giving to your everyday life, you will soon see that you really do have enough. Sharing not just money but time and energy will feel not just more doable but more joyful. Giving from a surplus mindset is not linked to how much money you have; rather, it is choosing to lead with generosity in all its forms.
Knowing What You Want
Sometimes contentment and peace come by managing our expectations.
I recall a video clip from some years ago telling the story of a wise young woman whose insights into wanting produced a beautiful result. It showed a young woman sitting in front of an older male television documentary host. She looked to be in her early thirties, blonde and soft-spoken. Her eyes and facial structure made it apparent that the young woman lived with Down syndrome.
After a few moments of preparation by the TV personality, the interview began. This woman had recently married a man who also lived with trisomy 21, another name for Down syndrome. Since marriage among Down’s persons is rare, their lives become a curiosity.
The interviewer wanted to know how they managed. Were they happy? How did they pay their bills? Since they couldn’t drive, how did they get to work? They would never produce biological children because of their agreement to be sterilized before the wedding. They lacked the intellectual capacity to dive into conversations about politics, religion, and global warming. And the “great American dream” of home ownership seemed far beyond their reach. How could they possibly be satisfied?
The woman paused for a moment after the barrage of inquiries about her happiness. She looked the interviewer in the eyes and said slowly and confidently, “I am happy because I always get what I want.”
Dumbfounded, the interviewer went back over the litany of things the woman and her disabled spouse would never have. With incredible poise, this young woman repeated her point: “I always get what I want. But I know what to want.”
The young woman explained that her happiness was rooted in realistic expectations for her life. She didn’t believe she would be the next Nobel laureate or even a highly skilled white-collar worker. On the contrary, because she had settled in to her place on the planet rather well, she was able to live in contentment.
Can you say that you know what to want? Out of her wisdom and joy, this woman shared the secret to living at peace.
Brad Hewitt is the CEO of Thrivent Financial, an organization who for more than 100 years has helped Christians be wise with money and live generously. He is also the coauthor of Your New Money Mindset: Create a Healthy Relationship with Money (Tyndale House Publishers), from which this article is adapted with permission.