One of the underlying pursuits of modern western civilisation is the pursuit of happiness and pleasure. How much money is enough? For John D. Rockefeller (oil industry business magnate) the answer was, “just a little bit more”. Pursuing “things” or money can bring us momentary happiness and can help create a sense of mastery and achievement in life. Though, without proper limits and guiding values, the pursuit of “things”, and the feelings and beliefs we attach to those things, can become addictive and unhelpful. Even finding satisfaction in relationships with others has its limits if we fail to draw from the eternal source of life – our Creator. At the centre of modern thinking is the “self”. Self-actualisation (as coined by psychologist Abraham Maslow) is believed to be the ultimate benchmark of living and success. While our personal development and growth is essential, a worldview or paradigm that only allows for “self” as the ultimate goal of life is actually an impoverished view.
Christ Jesus of Nazareth (a first century Israelite teacher and The Messiah) taught people to see beyond themselves to a broader relationship which encompassed “knowing God as our spiritual Father” and “loving God and one’s fellow neighbour”, as the ultimate pursuits of life. Jesus imparted this message to His Church and the broader world we live in today. Within this broader pursuit, come all other forms of satisfaction in our lives. Without this “higher value” our secondary pursuits and desires can ensnare us.
“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need. “So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Christ Jesus: Matthew 6:31-34 NLT).
Pursuing happiness outside the ultimate source of that happiness will only lead – I believe – to a perpetual search for happiness and with it, frustration. This search will become a never-ending downward spiral of illusive satisfaction as we try to pursue fulfillment in its various forms. Jesus calls us all to reorientate our lives so that we can find true contentment. This requires us to build a broader picture of the world we live in. We must build a view of the world that allows for the pursuit of God to be our ultimate goal, not our self-actualisation. In Christ’s paradigm, life actually opens up more fully when we submit to God through the cross of Christ and allow His Spirit to fill us. As we deny ourselves and live for the good and wellbeing of others life truly does take on a totally different meaning. This is dramatically different from any other paradigm I know of.
“You should remember the words of the Lord Jesus: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35 NLT).
So how do we break the cycle of pursuing happiness and find true contentment in life? I want to draw from a profound reading from Ecclesiastes in the Christian Bible, traditionally penned by King Solomon of Israel before his death in 931 BC.
“Even so, I have noticed one thing, at least, that is good. It is good for people to eat, drink, and enjoy their work under the sun during the short life God has given them, and to accept their lot in life. And it is a good thing to receive wealth from God and the good health to enjoy it. To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life—this is indeed a gift from God. God keeps such people so busy enjoying life that they take no time to brood over the past” (Ecc. 5:18-20 NLT).
This piece of Jewish Wisdom Literature teaches us a great deal about how to live well and with contentment. The broader theme of this book, “Ecclesiastes”, is “the meaninglessness of life without God”. From this passage, I want to give us three steps to finding true contentment in life so we can avoid the downward spiral of chasing happiness.
Firstly, we are encouraged that it is, “good for people to eat, drink, and enjoy their work under the sun during the short life God has given them”. King Solomon mentions that it is “God” who has given us the pleasures of life – our food, drink, employment. There is a relative amount of meaning within these pursuits if we acknowledge God as the ultimate source of life. So, we should enjoy the small comforts of life with our family – cooking, good coffee, and connection with others. These things are important for the body and soul. It is also important to acknowledge God as the source of these good things.
Secondly, we are told the key to contentment is to, “accept their/[our] lot in life”. Contentment flows from acceptance. If we can accept our position in life and not strive to be more or less than we are, but to work and live within our appointed limits and giftings, then we will find a degree of contentment. If we compare ourselves with others this can feed our insecurities and cause us to strive for things beyond ourselves. Striving from insecurity is a never-ending void that cannot be filled and – I believe – will fuel anxiety and depression.
Lastly, we are taught, “it is a good thing to receive wealth from God and the good health to enjoy it”. God is not opposed to wealth or money; He just doesn’t want it to control our lives and dictate all our decisions. I love the Jewish proverb in the Bible that says,
“O God, I beg two favours from you;
let me have them before I die.
First, help me never to tell a lie.
Second, give me neither poverty nor riches!
Give me just enough to satisfy my needs.
For if I grow rich, I may deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?”
And if I am too poor, I may steal and thus insult God’s holy name” (Proverbs 30:7-9 NLT).
I am convinced that if we can know God’s Christ, enjoy good food and our work, accept the things we cannot change, and enjoy what we do have (the small blessings such as our health and daily provisions), we’ll be truly content. This does not mean that God will not stretch us to grow throughout our lives (that’s the journey of faith), but we will fare better on this journey with contentment. Out of acceptance and contentment will flow purpose, meaning, and joy.