“You know, these are yuppie words, happiness and unhappiness. It’s not happiness or unhappiness; it’s either blessed or unblessed.”
Suppose for a minute you are hungry and sitting down at a table. While you’re sitting there, a particularly perceptive friend discerns you’re hungry and sets before you a plate with two pieces of bread, a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jelly and two knives. How many of us would be crazy enough to then pray to God for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Hopefully no one. Obviously obtaining a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at that point is as hard as putting the two knives to work. We have the resources we need; we just might need to put in a little effort to enjoy the sandwich.
On a recent mission trip to Jamaica I started to feel that a prayer for happiness makes about as much sense as the prayer for the PB&J. We’ve all done it—myself included. Just slipped a plea for ourselves or folks we know to be “happy.” It seems innocent enough and even a good idea at times. But I can’t help but feel that happiness isn’t God’s responsibility; it’s ours. And if it comes down to us asking for happiness, that’s a sure sign of our ignorance, ingratitude and laziness. That sounds a bit harsh, I know, but consider things from the point of view of our friend who essentially put a sandwich in front of us and then overhears our prayer. “It’s right there in front of you,” they would exclaim, “you have what you need, just put it together!”
When I first went to Jamaica in 2004, I knew I’d return and there was really one thing that was calling me back: the people. Jamaica is famous for the “No problem, mon!” attitude, and that’s there, but they always appear to be the happiest people I have ever met. Walk or drive down a road and you’ll be greeted by honks and waves from everyone you pass; work on their new house and, even though they have very little, coconuts, sugarcane and lots of other unidentified fruit will be offered to you as a simple and sincere thank you; show the kids the slightest bit of attention and you have fast friends for life.
When I first arrived it occurred to me that maybe these people may not be aware that they’re poor. They live in a developing country, much of which is without air conditioning, running water or cars. In the places I visited, their wardrobes are second-hand. They aren’t on Facebook and many have never even used a computer. What reasons could they possibly have for being happy? Later the question evolved as I looked inward: How do I have all of these things and still finding myself needing to ask for happiness? Then on this year’s trip I realized how flawed that question is. If I’m asking that, it becomes apparent that my happiness is based on how much stuff I have. The real question I need to ask is: “Why is happiness more important to me than contentment?”
Contentment is not a word we hear often enough, despite the fact it’s the secret to happiness. It’s my opinion that the people we met in Jamaica appear so happy because they have found contentment. Contrast that with so many of us in America: Our greatest obstacle is that we have so much extra money and so many unnecessary things to spend it on. I think our outlook would start to align with the Jamaicans if our income wasn’t spent on comfort and amusement but rather on making it through another day.
While happiness and contentment seem almost interchangeable, there are some very important differences. This becomes apparent in what is perhaps the best definition of contentment:
A devout life does bring wealth, but it’s the rich simplicity of being yourself before God. Since we entered the world penniless and will leave it penniless, if we have bread on the table and shoes on our feet, that’s enough (1 Timothy, 6:6-8, The Message).
“That’s enough” might be one of the most challenging phrases in the Bible. We want more than just ordinary, more than we need, the best and the most rare. But there’s Paul, calling out a message that says that the essentials are more than enough.
One of the most uncomfortable aspects of both trips to Jamaica for me has been the five-star meal we have enjoyed after finishing our projects. The food is delicious, and the view over the ocean at sunset is spectacular, but it’s all colored by the fact that the cost of the meal I’m eating might feed a Jamaican family for a day or more. Who are we to be eating so richly while no more than a few minutes away others are lacking basic nutrition or, even worse, starving?
While that’s a reality, I also don’t feel called to live in a cave wearing sackcloth and rubbing ashes in my hair. God has put us in specific places for reasons that he alone knows. I don’t know why I live in freedom and enjoy so much when there are others who live in great poverty and danger. But I do know that turning up my nose at a good meal, a sunset or any other number of God’s good creations is simply being ungrateful. It’s my belief that this contentment I’m pursuing is contingent upon gratitude, whether I have a little or a lot. And if I have it better than some folks than the best thing I can do is show God my gratitude by doing what I can to respond to the Gospels’ call to love God and love others.
Contentment isn’t about trying to turn lemons into lemonade; it’s about realizing the differences between needs and wants. Contentment isn’t an opiate for the poor or condemnation of the rich; it’s about being set free so that we can serve God and others without being tied to things. Contentment isn’t about denial for the sake of denial; it’s about recognizing the blessings around you and living a grateful life. Contentment is being honest and aware, realizing that God has given us far more than we could possibly ever need. For some that’s filet mignon, for some a sandwich.