As we finish the first full week after Lent, continuing in the way of the Cross to meet Jesus at Golgotha on Good Friday that we might meet Him at the empty tomb on Easter Sunday, we hear this morning once again about the need to divest. The rest of the world is telling you how to invest, but God, through St. Paul and through Lent, is telling you to divest. Divest yourself of yourself, empty yourself of yourself that the heavenly treasure which is Jesus Christ may fill you and satisfy you. Divest yourself of some of your earthly good that you might remember the true source of all your riches.
People think of Lent as a sad and somber season, and so it is. But the goal of Lent, we must never forget, is not Good Friday but Easter Sunday. The ultimate goal of fasting is not to be sad or even hungry but, remembering our hunger for God, to turn to God and ask Him to fill us with good things, i.e. Himself.
But in this culture we have been taught to invest in ourselves and in the world and its goods.
We live in a bipolar country that has on the one hand unparalleled worldly success, measured by physical comfort and luxury, and on the other hand has unparalleled unhappiness. You could almost say that the U.S.has been a grand experiment in finding happiness in worldly things. That experiment is a manifest failure. I seem to remember Solomon conducting the same experiment 3000 years ago, but then again, his results weren’t published in the Journal of Reproducible Results for us to believe.
Of course, if we’d listened to what St. Paul had to say 2000 years ago, we would have known the outcome ahead of time. “For we brought nothing into this world,” Paul says, “and it is certain we can carry nothing out.” Our riches are so fleeting. They will be absolutely meaningless and worthless to us the minute we die. And they are a great deal less useful to us than we think, even when we are alive.
Even worse, “those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” (verses 9-10.)
What are these snares? Riches have the potential to make us worshipers of Mammon instead of God. The problem is we can only serve one of them. Riches often make us lust after more riches and the things our riches can buy. Our hearts and minds and bodies are given to seeking the good things in life, apart from their Giver. As Jesus Himself taught us, what good is it if we gain the world but lose our souls? Those who pursue riches are in just such danger.
The thing is, you don’t have to be the super rich to qualify for such temptations and dangers. The vast majority of Americans are easily rich enough to qualify.
The truth is that Americans at the beginning of the 21st century are the richest people with the greatest luxury the world has ever known. Contrary to the many false reports, by almost every physical and material measure, Americans are better off and more prosperous than ever before. Our median annual income is 32% higher than in the 60s and the average net worth is up 85% compared to the 60s. We can have our knees replaced even in our 80s, when our grandparents had to suffer through bad knees if they even lived long enough to have them. The average new home is 2200 square feet, while in 1960 it was around 1100, and the typical American home has 5.3 rooms for 2.6 people. 95% of American dwellings are centrally heated, compared to 15% in our grandparents’ generation (and 78% have air conditioning compared to 0%). What shall I say? Time fails me to mention personal computers and the Internet, cell phones, household TVs, sanitation, antibiotics, etc.
The grand irony of it all is that riches so often lead to sorrow. The number of people who say they are very happy has declined since the 50s. Most notably, there has been a huge upturn in the number of people who are depressed. And a very large number of people think their lives are getting worse materially and that their children will not have life as good, even when in terms of earthly riches this is false.
In contrast to all of this, St. Paul simply says: “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” The root problem of our discontentment with life is our discontentment with God and His gifts. We are the victim of our own greed and covetousness, and we are too often unhappy because we don’t have what we desired. If investment advisers assured us we could make 15% per year in the stock market forever (which they routinely calculated in the 1990s) and we end up making 8%, we all feel cheated. If my house is a mansion by the standards of the world, but it isn’t the one I really wanted to be able to afford, I am unhappy.If my body aches or has worn out and the doctors can’t fix it, I’m mad at them for their failings. In fact, I think it is only because contemporary health care is so extremely good that we complain so much. Only because we have found remedies and relief for so many ailments and can pay for it because of insurance, do we actually dare to dream of a health care system in which all of our physical ills are cured at virtually no visible expense. And that is what Americans really want from our health care system. We are so used to getting good things that when we don’t get it all at no cost, we are discontented and unhappy.
This is exactly how we treat the goodness of God in our lives. Instead of thanking God for all of His incredible gifts, we complain because of the good ones He has not given us.
What is lacking in our lives is not the goodness of God but our own thankfulness to God. Paul taught in 1 Timothy 4:4 that every creature of God is good and nothing is to be refused, but only if it is received with thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is essential because you only thank someone who has given you something. I don’t say, “Why thank me for existing today, Charles. And while I’m at it, thank me for how handsome I am and how well I’ve done for myself” (actually, we do say this last one.)
All things are clean – including money – but only if they are received with thanksgiving. Only if you acknowledge that the good things in your life are from God will you be able to use them without being seduced by either them or your own pride.
The sacramental worldview which Paul teaches is beneficial in producing contentment in all things. I find that if I can see Jesus Christ in all of His good gifts to me, if I can learn to experience God’s presence in all things, then I am content in all things.
My riches and material comforts never come unattached. Attached to every one of them is God the good giver.
And all my suffering and woes never come unattached. Attached to every one of them is the One who promises to bear my Cross and to strengthen me so that I can joyfully accept all He has graciously allowed me to bear. If only we would recognize that every circumstance of our lives, both pleasant and unpleasant, are meant by God for our good, to lead us closer to Him, we would solve the problem of unhappiness and (more properly) unjoyfulness.
Our contentment at the end of each day and at the end of our lives ought to be not in the material riches we have accumulated but in the spiritual ones. Speaking perhaps most of all to myself: am I content in the events of the day that God has brought my way, even when I didn’t get done all that I had intended? There are other ways to neglect God’s goodness and to be discontent, other than in terms of possessions.
But what ought to bring us true peace and joy is the contentment that comes from a godly life, such as Paul prescribed for Timothy and us.
Praise God from whom all blessings flow! Where Jesus is, there is joy. Where God is acknowledged, there is contentment and peace that surpasses all understanding.
Prayer: Lord, allow me to become poor in spirit that I might be rich in You. Help me to set my mind on heavenly things where Your Son is present, and not on vanishing and vain earthly things. Above all, allow me to see Your face today, and having seen You to thank You, that I might experience true contentment.
Points for Meditation:
Evaluate how content you are in your life. Would you still be content if you suffered a significant material loss but could still provide for your daily needs? At the end of the day, are you content with what God has given you that day (and not just materially)? Are you content with the goodness of God. from a godly life? If not, explore the sources of your discontent and find a way to build thanksgiving into your life.
Resolution: I resolve today to seek God either in my riches or in my poverty, that I might find my contentment in Him and in following Him.
© 2012 Fr. Charles Erlandson
The Land of Cockaigne (Bruegel) – Wikipedia entry