Balancing Contentment and Discontent

Paul of Tarsus, a founder of what has come to be called Christianity, spent most of his life promoting–not  himself–but  the work of another person, Jesus Christ. In so doing, Paul built a foundation of faith upon the redemptive cornerstone that Jesus had laid at Calvary. That foundation has been expanded and strengthened over the last two thousand years, and is now known as Christianity.

How did this one man, Paul, make, by his life’s work, such a lasting impact on the whole world? For starters, he traveled all over the eastern Mediterranean teaching and expounding one very important message, which eventually became known as  the Gospel. While he was doing all that, he endured, and survived, a myriad of dangerous situations. Paul was an adventurer who got into trouble just about everywhere he went, went through life constantly misunderstood and misinterperted, came perilously close to death on several occasions, suffered through shipwrecks, snakebites and being the object of riotous mobs.

He was a nonviolent revolutionary, whose life mission was to enable  the world to be delivered  from doing bad shit.

And yet, in the midst of all that Paul said and did to establish the work of Christ in this world, do you think he was a happy man? Did he go into eternity with a satisfaction that he had done the best he could to live what he believed?

In a letter to his friends in Philipi, Paul wrote:

. . . I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.”

I heard a pastor speak about this morning. His sermon, using Paul as the example, was all about contentment and discontent. There is a tension, you know, between these two–being content or being discontent. It was a very good teaching about learning to be content in this life. Of course, we all want to learn this principle, don’t we? as Paul did, or we will spend our life being miserable.

And who the hell wants to be miserable? Not me. So yes, I want to learn that lesson that Paul learned, and wrote about–that lesson that was passed down through a couple of centuries and was renewed in my hearing this morning when Mickey expounded on it.

I want to be content in this life. I mean, who doesn’t?

So there I was sitting in church this morning hearing encouragement through the mouth of a contemporary preacher about the wisdom that Paul had recorded in a letter two centuries ago. It was encouragement to learn more about finding contentment. That’s good advice.

On the other hand, Karl Marx taught that religion was the opiate of the people. If I am accepting, through my faith in Christ, contentment,  I am copping out? Should I, instead of cultivating contentment, allow my periodic discontent about the injustice and cruelty of this world propel  me to burn zealously in this life as an activist to stop injustice and end violence and prevent the cruel exploitation of helpless people and eliminate the income inequality gap? So I’m thinking about this tension between desiring contentment, and allowing discontent to become a productive motivator to make life somehow better. Paul said he had learned to be content, and yet he was not content to sit on his duff and watch tv or surf the net (just kidding), but rather he allowed a little personal discontent about the sorry state of this world to motivate himself to go into the world and try to change it for the better.

Meanwhile, while I was listening to Mickey’s lesson about Paul’s contentment, I remembered the subject of the last article that I had been reading this morning before I closed the laptop and drove to church. It’s called  “The Winter of our Discontent.” You may want to check it out if your are interested in economics–real economics, not this hyped-up QE stuff that the Fed has been dishing out since 1987.

Of course, the article by Eric Parnell that I just linked above for you doesn’t really have much to do with Paul of Tarsus or learning to be content. But what’s curious to me is that the spiritual lesson and the economics article, both of which I encountered this Sunday morning, were both dealing with the tension between contentment and “discontent.”

And that got my attention. This is the kind of incidental interlude that contributes greatly to my cognitively dissonant celebration of life!  I want you to know that I can be content about what the Lord has given me to do in this life, while still appreciating the motivational value of a little discontent and disruption every now and then.

Now go; be well and prosper, but don’t get too comfortable with our success.

CR, with new novel, Smoke, to publish soon

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