Posts in the Sermon Prep: Contentment series
- This Week’s Sermon Will Be on Contentment
- Contentment and Gratitude
- Paul’s Writings on Contentment
- Solomon vs. Paul: gratitude, simplicity, the present, and meaning
- The Secret of Contentment
On the drive up to Santa Cruz this week, I read through all of Ecclesiastes in one sitting. The irony of the moment wasn’t lost on me, that I had wanted to read through the wonderful, and short, book on the futility of life’s frantic pace, and I couldn’t piece together 30 minutes to read quietly until I was locked in a metal box flying down the freeway for 6 hours.
A lot of my prep time for this sermon has been spent with Paul. It wasn’t until I read through Ecclesiastes that I started to see some contrast between how Solomon answers the questions of contentment, and how Paul answers the same question. Solomon’s famous refrain, “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless” is the slide into despair at the end of every passage. He samples every good thing in life, and finds that it turns to ash in his mouth. He has only 3 remedies for the state of discontentment: gratitude toward God (Ecc 3:11-13), enjoying simplicity (Ecc. 5:10-18), and being present-minded in your pleasures (Ecc 3:1-11). For Solomon, the best life possible is one in which a person finds satisfaction in their work, rather than in the benefit or consequence earned by that work, in which they are mindful of the good things of their present existence rather than anxious about their future needs, a life spent enjoying good food and good company, and in which God is acknowledged as the source of good things. Gratitude, simplicity, and present-mindedness.
Paul is not content (ha-ha!) with simply leaving it there. Paul also adheres to gratitude as an essential component of contentment, but I think he subsumes Solomon’s idea of preset-mindedness into a more fully-developed idea of “meaning”, the life consumed first by humility, and then by energetic pursuit of the Kingdom of God. Paul’s perspective seems to find contentment in the present by viewing it through a wide-angled lens, and seeing God’s overall plan. The present then finds meaning as a part of that larger work. When Paul says that he has learned the secret of being content in both poverty and abundance, he means (as Paul always means, one note samba that he is) that he has learned the secret of being dead to self and alive to Christ, the secret of belonging to the cross, of joining Christ in his kenosis and finding his purpose in the pursuit of the Kingdom of God. For Paul, even the good things of life (the things Solomon recommends) lie so far below humility and discipleship in the scale of meaning, that they become trivial, and to become content or discontent because of them is absurd.
My frustration with these two answers is this: Solomon’s answer seems accessible to everyone. You can substitute “gratitude to God” with “acknowledging the Universal Spirit”, or with a zen-like resignation to fate, and achieve substantially the same sort of contentment. His is not a “Christian” answer to contentment; it’s not even a particularly Jewish answer. It’s just … a good answer. Workable. Functional. Practical and beneficial.
Paul’s answer seems much less tangible. It’s more heady, seems more “right” (although that might only be the case because of 30 years of Evangelical backdrop to read it against), and a higher sort of answer. But it also seems less … learn-able. Less functional. How do you actually do kenosis? How do you gain perspective on this moment as a step of progression in the building of the kingdom when your kid is screaming his head off and the damn AC doesn’t work?
Solomon seems to give an answer that provides a workable pathway to some, limited, measure of contentment, along with a healthy dose of resignation to fate (or God’s unfathomable and unalterable will). Paul, on the other hand, seems to give a less workable pathway to all-consuming satisfaction in the service of great purpose.
By the way, I’m willing to go 9 rounds with anyone who says that “to live is Christ and to die is gain” is a simple pathway to contentment. It’s the most twisted, confusing, and unsustainable mindset ever. Yes, it’s also beautiful, and true, and empowering, but not simple. Never simple.
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Next in series: The Secret of Contentment