Contentment: A “Better” Way to Live
November 20, 1994
It didn’t start out that way. When Scott and Janet put the kids in the mini-van and took off for Milwaukee, they had no idea. It was just another trip and six of their kids were with them. Scott Willis said, “I barely had time. I saw the metal fly off the truck, and the mini-van rolled over it and it punctured the gas tank, exploding.” Five of the children were burned to death within seconds. The sixth, Ben, 13 years old, lasted one more day before he died. It is hard even to speak of this. This is what the Chicago Tribune said after Pastor Scott Willis, his wife Janet, hands bandaged, their faces bearing the marks of the flames, gave the press conference this week, “There are only two possible responses to the kind of loss that Duane and Janet suffered last week. Utter despair or unquestioning faith. For the Willises, despair was never an option. ‘I know God has purposes and God has reasons,’ said Duane Scott Willis, explaining how he and his wife had been able to cope with the death of six of their nine children in a freak accident earlier this month on a Milwaukee freeway. ‘God has demonstrated his love to us and our family. There is no question in our minds that God is good, and we praise him in all things.’ His wife, Janet, said, ‘He’s the giver and taker of life, and he sustains us.’ Pastor Willis serves at the Parkwood Baptist Church in the Mt. Greenwood section of South Chicago. In the accident, six of their children died: Ben, 13; Joe, 11; Sam, 9; Hank, 7; Elizabeth, 3; and little Peter, just six weeks old.”
“There is no question in our minds that God is good and we praise him for all things.”
What would you say? This is what Pastor Willis said, “There is no question in our minds that God is good, and we praise him in all things.” I tell you, the most incomprehensible part of that statement is the phrase “there is no question.” No question at all after six children are burned to death? “Utter despair,” the newspaper said, “or unquestioning faith.” “There is no question in our minds that God is good and we praise him in all things.”
It is Thanksgiving once again, and across the country millions of people are getting ready for a week of great celebration. Some of you are planning, like me, on being on the road. Later this week you will go to a plane or bus or car, and fly, ride or drive somewhere. You are looking forward to a big Thanksgiving week. The cooks are already hard at work, baking, basting, putting together casseroles, stocking up on soft drinks, trying to get enough food to feed a hungry horde. Around America this Thursday, millions of people will stop to give thanks, believers and unbelievers, Christians and non-Christians alike; for one day the nation stops and we give thanks to God. It is entirely right that we should do so. After all, the Bible itself says, “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” Philippians 4:6 says, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything let your requests be made known to God with thanksgiving.” Psalm 100:4 says, “Enter his gates with praise and come into his courts with thanksgiving. Give thanks to him and bless his name.”
I know a family in South Chicago where there will be six empty chairs around the table this Thursday. It is hard even to think about that. Pastor Willis, what is it you said? “God has demonstrated his love to our family. There is no question in our minds that God is good, and we praise him in all things.” Either that man has lost his mind, or he has found his faith. I’ll be honest, I don’t know what I would say if it were my three boys taken in a fiery death. I suppose in that moment, God gives grace for what you have to bear, and whatever strength you have to have.
The year was 1620. The Pilgrims had just landed. It is a well-known fact that the Pilgrims came because of their Christian faith. They came to America because they loved God, because they believed that God was leading them. They were not deists. They were biblical Christians who believed that Almighty God had brought them to the shores of this nation. William Bradford, in his book Of Plymouth Plantation tells the reaction of the Pilgrims when they landed at Cape Code. “Being thus arrived in a good harbor and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element. And no marvel if they were thus joyful.” Peter Marshall, commenting on that, says, “They had begun their long journey by kneeling on the dock at Bellshaven to ask God’s blessing. They ended it on the sands of Cape Cod, kneeling to thank Him for that blessing.”
What is the secret of thanksgiving? Why is it that some people approach this holiday with rejoicing and others with trepidation? Some people are not looking forward to the holiday. Some of you know that for you Thanksgiving will mean either a day of loneliness, or a day of busyness, or just another day of work, or perhaps a day of family strife that is pushed just below the surface. Some of us look over the past 12 months, and say, “I don’t really have that much to be thankful for. If you add up the pluses and minuses of the past year, it may seem to you that the minuses are greater than the pluses. And as you face Thanksgiving, you are just another Ebenezer Scrooge: BA-HUMBUG on the whole thing. I don’t have anything to be grateful for.
What is the secret to being grateful in all circumstances?
I am going to give you the secret. It is just one word. It is the word contentment. Not prosperity. It is in that passage I read just a moment ago, when the Apostle Paul said, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Would you like to know the definition of contentment? Contentment is realizing how much you already have, how much God has already given you, how rich you already are. The problem with many of us is we approach Thanksgiving focused on the circumstances of life. Far too many of us take our happiness and our joy and contentment by how things are going on the outside. The Bible says it is not like that. Contentment is not a matter of outward circumstances. Contentment is a matter of understanding how much you already have.
That brings me to the book of Proverbs. I want to give you seven verses from Proverbs that all begin with the word “better.” Each one of these verses gives us a comparison, usually between something that is good and something better, something that the world thinks is important versus something God says is important. These seven verses explain the concept of contentment.
Contentment is a matter of understanding how much you already have.
“Better to be a nobody and yet have a servant than pretend to be somebody and have no food.” Proverbs 12:9
That verse always cheers me up when I read it. Better to have no reputation and be thought of as a nothing and yet have your needs met, than to be some hot-aired big shot and yet starve to death in your own home.
“Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil.” Proverbs 15:16
Too many of us have bought into the notion that money brings happiness. We think that if we only had another $1,000 or $5,000 or $10,000 or $50,000 or $150,000 then, at last, we would be able to buy that thing we have been trying to buy, we’d be able to move up to a newer house or better car, or better part of the country. Too many of us have bought into the notion that money brings happiness. The Bible is not against wealth or prosperity, but it is very honest about it. Generally speaking, the people who have a lot of money also have a lot of trouble. You know why that is? If you have a lot of money, everybody you know wants some of it. The more you have, the more people want.
The Bible is not against wealth or prosperity, but it is very honest about it.
Did you ever read the book Hang Time by Bob Green about Michael Jordan? The saddest part about the story of his life is that basically, he can never for one day live a normal life. He cannot go to the drugstore, he cannot go to McDonald’s, to the mall, he cannot walk down the street. He can never have anything unless he is surrounded by security guards and sealed off from the rest of the public. You may think, “Well, give me his $65,000,000 and I’ll take that too.” I don’t think you really would. There is a man who is so rich that he is imprisoned by his riches. So it is with the multimillionaires and multibillionaires of this world. The more money you have, the more problems you have. It is better to have just a little and fear God than to have a great bottomline bank account and turmoil.
“Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred.” Proverbs 15:17
Translated, it means it is better to eat cold lima beans where people love you than to have a t-bone steak where they can’t stand to look at your face. There is a reason why people get depressed at Thanksgiving and Christmas time, why they hate to go back home. It is because you know that when you go back home, and you see all those relatives you haven’t seen for a while, especially when some of them get a little tanked up with the holiday spirit, all those old hurts and old things start coming out. And what ought to be a joyful, happy time, becomes an unbearable struggle. You just pray to God to survive until the time when you can go home. Better, the Bible says, to eat lima beans in a family where they love you than to have the richest food in the greatest hotel in Chicago, where hatred and strife and turmoil is.
“Better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice.” Proverbs 16:8
That is to say, it is better to do right and struggle, than to do wrong and be rich. Better to follow the rules and go broke, than to cheat and climb your way to what you think is the top of the ladder. It is better to struggle to make ends meet, but know that you are righteous in the eyes of God, than to cheat other people to have it all.
“Better to be lowly in spirit and among the oppressed than to share plunder with the proud.” Proverbs 16:19
“Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife.” Proverbs 17:1
That is what Thanksgiving and Christmas are for too many people—a house full of feasting with strife.
“Better a poor man whose walk is blameless than a rich man whose ways are perverse.” Proverbs 28:6
What is contentment? Contentment is realizing you are better off the way you are right now. If you are dreaming of more money and bigger material possessions, contentment is realizing how much God has blessed you and how much you have right now. In reality, most of us truly are better off the way we are right now.
I want to share with you a little mathematical equation. It is not too difficult. I want to give you four steps to the equation for a happy Thanksgiving. If you follow these four steps, you will be happy come Thanksgiving Day. This is an interactive sermon. That is a very 90s statement, a high-tech sermon. You can’t just sit there. Take out a piece of paper and do this right now, in part because I don’t totally trust you to do it later.
Where does a happy Thanksgiving begin? You have to add something, subtract something, multiply something and divide something.
1. Add your blessings.
In Deuteronomy the Lord says the following to the people of Israel as they are poised on the bank of the Jordan River, frightened to death to go in and conquer Jericho, scared to death of the Canaanites. You may say to yourself, “These nations are stronger than we are. How can we drive them out?” Do not be afraid of them. Remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and Egypt. Remember the Red Sea. Remember the Exodus. Remember. You saw with your own eyes the great miraculous signs and wonders, the mighty hand and outstretched arm with which the Lord your God brought you out.
The first step to having a happy Thanksgiving is to have a good memory of God’s blessings. Take a moment to remember at least three blessings God has sent into your life in the past twelve months.
2. Subtract your losses.
The Bible says, “My ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts.” Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” What are your losses, your difficulties, defeats, failures, humiliations, times in the last year when it didn’t work out the way you thought it was going to? When you look at your life, those things come into the debit column. Subtract them right now. Maybe it’s a bitterness, a resentment, a broken relationship.
3. Multiply your promises.
I Peter 1 talks about the exceeding great and precious promises of God. The Bible is a book filled with the promises of God. This is what I want you to do. Think about the promises that God has made to you or about you or for you, promises that you are hanging onto right now, the promises that as a Christian, are sustaining your life right now. Write down at least three.
Are you memorizing Scripture? God gave it to you. He gave you the promises. In Hebrews 13:6 the Lord says, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” Psalm 91:1 says, “He who dwells in the shelter of the most high will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” Psalm 1:5 says, “For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” Job 23:10 says, “He knows the way that I take. When he has tried me, I will come forth as gold.”
4. Divide your burdens.
Galatians 6:2 says, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.” You divide your burden by taking on somebody else’s burden. When you help somebody else with their burden, your burden grows lighter. When you reach out a helping hand to somebody else, the Lord makes the way easier for you. So many of us are a little too inward-focused, a little too myopic, looking at ourselves. Write down the names of at least three people who have a burden that you could help this week. Maybe you could give them a call, write a letter, give some money, give a hug, go see them, help them with a project, bake some cookies or food, spend some time with them. Instead of focusing on your own problem, think about dividing your burden. Ask the Lord to show you who you could help this week.
What is contentment?
Contentment is realizing how much you already have. You are better off than you think you are. If you aren’t content, you ought to be. You have more than you think you do. God has given you more than you realize, and people all around you need you more than you know. If you have any doubts about it, consider this: “There is no question in our minds that God is good and we praise him in all things.” Could you say that? Do you think your heart is heavy this morning? Do you think you have burdens? You read something like this and it reminds you of the old saying: I complained about having no shoes, until I met a man with no feet. “There is no question in our minds that God is good and we praise him in all things.”
Here is my project. Take this little thing that we have gone over, go home and do it with your family and friends. Sit down, do a little adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing this week.
Oh God, give us eyes to see your blessings. Oh God, give us hands ready to reach out and help those in need. Oh Lord, give us hearts to rejoice in you and lips to sing your praise. Help us to understand that whether we see it or not, whether we know it or not, whether we feel it or not, God is good all the time.
May this week for you be what every day should be—a day of true thanksgiving to God, who is good all the time. Amen.