Left, Right, Left…

When I was eighteen years old, I joined the military. I wish I could say I joined out of a sense of duty or patriotism, but I did not. I was a rebellious, unreliable, irresponsible kid. Evidently I was just the type of kid they were looking for, because I soon found myself surrounded by dozens of like-minded “brothers.” The training instructors (TIs) had a plan, though. They had six weeks to shape some raw material into productive members of the military. They were going to create an identity, pride, a work ethic, and responsibility. I can’t look back without some degree of astonishment. They actually did it, after all.

What is interesting is how they did it. The TIs were intent on teaching recruits to pay close attention to detail and take pride in their work. Under the pressure of looming inspections, we spent hours folding our clothes according to the standards. (I still re- member using a paperclip to get the edges perfect.) We shined our boots, made our beds, and cleaned our barracks meticulously. Everywhere we went we marched. Whether in a group of fifty guys or in twos, we were always marching and always pivoting right or left just like we were supposed to. We did this day after day and week after week.

Eventually I graduated and moved on to further training. I realized something strange had happened, though. I shined my boots daily, called everyone sir or ma’am, and folded my laundry with precision. If my parents could have seen the transformation over a few months, they would not have believed their eyes. I truly was a different guy.

But there’s more. I was also quite excited about being part of the military. It was more than a paycheck or another job; it became something I cared deeply about. Over a period of several weeks the TIs had done the seemingly impossible. They had taken an indifferent, uncommitted recruit and transformed him into a productive and committed member of the military. Their routines and repetition had brought about their desired end.

What is the goal of the Christian life? The answer to the first question of the Westminster Shorter Catechism says it best: “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” To glorify God is to make much of him, to see his supreme value and ascribe greatness to him. But we do more than agree that God is great. We enter into the hearty “Amen!” of his greatness by living in such a way that testifies to the fact that God is our supreme treasure and surpassing joy. To use the analogy of the military, we live in such a way that properly reflects the honor and glory of the one who has enlisted us into service.

How do we glorify God and enjoy him forever? We glorify God by learning, tasting, seeing, and showing that the Lord is glorious. We come to find ourselves in hearty agreement with God that he is worthy of our whole-souled devotion. This is precisely what we have been thinking about in terms of learning contentment. Being content in God is being satisfied in God regardless of what is going on outside you.

The biblical argument is that you cannot truly be content without being content in God. The apostle Paul highlights this indissoluble bond between godliness and contentment in 1 Timothy 6. He says there that false teachers were “imagining that godliness is a means of gain. But godliness with contentment is great gain” (6:5–6). In this section of the letter, Paul is unmasking the false teachers by exposing their works. These opponents to true religion are “puffed up” with conceit, ignorant, and craving controversies. What’s more, they believe that godliness can be a vehicle for personal gain. Regrettably, every age has seen selfish people attempt to personally capitalize on the church. But, says Paul, this is just another demonstration of a deceitful, self-inclined heart. Such schemes don’t work. They can’t work, because contentment is tied to godliness after all.

Think about it. Contentment is tied to godliness. At the risk of trivializing this point, I’m reminded of a bumper sticker I’ve seen: “Know Jesus, know peace. No Jesus, no peace.” It’s a clever and true turn of phrase. And the same can be said for contentment: “No godliness, no contentment. Know godliness, know contentment.”

Do you see how ironic Paul’s correction of the false teachers is? He basically throws their words back at them with an opposite meaning. The false teachers believe that godliness is a way to gain. They are dead wrong, but they are also spot-on. They are wrong in the way they are going about it, “merchandising the doctrine of Christ,” says Calvin;[1] however, if we do think about it, there is no true and lasting gain apart from godliness. So if we are after gain, then we actually have to pursue godliness. The key here is what we mean by “gain.” John Stott explains:

“Godliness” (eusebeia) is “gain” (porismos), even great gain ([1 Tim. 6:]6a), providing you mean spiritual gain, not financial, and providing you add contentment. Paul is echoing his earlier statement that “godliness has value for all things,” bringing blessing for both this life and the next ([1 Tim.] 4:8).[2]

The apostle hits his mark. Godliness is concerned not primarily with the physical, expressed in terms of money, but with the spiritual, expressed in terms of contentment.

We must see how revolutionary this line of thinking is. As we saw earlier, in Paul’s day Stoic philosophers taught that people could achieve a self-sufficiency that would insulate them from the tumultuous circumstances of life (see under the heading “Contentment Is a Work of Grace,” p. 27). By looking inward and mastering themselves, they attempted to ensure that they were unmovable, unflappable, stoic. In fact, here in 1 Timothy 6:6 Paul uses the same word that was commonly used by the Stoics. The difference for Paul, however, is not the end (contentment) but the means to that end. Whereas the Stoics pursued sufficiency in themselves, we as Christians find it in God. Thomas Lea and Hayne Griffin comment: “Paul Christianized the term, using it to refer to an attitude of mind independent of externals and dependent only on God. He was not advocating godless self-sufficiency as a source of contentment. Paul believed that true sufficiency is Christ-sufficiency (Phil. 4:13).”[3]

In our day, we don’t often look inward to master ourselves but look outward to satisfy ourselves. If we can only get more and enjoy more, then we’ll be happy. However, research shows that even those who seem to have the most still lack contentment. They have hands full of money but happiness slips through their eager grasp. In a study conducted by Boston College, researchers talked with people whose fortunes exceeded $25 million. The goal of the study was to get the rich to speak candidly about their lives. According to the study:

The respondents turn out to be a generally dissatisfied lot, whose money has contributed to deep anxieties involving love, work, and family. Indeed, they are frequently dissatisfied even with their sizable fortunes. Most of them still do not consider themselves financially secure; for that, they say, they would require on average one-quarter more wealth than they currently possess.[4]

Here are people who seem to have made it. They are in the cultural winner’s circle but don’t feel victorious.

Paul exposes this same type of emptiness in the next verses of 1 Timothy 6. He goes on to point out that even if you get a lot of stuff, you can’t keep it. We are all going to die eventually, and our stuff will not come with us or help us in the age to come (6:7). Further, instead of providing contentment, the pursuit of riches can often provide a snare, a vicious temptation that ends in ruin (6:9).

Whether we look inward or outward, we see that promises for gain are actually empty promises. Contentment comes not from focusing on ourselves or feasting on stuff but by focusing and feasting on Jesus Christ (Phil. 4:13). Contentment comes through knowing and loving the truth. It is not enough to simply know theology; we must love the God we are studying. And it is not enough to say we love a God we do not know. Godliness is concerned with both knowing and loving.

Content taken from Chasing Contentment: Trusting God in a Discontented Age by Erik Raymond, ©2017. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.

[1] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, trans. William Pringle (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 157.

[2] John R. W. Stott, Guard the Truth: The Message of 1 Timothy & Titus, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 149.

[3] Thomas D. Lea and Hayne P. Grif n, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, The New American Commentary 34 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1992), 167–68.

[4] Graeme Wood, “Secret Fears of the Super-Rich,” The Atlantic, April 2011, http://www .theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/04/secret-fears-of-the-super-rich/308419.