Monthly Talking Point – August 2019

This month Michael Penny looks at the pursuit of contentment

It has been said that the British are a nation of malcontents … but I am not sure such a statement is fair. It is true that we tend to moan and groan, and complain a lot … but is that a British disease, or a human condition? We may not be the Number One nation in the world any longer, and are not the richest, but we are certainly far better off than the majority of people on this planet. So why are so many discontent with their lot?

It is interesting to go back to the New Testament and the person who wrote most about contentment was Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. He was born and raised in the city of Tarsus, second only to Athens as a centre for learning, and was clearly educated there in the philosophy of his age before moving to Jerusalem to be taught Judaism by the top rabbi, Gamaliel. Thus, in his discussions with the philosophers in Athens Paul did not quote the Scriptures, as they would not have seen them as authoritative, but other philosophers – Epimenides and Aratus.

Paul lived from about AD 5 – 65 and around at that time was the stoic philosopher Zeno (4 BC – AD 65). He wrote much on the subject of contentment for it seems the Gentile society of that time was also full of malcontents. His view was that the path to contentment is found in accepting the present (the here and now) and not letting ourselves be controlled by the pursuit of pleasure and the fear of the future. And that message seems as relevant today as it was 2,000 years ago, and so does much in the New Testament.

• “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have”
(Hebrews 13:5).
• The soldiers were told “Be content with your wages” (Luke 3:14).
• “If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content”
(1 Timothy 6:8).

However, it is most salutary to read that Paul also wrote “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11). For me, the significant word there is “learned”. Contentment was something Paul had to “learn”, and it was something I have had to “learn” also.

In modern society it seems discontentment is bred by advertising and the news. In Zeno’s words, advertising stimulates “the pursuit of pleasure” and the news breeds “the fear of the future” for it no longer reports what ‘has’ just happened, but has comment from ‘experts’ on what they think ‘will’ happen. I am learning to discount these comments and the more I do so, the more my level of contentment rises.

However, I have something else I need to work on. Paul also wrote “godliness with contentment is great gain”. I am making headway on the ‘contentment’ but I seem to have further to go on the ‘godliness’. How about you?

Michael Penny
Chair, Churches Together in Reading