We had spent the entire week in El Salvador. Mark had stayed home to take care of our sons. But each day our daughters, Anne and Erica, and I (Jill) visited poverty-fighting Compassion International projects in nearly 100-degree heat. We laughed with little ones who were missing their front teeth. We talked with moms with our broken Spanish. We blew bubbles, braided hair, and painted faces.
Each day our group also had the sobering opportunity to participate in a home visit. Most days these visits broke my heart. The realities of living in poverty stared me right in the face inside these homes. These weren’t pictures of starving kids. These starving kids were standing right in front of me.
“What is the opposite of poverty?” asked the Compassion staff member at the closing event of the week. Wealth, I answered silently in my mind. Wealth seemed to be the logical answer to that question.
But it wasn’t the correct answer. “The opposite of poverty,” he said, “is enough.” I think you could have heard a pin drop in the room. It seemed to be a new idea for every one of us.
I thought back over our week of seeing poverty firsthand and up close. He was right—you didn’t need to be wealthy to live outside of poverty. You simply needed to have enough. Enough to eat that you weren’t malnourished. Enough health-care that you didn’t have parasites in your stomach. Enough money to provide a roof over your family’s head and food for the table.
Most of us live in places that have more than enough, and quite honestly that makes us wealthy. I’ve never considered myself wealthy in 44 years of life. I grew up in a family that was comfortable; while we would have never been considered wealthy by American standards, we were in the global sense. Mark and I scrimp, pinch pennies, and have done without during much of our 26-plus years of marriage and raising a family. There have been many times when we’ve wondered whether we’ll make it financially. It has seemed hard. But we’ve always had enough—and in fact we’ve had more than enough. We just haven’t realized it because we’re so rarely confronted with someone who really doesn’t have enough.
Suffice it to say, that trip completely changed our family’s view of what contentment—and enough—really means.
The apostle Paul writes in Philippians 4:11-13: “Actually, I don’t have a sense of needing anything personally. I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am” (The Message).
What we need to notice in Paul’s message is that he speaks of contentment as something to be learned. Contentment isn’t something we’re born with. It’s a character trait that’s acquired.
I (Mark) easily admit that this concept is a tough one for me, and I’m still learning about contentment. My tendency is not to be satisfied with what I have. I am continually drawn in by the want of more. Because I can convince myself why anything more would make my life easier—allowing me to justify purchasing it—I have had to learn to practice the discipline of contentment.
With that in mind let’s look at five contentment principles:
1. Live beyond the temporary. When we say yes to God and begin a relationship with Him, He wants us to learn to see things in light of eternity. We’re designed to live in relationship with God through eternity. This earth is just a stopping point along a far grander journey than we can imagine. The things of this earth are just temporary as well. We can’t take any of it with us. We’re reminded of this in Matthew 6:20 (NIV): “But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.”
2. Learn to give. God gives to us so that we can also give to others. We do that first by giving a portion back to God through a tithe, which is 10 percent of our income. We’ve found that technology can help us tithe. Our paychecks are direct-deposited into our bank account every other Wednesday. Using online banking, we set up an automatic payment of 10 percent of our income to our church every other Thursday in our pay weeks. This assures us that God will get the first gift from our blessing.
Offerings are what we give to others over and above a tithe. Our family sponsors a Compassion child. That’s an offering. When we support someone going on a mission trip, it’s an offering. Giving to God and to others expands our heart and helps us to keep our hands open to receive gratefully and give cheerfully.
3. Praise God. So many of us sit down at the dinner table and say our mealtime prayer on autopilot. “Thank You, God, for this food. Bless it to the nourishment of our bodies. Amen.” What if we paused at each meal and really praised God for all He has given to us? “Lord, You are an incredible Creator. Thank You for the warm sunshine today. We praise You for providing for our family: our home, our neighbors, our jobs, our cars, our clothes, and our food. We ask You to help us be good stewards of everything You’ve asked us to manage and take care of. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”
God is worthy of our praise. He has given us so much. And praising God doesn’t have to be limited to mealtime prayers—we can do it throughout our day. We can be driving down the road and marveling at the beautiful sunset and say, “God, wow, you are an incredible Creator! Thank You for that sunset.” In fact, it’s good for our kids to see us talk to God in a casual, spontaneous way like that. If you’re alone, praise can be an inside job—you can marvel at the sunset and praise God without saying a word, because He knows our thoughts and the condition of our heart.
4. Grow a thankful heart. When I (Jill) saw the advertisement for that Blackbeard Boat cruise in Florida that I just knew our boys would love, I had to focus on what we could provide for them: a week at the beach in my parents’ condo. When I salivated over the hot Krispy Kreme donuts, I thanked God that we’d had a healthy breakfast that morning that we all fixed together.
When discontentment creeps in, a sure antidote is to change our focus from what we don’t have to what we do have. This grows a thankful heart. It fosters a grateful spirit and a desire to praise. Contentment is not the fulfillment of what you want, but the realization of how much you already have.
5. Live within your means. Our 13-year-old son wants you to know that he’s the only kid in the eighth grade who doesn’t have a cell phone. While we know that is not true, we also know that he is indeed in the minority. Our teenagers don’t get a cell phone until they start driving. Why do we do that to them when it seems as if every other 13 year old in the world has a cell phone? The biggest reason is because we can’t afford it.
Most pieces of furniture in our home are worn-out hand-me-downs from friends and family. Some of it matches and some of it doesn’t. We’d love to have new furniture, but we don’t because it’s not in our budget for this season of life.
It’s hard to live within our means when it feels as if everyone else’s means are more than ours. But we’re not responsible for anyone else. Living within the boundaries of what we have and not extending ourselves beyond them is key to managing wisely what God has given to us. It also helps us keep discontentment at bay by establishing guidelines for what we realistically can and cannot afford.
The fruits of contentment
We enjoy planting a small garden each summer. There’s nothing better than fresh, homegrown tomatoes, summer squash, and zucchini. Each year we prepare the ground, plant the seeds and seedlings, water, fertilize, and weed. At the end of the growing season we enjoy the fruits that our plants give us.
Our lives are similar. When we plant contentment in our hearts, water, fertilize it with the contentment principles we just talked about, and weed out the places where discontentment begins to grow, we begin to see fruit in our lives.
This excerpt from Living With Less So Your Family Has More by Jill Savage and Mark Savage is reproduced with permission from Guideposts Books, Guideposts.org. Copyright © 2010 by Jill Savage and Mark Savage. All rights reserved.