An old pastor in Africa’s poorest country was asked by a visiting missionary, “What is the most problematic sin your people face?”
All of this man’s congregation were living in subsistence poverty, so the missionary was surprised by the answer to his question.
“Greed,” the African replied.
By any standard, we in North America are rich. Yet neither the rich nor the poor are free of the sin of greed; neither the rich nor the poor are exempt from God’s command to “be content with such things as you have.”
Discontentment became an issue for me with our first home, a 723 square foot “handyman special”. I quickly came to hate hearing it described as “cute”, which reveals a few things about me at that time, none very pretty.
Clearly, I had aspirations to bigger and better things. Namely, competing in grandeur and style with my sister-in-law’s much larger, more lavish home, furnished with mahogany dining room suite, ebony grand piano and Royal Doulton china figurines.
Around the same time,the Lord was impressing on me the need to be consistent in spending time in the Bible each day. I’d promised myself for some years that when life settled down I’d be able to be more faithful in that vital discipline. But the time pressures of college, followed by the stresses of work had me thinking, “Once I’m a stay-at-home mom, then I’ll have the time.” Ha! I knew nothing then of post-partum fatigue or the dragging drain of sleeplessness caused by a wakeful baby.
But I made a valiant start. I remember one of the first passages that made me stop and think. It was puzzling to me. I almost let it convict me!
The parable of the sower, in Matthew 13 describes how seed planted among thorns that choke its growth is like “the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches” which choke out God’s truth in our lives. I didn’t want that to happen to me. Yet I felt it didn’t really apply to me either. We certainly didn’t have any riches.
Some months later, we were listening to a series of tapes my dad had lent us on finances from a Christian perspective. (Anyone remember Larry Burkett?) The idea that God owns everything, while we are mere stewards struck home.
The next day, after an inner battle, I dried my tears and, with babe in arms, went round our small house naming each item I valued — lamps received as wedding gifts, a few pieces of china, beloved books, the inexpensive, but new couch and chair we’d recently bought. I relinquished ownership of everything. After all, I’d received it all from God and releasing it all back to Him was just acknowledging His ownership.
When you send a bag of garbage out to the trash, you are no longer concerned about what becomes of it. (Now, stay with me here; don’t get all environmental on me.) When you give something away, you open yourself to the possibility of something bad or destructive happening to that thing. Which is why it’s a scary and vulnerable thing to relinquish ownership of something that’s precious to you. Especially to Someone all-powerful who could remove those precious things. Understand, at that time I had no concept of relinquishing less tangible things like relationships, reputation, or rights. And it certainly never dawned on me then to give over my hold on the precious people in my life.
No, “things” was about as far as I got back then in transferring ownership. And that was hard enough! But strangely, it was freeing. If the cat clawed the couch or a child broke a lamp, I was disappointed, but not furious. And that exercise certainly prepared me for greater, future tests in contentment. In fact, “test” is an accurate metaphor for this area of my Christian life.
Thirty-some years later, I can more clearly see I’ve been in a school of contentment and those early exercises of giving everything over to God were vital, foundational kindergarten skills.