Back to School and Renewing My Mind: Contentment Doesn’t Come From a New Backpack
It’s back to school. Raise your hand if that means you have slightly sweaty palms and a tightness in your chest because you know you should outfit your children in the latest styles for the new school year. Or, raise your hand if you know you’re a subpar parent if they don’t have new, shiny school supplies. Or super cute backpacks. Or lunch bags. Or whatever. Am I the only one?
Though my girls were born overseas and have lived the majority of their lives outside the US, somehow they and I sense the need to keep up with our American neighbors. Maybe it’s savvy advertising. Maybe it’s their friends. Maybe it’s the fact that I grew up here and it’s in my blood that in August you’re supposed to buy a lot of new stuff. Maybe it’s my own baggage.
I grew up in a home with a single mom who was wise and thrifty. Her frugal ways drove me nuts. As a kid I hated to hear, “We can’t afford that.” I nursed thoughts of “Everyone else has [fill in the blank], why don’t I?” Now that I’m a parent, I know my mom deserves an award for providing me with far more than I needed on her school teacher’s salary.
The truth is, as a kid I formed in my heart the powerful seeds of discontentment. I believed that I needed the freedom that comes from wealth. As I neared college I fixed my eyes on pursuing a degree and a career that would prevent me from ever having to say to my kids, “We can’t afford that.” I wanted the good life and I wanted to give it to my future children too.
So as I walk through this first week of school, I just feel plain bad that our family budget doesn’t allow for me to splurge on my kids. And then I feel bad that I feel bad, because I know this is worldly and rooted in the seeds of discontent that I planted in my heart decades ago. It doesn’t take a genius to call it what it is: I believe more money would improve our family’s circumstances and make us all more content. If only we had a few extra bucks, I could get my girls what they really want and we’d all be so happy.
As the Lord would have it, this past weekend the sermon in my church was on Philippians 4:10-20. When your husband is the pastor you get to hear the message more than once. It seems like God knew I needed to hear these verses over and over, so as to renew my mind. At the heart of this passage are Paul’s famous words:
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11-13).
Here are some truths about contentment that I am applying and reapplying this week:
- Contentment is not related to our circumstances. As my husband said in his sermon, “The happiest guy in Rome was not sitting on a throne, but was chained in a jail cell.” By Christ’s power, Paul had learned to be content in plenty and in want.
- Contentment is not a socioeconomic issue, it’s a heart issue. Paul was able to be joyful even in hunger and need. Having just a little bit more money will not bring contentment. Giving my kids just a little bit more won’t make them or me really, solidly happy. We’ll just want more.
- Contentment is learned. Paul says he had learned the secret of contentment—he wasn’t born that way.
- Contentment flows from union with Christ and reliance on Christ. Paul didn’t write to the Philippians that he pulled himself up by his bootstraps and set his mind straight in all circumstances. No, he renewed his mind through Christ and his strength came from Christ.
- Discontentment really flows from unbelief and idolatry. We don’t believe that Jesus will provide for us and that his provision is exactly for our good and his glory. We fix our eyes on something else—an idol that we want more than him.
If you’re like most Americans you thought that when Paul said, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” he meant kick a field goal, or swim the fastest in the Olympics, or hit a home run. We love to apply this verse to feats of athleticism. What Paul said, though, was that he had learned to be joyful in Christ whether he was in the midst of comfort or hardship. In “whatever situation” Paul was content because of Christ, not because of his circumstances.
These are the truths I want to ruminate over this week and in the weeks to come. These are the truths I want to rehearse to my kids. Contentment is found in Christ, not in new clothes. Contentment is found in Christ, not in a new backpack. Only Christ can satisfy us whether we are in plenty or in want. May my girls and I believe this, deep down, through Christ who strengthens us.