Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States

The Elusive Gift

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There are very many of us who are only one step away from happiness. And the rest of us who are several steps away or even a leap's worth away from happiness are also just within its reach if we can find one particular gift missing from our lives. And our duty is to find this gift, not really to acquire it, because it is already latent in each one of us. It is a capacity we are all born with yet which constantly evades our notice. It is a quality of life which the Holy Bible mentions so often and which the desert monks brought to so full a fruition in their lives. When we have acquired nearly everything, it is usually the one thing missing. And any long-time pilgrim you may meet on the journey of happiness has long ago found this special gift. The quality or gift we are speaking of is what is usually called Contentment, an inner state of life which St. Paul said he continually experienced despite the reckless happenings of his outer life (Phil 4:12).

Living as a youth in the contemporary society of today admittedly makes the life of contentment seem somewhat harder to achieve. Everything works against it: materialism fills the air almost everywhere one goes, and new possessions to be had are unendingly flaunted before us in television commercials and magazines. The pursuit of physical beauty has run amok; and the last thing that society will admit that makes for an enjoyable Friday night is a peaceful stay at home with family or a good book. Modern society will not help us in our pursuit of contentment. The best way to get people constantly buying products is to make them discontented with themselves and with their lives. A content young man or woman will not be a good target for expensive clothing sellers or the cosmetic industry. And that is why we have a crowd of people specialized in creating commercials and advertisements with the direct purpose of making us forget that "we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out" (I Tim 6:7).

And so, since we exist in the "midst of much," or maybe because we are simply human, we find the lack of contentment to be a spiritual disorder afflicting perhaps ninety-something percent of us: we live in a monotonous and endless state of want. You may begin to attempt acquiring whatever is it you really need, whatever it is that will set you equal with that person whose life is just a notch "better;" the typical statement is, "Once I have gotten that, then the rest of my life from then on will be really quite all right." But one problem with this thinking is that contentment will never come of it—it was never waiting for you to acquire anything in the first place. The second problem is that it might not be God's intention that you have that particular thing (or status or skill or knowledge) at all.

And this is the snag we are caught in. When a person hopes to find his happiness by getting some one last thing that will finally make his life "complete," he will end up chasing his tail like a poor puppy. He will be running in feverish circles of desiring and acquiring, getting and needing more, and there is no way out. Simple contentment with who you are here and now—who God made you—is the only answer. In fact, the moment you are granted this gift by God, after long periods of beseeching, you will be surprised by the flood of fullness and joy that suddenly overtakes the soul. "Now godliness with contentment is great gain" (I Tim 6:6).

St. John Chrysostom had a special love for this quality. For him, contentment was one of the primary requisites of the good life. It was the one golden coin that all the money-collectors of the world lacked. A rich man, he would say, could own wealth and land and social distinction and be the envy of the city—but one thing he had to give up for all these was a peaceful life. A man cannot own a thousand acres of land and not worry about them. "If a man choose, he will find that poverty affords us more resources even for pleasure. How? Because it is freed from cares, hatred, fighting, contention, strife, from evils out of number. Therefore let us not follow after wealth, no be forever envying those who possess much." And so, his conclusion was, be content with what you have. Try not to seek for so many of the things you do not have; you can just as well live happily without them.

But all these words must be balanced by noting that godly contentment does not mean we ought to stop pursuing improvement and achievement in life. God does not require that I serenely give up trying to enter pharmacy school or trying to find a marriage partner or to stop looking for stability in my life. I may pursue them, and even pursue vigorously—but all in God's good time. And here is where we find contentment to be inextricably tied up with another essential virtue: patience. Contentment demands that I be willing to wait for God to bring about any desired changes in my life. I cannot go faster than God's providence. I must be content with how things are here and now—today—although I can have a subtle and sober trust that God has plans for a new and fresh tomorrow. But I must not rush things. I shall be content today. Everything is in God's good time; this is the essence of hope. "This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast" (Heb 6:19).

But the simplest and truest method of finding contentment is of course to be found in the Holy Bible. When Moses was dividing up the Promised Land for the twelve tribes of Israel, Levi was the only tribe not given anything: "But to the tribe of Levi Moses had given no inheritance; the LORD God of Israel was their inheritance" (Josh 13:33). God was telling them, and still tells us, "You will never be in want when you have Me. Come to Me, and you will be full." Contentment becomes no longer an elusive gift when God is with us; He grants it to us as a permanent pleasure. And as a seal on His promise to make us full, He vows never to leave us: "Be content with such things as you have. For He Himself has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you.' So we may boldly say, 'The Lord is my helper'" (Heb 13:5,6).

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