When I was a little girl, I was absolutely content in my family’s material position. We lived in a variety of homes—city and country, rented and owned, renovated and rough. There were seasons when my parents were squeezed by the worry of not knowing where the ends would meet.
But I remember a feeling of confusion when I occasionally heard about these worries. We had what we needed, I reasoned. All of the things I cared about—eating, playing, reading, and babies—were part of our family life. These things were supplied by the grocery store, the back yard, the library, and mama’s belly, respectively. What more in the world could anyone want?
As an adult, I understand now what more someone could want. Because I want it.
The Open Future
Here’s what I didn’t take into account as a child: I didn’t understand how much hope there is in an open future.
When you’re a child, planning your life is like planning an imaginary wedding or an imaginary vacation. It is so easy to say exactly what you want when you’ve never seen a price tag. You can say precisely what dress you want, what venue would be ideal. You can name any vacation destination and decide which hotel to stay in and which activities to pursue each day. But the thing about real weddings and vacations is that the planning and execution are always full of unromantic and frustrating details.
In the same way, when one is a child, one knows that as long as possibilities are vague and open, the sky is the limit. But as adulthood progresses, the gritty details of the life begin to become clearer. You choose a mate—and you must weigh the pros and cons of your compatibility. You have children—and they are real children, not imaginary ones. You move into a home—and it is a real home, not the one that you see in a magazine. You commit to a church family—and they are real people as well, ordinary and often flawed.
As a child, I didn’t see how much of my contentment was simply the hope that comes with a wide-open future. My contentment was actually just ambiguity and optimism.
Adulthood is when contentment is truly tested—because now, the possibilities have all been replaced with realities. This is your life now. This is your lot. Will you look on it as blessing, or will you look on it as privation?
How clear the temptations to worry and dissatisfaction are now! How much better I understand the wistful way my mother talked about her friends’ homes, or the effort and planning she put into our taking one family vacation, just one, that wasn’t a trip to see grandparents! When it’s your life, the desires and expectations you’ve always had come out and show themselves—by smacking into reality and falling over.
Plausibility Structures and What We Think We Need
Russell Moore has written about the plausibility structures that contribute to our ideas about lifestyle. We think about what we “need”—what is a reasonable sized house or a reasonable number of times to eat out in a month or what are reasonable vacation plans—based on what we see around us. If everyone we know is living on a two-person income, thereby making it impossible for mom to stay home with the kids, but possible for everyone to head to Florida once a year, it is not within our plausibility structure that another lifestyle might be viable. If everyone we know is living in a 2,500 square foot suburban home and sending their kids to private school, it doesn’t enter our minds that we could live in a 1,500 square foot home in a rural town and send our kids to public school.
In the last few years, I have been used to thinking that my expectations are modest, and that the peer pressure I experience is not driving me to excess—I am surrounded by people who live in a country setting and stay within their very average incomes.
But lately I’ve had to reexamine my own plausibility structure. I was reading an illustrated version of a story from Little House on the Prairie to my daughter. In it, the Ingalls family takes one precious day off of work to ride through the woods to the in-laws’ cabin for a community dance. It’s a delightful story, describing the ladies getting ready, the food getting laid out, the children arriving in the big log cabin with one main room and running giddily from one end of it to the other, and a night of music and dancing.
But the party scene gave me a sudden insight into my own spoiled, dissatisfied heart. I was surprised to notice that the “huge” log cabin belonging to Ma’s parents, the family home that gathered neighbors from miles around, appeared to be about the size of my two bedroom ranch home.
And I noticed how often I apologize for tight space in my home—for instance, when I’m hosting a gumbo night with several families and everybody is balancing soup bowls on their knees. Apparently, I’ve always subconsciously thought of this place as a starter home. It’s just a springboard from which to get to bigger and better places—right? Don’t I deserve to expect that as the years go by, our material advantages will grow with the size of our family?
I wonder how my attitude towards my two-bedroom, 1,000 square foot home would change if my plausibility structure was different. What if I lived in Manhattan for instance (where 1,000 square feet apartments are a million-dollar luxury) or in a village in almost any part of the African continent (where a 1,000 square foot home, made of brick and air-conditioned, would make you the undisputed social leader of your community)? Would I be apologizing for this same space in NYC? Would I be apologizing for this same space in Liberia, the small African country where a friend of mine has just begun long term mission work?
Contentment and Generosity
Like most of the Americans I know, I’m full of useless, godless impulses of guilt over what I vaguely know to be my own excessive blessing and prosperity. I don’t know why Americans like to brag about anything that sounds like deprivation—but we do. I do. As I sit here, I find that I’m tempted, between each line I’ve written above, to hint at the smallness of the life I lead and imply that people who have more than I do are materialistic.
Why? Because I already feel subconsciously that if asked to justify my use of the advantages I’ve been given, I’d be shamed and silent. And the easiest way to get out from under this feeling is to compare lifestyle to someone else’s.
This, as everyone knows, is the American definition of excess: anybody who is spending more than I am. Christians aren’t immune to the desire to justify themselves at the expense of those around them. But just as if your goal is to be the richest person with the most well-appointed life, you’ll find yourself frustrated forever (there’s always somebody richer), the opposite goal will doom you in the same way. If your goal is simply to be the most self-denying, you’ll be thwarted forever (there’s always somebody more Spartan).
This is why, praise the Lord, the fiscal responsibilities we find in scripture seem refreshingly simple. Simple, and so difficult that a lifetime of practice will be necessary:
Take what you are given as a loan, and live in a posture of gratefulness for the loan (Deut. 8:10-18). Cultivate contentment for the loan (1 Tim. 6:6-10). Use the loan for heavenly purposes, in order to be trusted with true wealth (Luke 16:11-12). Open-handedly give away the loan (Luke 5:42). And for an extra return on the loan, give it to people who can’t give anything back (Luke 14:13-14).
Contentment. Generosity. Contentment. Generosity.
Our marching orders of contentment and generosity belong to every strata of blessing, every community of varying expectations. “Someday God will give me a house with running water” and “Someday God will give me a house with a walk-in closet and a whirlpool bath” can both be laid down on the altar of worship, via the pathways of contentment and generosity. Contentment and generosity can resize any plausibility structure. Because when we stop asking ourselves what the Joneses have and spend, and start asking ourselves what God earmarked his loan for, we can begin to get free of our pursuit of either luxury or asceticism.
Contentment requires me to have a good attitude in my lovely brick 1,000 square foot house with no dishwasher and no dining room. Generosity calls me to invite people into my lovely brick 1,000 square foot house with a full refrigerator and huge front window. Contentment requires that I don’t apologize or brag over its size. Generosity requires that I don’t use its size as an excuse for not sharing.
It’s helpful to remember other cultures as a way of checking our plausibility structures. But it’s more helpful to look to Christ, who left the home of all homes in the gated community of all gated communities to move into the troubled neighborhood we know as Earth. He is the one who has reset our expectations from “high” (in this life) to “much higher” (in the next). He’s the one who has promised to satisfy the ache that sends us to Southern Living Magazine and Pinterest for glimpses of heaven. He’s the one who has even promised us a place in the home he’s personally outfitting to our specifications (John 14:3).
With this kind of joy set before us, and this kind of love in our hearts, we can become what Jesus asks us to be: folks who are characterized by contentment and generosity. We can be like children who are waiting patiently for an open future, who know that something wonderful this way comes.