In almost all religious cultures, there is a conflict between material wealth and spiritual devotion. In the early church, ascetics expressed their love for God by renouncing material and earthly attachments. New Testament teaching exhorts us to “live by the Spirit, and… not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit…They are in conflict with each other…” (Gal 5:16-17). Augustine declared there were three cardinal sins Christians must avoid, namely lust for money or possessions, lust for power, and lust for sex. In a similar vein, the Apostle John warns, “If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world” (1 Jn 2:15-16). Small wonder we consider money “filthy lucre.”
However, as the influence and power of the church waned, cultural and aristocratic ideals celebrated the pursuit of glory. With the richness of the Greek and Roman cultures, to be civil meant a certain rectitude and pride in knowledge and urbaneness. To be refined in tastes and sophisticated in approach became highly regarded attributes. Societies evolved into consumerism, making the acquiring of products and the use of services the index of personal worth. We determine what a commodity or service is worth by what we are willing to pay for it. Consequently, our income is our society’s measurement of our worth. This drives us to be more ambitious, more desirous to achieve material success.
Instead of being satisfied, the more we have the more we want. Like drinking sea water, the more we drink the thirstier we get. Greed is a bottomless pit that sets the law of diminishing returns in operation. The Wisdom writer observes, “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income” (Ecc 5:10). If we have a driving ambition but low contentment, we would exhibit some tell tale signs which include:
We are always looking at what we do not have, frequently comparing with others. Even with a doughnut in hand, all we can see is the hole through it. No matter what we have, it is never enough. We complain about how fortunate others are while we have been left behind. It is difficult for us to count our blessings. We gripe about our job, family, home, church, and appearance. We are restless, sleepless, and joyless. We feel we deserve more and better! That is a clear indication our ambition has not been rewarded by contentment.
We put our career ahead of God and family. We maintain a frantic schedule and are relentlessly preoccupied with our performance. We are unable to refuse additional responsibilities at work, intent on impressing our superiors. We rationalize that this is only temporary, that we are still earning our stripes. Little do we realize we are attempting to collect the water of contentment with a hole riddled bucket. We will only succeed in expending energy for nothing! No wonder we are always busy and tired. The Wisdom writer sees through the folly and he warns, “Only someone too stupid to find his way home would wear himself out with work” (Ecc 10:15 GNT).
We become like the wicked queen in Snow White who asked, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” She was only satisfied if she remained the fairest. She would turn in jealous rage if someone else was prettier. While she was not any less attractive than before, she could not tolerate that another was preferred over her. We have to be Number One to be happy. Winning becomes the only reason for living. This makes us hypersensitive to criticism, and we are driven to discredit detractors and defeat competitors. A psychologist has remarked, “The trouble with the need to succeed is that its formula is usually the same as that for a nervous breakdown.” This intolerance is evidence that our drive to succeed is leaving us emotionally empty.
Jesus provides a different perspective in our quest for success and contentment. He asserts, “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt 6:33). In this directive, Jesus affirms:
Ambition is not wrong
Jesus acknowledges that all human beings are seekers. That is how we are wired. It is not natural for people to drift through life like plankton. We need something to live for, a purpose to give meaning to our lives, something to set our hearts and minds on. Jesus tells us that the Gentiles seek after material things (“What shall we eat, drink and wear?”). These are fundamental physical and material requirements in life. Our Lord assures us our “heavenly Father knows you need them” (Mt 6:32). But, if they become our driving ambition through life to the exclusion of everything else, then we would be dissatisfied.
Ambition is the purpose for which we give all our attention and energy. It drives us, gives us the reason to get up every morning, the mainspring of all our decisions and actions. Jesus makes clear that if we pour our whole life into acquiring material possessions, we will end up short and empty.
Priorities are needed
Jesus emphasizes, “Seek first his kingdom…” For life to be meaningful, we need to give priority to spiritual reality. God’s Kingdom is His rule over His people. To seek first His Kingdom is to consciously submit every area of our lives to His rule. It means to bring to bear God’s rule on to our business dealings, our relationships, our leisure, and our family. It also suggests we give priority to eternal purposes and considerations in our decisions. We cannot make decisions on purely existential factors alone. We must keep eternity on the horizon.
We are also to prioritize His righteousness. This is a wider concept that includes personal and social righteousness. The righteous God desires righteousness in human communities. Fair trade, human dignity, and environmental responsibility are some facets of God’s righteousness that are not optional in the process of maximizing profit. Shareholders’ rights to profit do not take precedence over stakeholders’ concerns in the running of a business. In God’s order of things, these arepriorities, not luxuries to be considered only when profits are at a maximum. Only when these requirements are fulfilled, will our hearts gain contentment.
Provision is promised
Jesus promises, “…all these things will be given to you as well.” God provides for those fundamental human needs that we break our backs to meet. The things that “pagans run after,” God adequately gives. When we feed from the hand of God, we can relax because we know His provisions come without strings attached. God gives out of love. Provision from God comes with a worry free promise. Just like the lilies and grass of the field, or the birds of the air. They do not worry. That is a picture of full contentment.
Biblical faith recognizes our material needs as well as our spiritual requisites. Only in meeting both requirements will we find adequate human fulfilment and contentment. Only when we prioritize our needs will there be success and contentment in life.
This article “Leadership Perspective” by Peter Chao was first published in the Sep-Oct 2010 issue of Eagles VantagePoint magazine (www.vantagepoint.com.sg). Used with permission.