Our Western affluence is a double-edged sword. The technological advances and creature comforts that come with it are certainly a great blessing. But too often, that blessing is abused as we are swept up in the quest for more, bigger, and better. In a culture dominated by rampant consumerism, contentment is one thing that’s hard to find.
And when your contentment is contingent upon satisfying all your desires, it becomes an ever-moving target. Many devote their lives to the pursuit of greater material wealth but very few attain it.
John D. Rockefeller was one of the few—in fact, he was widely considered to have been the richest American of all time. He amassed his fortune as a pioneering oil magnate during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The story goes when asked how much money was enough, he replied, “A little bit more.” That’s a sobering testimony for those who spend their lives chasing what Rockefeller managed to catch. He climbed to the mountaintop of financial riches and ended up like everyone who aspired to be like him—he still wanted more.
The apostle Paul understood the futility of seeking contentment through financial and material wealth. He instructed us to look elsewhere:
Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. (Philippians 4:11–12)
We would have a hard time echoing that sentiment today, even in the midst of our relatively comfortable, twenty-first-century lives. Paul’s circumstances were substantially worse. He wrote his letter to the Philippians during a long-term imprisonment in a Roman jail. His contentment was in the midst of a two-year imprisonment, during which he was chained to a Roman soldier the whole time.
Paul was able to be satisfied without many things we consider necessary for life. Forget the creature comforts—Paul didn’t even have any privacy. But it didn’t diminish his joy or cloud his thinking. He knew what his physical necessities were—everything beyond that was just excess baggage as far as his gospel mission was concerned. John MacArthur explains:
“Not that I speak from want” is another way of saying, “I really don’t have any needs that aren’t being met.” Our needs as human beings are simple: food, clothing, shelter. . . . Scripture says to be content with the bare necessities of life.
That attitude is in marked contrast to the attitude of our culture. People today aren’t content—with little or much. My theory is that the more people have, the more discontent they’re apt to be. Typically, the most unhappy people you’ll ever meet are very wealthy. They seem to believe their needs can never be met. Unlike Paul, they assume their wants are needs. They’ve followed our materialistic culture’s lead in redefining human needs.  John MacArthur, Anxious for Nothing (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2006) 134.
Modern advertising only pours more fuel on the fires of dissatisfaction. Billboards, pop-up ads, and commercials constantly bombard us with reminders of how green the grass is elsewhere. Worse still, they enflame our fleshly desires and sow confusion about what we want and what we need.
So how can we rise above that confusion and discern our true needs more clearly? On a practical level, there are steps we can take to start renewing our minds and swim against the tide of materialistic greed. John MacArthur offers these practical suggestions:
To protect yourself, pay careful attention to whenever you attach the word “need” to something in your thoughts or speech. Edit any use of it that goes beyond life’s bare essentials. Paul did, and you can too. Thankfully regard any surplus as a blessing from God. You will be satisfied with little when you refuse to depend on luxuries the world redefines as needs. Anxious for Nothing, 134.
How are you doing at distinguishing between what you want and what you need? We must be aware that the world is always trying to blur the lines between them. Then, we’ll be better able to follow Paul’s example of finding contentedness regardless of what we presently lack.