Contentment. Satisfaction. Fulfillment. However you want to express it, it’s something that we place a high value on in our society. Self-help books, pop philosophies, life coaches, fad diets—there’s an entire industry built up around being content or, dare we say it, “happy.” Everyone, it seems, is selling happiness. And to put an even finer point on it: out in the world (and especially out in cyberspace) there seem to be a lot of people selling Jesus as a means of finding happiness. While believers in Jesus will tell you they have found great happiness and fulfillment in him, if you are one of the lucky few who feel content in your life, you may wonder why someone like yourself would consider following Jesus at all.
What is contentment, anyway? The Cambridge English Dictionary defines it thusly: “Happiness and satisfaction, often because you have everything you need.” Our modern consumer culture tells us we need quite a lot: new gadgets, new subscriptions, new relationships, new cars, new homes, new vacations. Meanwhile, others have advocated for simplicity being the route to contentment—in essence, “the less you have, the less you need.” Is “having enough” truly sufficient for fulfilling the human need for happiness? And for how long can we have everything we need—can this state be sustained?
It might be surprising to learn that the Bible does not, in fact, present Jesus as route to personal, individual happiness. The individualism embedded in our cultural imagination is completely alien to the worldview of the Bible, the texts of which were produced by ancient peoples who thought of their destinies as a communal affair. Their personal fortunes were tied to those of their families, and the fates of their families were tied to their people, and even to the destiny of the land itself. The individual, in a biblical mindset, derives his or her sense of true north from the communal relationships the individual is tied to, with the community’s relationship with God providing the foundational source of meaning.
But that doesn’t mean that Jesus offers nothing toward contentment on a personal level, for he surely does. It is our contention, however, that contentment exists on a broad spectrum, and that some types of happiness are beyond the scope of what we are able to manage and maintain on our own.
What do you mean when you say you are content? Are you happy with your life? Happy with your job? Your car? Have you now arranged your home in just the way you prefer? Perhaps you have recently met some long-sought-after personal goals. Regarding such things, it’s not uncommon for us to say we are “happy.” But not all kinds of contentment are made to last. The thrill of happiness that comes from finding something good and new often fades. This is often the source of problems, for example, in relationships—that initial fire fades, and eventually people find themselves wishing they could find that early excitement again. Or, to offer a more mundane example: the satisfaction we feel after a generous meal cannot ultimately be maintained. No matter how entirely we might feel as if we will never need to eat again, eventually the hunger will return. Ultimately, our senses of well-being are gardens requiring continual tending.
Does Jesus Offer Contentment?
Yeshua (or Jesus—Jewish believers use the names interchangeably) used this instability to teach about who he is. There’s an exchange recorded in John’s Gospel that models this quite well. Jesus is in Samaria, and he finds himself speaking with a woman drawing water from a well. He tells her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again.” It quickly becomes clear, in context, that he’s not talking about literal thirst, but through metaphor is speaking of a thirst more intangible but also more essential.
Through Yeshua, God’s ultimate goal is a renewal of creation: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away… ‘Behold, I am making all things new’” (Revelation 21:4, 5b). We think any careful reader can agree that such things would seem to hold far greater promise than the mere contentment of individuals. These are things far more worthy than fleeting happiness and momentary satisfaction—surpassing, even, lasting material happiness. Rather, it is the human condition that is the key point of concern.
In light of this, it is interesting to reflect on what the gospel accounts tell us of how Yeshua’s earliest followers responded to him. How did they perceive the benefits of his arrival? The first disciples quickly dropped everything to follow him (Matthew 4:18-22, Mark 1:16-20). What’s more, the speed and intensity of their response was informed by their awareness that they had encountered someone wholly unique, with Andrew saying, “We have found the Messiah” (John 1:41), and Nathanael telling Yeshua, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (John 1:49).
Following Jesus Beyond the Search for Contentment
The apostles went on to follow him through his three years of ministry and beyond, after his death, and long after his resurrection. They did it through persecution and, in many cases, even unto death, not based on their own happiness, but on what they witnessed Yeshua do, who they knew him to be, and what they knew that meant for the world. In short, the extravagance of the truth that they experienced compelled their devotion. And, indeed, the New Testament’s claims about Jesus are remarkable. They are exceptional. If they are true, they demand a response from us, as well.
We often make choices based not on our immediate circumstances, but on other considerations and expected benefits, a calculation that was no doubt familiar to Yeshua’s disciples. But take this as another example: suppose that someone you know invites you over for a home-cooked meal among friends. Your acceptance of this invitation will not be based on how content you are in the moment, nor on how hungry you are at the time you are invited. Rather, your chief considerations are going to be who is inviting you, what other company will be present at the meal, and perhaps what food is being prepared. Many have discovered that accepting Yeshua’s invitation to dinner will find a person in the greatest of company, and enjoying the most satisfying of meals. Yeshua’s dinner table is one that not only never runs out of food, but never runs out of space for new guests. It hosts a diverse community of fellow travelers who are compelling, challenging at times, but united in the simple fact that they all, like Andrew and Nathanael, met the Messiah, and realized that joining him was the only fair response.