Now that the holidays are over, we are all entering that season of self-imposed, albeit in some cases short-lived, austerity that we call the making of New Year’s resolutions. I love the heart behind the resolutions: the unquenchable hope of the human spirit inherent in the “fresh start.” Whether it’s losing weight, getting a better handle on finances, or learning a new language, making these resolutions shows a dedication to becoming better than we once were. People make fun of our failure to keep them, the fact that the gyms are packed in January and vacant by February, but I admire the heart behind it, the desire to improve on our current lot.
I know there’s not much successful precedent to suggesting New Year’s resolutions for others, but can I share one that God has been laying on my heart? Maybe it will resonate with you, as well. This year, I would like to develop a greater spirit of contentment.
Ours is a thoroughly discontented culture. In fact, when you think about it, so much of our lives are built on a spirit of discontent. One writer has recently called our American culture one that pursues “outrage porn”- perusing the media, politics, the current state of society, looking for something to be enraged about. Our current political climate is built on it. Several of our politicians ply discontent and outrage as their tools of the trade, stirring us up into a “throw the current bums out” frenzy. It seems like we’re always looking for a “they”: someone other, not like us, to blame for our problems, to contrast ourselves against in order to make us feel better about who we are.
Consumer culture is designed to create discontent, to show us how the new thing we don’t have is infinitely better than the still-very good thing we do. When we face challenging times, whether economic downturns, warfare, or no longer being the favored majority, it creates further anxiety, and further discontent. A doctor friend of mine says all of these things are why many of the anti-depressants are prescribed in our society versus others.
We know in our hearts this isn’t right. Christ’s words, “be anxious for nothing” resonate in our ears. We long for the mindset of Paul, who had more reasons (shipwrecks, stoning, beatings, imprisonment, to name a few) to be discontent than we’ll ever have: “for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4). And, yet, it’s difficult to shake this spirit of discontent, isn’t it?
As I’ve been thinking and reading about it, I think there are a couple of things that God has been impressing upon me as means by which to cultivate a spirit of contentment. Because, really, I think that’s what we have to do. Cultivate it. In our hearts. Like a garden. Like the fruit of the Spirit. Letting the Holy Spirit work in us, to be sure, but engaging in a kind of discipline, like losing weight or learning a new language. But, not an ethereal discipline- a practical one. Every bit as practical as cutting back on our calories, or buying and practicing Rosetta Stone.
First, what if we limited our news media access to 15-20 minutes a day, just long enough to see what’s going on in the world, but not long enough to treat it as entertainment? It’s good to be informed, to choose wisely what sources of media we review. But, think about it. The 24-hour media cycle is designed to capture our attention, so that the outlets can sell advertising. And, nothing captures our attention better than death, destruction, and outrage. Maybe it’s just me, but more than 15 or 20 minutes starts to make my anxiety levels and my blood pressure rise. Plus, that’s about how long it takes before the news starts repeating itself, just telling the same stories in new ways.
Second, what about limiting social media use? I know that’s a tough one, because it’s become so ubiquitous. But, people don’t really live “Facebook lives”, do they? You know in your heart they don’t have the perfect spouse, the perfect kids? They don’t cook the perfect meal every night, or roll out of bed looking fabulous? Their lives look pretty much the same as yours, maybe not even as great, with all their trials and struggles and joys and heartaches and goodness and sadness. You know that’s true, right? And, yet, the more we spend time watching what David Brooks calls “other people’s highlight reels,” the more we compare and contrast those snapshots of the best parts of everyone’s day to the worst parts of ours, and find our lives wanting. So, maybe 20 minutes of that, at the end of the day, after everyone’s posted, to see who had a birthday and who is sick or had a baby, but fortified with a healthy dose of skepticism that most of the time you’re getting the best things that have happened to them that week?
(And, for you incessant post-ers, constantly giving us your highlight reels, you know the rest of us make fun of you, right? We’re trying to get better about that, but you’re not making it very easy on us, you know.)
What if we limited those two things in our lives? For many, that’s more news and social media than we already consume. For others, it’s way less. We might have to first cut it back by a quarter, then a half, before you got to 20 minutes. We could even set the timer on our phones, so we don’t lose track of time.
If we all did this, I’ll bet we’d buy back, what, at least 20 minutes a day? Maybe more? What if we then took that same time, and spent a little more time than we already do reading and dwelling on the Word of God, reading a devotional (Tim Keller has a really good, fairly new one that focuses on the Psalms), or in prayer? Turning our anxieties, our anger, and our discontent over to the One who alone has the power to give us everything we truly need?
A spirit of contentment would refocus all those other desires, as well, giving them powerful “so that’s” to invoke the Holy Spirit’s power. Losing weight, so that I can be a wise steward of this body and be more effective at serving the Lord and more available to others. Managing my finances better, so that I’ll have more to give those who really need it. Learning a new language, so that God can use me in even more cultural contexts.
God has already given us everything we need to keep this resolution, to rewire our brains for contentment. Why wouldn’t we want to? I don’t think the other way is going so well for me. I’ll pray for you this year, if you will for me.
Happy New Year.