Saturday, July 11, 2009

Contentment: the Virtuous Vice

Contentment is defined as “the state of being contented; satisfaction; ease of mind.” I have heard it often said that contentment is a virtue; and in some ways it can become virtuous—but it can easily become a vice as well. Perhaps a better way of looking at contentment is as a virtuous vice.

Many and quite possibly most people consider contentment to be a thing which ought to be obtained in life. Well and good, if contentment means happiness with what one has; but I think then that it is gratitude which is a more suitable goal—and gratitude is indeed virtuous. Gratitude, I might add, is a thing which seems sorely lacking in our generation, as might be evidenced by listening to the student commencement speeches at graduation. Gratitude is, in any case, a greater thing than contentment, because it is not only the happiness with what one has, but also the recognition that even this comes as a gift, even this cannot necessarily be had without the graciousness and support of others, of God first-and-foremost, and of one’s parents (or guardians) second.

Certainly, contentment can be opposed to certain vices or sins, most notably envy (James 3:16) and avarice (Hebrews 13:5). And when viewed in this way, contentment is a sort of virtue. Indeed, it certainly is a base for keeping these things at bay, so that one can pursue the higher virtues. In this sense, it seems a virtue, if only the lowest thereof; however, as I mentioned before, gratitude will do this in a much better way.

For gratitude does not have strings attached, as contentment may. Being content with what one has does not imply that one would continue to be content if he loses that. Indeed, when a person says that he will strive for contentment, he generally means that he will strive to have a career which will provide him the means to own those things which he wants—the nice car, the house in the suburbs, the wife and two kids; he means he would like to “settle.” Too often, contentment has strings attached: Oh Lord, I will be content, if only I have that house in the suburbs.

Contentment can similarly have negative strings attached. Maybe I already have the house in the suburbs, and am content. But if I lose that house, will that contentment remain? Suppose instead of housing that house, I am called simply to leave it for a time; maybe I am called to fight a war, or maybe to work as a missionary. Will my contentment vanish while I am away from my house?

In so much as contentment may involve an attachment to those worldly things which I have, it is no virtue. I am, after all, placing my worldly wealth, my worldly happiness, upon a throne when I ought to place it on an altar (if called to do so). Doing so will quite often mean sacrificing my spiritual good on the altar, in particular sacrificing the Summum Bonum on that altar, rather than placing Him on a throne where He belongs. It wouldn’t be the first time that this has happened.

Spiritually, contentment is not so much a virtue as a vice. Why? We are commanded to “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). I can say that since Christ, no Man has ever been (nor ever will be) perfect in this life; thus, contentment spiritually means being satisfied with something less than what each of us is called to be. Such is sometimes also referred to as “complacency,” which is no virtue at all.

Christ came not to help us find contentment, but rather to unsettle us. “'Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth: it is not peace I have come to bring, but a sword” (Matthew 10:34). We are living in enemy territory, as C.S. Lewis once put it. Contentment, complacency, sloth—these things push us to become bystanders while our King lands his invasion, both in our world and in our souls. Being a bystander is not, in the end, an option. We must choose which side we will fight for, or have that side chosen for us; for Christ Himself said that “Anyone who is not with me is against me; and anyone who does not gather in with me throws away” (Luke 11:23).

Contentment is indeed the virtuous vice, for it is a mixed blessing. It is good to be satisfied with what one has, and not to demand more; but gratitude is better, and one’s contentment cannot lead to an inordinate attachment to worldly things. Similarly, contentment with things spiritual is by no means a virtue, for it means settling for offering less than that which we are asked, or indeed less than we are capable of offering. None of us is perfect, and thus none of us can say “this far, and no farther.” Such spiritual contentment easily leads to complacency, a refusal to properly use (and increase) our virtues, our gifts—much like the servant who buried his master’s one talent (cf Matthew 25:14-30).

No, we should not “settle for “spiritual contentment.” Rather, we should “remember it is those who had perseverance that we say are the blessed ones” (James 5:11). We are not to be merely content, but rather should “always be joyful” (1 Thessalonians 5:16) as we “work out [our] salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). It is not contentment which we ought to pray for, but rather joy. For joy alone will progress with us, will help to urge us onwards; joy does not need material attachment or complacency, but rather true happiness as we follow out God’s will for us, and as we progress towards perfection. Joy recognizes, with St Paul, that “it is God who, for his own generous purpose, gives you the intention and the powers to act” (Philippians 2:13). Joy is the true virtue, the true fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23); contentment is little more than a shadow of joy, a shadow which will be swallowed up by endless night at the sun’s last setting.

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If you enjoyed this post, here are some related ones:

Another Thought About the Importance of Works in Salvation
Sloth (Poem)
Sloth and Christian Minimalism
Happiness and Contentment
On Canonizing Chesterton, Heroic Virtue, and Every Day Life
Homogeneity in Heaven and Hell
Religion or Relationship
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