Frank Sinatra planned to retire when he was at the top of his game. He used to say, “You gotta get out before you hit the mat.” And yet he kept performing until he was almost 80 and his performances became increasingly unsatisfactory. At one show he forgot the lyrics to one of his signature songs, and the audience had to finish it for him. Once, at a concert in Las Vegas, he was so sick that he collapsed into a chair and was administered oxygen. His handlers began keeping oxygen tanks on hand.
His performances were becoming an embarrassment. People were talking. The whole thing was painful. His daughter Tina finally said to him, “Pop, you can stop now; you don’t have to stay on the road.’”
Frank looked at her as if she had slapped him. He said firmly, “No, I’ve got to earn more money. I have to make sure everyone is taken care of.” When he died, the fortune he worked so hard to build tore his family to pieces. They fought legal battles over the inheritance for years.
“The Chairman of the Board” could have learned something from St. Paul, who said he had “learned the secret of being content.” Sinatra didn’t. Neither do most of us. According to USA Today, when 1,733 executives were asked, “If you could start your career over in a completely different field, would you?” more than two to one said that they would. A quarter of the rest answered maybe.
Isn’t it odd that people in contemporary America have more stuff than their parents and grandparents — perhaps more than any people group in the history of the world — and yet as a nation are deeply discontented?
Some of it is our own fault. A U.S. News & World Report study found that more than one out of four children under the age of two have a TV in their room. Advertisers spend $15 billion a year on the children and youth market alone. The average American child sees tens of thousands of commercial messages a year.
Parents frequently make the situation worse. The average American kid gets 70 new toys a year. In 1984, children between the ages of four and 12 spent $4.2 billion of their own pocket money. That seems astonishing, and yet, 20 years later, children in that age range were expected to spend four times that amount.
Clearly some of it is our own fault, but discontentment is also bred in our bones. It is part of human nature. That is why the apostle Paul wrote that he “learned the secret of being content.” It didn’t come naturally. It had to be learned.
Imagine contentment could be purchased. For $100, a person could be content with spouse, with job, with health, income, and possessions — no strings attached. Would people purchase it? My guess is that most wouldn’t, even if they believed it would work. Discontentment is part of their lives, and they cannot imagine themselves without it.
But if asked why they work two jobs, sacrifice time with their families, suffer enormous stress, and eat unhealthy meals on the run, they would say something like: “I don’t do it because I want to. I do it because I have to.” If pressed, “But why do you have to?” They would answer something like, “So my family and I can be happy.” In other words, because they want to be content.
It is a kind of mental illness that has affected the whole world, but America is ground zero for the epidemic. “Ol’ Blue Eyes” had it bad, but so do some of us. We honestly believe that if we just have enough money, we will be content. We’ve been duped. Jesus referred to it as “the deceitfulness of riches.”
It is sometimes said the secret of contentment is not acquiring more but wanting less. This is a fallacy. The secret of contentment is not wanting less but wanting what is available in limitless supply. St. Paul found that in God. The more he came to know God by experience, the more he wanted to know God, which led to even richer experiences, and so on. This happy cycle was, and is, the secret of contentment.
— Shayne Looper is the pastor of Lockwood Community Church in Branch County, Michigan. Read more at shaynelooper.com.