The Christmas season is upon us… it has been since stores starting decorating back in October! Charles Schultz painted a pretty accurate picture of the commercialization of Christmas in A Charlie Brown Christmas - one of my favorites! Near the beginning, Charlie Brown, who’s having a predictably blue Christmas, is getting some psychiatric counseling from Lucy who says,

“Incidentally, I know how you feel about all this Christmas business, getting depressed and all that. It happens to me every year. I never get what I really want. I always get a lot of stupid toys, or a bicycle, or clothes, or something like that.”  

Charlie Brown asks, “What is it you want?” and Lucy’s dry reply, “Real estate,” though absolutely hilarious, is a strong indictment on the way most of us have a tendency to think, whether we’ll admit it or not, around this time of year.

All the buying and giving and receiving we do at Christmas time brings a little closer to the surface an underlying discontentment that our culture has sewn into us so deeply, most of us aren’t even able to articulate the root of it. We don’t usually think it, but we feel a desire for more than we have, and we never stop to consider whether obtaining those things will make us happy or whether they’ll just be another step down a maddening path of frustrated unrealization. The really insane part of it all is that the treatment we apply to our discontentment is to buy more, but in so buying beyond our means, we place greater financial strain on our families, which prevents us from being able to get things later - in other words, we spend beyond our means today, and so our means tomorrow are smaller; so we have even less opportunity in the future to obtain the things we believe will satisfy us.  Rather than pursuing a path of greater satisfaction, we’re actually walking a narrowing plank over a dangerous ocean.

One of the two books that have most influenced my views on money is a classic called The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, written by Jeremiah Burroughs in the early 1600’s. In it, Burroughs presses us to consider the root of our discontentment as well as the source of true contentment. He makes an interesting assertion that we “come to contentment, not so much by way of addition, as by way of subtraction.” He says that there is no end to what the world can offer us by way of things to buy or possess; so we’ll never be satisfied by adding possessions, because there will always be so much we don’t have. Instead, we subtract - we subtract our desires back into line with our reality, or as Burroughs puts it, “[the content man subtracts] from his desires, so as to make his desires and his circumstances even and equal.”

Besides subtraction, he goes on to describe the other side of contentment, the addition part, which C.S. Lewis later delved into head-first in The Weight of Glory, where he wrote:

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

So, now we’re getting somewhere with contentment: it has a lot to do with desires - subtracting desires for things that we can’t get our hands on or that wouldn’t satisfy us even if we did, and increasing our desire for that which truly satisfies and is offered freely, an offer inaugurated with the birth of Jesus, which is what Christmas was originally all about.