Summer 2011

Contentment and the American Dream

Contentment's wisdom is good news for all seasons of life

By Joseph Gorra

“We’ve got to buy something now!” I remember thinking that to myself when we first went shopping for a condo near Biola. The thought rallied my desires. “Got to” merely reflected “want to,” which translated into “have to” in order to be happy.

My wife, Fera, and I were standing with a Realtor in the middle of a one-bedroom condo. It was one bedroom and one bathroom smaller than our current two-bedroom apartment. The other difference: It was more than our current monthly rent. But we would own it!

“Got to” thoughts then went verbal.

“We can make this happen, Fera,” I insisted. “Sure, it won’t be immediately convenient, and sure, we’ll have to make adjustments, but we will own the dang thing!”

(This was almost as impulsive as the Honeymooners’ Ralph Kramden trying to convince his wife, Alice, about one of his crazy, money-making endeavors if the “good life” were to be secured).

It was 2006. The thought of a global “housing crisis” was virtually inconceivable to popular imagination. Prices in the area, it was thought, hadn’t even peaked yet. My reasoning was simplistic: Get in now, prices will surely continue to rise, and we will own it all the way.

We had left extended family in Oregon so I could attend Talbot’s graduate philosophy program in 2002. I finished in 2005, and was employed by the university along with doing contract work in the book publishing industry.

Buying now seemed to make sense. The bills were being paid, our firstborn was on his way, and we were planning for my wife to stay home. Why would a young family not want to buy if they could? But the cooled passions of my wife prevailed against the idealistic desires of her philosopher-husband. She worked in accounting at Biola and elsewhere and knew the realism of costs, bottom line, financial feasibility, etc. She also managed our finances. Need I say more?

We continued to look at condos as our preferences became cultivated. Buying a house was out of the question. But our peers were investing all across the board. We weren’t. They often had the financial support of their extended families. We didn’t. Envy and jealousy set in with a particular bite and intensity.

But when the infamous housing bubble busted, I was both elated and grateful. Had we purchased earlier, it would have been unforgiveable. My “got to” had been dormant for a while, but at the prospect of now maybe buying a house — not merely a condo! — the “got to” became resurrected.

“Contentment in God” felt particularly obtainable at the time since it amounted to my agenda remaining mostly intact. It seemed easy because it required no transformation of desire. The only thing that changed was circumstances: The wind was now blowing in my favor. But the sails still had holes.

What seemed providential — and indeed it was providential that we didn’t purchase sooner — I effortlessly interpreted as permissibility to get what I wanted. We were spared to buy, right? But that too was short-lived.

It is June 2011. With now two kids, we still live in the very same apartment complex as we did in 2006. Over the last few years, we’ve looked at various purchasing options. Some we could afford, and others we couldn’t afford. But we haven’t been particularly compelled to purchase. In fact, in this season our very desire to buy has even become exhausted.

But Aslan’s roar has awakened us to something beyond our own drive for home-ownership.

I said something surprising the other day: “I believe God’s agenda is for us to be content. That’s how he defines happiness.” A good friend had asked how we were doing with the whole home/condo searching. That desire, even earnestness, for contentment wasn’t in me in 2006; for I was merely preoccupied with the satisfaction of my desires.

I’ve come to realize that what I want most for my life, and certainly with my “American Dream” branded heart, is to simply learn how to be content. It really isn’t easy but it is life-giving and rewarding. For you can come to know that God is really with you, the Hope of Glory!

A heart that is content is willing to entrust itself to the good care of another person even when it doesn’t get what it wants. Why? Because contentment squarely deals with the life-controlling power of unfulfilled desires and ambitions. That’s why Jesus’ teaching on “self-denial” is so real and brilliant! Now, that’s good philosophy for life during a housing boom and bust. My accountant wife pointed that out to me.

Joseph Gorra (M.A. ’05) works in Biola’s graduate program in Christian apologetics, and he is writing a book with J.P. Moreland about Christianity’s wisdom and secularism’s folly. Some of his interests can be followed on Twitter @GorraResearch.

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