But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
-1 Timothy 6:6-10(NIV)
“Pelican Danger or Insurance Fraud?”
That’s the arresting headline ABC News put on its coverage of Andy House’s 2009 car accident near Galveston, Texas. House says in his insurance claim that he took his eyes off the road for a moment to retrieve his dropped cell phone. When he looked up again, he realized he was bearing down on a pelican. He swerved to avoid the bird, and drove into a lagoon in his...in his...
...In his Bugatti Veyron. One of only 300 in the world.
Now, let me completely up front here. I’m having a difficult time being objective. See, I own a red and black Bugatti Veyron. The Super Sport version of the car is the fastest street-legal production car ever made, with a top speed of nearly 270 miles per hour. At that speed, it’s said, the tires will come apart in 15 minutes. That’s OK, though, because the gas tank will be empty in 12 minutes.
I wouldn’t know. I’ve never driven mine nearly that fast. Of course, I’ve never driven mine into a lagoon, either. Truthfully, I’ve never driven mine anywhere, partially because I don’t want to get it scratched and dinged up, but mostly because it’s six inches long and sits in a clear acrylic case on my desk.
But Andy House did drive his Veyron into a lagoon three years ago, though the insurance company, Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Company, disputes his version of the story. They got suspicious because Andy took out a $2.2 million policy on the car three weeks before the accident, which sounds like either fraud or incredible foresight. They also have an informant who will reportedly testify that Andy offered him money to steal the car and set it on fire.
And they have video. Unfortunately for Andy, a Veyron attracts attention - in this case from a car aficionado in a vehicle driving beside Andy as his Bugatti veers off into the drink. On the video: the swerve and the huge splash.
Not on the video: a pelican. Not even one.
I wouldn’t want to judge Andy House prematurely, though if he is guilty of fraud I can’t help but wonder what will happen to the car. (If I’m willing to dry it out, can I have it?) Maybe there’s someone out there - a bird-watcher, maybe - who has video of the Phantom Pelican. But if he did intentionally drive that $2 million dollar car into the lagoon, there’s only one reason.
It’s that he valued the cash more than the car.
And a car’s just a car. That’s true, though in this case, I admit, a little tougher to believe. But, while it’s rarely so starkly and obviously visible, people make trades like Andy House may have made all the time. We trade what we have for what we think we want, relationships for security, family for finances, love for liquidity.
And when we do, we always leave what we once loved and wanted wrecked and broken.
“The rich don’t even go broke like the rest of us,” scoffs Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises, and a few years ago I might have agreed. But when all those bad mortgages written by brokers sufficiently obsessed with profit that they skirted regulations came back to haunt the financial industry, and then the rest of us, suddenly people who had been pretty well-off started having some of the same problems as the rest of the world. More Americans than ever before have had to learn what it’s like to live without the cushion and safety net that relative wealth provides. We’ve had to learn what we always should have known, but maybe never really believed: that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Sadly, to hear some politicians talk incessantly about preserving the wealth of those who still have some at the expense of those who don’t, one might come to the conclusion that we haven’t learned the lessons from all of this that we should be learning.
“Godliness with contentment,” that’s the lesson, and it may be up to believers to model it. We have something still to say to people who have had the American Dream ripped away from them. We still have a story to tell to those who have wrecked the good things that they already had in search of a few dollars more. But we can’t tell it if we’re reeling from our own smashed families, crushed friendships, lost faith, and compromised values. We can’t tell it if we’ve offered up the good things God has given us on the altar of Wealth and Prosperity.
“Contentment” is almost a negative word in our vocabulary. The stories of our heroes’ successes almost always include that they weren’t content with the situations they were in, and that they worked hard and sacrificed much to lift themselves out of those circumstances. Through the lenses of those stories, contentment is the same as settling. In those stories, it would have been a tragic failure if our heroes hadn’t become wealthy, powerful, successful people.
Of course, billions of people every day don’t become wealthy or powerful. That doesn’t mean they aren’t successful.
I don’t mean to suggest that poverty doesn’t bring its share of problems, too, or that people shouldn’t work to improve their circumstances. I’m saying that, as those who trust in the God who cares for the birds and the flowers, our lives should be marked by godliness and contentment no matter what circumstances we’re in. If we can’t be people who choose poverty over destroying ourselves and those around us by chasing after money, then we have nothing to say to the world.
Contentment, like most things that are important, has to be learned. Usually we learn it by experiencing some adversity, by discovering through experience that life doesn’t end if all our wants aren’t immediately fulfilled. The secret to learning it, Paul writes, is knowing what you do have in those moments of want, adversity, and fear: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
Believe that, really believe it, and it’ll change your definition of success on a fundamental level. And it will free you to focus your attention and effort on the things that do matter: God, his work in the world, and the people he gives you to love and be loved by. And it’ll keep you from wrecking your life in endless pursuit of more of what it turns out you don’t need anyway.