McDonald’s, in a fit of marketing genius, gave this package of food and toy a special name: the Happy Meal®. You’re not just buying a burger, fries and a toy, you’re buying happiness. Their advertisements have convinced children that they have a McDonald’s-shaped vacuum in their little souls: “our hearts are restless till they find their rest in a Happy Meal.”
The problem with the Happy Meal is that the Happy wears off. It is an illusion. No child discovers lasting happiness in one. Years later, no child says, “Remember that Happy Meal? What great joy I found there.” You would think that after a while children would catch on. But it doesn’t happen. When the excitement wears off, they need a new fix, another Happy Meal. They keep buying them, and they keep not working. In fact, the only one Happy Meals bring happiness to is McDonalds. Do you ever wonder why Ronald McDonald wears that silly grin on his face? Billions of Happy Meals sold.
When you get older, you don’t get any smarter; your Happy Meals just get more expensive. All day long we are bombarded with messages that seek to persuade us of 2 things: That we are (or ought to be) discontented, and that contentment is only one step away—“use me, buy me, eat me, wear me, try me, drive me, put me in your hair.” The things you can buy for contentment relating to your hair alone are staggering: You can wash it, condition it, mousse it, dye it, curl it, straighten it, wax it (if it’s growing where it shouldn’t) and use Advanced Hair Studio(if it’s not growing where it should).
Aren’t people healthier, cleaner, richer and smarter than ever? We live longer, eat better, dress warmer, work less and play more than ever in the history of the human race. But are we happier? Or are we just cleaner, healthier, better dressed—and sad—people?
The truth is that contentment is never achieved by satisfying our desires. Desires, once satisfied, do not stay satisfied.
This is not a new insight. Wise people from many spiritual traditions have always understood this. Almost 2,000 years ago the apostle Paul wrote, “I have learned the secret of being content …” (Phil. 4: 11). Contentment is learned behaviour, an acquired skill, like playing the piano or riding a bike. It does not just happen if I manage to fall into the right circumstances, or satisfy my appetites.
Our society—so advanced in many other respects—seems to have lost touch with this simple truth, and more than lost touch with it. We have made the quest to satisfy our desires the foundation on which we teach people to build their lives.
“Our society runs on the principle that insatiable desire will actually be our salvation, because it will drive people to work harder and make new discoveries. This leads to progress, and progress will usher in the end and consummation of all things:
Insatiable desire, formerly condemned as a source of frustration, unhappiness, and spiritual instability, came to be seen as a powerful stimulus to economic development. Instead of disparaging the tendency to want more than we need … a continual redefinition of standards of comfort and convenience led to improvements in production and a general increase of wealth. There was no foreseeable end to the transformation of luxuries into necessities. The more comforts people enjoyed, the more they would expect.”
This preoccupation with seeking contentment through filling desires has led to a profound change in the way we think about human beings. We now think of ourselves as consumers. In the past, we identified ourselves by what we produce, or contribute. Millions of people still have last names that testify to this: Baker, Farmer, Smith. But now we label ourselves not by what we contribute but by the labels we acquire. Instead of callings we have careers—the primary purpose of which is no longer fruitfulness but the ability to support a lifestyle.
Consumerism itself has become a kind of addiction. The more toys we acquire the more frequent and expensive they need to be to produce the old high. The shift from finding identity in what we produce to what we possess, from a work ethic to a consumption ethic, at once exalts the pursuit of happiness and guarantees its ultimate futility.
Consumerism is doomed to futility, because to be made in the image of God does not mean primarily to be a consumer. The creation mandate, after all, was “be fruitful” not “shop till you drop.” Strategic discontent drives us to work harder and spend faster; it raises our sense of entitlement and lowers our sense of gratitude—the Happy Meal society. There is one thing it cannot do, of course. It cannot produce contented people. Even the church can be co-opted into becoming just one more dispenser of Happy Meals. “I’ve just got to be where the action is!”
Historically, there have been at least 2 main alternatives to the problem of the insatiability of desire.
1. The way of stoicism.
Discontentment rises from unfulfilled desires. If gratifying all desires is impossible, stoics argue, then the wise course is to learn to rein in your desires. The contented person is not the one who gets everything he or she wants (because getting always leads to the desire for more), it is the person who has stopped wanting. “Who is more contented, the man with a million rand, or the man with ten children?” The correct answer, of course, is the man with ten children—because he does not want any more.
This approach is attractive because it offers protection from the pain of dashed dreams. Charles Schultz showed Snoopy grumbling one Christmas because Charlie Brown was inside eating a huge feast while Snoopy was stuck with dog food. But a few moments of reflection on the roof of his dog house turned Snoopy around: “It could have been worse. I could have been born a turkey.”
Snoopy was a good stoic. Lower your expectations. Hedge your bets. Don’t get your hopes up, and you won’t be disappointed.
The way of Christ, however, is not stoicism. It points in another direction. It offers neither the promise of contentment through gratification nor contentment through renunciation.
The way of Christ is –
2. The way of hope.
Christianity is hopeful—wildly, absurdly hopeful. This hope is not a shallow optimism that things will be better tomorrow than they are today. It is a settled conviction that there is another—and better—world than this one. The way of hope suggests that joy flows not to people who have fulfilled their desires or fallen into the right circumstances, but people who have developed a certain kind of character—the character of Christ. It clings to the belief that the triumph of God and his kingdom will one day be fully revealed, and even now gives us the power to endure all things, and still hope.
It is this that allowed Abraham to offer his son Isaac, not out of stoic, resigned obedience, but in the absurd hope that God could still be trusted. It is this hope that allows Paul to see himself—precisely when he is in chains and in want—as an “overcomer” who “can do all things through him who gives me strength.”
From a Christian perspective, then, our problem is not that we want too much. Our problem is that we are willing to settle for too little. C. S. Lewis – “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.”
People have been “far too easily pleased” for a long time. A shrewd critic asked his own culture millennia ago, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?” (Isa. 55:2). You would think that after a while people would catch on.
The Bible takes human discontentment very seriously. In fact, the Bible says it is not an accident we are discontented. To God, it is tragic when human beings throw away their lives by centering them in the mere gratification of appetite. So God gives us the gift of frustration—his own version of strategic discontent—in the hope that we will see the fruitlessness of such living and turn at last to him. “For the creation was subjected to futility, not by its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope” (Rom. 8:20).
God allows us to hunger and thirst—to be discontented—in the hope that at last we will be hungry enough and thirsty enough to search for that which can truly satisfy:
“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price … Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food … Seek the Lord while he may be found.” (Isa. 55:1-2, 6)
“Here,” says Jesus, “Take my flesh for your bread, and my blood for your wine, and you will finally find food that can nourish your soul. Take my words, and you will find life. For the Meal of sacrifice and death is the Meal of great joy, which the Father could not withhold from his children.”