Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. (1 Timothy 6.6-7)
The Myth of Ownership
Great movie lines are hard to come by these days—so much so I can think of only one in the past 15 years that measures up to the old Hollywood standard. It’s from 1995’s The Usual Suspects: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.” The paradox lands like a ton of bricks. By morphing into an allegedly imaginary figment, the Evil One turned into a superstition not to be taken seriously. It was true genius. And though two films could hardly be more dissimilar, the Suspects line popped in my head when I recently re-watched the Frank Capra classic, You Can’t Take It With You (1938), an uproarious comedy about a family of iconoclasts who live like “lilies of the field… except we toil a little, spin a little, [and] have a barrel of fun.” They know all too well that the Devil exists and devote their time to flouting his greedy, fearful ways. The picture climaxes when the grandfather delivers a much-needed lecture to a Wall Street fat cat:
You may be a high mogul to yourself, Mr. Kirby, but to me you’re a failure—failure as a man, failure as a human being, even a failure as a father. When your time comes, I doubt if a single tear will be shed over you. The world will probably cry, “Good riddance!” That’s a nice prospect, Mr. Kirby. I hope you’ll enjoy it. I hope you’ll get some comfort out of all this coin you’ve been sweating over then!
I thought to myself, “That’s another great diabolical lie—the myth of ownership.”
Pause for a second and look around you. Linger momentarily on your most prized possessions. Here in my study, I’m surrounded by essentials and mementoes: my desk, computer, and far too many books and photographs; a straw Fedora that belonged to Walt’s dad; a painting of a lone wolf that hung in my grandparents’ den; a few awards; a pine cone from FDR’s birthplace; an armchair Walt rescued from the trash and painted bright green, covering its seat in leopard print (it’s quite lovely, actually); and, oh yes, our feline terror, Cody, presently curled up on the loveseat. Then there are the gifts: a leather-bound NIV translation of the Bible; a Lladro of the Holy Family; an antique map of Paris; a wall plaque reading, “Slow! Fairy Crossing;” a red apple paperweight. All of these things, each invaluably dear to me, and not one of them is mine. The same is true of everything you see and love around you. None of it's yours.
Getting and/or Keeping
If convincing us he doesn’t exist is the Enemy’s greatest trick, persuading us we can own anything places a close second. The myth of ownership is double-edged. First, it preys on the biological fear of danger and deprivation as well as the psychological need to prove our worth in achievements and assets. Although human acquisitiveness has never been more feverish than in today’s consumer culture, it’s always been our Achilles heel. I believe virtually every conflict that ever tormented us can be reduced to a struggle over getting and/or keeping “what’s mine.” Which leads to the ownership myth’s second deadly aspect. It reinforces the notion that holding on to whatever we’ve got is more important than giving up anything—or everything—we have.
Debunking the myth of ownership blunts both its edges. They make no sense. Since none of what I have was ever mine to begin with, the fact it’s been given to me proves I won’t be deprived of what I need. And since it’s given, I’m foolish to imagine it in any way depicts my abilities and worth. Finally, because it’s not mine, I have nothing to lose by giving it up, whether in duress, sacrificial kindness, or in obedience to God. Once we wrap our heads around the folderol of all this getting and/or keeping, we open our minds to what Paul says in 1 Timothy 6.6-7: “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.”
The second verse is where “you can’t take it with you” originates. Yet without “godliness with contentment” and “we brought nothing into the world,” it’s an overly obvious cliché, part of that rueful bit about not escaping death and taxes. What Paul talks about is hardly a reason to mourn, however. Indeed, he’s teaching us how to be happy. The ownership myth is founded on the fallacy everything we pick up along the way is naturally ours due to qualities we possess—skills, fortitude, creativity, etc., on the plus side, and even negative traits like selfishness, insecurity, and dishonesty. But they're all learned behaviors we acquire in service to acquisition. While we may be born with certain capacities, we no more bring our capabilities into the world than the material things they enable us to amass. Thus, pushing ourselves to do more to have more activates a law of diminishing returns and exposes us to fear of failure. At some point, everyone’s capabilities run dry and the gravy train derails. Mistaking what we’re been given—talents or possessions—for our own is a recipe for hardship and misery.
Knowing all we have is God-given puts our lives in perspective. It seats our Maker in His rightful place, as David describes in Psalm 28.7: “The LORD is my strength and shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped..” This is the “godliness” Paul refers to—unabashed trust in God’s provision and protection. It’s contentment that brings great gain. In Philippians 4.12-13, the Apostle reveals how to be satisfied. “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” What we have today wasn’t ours yesterday. It may no longer be ours tomorrow. Awareness of this is why we're happy with what we have and unworried by what we don’t. God is our Strength, our sole Source and Provider. In these closing weeks of Lent and throughout the year, it’s essential we realize our fasts and sacrifices don’t ask us to “give up” anything we have. They teach us the joy and peace we gain by giving back what’s not ours.
No matter how much or how little we possess, none of it’s actually ours.
Postscript: The Heart of Worship
We bring nothing into the world and take nothing from it because it’s not about us. Mark Redman’s “Heart of Worship.”