This year taught me a lot about the importance of going for the things you desire instead of settling for less than what you really want.
I learned there’s a big difference between saying you want a phone and saying you want an iPhone. Because when you say you want a phone, any phone would do, really. But when you say you want an iPhone and you get a Samsung instead, you won’t be really happy with it and no matter how much you try to convince yourself that you have a great phone, you know deep down that you’ll always desire the iPhone.
Similarly, there’s a big difference between saying you want a car and saying you want a Mustang. Because if you say you want a car, any car would do as long as it works. It could be a Toyota, an Audi, a Renault, it doesn’t matter really, because you just want a car. But if you say you really want a Mustang and you get a Renault instead, you’d be very disappointed and even if eventually you settle for it and learn to live with it, the desire to have that Mustang will always be there, deep down, no matter how much you try to convince yourself you’re happy with your Renault.
Why is this so important?
As a Christian, I always wanted to make sure I was content. “But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” says Paul in 1 Timothy 6:8, “for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content”, he also says in Philippians 4:11.
Years ago I personally made these verses, verses I would live by. They taught me greatly about being happy and satisfied at all times whether I had a hundred dollars or just one dollar in my pocket and they taught me to always be thankful for everything I had.
But what I didn’t realise was the danger of unconsciously associating my heart’s desires with coveting and being discontent or even greedy and this is the trap that I personally fell into a long time ago. I believed I shouldn’t desire anything I didn’t have and just be happy with anything I got. And even when the Lord started speaking to me some time ago about my heart’s desires and how he fulfils the desire of the righteous (Psalm 37:4, Proverbs 10:24b), I still felt guilty even if for a little for having some desires that weren’t necessarily of a spiritual nature.
So when I wanted an iPhone and got a Samsung instead as a gift, I felt guilty for considering to exchange it for an iPhone believing that God wanted me to settle for this instead. But there’s a big difference between settling for something you don’t want and being content with what you have.
Let’s say you really wanted to eat steak, but for some reason ended up having pizza. At the end of the meal you’re gonna feel full, because you were hungry and you met this need with food. But your desire to have steak will not be fulfilled, because you got pizza instead. So you’re gonna feel content in the sense that you don’t want to eat anymore — because you’re full — but the desire to have steak will always be there and will surge again next time you’re hungry and you’re considering restaurant choices.
So the difference between being content and settling for something other than what you want is that when you’re content, the desire to have more ceases (and if it doesn’t, you risk falling into greed), but when you settle, your desire doesn’t cease, because it is not a desire for more, but a desire for something that you want and still don’t have. So where being content has to do with quantity, settling is all about the object itself.
If for instance you’ve always wanted to become a banker, being content would be to be happy with the modest salary you’re getting right now, whereas settling would look something like taking up a job in sales because you can’t find any opportunity in banking at the moment.
Being content and settling can look a lot alike; and for a long time they seemed so to me. But the difference I see now is that the former has to do with being happy and satisfied with your current situation knowing that this is all you can have right now, while the latter has to do with ceasing to pursue the desires that you have and convincing yourself that you’re happy and satisfied like that.
Settling, as the word indicates, has everything to do with coming down from your current desires, to settle for something less than what you want. You can never settle up or even settle on the same level. You always settle down.
You can settle for a career as a banker when all you’ve ever dreamed of was to become a filmmaker, but you can never be as content as the guy who’s always dreamed of becoming a banker and got the chance to make that dream happen. The difference between you and this guy is that this guy will be perfectly content being a teller for his first few years knowing that it’s just a step up the corporate ladder, whereas you will never be happy even if you became head of the bank, because all you’ve ever wanted to do was filmmaking and it will always be burning you up how you never pursued that dream.
So what’s important is not the object itself, but whether you desire it or not. What may seem to you as something very desirable, can mean absolutely nothing to the person next to you and it is this desire that makes all the difference between being content with a Samsung because you just wanted a phone and feeling you settled for a Samsung because what you really wanted was an iPhone.
But if as Christians we’re not supposed to have these desires to begin with (so I thought), then why are they there? Why aren’t we all created with the same desires or the lack thereof? Why are we created each with our own taste, preferences, desires, dreams and longings? And if all desires are sinful, why does God classify some as sinful desires and others as desires that he wants to fulfil?
I wrestled a lot with the idea, thinking maybe I’m being discontent and ungrateful because I always longed to fulfil desires that were never met. I thought maybe I should just let go of these desires, kill my ambition and be okay with settling for a mediocre life. Maybe then I would be happy.
But when I turned to the Bible to see what the Word of God had to say about this, I found something completely different to the way I was thinking. I saw Nehemiah who had sadness of heart because his city lied in ruins and it was this grief that he had that wouldn’t let him be happy until the walls of Jerusalem were completely rebuilt.
Nehemiah could’ve settled. In fact he had every right to. He was after all the king’s cupbearer. In other words he was living the good life. But for some reason he just couldn’t be content living like that. The zeal he had for Jerusalem to be rebuilt was burning so strong in his heart that he had to do something about it. He acted upon the desire that he had and God gave him success.
Can you imagine what would’ve happened if Nehemiah had killed this desire inside and chosen instead to live comfortably in the courts of the king? For one, Jerusalem would’ve stayed in ruins, waiting for someone else to burn with the same flame that burned inside Nehemiah’s heart, only to act upon it this time. And for two, Nehemiah would’ve never been able to be truly content in the courts of the king, even though he had what many others would’ve dreamed of having.
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.” (Proverbs 13:12)
I believe that God plants desires in our hearts to pursue them, because it is by pursuing these desires that we will come alive and be able to make a difference in the world.
On this note, I will end with a quote I love from Howard Thurman that I think couldn’t be more relevant.
“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”