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Inspired by the nineteenth-century showman P.T. Barnum (of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus), the 2017 musical The Greatest Showman tells the story of a man on a mission for fame. Ambitious and relentless, Barnum rises from the depths of poverty to unimaginable heights of worldwide sensation. But this is no common rags-to-riches story. Not satisfied with extraordinary success, Barnum craves more. At the height of his fame, Barnum gambles everything to use a famous opera star to satisfy his critics. Capturing the true irony of Barnum’s desires, the opera singer’s capstone ballad is the repetitive and haunting cry of “never enough,” which serves as a commentary on Barnum’s insatiable hunger and eventual downfall. “Towers of gold are still too little,” she sings. “These hands could hold the world but it'll never be enough.”
This story and song resonate because they undoubtedly echo the common cry of the human heart. Ever since Eve desired more and succumbed to the temptation of the serpent, discontentment has plagued our world. The Barnum of The Greatest Showman is undoubtedly paradigmatic of twenty-first-century America. Never before has there been so much excess coupled with such widespread dissatisfaction. How much is enough? “Just a little bit more,” John D. Rockefeller famously quipped. Even if we resist this common ethos of our age, we’re still bombarded with advertising that tries to convince us that what we have now is, indeed, never enough.
How, then, does the gospel of Jesus Christ speak to this common quest for more? The tenth commandment, “You shall not covet” (Ex. 20:17), gets right to the heart of this matter. Westminster Shorter Catechism 147 identifies the duties required here as a “full contentment with our own condition, with a right and charitable frame of spirit toward our neighbor, and all that is his.” With this we see both a Godward and an outward disposition of true contentment.
The Godward aspect of contentment is best understood in the preface to the Ten Commandments when the Lord reminds Israel that He is the One “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Ex. 20:2). As covenant Lord, Yahweh had rescued His people from bondage, He had demonstrated lordship over the created realm and every so-called god of this world, and He did so out of His great love for them—not because they had earned or deserved it. Not only did the Lord redeem them, but He also gave Israel the land of rest, with the promise to meet their earthly needs in the days ahead.
What we learn here is that true contentment is found in knowing the character of God and His history of faithfulness and in trusting in His sovereign wisdom and goodness to provide. Far from the stoic idea of passive resignation to our fate, godly contentment is positive assurance, joy, and gratitude that God personally watches over us and supplies all our needs. True contentment means being satisfied in Him, trusting His faithfulness, and holding on to the truth that nothing here on earth compares to the inheritance that awaits eternity. True contentment is freely submitting to and delighting in God’s fatherly provision for us, whatever that might be.
The disposition of contentment toward our neighbor is a bit more complicated. It’s ironic that this commandment speaks specifically about our neighbor, and yet it’s the only commandment that our neighbors cannot see. Even if we live simple lives, covetousness can still be present, or our lifestyle can be seen as just a personal preference. After all, there is a certain pride and status nowadays in purposely having less. Minimalism as a means of individual betterment and peace is a common expression of moralism and false religion. In contrast to this, godly contentment consists in genuine joy at the prosperity of our neighbor, an eagerness to give to those in need, and living lives that testify to the presence and lordship of Christ over our situation and possessions. Our call is not simply to be content with less but to be discontent when our neighbor does not have enough—so much so that we’re willing to give from our provisions to meet their needs. This is how contentment consists in much more than just living below our means.
How, then, can we escape the pull depicted in Barnum of “never enough” and live as salt and light in a world that is never satisfied? The answer is found not in a lack of desire but in the fervent desire for the right things. As Augustine famously prayed, “Our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.” Only Christ can satisfy our hunger and quench our thirst (John 6:35). This is because He first humbled Himself under the Father’s will and then conquered through His perfect life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection. Christ obeyed all and won it all, including heaven itself, which He freely gives to us by grace, received by faith alone. Living, then, with the awareness that He gave Himself for us, that He is present and will never leave us or forsake us (Heb. 13:5), we learn and model contentment through His continual strengthening of us (Phil. 4:12–13) until that last day when we will inherit it all in Him. Contentment, then, is not simply to desire less but to earnestly desire that which can never be taken away.
At the Lord’s Table, I’ve sometimes found myself wanting a little more than a small piece of bread and a tiny cup. But in such times, I’m reminded that the sacred meal is but a foretaste of the ultimate meal to come. Even though it’s a meager portion, it’s what God has chosen to give us as a gift. And since we have the promise of His presence when we partake, that presence is always more than enough.