The French philosopher Blaise Paschal said that a human being is a creature of both the highest grandeur and the lowest misery. Our grandeur comes from our ability to contemplate and reflect. We look up at the stars and we wonder, “Where did I come from? Why am I here? What does life really mean?” We think about our origin, our destiny, and what will happen when this earthly life is over. That is what sets us apart from the animal kingdom. But this ability to reflect upon our own significance is also the root of our most profound misery. This is because each one of us has the ability to contemplate an existence that is far better than the one we currently enjoy.
The media feeds our ability to dream about a better existence. Any given night on television, programs feature other people who are realizing their dreams. Whether it is losing weight, receiving a new house, winning the lottery, or just living in the lap of luxury, these shows excite our imaginations. We think to ourselves, “What would I do if I were in those contestants’ shoes? How would my life be different if I was where those people are? What if I had as much money, fame, power, or recognition as they do?” In this way we provide the example for Paschal’s argument, imagining so much more but having to settle for so much less.
Despite the adverse circumstances in which the apostle Paul often found himself, he knew how to be satisfied. He tells the church at Philippi, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need (Philippians 4:11-12). In tough times, it can be tempting to let our minds wander. Part of the curse of prosperity is that the more we have, the more we think we need. And as our tastes become more refined, our level of expectation rises. This causes us to lose sight of the true riches that we have in Christ.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool. He introduces it by saying, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). He proceeds to tell the parable:
The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God (Luke 12:16-21)
True wealth does not lie in the houses we own, the cars we drive, or the clothes we wear. True wealth can only be found in Christ. His are the only riches that can survive the grave. Will we be like Paul, whose joy was in Christ always despite his circumstances? Or will we be like the rich fool, blinded by an obsession with material gain? That’s a decision we must make. Paschal noted that we can be creatures of profound misery. The Gospel of Christ gives us every reason not to be.