It was 1999 and I was still nauseous in the first months of pregnancy with my twins. I had struggled to dress a 5-year-old, 3-year-old, and 2-year-old in Sunday clothes on a Saturday morning, with the help of my 10 and 11-year-olds, and be on time and still moderately happy with one another. We’d driven the 22 miles to church and they were arranged with their coloring books as the 2-hour conference began. I finally leaned back, waiting to be encouraged, because life was growing more discouraging. One man spoke about the importance of teaching with diligence, and I vacillated between feeling insecurely satisfied that at least we were all there and feeling insecurely sure it still wasn’t enough.
Then a very secure-looking man with white hair and a nice suit stood and told me I was greedy, selfish, and overindulgent. At least, that was what it felt like as I struggled to understand my own feelings about prosperity and comfort, both things that seemed just out of reach and not soon about to be within reach, but which I felt I had the right to want. It was the story of his mother, however, that stuck in my mind long enough to survive the reactive irritation that welled up inside me.
My mother taught me an important lesson along these lines. For many years my father had a practice of trading for a new car every year. Then, shortly after World War II when grain prices increased, we were surprised one day when Dad drove home in a more expensive car.
One morning my mother asked, “How much more did the new car cost than the other one?”
When Dad told her, my mother said, “Well, the other car has always been able to get me where I need to go. I think we ought to give the difference to someone who needs it more than we do.”
And so it was. The next year Dad returned to the less-expensive cars, and they continued their generous ways.
If we are not careful, it is easy for our wants to become needs. Remember the line “There, there, little luxury, don’t you cry. You’ll be a necessity by and by.”
It was easy to dismiss him as smug and out of touch as he stood there without a care in the world talking about giving away what we were working hard to earn, but it was impossible to resist his mother. I had never gotten a new car every year (I’d never even owned a new car), and it intrigued me to hear about a woman who did, but didn’t want it. Or rather, wanted something else more. Over the past decade plus, I’ve had a time figuring her out.
Her words have echoed in my mind for years, quietly and persistently whispering that I had been getting by well enough. When I perused the sale ads, when I contemplated Christmas gifts, when I yearned for things I couldn’t afford, I often felt her beside me, smiling contentedly with a settled grace that I came to realize I wanted.
I think of another man, an apostle, responding with that same settled grace: “we have sufficient for our needs.” It resets my thinking to discipleship instead of accumulation, to service instead of yearning, to abundance instead of the appearance of abundance. The ability to live in that feeling of sufficiency has grown slowly.
What has been a surprise is how pleasant it is. Simple contentedness has been an unexpected gift. I used to think that settled grace came from discipline, but now I think it comes from peace.
Abundance is a test. A woman I’ve never met, whose name I don’t even know, taught me to pass it by relinquishing it. And that has made all the difference.