“for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” Philippians 4:11b
According to ancient tradition, whenever a new Japanese emperor ascends to power, he is entrusted with three sacred items as part of the enthronement ceremony. The presentation of these special objects by the Shinto priests serves to establish the new ruler’s authority and validates his right to reign. Historically, these items are referred to as the “three sacred treasures” (三種の神器) and consist of a mirror (representing wisdom), a sword (symbolizing valor) and a jewel (signifying benevolence).
Following the devastation of World War II, most Japanese were left destitute and longed for a better life. Therefore, members of the media spoke of the “new three sacred treasures” that everyone was seeking to obtain as a symbol of status and improved living conditions. These “treasures” were identified as a washing machine, a refrigerator and a television, since very few Japanese could afford such luxuries at the time. For example, in the early 1950s, a young salaried worker only earned about ¥10,000 per month, but a small fridge cost around ¥85,000 and a black/white TV was generally priced at ¥140,000. Such everyday conveniences were well beyond the reach of the vast majority of Japanese. However, as the economy steadily improved with prices going down and wages going up, many more people were soon able to purchase these once unobtainable “sacred” objects. This trend increased to such an extent that by 1964, almost 90% of all households in Japan owned these items. As to be expected, new luxury items were sought after, so an automobile, an air conditioner and a color TV were soon identified as the “new three sacred treasures” everyone longed to possess. These in turn gave way to newer or bigger “treasures” such as luxury vacations, expensive cameras, computers, designer goods, cell phones and the list goes on and on. Life became increasingly easier in Japan, but did such treasures bring genuine satisfaction?
Obviously, the answer is “no,” as true happiness does not originate from the quantity or quality of our possessions. Rather, genuine contentment and satisfaction stems from something much deeper, beginning with a heart set on the things of God. The Apostle Paul hinted at this truth when he shared part of his testimony in Philippians 4, where he declared he had learned contentment that wasn’t dependent upon his circumstances. In the course of his life, Paul had experienced both abundance and scarcity, but because God was the ultimate “treasure” that he sought, he was able to find contentment in either situation. This is the opposite approach of the world around us, which erroneously pursues a contentment grounded in things or activities rather than the person of God. This is why Jesus advised His followers not to store up treasures on earth, but instead, store up treasures in heaven. Jesus then went on to wisely note that our hearts are closely linked to whatever treasures we value. (Matthew 6:19-21) In reality, there is only one “sacred treasure” worth pursuing, and that is God Himself. Nothing else is deserving of our devotion, time or energy in comparison.