Some time ago, I discovered the Tao te Ching, an ancient book of Chinese wisdom and spirituality that has dramatically influenced my spiritual formation. Rather than driving me away from a Christ-centered faith, this book has actually helped me hold onto it. If you’re feeling skeptical, feel free to check out the introduction post to the series.
Hands down, the best way to get this information is to listen to A Christian Reads the Tao te Ching podcast, which parallels these posts but goes into a lot more detail. It also includes personal stories, readings from the Tao te Ching, and some of my own poetry when it applies to the topic at hand.
So please check out the podcast - and don't forget to subscribe and share. If you love the content here, please consider becoming part of the community by supporting the CRTTC on Patreon.
(Although the stories I tell at the beginning of each podcast episode are not included in the blog series, I actually posted an article based on this episode's story about how much I've learned about contentment over the last 12 months - which have been, by far, the craziest year of my life. Feel free to check it out to get more insight into the very practical side of today's topic.)
Chapters 44 and 45 are all about contentment. The former provides a litany of rhetorical questions that prompt us to rethink what really matters in life, and the latter lays out a vision of a very counterintuitive, upside-down kind of success and perfection. There is so much in these two chapters that resonates with the teachings of Jesus, and I'll do my best to draw out those parallels as much as possible.
Chapter 44: What really matters?
Fame or self: Which matters more?
Self or wealth: Which is more precious?
Gain or loss: Which is more painful?
He who is attached to things will suffer much.
He who saves excessively will suffer heavy loss.
A contented man is never disappointed.
He who knows when to stop does not find himself in trouble.
He will stay forever safe.
Lao Tzu begins this chapter with three cutting rhetorical questions that point out the three primary sources of discontent: obsessing over our reputation, our possessions, or our success (however we define it). Lao Tzu does not mince words, and when we hear his questions, we are meant to feel a bit of a sting. Even though we probably know what the right answer “should” be, if we’re honest with ourselves, it often isn’t the answer that our lifestyles are demonstrating.
Which is more important, your honor or your life?
Which is more valuable, your possessions or your person?
Which is more destructive, success or failure?
These are all cliches: Don’t worry so much about what other people think about. Don’t be greedy. Don’t make it your goal to keep accumulating more and more “stuff”. Don’t be obsessed with being successful, because most of the world’s definitions of success end up being very toxic.
Yes, they are cliche - but they are cliche because they are true and so desperately needed. We’ve grown up with these lessons in cautionary tales in everything from Disney films and Christmas movies. We don’t have to look hard to find heavy doses of the dangers of discontent stemming from making our image, our possessions, or our success our number one priorities. Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the first paragraph could easily fit into a Disney film:
If you look to others for fulfillment,
you will never truly be fulfilled.
If your happiness depends on money,
you will never be happy with yourself.
The unholy trio: the sources of discontent
Not so ironically, Jesus also addressed the same three topics that Lao Tzu identifies as the root causes of discontent. These are an obsession over self (image and reputation), stuff (wealth and possessions), and success (however we interpret it subjectively).
Jesus’s harshest criticism was always reserved for the particular Pharisees who were more concerned about their image than their actual spiritual health. He slammed the ones who were making a show out of their long-winded, pious prayers and their generous financial gifts to the temple. He famously called them “whitewashed tombs” - pretty on the outside, dead on the inside.
He also had plenty to say about valuing wealth and possessions too highly. Although there are countless examples, one of my favorites is this surprising little parable:
“A rich man had a fertile farm that produced fine crops. He said to himself, ‘What should I do? I don’t have room for all my crops.’ Then he said, ‘I know! I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll have room enough to store all my wheat and other goods. And I’ll sit back and say to myself, “My friend, you have enough stored away for years to come. Now take it easy! Eat, drink, and be merry!”’
“But God said to him, ‘You fool! You will die this very night. Then who will get everything you worked for?’
“Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.” (Luke 12:16-21)
It’s easy for us to laugh at this parable and write the man off as an obvious fool; but so much of modern Western culture is built around this exact mindset. “I don’t have room for all my stuff. What should I do?” Rather than building bigger storehouses, we buy bigger homes with bigger yards and multi-car garages, and we accumulate bigger bank accounts with more diversified investments.
We end up discontent when we base our contentment on an unknown future - whether it is the growth of our financial investments or the lavish vision of retirement we build up in our minds. Tragically, like the rich fool, so many die or just lose everything before they ever even have the chance to enjoy it in the way they thought they would.
In contrast, Stephen Mitchell’s somewhat loose translation of this chapter says:
Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.
Finally, just like Lao Tzu, Jesus challenged us to rethink our definition of success as well as how much weight we put on it. Lao Tzu wrote, “Which is more important? Success or failure?” And Jesus asked, “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?”
An obsession over success is necessarily also an obsession over failure - both of which lead us to discontent, which we might say is at least one way of “forfeiting of our souls”. Discontent slowly robs us of everything it means to be human as it steals away our ability to enjoy life and take in the beauty all around us.
Content or discontent?
Now, this isn’t a black-and-white issue. It’s not like you’re either 100% content or 100% discontent. Discontentment is based on having strong and unhealthy attachments. Contentment is about learning to recognize what they are, moderate them, temper them, and sometimes even jettison certain ones altogether. We miss the point and shoot ourselves in the foot if we think we can just get rid of it all at one time.
Contentment is relatively easy to define, but it is incredibly difficult to achieve. Even then, we constantly have to be on the lookout, because any contentment we have achieved can be stolen away if we let ourselves get sucked back into old ways of thinking. Still, guarding and growing in contentment doesn’t need to fill us with anxiety. In fact, it shouldn’t - not if we’re doing it right. But it does require us to be very intentional about evaluating the state of our hearts on a regular basis. We can agree with all of the “right” answers to Lao Tzu’s questions in our heads and with our mouths, but our hearts and our actions may be telling a different story. Derek Lin’s commentary makes exactly this point:
If you feel the true self is more important than either fame or material possessions, is this feeling reflected in your daily actions? Do you pursue material things at the expense of spiritual cultivation, despite your conviction that the latter is more important?
It’s important to ask ourselves questions like this - even though we often don’t like the honest answers. But without serious introspection and the ability to recognize our weaknesses, we limit our ability to grow.
Chapter 45: Upside-down success
Let’s switch gears and move into the next chapter, which is related to this idea of contentment, although it takes a totally different angle. After the rhetorical questions about the value of success, we’re now going to get a better insight into what Lao Tzu thinks success actually looks like - and, as always, it’s pretty wildly counterintuitive to everything the world has taught us.
True perfection seems imperfect,
yet it is perfectly itself.
True fullness seems empty,
yet it is fully present.
True straightness seems crooked.
True wisdom seems foolish.
True art seems artless.
The Master allows things to happen.
She shapes events as they come.
She steps out of the way
and lets the Tao speak for itself.
There are so many different ways we can interpret and apply this chapter. At its heart, it is about the upside-down nature of success. Perfection and fullness seem imperfect and empty, because they are not overly concerned about seeming perfect and full in the eyes of the rest of the world - and this is exactly why they are perfect and full. True success may seem unsuccessful, because it succeeds by finding contentment in exactly what is and doing what it realistically can do to the best of its ability - no more, no less.
Similarly, true straightness and true art may seem crooked and artless, but sometimes that’s because they’re just not trying so hard to please everyone. Many musical geniuses who are doing creative and groundbreaking things and writing genuine songs from the heart struggle to pay the bills, whereas the latest album from the biggest pop star gets all the attention, even if it was written completely by ghostwriters and being performed with backing tracks. Many of the most beautiful, inspired, moving, and creative films get underrated or even ignored in favor of the next cookie-cutter blockbuster film, which often (not always) is just pandering to the lowest common denominator and making art into an industry. The question is: which one of them is more successful?
True wisdom seems foolish. Lao Tzu has told us this many times before. The apostle Paul said almost the same thing: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18) The idea of any kind of god lowering himself and embracing suffering to overcome evil and the grave seems ridiculous, yet this is at the heart of the wisdom of the Christian faith. In a world full of pop wisdom and pop religions that appealed to the lowest common denominator of the public, Paul and the early Christians proclaimed a costly, upside-down gospel. And they got it straight from Jesus.
The Beatitudes: Upside-down blessing
I’ve mentioned the Beatitudes from Matthew 5 a number of times before in this series, but there is a striking parallel between Jesus’s identification of true blessing and Lao Tzu’s identification of true success.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3-10)
Jesus isn’t preaching directly about contentment here. He’s talking about God’s heart for the poor, the oppressed, the underprivileged, and the marginalized. On the one hand, this vision should touch and awaken our own hearts to the plight of the poor, and God’s special heart for them should fill us with a deep desire to demonstrate that love and pursue justice.
On the other hand, it is impossible to let this vision really get into your soul and not (eventually) find a deep sense of contentment. Contentment, like acceptance, doesn’t mean approval of the bad things that exist. It means the ability to see them and be present in the midst of them, refusing to let ourselves be consumed by anxiety and anger.
Jesus wasn’t saying that poverty, mourning, starvation, and persecution are blessings; but he did say that the ones who experience them are specially blessed. Like Lao Tzu, we might imagine him saying, “True blessing appears cursed, because the greatest blessings show up in the lowest places.” Like water, the Spirit of God is content to be in - and even seeks out - the lowest places, the places that people despise, as we heard in chapter 8.
In fact, Lao Tzu’s actual words from this chapter carry a striking resemblance to the way he describes water in other chapters. Although this isn’t obvious at first in Stephen Mitchell’s translation, which does a bit more paraphrasing, here’s a more literal interpretation of the last three lines:
Movement overcomes the cold,
and stillness overcomes the heat.
That which is pure and still is the universal ideal.
To be honest, I didn’t really know what to do with this section at first. It’s rather obscure, but when I found Stefan Stenudd’s commentary, it opened up quite a bit for me:
When Lao Tzu points out that movement overcomes cold and stillness overcomes heat, he points out the importance of balance. We know it to be quite true. Movement raises the temperature, and stillness decreases it. When we are cold we should get going and when we are hot we should calm down. That is also true for situations where the temperature is symbolic. In a heated argument, silence is called for. When relations get chilled and indifference grows, we should spring into action. The world benefits the most from peace and quiet, a state of balance and harmony. We can contribute to this if we remain sensitive to what is needed, and what is not.
Maybe Stenudd’s final words here are just another way to describe contentment: remaining sensitive to what is needed and what is not. It takes a lot of courage to intentionally cultivate contentment. It takes a lot of work, too, because sadly, true contentment goes against the grain of everything Westerners are taught and everything that is modeled for us from the time we are very young. But as you can read in my recent post on contentment, where I share a lot of crazy stories from the past 12 months of my life, I probably wouldn’t have survived this wild year if I hadn’t been given the grace to cultivate contentment more than ever before.
I can’t take credit for it myself - the Holy Spirit has played a major role in leading me down this road - but, like water, I’ve had to choose over and over again to jump into that stream and just keep flowing.
And trust me, it’s worth it.