Have you ever seen an underground home? That was one of the most fascinating things I saw when I was in North Africa: dwellings which were essentially nothing more than caves dug into the hillside. This is not an uncommon thing, near the edges of the Sahara Desert; in the daytime it gets very hot, and at night it gets very cold, so an underground dwelling helps to soften both extremes, staying cooler in the day and warmer at night.
I remember visiting one of these underground homes when I was taking a three-day "tour" of the country. The tour group parked on the roadside and hiked up to this home where a woman was sitting in a little cul-de-sac grinding out grain. Of course, I wasn't fooled; I understood that she had an arrangement with the tour guide. When she saw the tour van park, she immediately headed for the grinding wheel so we could see her "doing her daily grinding." But even though it was a "show," I had done enough reading to know that this really was how the people lived.
We looked around the "house" and saw nothing but a few cooking utensils, and two or three rough matresses in cul-de-sacs which served as bedrooms for the woman and her family. They had virtually no possessions.
It caused me to think about how much I take for granted. I own so many things, and yet, I have to ask myself if my happiness is dependant on these things. If a fire destroyed everything I own tonight, would my life be any less joyous tomorrow? How would I survive living a life with so few possessions?
The other thing I kept thinking about was this: everything I've read and heard about these families suggests that they truly are content with what they have, although it is not very much at all. What is their secret? I think their secret may be far simpler than we think. Their secret is that they don't know any other way of life. The natural human tendency is to compare ourselves and our lifestyle with those around us. This is the source of our discontent. If we had nothing else to compare to, we could be content with virtually nothing.
I admire the Apostle Paul, who wrote in Philippians:
The thing that is amazing is not so much that he knows contentment; the amazing thing is that he has tasted both wealth and poverty, and still knows contentment.
When I was little, growing up on our farm, I remember one of my least favorite days was the day we slaughtered chickens. Not a fun time.
Of course, I can't complain too much...the chickens had a much harder time of it than I did.
Imagine for a moment that you could talk to the chickens, and they could understand you. So the week before it's time to do the slaughtering, you go into the chicken coop and say to the chickens, "Next week I'm going to start slaughtering some of you guys so we can have tasty fried chicken!"
Now, with this piece of information, what would a smart chicken do? A smart chicken would say to itself, "I'm going to starve myself for the next seven days, so when he comes back, I'll be the most sickly, unappetizing-looking bird he's ever seen!"
But a stupid chicken would look at his neighbor and say, "Hey! No fair! That bird is fatter than me...he's gonna get picked for sure! I better stuff myself silly for the next seven days, so the axe-man will be sure to pick me!"
It seems silly, but that's just what James is talking about in chapter five. He says:
Essentially, he says that people who spend their lives hoarding wealth are as foolish as a chicken who deliberately fattens himself up for the slaughter.
Remember what Jesus says: life is more than the pursuit of material posessions. The person who spends his life chasing after the material posessions of this world will never be satisfied.