You stare at the handsome man, whose gleaming eyes threaten to betray his happy secret. He carries the breakfast tray up the stairs and places it over the lap of his beautiful young wife, radiant as she wakes from another night of peaceful slumber.
After a passionate kiss, he lifts the silver dome from the tray and reveals . . . a set of keys! For a moment, she stares at him in beautiful shock, with love and happiness beaming from her face. She sets the tray aside, grabs her fluffy white bathrobe, runs down the stairs, and bursts through the front door to confirm her guess: A shiny new luxury car sits in the driveway, complete with a huge red bow and a ribbon wrapped all the way around it.
Meanwhile, down the street another beautiful woman is opening her Christmas gift as her sexy husband lovingly gazes on. As she lifts the lid, she's dazzled by a gift she's always dreamed of: a diamond necklace, sparkling evidence of her husband's love. As she wraps the necklace around her neck, he helps her fasten it, then seals its clasp with a gentle kiss.
And just one block over, the whole family is gathered around Mom, who opens an envelope and gasps as she pulls out a set of tickets to a much-longed-for getaway. She looks quickly at her gorgeous husband, a question in her eyes, and he assures her with a wink. "I've made all the arrangements. You deserve it."
You turn away from the TV and look at the man next to you. Maybe his mouth is hanging open, his head is resting back on the couch, tilted at an awkward angle, while he snores with abandon and a small stream of drool carves a path down his cheek. His stained T-shirt doesn't hide his belly as well as he thinks it does, and you realize you're not the only one developing wrinkles. You think back to last Christmas, when the two of you decided your gift to each other would be a new vacuum cleaner. And suddenly you want what that beautiful woman on TV had. Not the gifts, but the man. The marriage.
Here's a public-service announcement, a reminder of something we all know but sometimes forget when our minds are open to people eager to sell us something: The people in those commercials are not real. Sure, some people buy cars, diamond jewelry, and expensive tickets for Christmas. But the people we see in those commercials—and in the pictures we see at the mall, online, in magazines, on billboards, and just about everywhere else we look—are actors. They are acting. They do not reflect anyone's real life. People who get cars for Christmas are no happier than those who don't. Women with super-hot husbands are not exempt from frustration, drudgery, and dissatisfaction. Couples with fantastic teeth and gobs of money also generate laundry and dirty dishes. They get bored with one another. They wish for what they don't have. And some of them live in homes where the very air is poisoned with acidic resentment and quietly crackling tension.
When you're watching or reading an advertisement, how often do you think about the fact that marketing messages are designed to foster discontentment? Discontentment is a powerful motivator to go out and look for something better—or at least something new. And during the holidays, when our constant exposure to marketing messages fuels discontentment with our lifestyle, it can also make us frantic to keep up with the Joneses' marriage.
Discontentment can hurt a marriage relationship as much as it can hurt our budgets. Just as we have to discipline ourselves toward contentment in the face of constant pressure to buy the next great thing, we must discipline ourselves to be content with our spouses when tempted to believe the picture-perfect couples featured in catalogs and commercials are better than what we have.
Consider this: If you got a brand-new car (complete with giant bow) this Christmas, eventually you would grow tired of it. It would seem outdated compared to the newer models. It would need new brakes, new tires, and new wipers. And if you kept it long past that point, rather than trade it in for another one that would eventually disappoint you, it would need more expensive repairs. It wouldn't permanently solve your discontentment with the car you have; it would become a new object of discontentment.
It's no different with a new man or a new marriage. A low-mileage model eventually becomes a high-mileage model with the same dents and scratches as the one you have now. If you have problems in your marriage—and who doesn't?—it's important to address those problems. Overlooking them won't solve anything. But wishing for someone else's life is merely wishing for another set of problems, or perhaps the exact same problems with another person in your bed.
The apostle Paul, who was a single man and liked it that way, can nevertheless teach us something about contentment in marriage. Philippians 4:13 is a verse that is heavily quoted, often out of context, and frequently misinterpreted: "For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength." What an exciting verse! We like to use this verse to inspire ourselves with spiritual pep talks, filling ourselves with confidence that we have superhuman powers at our disposal, fueled by the Holy Spirit in us and Christ by our side.
But one look at the context of this verse reveals this to be a much harder message. It's much more mundane, and it speaks to everyday women like us. As it turns out, Paul wasn't talking about leaping tall buildings in a single bound. He was talking about doing every circumstance through Christ. What was his secret? Contentment. Through Christ, he had learned to be content in any kind of circumstance. And boy, he had been in some circumstances.
I believe Paul's contentment through Christ came largely because he was not living for himself. He was all-out, head-down, laser-focused living for Jesus (Philippians 3:12–14). He didn't waste his energy wishing for someone else's life; after all, his life was not about him.
And your marriage is not about you either. It's not about romance, expensive gifts, or living in wedded bliss. It's not even about being happy. It's about aligning with a partner to play a lovely duet in praise to your Creator. It's about together living for so much more than what this world can offer, bows or no bows. It's about pointing people toward the God who loves us enough to adopt us into his very own family, to give us a reason to celebrate at Christmas, to partner with us and give us purpose beyond our own self-gratification.
Are the messages of consumerism chipping away your contentment? Are you taking your eyes off your God-given calling? Are you too distracted by wishes to respond to the Holy Spirit, who has a job for you?
Next time you're tempted to envy a different kind of marriage, try these exercises:
- Turn off the TV, shut down the computer, or close your magazine. Whatever is fueling discontentment with your marriage, take a break from it. Don't let clever marketing messages cheapen what God has given you.
- Consider what might be wrong in your marriage. If there's a problem you're trying to ignore—especially a problem like abuse, addiction, untreated mental illness, or violence of any kind—get help and address it.
- When you see a couple you're tempted to envy, picture that couple outside their idyllic environment and living in your house instead, with your kids, your appliances, your jobs, and your budget. How glamorous do they look now?
- Cultivate gratitude. Think of things you love about your husband. I'll bet once you get started, you'll come up with a pretty long list. Focus on that list and thank God for every single thing on it.
- Ask the Holy Spirit to help you be content with your husband and to show you how to pursue greater health and holiness in your marriage.
- Ask God to show you your mission and purpose, where you are and among the people around you. Then live for that purpose!
The life God calls us to is not glamorous. But it is greater and more satisfying than what looks so alluring on TV. After all, the cars rust and the dazzling white teeth fade "beneath the breath of the LORD. And so it is with people. The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever" (Isaiah 40:7–8).
Amy Simpson is the author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission (InterVarsity Press). She also serves as editor of Christianity Today's Gifted for Leadership and marriage and parenting resources for Today's Christian Woman. She lives with her family in Illinois. You can find her at AmySimpsonOnline.com and on Twitter @aresimpson.