“Real contentment must come from within. You and I cannot control the world around us, but we can change and control the world within us.” (Warren Wiersbe)
There is a way of living that more than any other reflects the depth of our faith journey. It is a way that most of us have experienced but few have sustained. A way marked by an abiding sense of peace, patience and joy. A way abounding in the abundant life promised by Jesus. The way known as contentment.
This reflection on contentment will be in two posts. This month is the nature of contentment by looking at three examples from the Psalms. Next month is how to find contentment by exploring the Apostle Paul’s “secret of being content.” But first to the Psalms where there are at least three distinct manifestations of contentment that are helpful in fleshing out its essential nature. These are Discontentment, Conditional Contentment, and Deep Contentment
“When our ancestors were in Egypt, they gave no thought to your miracles; they did not remember your many kindnesses, and they rebelled by the sea, the Red Sea.” (Psalm 106:7) If there is one thing that stands out in the Exodus, it is how the Israelites were perpetually complaining. Despite God’s miraculous provision, they constantly vexed him by their rebellion and discontent.
And so it is with many today who seem to be perpetually discontented even in the face of enormous blessings in their life. It is curious how easy it is to focus on negative things and take positive ones for granted. I am not writing about those who are suffering or in the throes of personal tragedy. But rather about those who, despite generally good health and relationships, are nonetheless discontent. Somehow in their journey they have lost a sense of the richness of their lives, and chosen instead to be resentful and angry.
In writing about struggles of our middle years of life, Ronald Rolheiser observes, “Many … deeply regret that during the healthiest and most productive years of their lives they were too driven and too unaware of the richness of their own lives to appreciate and enjoy what they were doing. Instead of privilege, they felt burden; instead of gratitude, they felt resentment; and instead of joy, they felt anger. One of the demons we wrestle with during our adult years is the resentment of Martha, that is, a joylessness bordering on anger for, ironically, being burdened with the privilege of health, work, and status.” (Sacred Fire)
The danger of chronic discontentment is that it increasingly becomes one’s identity. We have all known people who despite many blessings are perpetually discontented, having allowed their lives to be consumed by bitterness and anger. One of the ironies of discontentment is that it is off-putting to others, and consequently they pull away. The more they pull away, the more bitterness and anger grow. It is a negative feedback loop that can be difficult to stop – particularly as we age. But there is always hope because according to the Apostle Paul, contentment is something that can be learned. Still, overcoming discontentment, like any vice, becomes more difficult with the passage of time. Discontented old people were once discontented young people.
The spiritual implications of discontentment are chilling. Because of the discontentment and incessant grumbling of the Israelites, God declared that they would indeed die in the wilderness and never enter the Promised Land. (Numbers 14:26-29)
“But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.” (Psalm 131:2) A child with its mother – here we have a beautiful image of contentment and peace. So why is this not the paradigm for biblical contentment? The answer is that the child has good reason to be content – it is with its mother, perhaps asleep in her arms. And these favorable circumstances are precisely what make its contentment conditional. For we all know what will happen when the child gets hungry or its mother has to leave.
Conditional contentment is therefore contentment that is dependent upon circumstances being favorable. This fits well with one definition, “Contentment is happiness and satisfaction, often because you have everything you need.” (Cambridge English Dictionary) And it also fits pretty well with the spirit of our age that promises us that contentment comes as soon as our perceived needs are fulfilled. As soon as we find someone to love us, we will be content; as soon as we get the mortgage paid off, we will be content; or as soon as we retire, we will be content. But for those of us who bought into this storyline, inevitably we have come away disappointed. It was great when I married Pat, but the honeymoon eventually ended. I was elated when I paid off our mortgage, but it was short-lived because I then had to replace all of the windows and doors. And soon after I retired, I encountered unexpected and difficult medical and family crises.
I am not alone in experiencing contentment conditionally. Most of us have seasons of contentment when things are going well, and times of discontentment when troubles come. And indeed, troubles always come! Yet, as I honestly reflect on my life, I see so many blessings even during difficult times: a loving wife, faithful friends and family, and good medical care. Christian maturity demands that we look beyond the temporal and take the long view. This brings us to the third level of contentment, which is deep contentment.
“Although the earth erupts in quakes, we will not shake or fear; though glaciers crash into the sea, our God is always near. And though the oceans roar and foam, and breakers crash and swell, though mountains sway and split in two, we know that all is well.” (Psalm 46:2-3) Here we have the true Biblical paradigm of contentment. When our world is coming apart, there is a place of deep contentment. A place where we can stand and truly say ‘all is well.’
Deep contentment is radically different from conditional contentment. Consider the words of the Apostle Paul, “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:11-13) Contentment for Paul did not depend upon his circumstances or even whether his most basic physical needs were met. To the contrary, Paul had learned contentment whatever his situation.
I don’t want to be glib about being content when things are in turmoil. Struggles and suffering are real. And it is easy to write about contentment when things are going well. Still, there is value in thinking and praying about contentment when not in the middle of a crisis. Paul writes, “train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7), which implies developing holy habits, such as contentment, before trials come into our lives.
For some, contentment means having no desires. For example, one definition of contentment is “A state of mind in which one’s desires are confined to his lot whatever it may be.” (Easton’s Bible Dictionary) This is not so far from Buddhist belief that desire is a root of suffering and therefore to be eliminated. We should be clear on this: Death of desire has no place in Christian practice! We are to desire God’s kingdom to come in our marriages, our homes, our community, and our world, and we are to work for its fulfillment. Scripture calls us to action – from helping the oppressed to working on our character. Indeed, it is precisely because we are called by God to fight injustice and to seek righteousness that contentment finds its true home. Biblical contentment never seeks the end of godly desires. Instead, its power is in not allowing those desires to rule our lives. We draw our life not from whether we obtain our desires, but from the Spirit. This is why Paul tells us that if we walk by the Spirit, we will experience joy, peace, patience, etc. (Galatians 5:16, 22)
Deep contentment is not an impossible dream. It is not just Jesus who could sleep in a boat in the middle of a storm (Matthew 8:24-25), or Paul who be content even when hungry (Philippians 4:12). There are people in every age who have demonstrated deep contentment in the face of personal hardship and tragedy. For example, Horatio Spafford was a Christian and successful businessman in Chicago in the latter part of the 19th Century. Spafford lost his only son to scarlet fever in 1870. The next year, his real estate investments were destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire. Two years after that, his four daughters drowned when their ship was struck and sank while crossing the Atlantic. His wife miraculously survived, and as Spafford sailed to join her, his ship passed near the spot where his daughters went down. It was there he penned the words of one of the great hymns of our faith.
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
Deep contentment is being able to say when sorrows come, “It is well with my soul.”
PS Next month I will reflect on the secret of contentment that the Apostle Paul discovered.