By Brandon Lemons
This past Sunday, we began a three-part series called Learning Contentment. In this article, I’d like to address a few aspects of contentment that won’t be addressed much during the series but are valuable for understanding and learning contentment.
In this series, we are defining Christian contentment as “the rest you experience in your soul when you trust that God’s wisdom and grace are enough to satisfy you.” The reason I call this contentment “Christian” is because it depends on God and is rooted in the Bible, especially 2 Corinthians 12:8-10. A more general and typical description of contentment speaks of being satisfied with our lot in life regardless of circumstances, but this notion of contentment doesn’t include God. However, I believe God plays a key role in our ability to experience contentment; otherwise, our pursuit of contentment is dependent on our own effort. This self-powered pursuit of contentment is likely to: 1) leave us disillusioned and bitter if life’s challenges are extremely difficult; 2) leave us so emotionally detached that our demeanor is aloof and indifferent to the difficulties and joys of life around us; or 3) leave us with a sense of pride and even arrogance at how well we are doing in contentment compared to others. The bottom line is that deep and durable contentment is fueled by God.
One of the pitfalls of a series like Learning Contentment is that it can actually generate more discontentment and anxiety if it causes us to feel guilty or to beat ourselves up over not being more content. Therefore, I’d like to offer clarifications about contentment.
1. Contentment is not a call to ignore the difficulty of our trials. Many circumstances in life are painful, agonizing, heart-breaking, etc. The Bible teaches that we should be real and honest about the challenges we face. For instance, the “psalms of lament” demonstrate that it’s appropriate to feel our pains deeply and to pour out our hearts to God when the trials of life attack (see, for example, Psalm 13). Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, shows us the same thing (Matthew 26:36-46). True biblical contentment fully acknowledges the difficulties we face.
2. The pursuit of contentment is not opposed to voicing our complaints to God and even to others. Again, the psalms of lament give full voice to the psalmists’ complaints and emotions. The apostle Paul pled with God repeatedly to take away his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Corinthians 12:8), and Jesus voiced His sorrow to His friends and to God, particularly as He anticipated His crucifixion (Matthew 26:28-44). Jeremiah Burroughs writes in The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment that the person who is suffering “may communicate his sad condition to his Christian friends, showing them how God has dealt with him, and how heavy the affliction is upon him, that they may speak a word in season to his weary soul.” God calls Christians to “carry one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2), “pray for one another” (James 5:16), and “encourage one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). For these to happen, we must be honest with each other about our needs and struggles. (For more information on this topic, see my article on Authentic Relationships from October 27.)
3. The pursuit of contentment is not opposed to seeking help and healing from our afflictions. Again, just look at the apostle Paul’s prayers that God remove his affliction (2 Corinthians 12:8). In that instance, God said, “no.” But many times, God’s will is to say “yes” and improve our circumstances – perhaps gradually, perhaps quickly. Think about this topic in the context of health problems. When we have a health issue, it is good and appropriate to seek medical treatments for healing; contentment in the face of illness does not mean we must resign ourselves to suffering under the illness with no attempts at healing. We should seek healing. As Paul demonstrates, God can still empower our contentment even if we are not healed (2 Corinthians 12:8-10), but that shouldn’t preclude our pursuit of help and healing. Contentment is closely related to mental health. Mental/emotional health is complex, and there are definitely times when professional counseling and medication are important to address mental health issues. For instance, a person may have chemical imbalances or trauma from their past that inhibit healthy growth in Christian contentment, and these topics should be taken seriously and addressed intentionally as part of the process of pursuing contentment in Christ.
4. Contentment in our soul is congruent with discontentment with our circumstances and with the world. Our world is broken. If we think we should be perfectly at peace and content with all of the less-than-ideal (and even ungodly) circumstances around us, we are essentially trying to be more spiritual than Jesus. Jesus demonstrated beautiful contentment in His sense of identity, significance, and security. This is because He trusted God fully and knew deeply who He was and what His purpose was. Yet Jesus certainly displayed discontentment with less-than-godly circumstances. He got angry and overturned tables in the temple (Matthew 21:12-13); He lamented over the hard-heartedness of Jerusalem (Matthew 23:37-39); He was upset at religious leaders who prevented people from drawing near to God (Matthew 23); He wept when his friend died (John 11:35). Jesus even admitted that His soul was sorrowful and heavy (Matthew 26:38). He was not stoic; He felt things deeply, and He expressed His displeasure and angst when things fell short of God’s ideal. It’s worth noting that Jesus still trusted and submitted to God, which is a key aspect of honoring God and pursuing contentment. But He had times when His soul was unsettled and when He was very discontent with circumstances. The apostle Paul experienced the same dynamics; the same man who said “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11) said he faced “the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches (2 Corinthians 11:28). This clearly reveals that we cannot have a simple stoic definition of contentment. While we should be careful not to let our soul get pulled toward idolizing circumstances, it is certainly appropriate to feel a deep discontent with the ramifications of our world’s brokenness.
5. Contentment doesn’t mean we never strive or long for anything. The ancient philosophy of Stoicism leads people to pursue an emotional detachment from life’s problems. Pushed to an extreme, this would lead to indifference and even laziness – basically a fatalistic mindset that says “Whatever happens will happen” and that doesn’t make an effort to improve things. This is not the same as Christian contentment. It is clear throughout the Bible that Christians have a calling to be active in addressing less-than-ideal circumstances. And in terms of desiring and purchasing something new, that is not inherently bad or discontent, either. The key is our motive in the things we are doing. Do we seek to buy something new or to accomplish something in order to bolster our personal sense of identity, significance, or security? If so, this is idolatry (looking to good things for what only God can provide), and it is a sign of a discontent soul. Ideally, our soul’s sense of identity, significance, and security are firmly rooted in God, which gives rest to our soul. From that foundation of a soul that is resting in Christ, we can be active in addressing the ills of our world and pursuing other goals in work and our personal lives without transgressing into the realm of idolatry. Instead, we are motivated by grace and the glory of God, fueled by a “holy discontent” with the world’s brokenness. But as we strive, we are not doing so in order to justify or validate ourselves or to bring a sense of rest to our souls, Rather, our motive is to glorify and enjoy God more. Paul’s explanation in 1 Corinthians 15:10 gives a glimpse of this grace-fueled motivation: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” He worked hard but was empowered by grace.
6. Contentment is frequently an inconsistent process that takes time. It’s natural to expect things in our life to always be moving “up and to the right” (like a business chart showing consistent growth). Reality is messier, though. When pursuing qualities like contentment and spiritual maturity, the process may look more like: 2 steps forward, 1 step back, 1 step forward, 3 steps back, 2 steps forward, no movement for a while, 1 step forward, etc. At least two factors contribute to this inconsistency: our hearts’ propensity toward idolatry, and the unpredictability and difficulty of life’s challenges. If we are real about the challenges we are facing, we will probably find ourselves frequently wrestling with God, with our hardships, and with the brokenness of this world. Let me give an example from my journey with eye problems. Most people at Friedens Church are aware that I’ve suffered severe retina detachments in both eyes during the past two years, rendering my eyesight quite poor. It’s been far longer that I’ve been wrestling with eye issues, though. My big-time struggles started more than 20 years ago. Through my early- to mid-20s, I wrestled deeply with eyesight issues after my eyes responded poorly to LASIK surgery. I was deeply frustrated and scared of the future; I was already experiencing significant limitations due to poor eyesight. After several years of emotional and spiritual wrestling, I came to a place of relative contentment in my soul and even with the circumstances of my eyesight. However, I’ve had multiple frustrating and excruciatingly painful setbacks with eyesight since then. Each time required renewed soul-searching and steps backward in my contentment. My most recent retina detachment, in July 2021, led to lots of anxiety and discouragement. Thankfully, I feel like I’m emotionally handling it pretty well right now, but I attribute a big part of my soul’s contentment now to the fact that I’ve been wrestling with these topics since my early 20s. In reality, any contentment I have now has been 20+ years in the making. In the face of challenging circumstances, contentment doesn’t come easily or quickly. It takes time, and there are many steps back even as we try to take steps forward. When we are struggling with deep challenges, I think the experience of Joni Eareckson Tada is instructive. Joni became a quadriplegic at age 17 and describes how she experiences joy. It’s still hard, even multiple decades later. After describing her morning routine of praying and surrendering to God, she said, “whatever joy you see today was hard won this morning.” Even after decades of wrestling, writing, and teaching about trusting Jesus, Joni continues to find joy and contentment to be difficult realities that must be pursued each day if they are to be experienced.
While I think the above perspectives are helpful, I don’t think they’re exhaustive. One thing I do know is that the trials of life can be deeply challenging and unsettling – especially when they are ongoing with no end in sight, at least on this earth. We can trust that God is faithful and that His grace is sufficient for us, for His power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). At the end of the day, these are challenging issues. Yet it’s still good to set our sights on learning contentment. It’s also good to carry one another’s burdens. If you would ever like to talk about burdens you are carrying, feel free to reach out to me, to any other staff member at Friedens, or to trusted Christian friends. While there are many challenges that persist, it is wonderful to experience the camaraderie of having people walk with us through the ups and downs of life.