The Secret of Contentment


Most of you know me well enough by now: you know I’ve been happily married for 36 years, have four wonderful, grown children and three perfect grandchildren, and a job I love. You might think I’ve found contentment in these blessings. But I’m here to tell you:  contentment is never found in getting a particular job or marrying a particular spouse or achieving a particular lifestyle or in accumulating particular things—not even in accumulating books! (I know!) True contentment is found in choosing to be satisfied in whatever circumstances our loving God has placed us.
When I think of contentment, I generally picture curling up in a comfortable chair by a crackling fireplace, enjoying a good book while sipping a lovely cup of tea. In other words, I picture doing exactly what I want to do, free from care and responsibility. Happiness and comfort and satiation are often used as synonyms for contentment. But I’ve learned over my many years of living that this is not the Biblical concept of contentment.
You must all surely be familiar with Charles Dickens’ story “A Christmas Carol”. In it, Ebenezer Scrooge had everything he ever thought would give him a happy and comfortable, satisfying life—a successful business, a huge house, pots of money. Having these things is not evil, and one would think they would cause a contented life. So why was Scrooge such a miserable and despicable old man?
He wasn’t always miserable and despicable. When he was young, he was a good man who was personable enough to have wooed and won a lovely young woman called Belle. But Belle later broke off their engagement with these words: “Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were poor and CONTENT to be so, until in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry.” Scrooge went wrong, not with his goal of wanting to provide a good home and decent living for his impending bride, but in his discontent with his present circumstances. He became so discontented, he was willing to run roughshod over loved ones and complete strangers alike to get what he wanted. “Another idol has displaced me,” Belle said. “A golden one.”
Having goals is a good thing. Being happy, comfortable, and sated with good things is fine. But if we allow our goals, our happiness, our comfort to become our idols, running roughshod over God and everyone else to acquire them, we will inevitably lose our way. The surest path to discontentment – and to disaster! — is to make goals and plans for ourselves without asking for God’s guidance and then hoping God will bless what we have decided to do. This is the opposite of the way Christians are meant to live their lives. Listen to Paul’s words on the subject:
“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13)
And when Paul says he knows how to be “brought low”, he is not exaggerating! Here’s another quote of Paul’s from II Corinthians 11: “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches.”
These are not goals one generally sets for oneself! But we live in a fallen world and in a hostile environment. If we do not accept that hardship and sorrow are an inevitable part of life, we will never find contentment. I have learned this in my own life. I can’t compete with Paul’s list, thank goodness! But I have had to learn to be content with a very comfortable income and the comfortable life it brought; and with the loss of all those things, ending with my husband and me being homeless for a while. I have been healthy enough to hike the Appalachian Trail; and I have suffered illness so debilitating I was all but housebound for months on end. I have known the beauty of deep friendship and have been blindsided by betrayal. I have, with great joy, watched people I love accept Christ into their lives and try to live for Him; and I have, with indescribable grief, watched them turn their backs and walk away from Him. Through all of these extremes, God has taught me that contentment is not to be found in happiness, comfort, or in ordering my life in the way I would like.
Contentment is not happiness or living in comfort. In all of those circumstances which I just named, you might think I was happy during the good times and miserable during the bad times. But that would not be true. When we had plenty of money and material goods, I still found plenty of things to be unhappy about—all it takes is for someone to speak sharply to me or the landlord to raise the rent or the car to break down and my day is ruined. And in the months when we were homeless, I found a lot of joy in waking up in a lovely park watching the sun rise over a beautiful lake. Happiness is fleeting and is an impossible goal. We grow up on fairy stories in which the heroes and heroines pass through adversity and hardship and then live happily ever after, presumably untroubled until they died. But that is not real life. No one lives happily ever after in this world. There will always be something else to deal with; something else to suffer through; some other grief to overcome. Trying to build my life on a pursuit of happiness would be comparable to trying to build a house on a flock of butterflies; it’s not only impossible, it’s irrational to try it.
Neither is contentment found in ordering life just as one would like it. I have all too often heard myself say things like, “When things settle down, or when this ‘whatever’ is over, my life will get back to normal;” normal being a state of contentment. How many days, months, years do we waste, waiting for this or that circumstance to be over before we will allow ourselves to enjoy our lives? We refuse to live in an uncomfortable moment, always looking for the next thing to bring us happiness or comfort. But things never do settle down, do they? Life is never normal. I might get all my ducks in a row for a moment, but they quickly wander off in all directions. There’s always something! Choosing to live the life God has given me one day at a time, one moment at a time, in the knowledge that He is in control, is the secret to contentment. I learned this the hard way years ago when we had a ministry of taking in homeless people. I lived my life in a state of suspension: “when we get him or her settled in a job and a home, my life will get back to normal.” I was living in denial of the fact that my husband bringing a steady stream of stray people home from work WAS our normal life at that time. Instead of being content with the life of service God had given us, I was waiting to live the life I thought I wanted to live. I missed out on so much joy by being wilfully discontented.
Did you know that the opposite of contentment is covetousness? Have you ever wondered why “thou shalt not covet” is one of the Ten Commandments, right up there with “thou shalt not kill?” What’s wrong with wanting? We all want a better life for ourselves, don’t we? But being content is accepting the circumstances in which God has placed us and trusting that He knows what is best for us. Coveting—wanting—anything that God has not chosen to give us is tantamount to shaking our fists in His face and telling Him He’s made a terrible mistake: that what He’s given us is not good enough. Contentment is knowing that, although everything may not be good in and of itself, that “God works all things together for good to those who love God and who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28) As Jesus assured His disciples in John 16:33, “In this world, you will have tribulation. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Life is full of sorrow and adversity. This world is broken, sick, and perverse. “But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” (I Corinthians 1:27-29)
God has shown me how to be content in many areas of my life, but the area in which He has spoken most audibly and emphatically is my health. When I was diagnosed with Celiac disease, I was, of course, sad that I could no longer eat doughnuts and fried shrimp, but that honestly has not really been a cause of unhappiness. What devastated me was not being able to take communion with my brothers and sisters in Christ. It was years before we found a gluten-free substitute that allowed me to participate in communion again. Even then, taking my own little bit of cracker out of a protective container is not really the same as sharing a piece from the same loaf as the rest of the body. This was a great cause of grief to me, and Sunday after Sunday for weeks after my diagnosis I would weep and pray to be healed so that I could share in communion again. Finally, one Sunday, God spoke to me—I could hear His voice aloud in my ear: “Stop it. This is a gift, and you are to accept it as one.” He said this quite firmly, scolding me for my discontentment. I am still learning what it means that an incurable genetic disorder is a gift from God, but I have honestly tried to live my life in that knowledge since.
The process of continually choosing to be content in all circumstances is life-long and extensive. Most recently, I’ve been learning that being content is not the same thing as living in denial. I was diagnosed over a year ago with a degenerative eye disease, but even though I have had numerous appointments with retinal specialists, I found I was really not taking it seriously. The idea that I am truly, gradually, losing my eyesight was not real to me until I was asked to speak on contentment during a weekend retreat. As I prayed about what I should say on this subject, my eyes fell on my Amsler grid vision test. I look at this every day in order to help my doctor gauge how quickly my sight is changing, and yet I never acknowledged to myself that I am going to eventually become legally blind. It’s easy to be content while refusing to believe in the hard things that one is experiencing. But that is not true contentment. I had to spend some time alone with God and think through what this disease actually meant. I had to think of all the things I would be losing: seeing my grandchildren’s faces as they grow up; reading good books; writing stories and curriculum; enjoying trees and the beauty of nature; experiencing the glory of God in this world with my sight. I had to ask God some hard questions: “If I can’t see, can I still nurture my grandchildren; can I still teach my students? If I can’t see, can I still experience the wonders of creation? If I can’t see, will I still know the glory of God in the world? If I can’t see, can I still enjoy my life?” The answer to all these questions, He told me, is “yes”. But I am still struggling with the fear I can no longer allow myself to push away: fear of losing my ability to teach, to create, to minister in the ways He has given me to serve; fear of losing my freedom and becoming dependent on others. Learning to be content with losing my eyesight will be my greatest challenge yet.
Do not mistake contentment with complacency, however. As much as we enjoyed being homeless for a summer, my husband and I were glad to accept an offer to stay with friends until we could get back on our feet. I’ve learned to live with Celiac disease, but if someone came up with a cure, I’d be happy to try it. Contentment is not stoically enduring with gritted teeth, either, although patient endurance is a great part of it, drawing on the strength of the Holy Spirit rather than on our own strength. Contentment is a choice we make: choosing to trust a loving God to take care of us no matter what happens; choosing to trust Him to use everything He allows into our lives– easy or difficult, joyous or sorrowful—to make us into the people He means for us to become.
And in the end, when this old, broken world is remade into what it was meant to be, we will be remade as well. “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4) And it will all have been worth it!

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One response to “The Secret of Contentment

  1. Anonymous

    Thank you for sharing! I love the reminder about contentment and contrasting it with the futile pursuit of happiness.

    Like

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