Like many ideas and behaviors that are taught in the Christian Scriptures, at first glance, the word “contentment” seems to carry a negative connotation to it. Christians are clearly taught to be content in whatever circumstances we find ourselves (cf. Phil 4, Matt. 7, etc.). If we have food, clothing, and shelter we are to praise God and be satisfied, grateful even, for what we have been given.
Again, when we are first confronted with these commands they appear to be far from the secret to finding lasting joy and peace, they almost seem burdensome, maybe even a little callous. “Just be content,” we are told—well—that’s easy for you to say, we think. There reaches a point where the word content can sound in our ears as a curse.
Of course, even if this were so, the very heart of the Christian story pushes against this negative conceptualization of contentment. Was it not Christ himself, who laid aside his privileges and riches to become poor for us that we might become rich in Him? (cf. Phil 2, II Cor. 8). This alone should be sufficient to temper our perception of contentment, knowing of course that this wealth we are given has nothing to do with material prosperity. Yet, we need not stop there, for our God is good, and His commands are not burdensome.
Far from a weight upon our shoulders, godly contentment is an invitation to freedom and happiness, an icy tonic given for those wandering the deserts of ravenous consumerism and materialism. How is this so? Contentment, while often caricatured as merely being a call to “just settle,” is far better understood as a call to accept the present with trust. Contentment does not call one to not strive forward, but instead it calls us to give thanks for what is currently before our eyes and within our hands. It does not restrict the future, but reminds us to give thanks for the present.
Contentment shapes the individual to have a near infinite ability to find happiness, to truly flourish in spirit. Not as a Marxian opioid, but as a genuine antidote to our base anthropological disposition of ceaseless striving met with a starving lack of satisfaction. Unless we are committed to seeking to be content in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in, we will always lack true joy. We will always want just a bit more. Just one more taste. Just one more dance. Just one more, and then one more after that. Discontent is a greedy master. It, by definition, will not produce satisfaction. Nor will it allow us too. In the words of theologian Phillip Ryken, “Discontent is life’s burglar… Someone who is discontent is always operating at a loss.” Ryken pointed me to a powerful poem, written by a teenager wise beyond their years, that captures the destructive tendency of discontent and reminds us of just how good the call to contentment really is.
It was Spring, but it was Summer I wanted:
The warm days and the great outdoors.
It was Summer, but it was Fall I wanted:
The colorful leaves and the cool, dry air.
It was Fall, but it was Winter I wanted:
The beautiful snow and the joy of the holiday season.
It was Winter, but it was Spring I wanted:
The warmth and the blossoming of nature.
I was a child, and it was adulthood I wanted:
The freedom and the respect.
I was 20, but it was 30 I wanted:
To be mature and sophisticated.
I was middle-aged, but it was 20 I wanted:
The youth and the free spirit.
I was retired, but it was middle-aged I wanted:
The presence of mind without limitations.
My life was over,
and I never got what I wanted.
Praise God for the call for contentment. To simply rest in the beauty of Spring while watching so much life begin. To feel the warmth of Summer and want no more. To watch Fall leaves drift to the earth and not be overeager to demand their rebirth. To behold even the most overcast Winter sky day and ask for no more light than is willing to reach the snow-covered floor.
We do not follow Jesus Christ in order to be happy. Certainly we know that his way is not easy, for with many trials we enter into the kingdom of heaven. And yet, still we follow the Creator of Life, of Beauty, of Joy. We follow the one who is Good. It is no surprise then, that when we finally die to what we want, we, at last, are free to get what we want.
- Philip Graham Ryken, I Timothy: Reformed Expository Commentary (New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2007), 256