If everything in your life were to remain exactly the way it is in this current moment, do you think you could still be truly, deeply happy? As a single woman, this was something I was used to asking myself. After all, marriage was not a certainty. What surprised me though was when I asked myself this same question in the tenth month of my first year of marriage, when all of a sudden it felt as though my husband and I had reached a hard stop we couldn’t move beyond. As I took my grief to the Lord, pouring out my disappointment through endless tears, I decided that even if the hard stop remained, I would stay committed to the covenant I had made before God. While coming to the decision was somewhat easy, I wrestled with whether or not I could still live fully with joy or whether staying committed would mean staying miserable—could I be content even when the circumstances within my marriage were enough to drive me to despair?
While for me it was something in my marriage, for you it might be a diagnosis, a family issue, or an uncontrollable life circumstance—the point is that we all face challenges, encounter difficulties, and have disappointments to overcome. Throughout our lives, whether we know Christ or not, there are pain points, things we wish were different, easier, erasable, or even simply things we wish we had. Fill in the blank, “My life would be better/easier/happier if _________”.
As Christians we know that the Bible challenges us to live contented lives, but have you ever really thought about what it means to be content? And is contentment a realistic and practical expectation when we wrestle with real pain and hardship and feel like we’re missing out?
What contentment isn’t
Before we can get into what contentment is, we have to first understand what it isn’t.
Contentment does not mean we won’t experience lack or longing. Paul writes in Philippians 4, “…I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” (Philippians 4:11-12 ESV, italics added for emphasis). Contentment does not prevent us from experiencing lacks and longings; rather it means that we can know and experience true and full joy despite them.
For many of us, the first hurdle we need to overcome when it comes to contentment is to understand that having a good God doesn’t mean everything we go through is going to be pleasant, fun, or easy. Our God is not a cosmic superhero whose job is to make our lives as enjoyable as possible. His mission is to make us His people, people with a heart after Him and the things of His Kingdom, a life-long process of divine transformation.
Contentment also does not mean we are settling. Settling implies deciding that what we’re experiencing isn’t good, but we’re willing to take less than the best. Contentment says God is a giver of good gifts and is (even through hardship, lacks, and longings) working all things together for our good. This might not feel good, but God is still working out good in our lives.
As I navigated the disappointments in my young marriage, God was forming things in my heart. He was forming faithfulness, faith, trust, and patience, all part of the Kingdom of God. I wished things could have been different, but even without anything changing I was and still am able to experience God’s goodness and real fullness of joy—contentment.
So, what is contentment?
Contentment is about trusting Jesus.
Contentment is always about the One we are going through things with and never about the things we are going through. When we are trying to cultivate contentment, it isn’t a contentment in our situation; it is a contentment in Christ. In a recent Java with Juli podcast episode, our friend Sam Allberry said, “…not because we’re thinking, well, singleness is amazing therefore I’m content, no, Jesus is amazing; I’m content in Him whether I’m single or married.” Our contentment needs to be in Jesus. For me, this meant instead of finding contentment in my marriage, I needed to find it in Him. Think about the words of this well known hymn “Blessed Assurance”:
Perfect submission, all is at rest
I in my Savior, am happy and blessed
Watching and waiting, looking above
Filled with His goodness, lost in His love, oh oh
This is my story, this is my song
Praising my Savior all the day long
“I in my Savior, am happy and blessed.” What a wonderful idea that we can find happiness and blessing in Jesus rather than our circumstance. For us to be content in Him, we need to trust who He is, what He says, and what He is doing. Contentment is rooted in trust in God’s goodness as our Father, and ultimately if we lack contentment, it’s because we don’t trust God our Father is actually good.
When I am frustrated, fearful, or doubtful, I remind myself of who is in control. I can be patient and trust the process because I know the One who reigns above it all loves me and that He is good.
Contentment is something we choose.
There is a pervasive belief amongst Christians that contentment is a state of mind that is arrived at, like nirvana. The Bible does not support this belief. If anything, Paul’s writings in Philippians 4 suggest that contentment is learned, something we practice and continue to practice. There isn’t an arrival at contentment, but as we grasp more of God’s heart, entrust more of His Word to our hearts, and learn to take Him at His word, we find contentment.
As we find contentment, instead of being consumed by what we lack or long for, we begin to live out of the abundance of what we have. Rather than living out of the limitation of the lack, we begin to live out of the abundance of the blessing. We lean into what we have and embrace it in all its fullness rather than focusing on the thing we don’t have.
In the language of the Garden, we choose to stop being deceived into thinking that our existence will have deeper meaning or significance if we get the fruit of the tree, and we open our eyes to see the abundance of trees around in the Garden, rich with fruit for us to enjoy.
While it doesn’t mean we’re not curious about what life would be like if we had “the one thing”, it does mean we recognize that “the one thing” has been withheld from us, either for a time or permanently, and we remember and trust that “no good thing does He withhold from us” (Psalm 84:11).
Contentment calls us to God, not to abuse.
Contentment very often calls us through suffering, but this doesn’t mean we should seek pain, endure abuse, or tolerate evil. This is for three reasons, the first is that as Christians we are called to stand against evil and injustice, the second is that we are God’s image bearers (Genesis 1:26 and Genesis 9:6), and the third is because suffering itself is not the goal, our Savior is. Hebrews says Jesus, “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2 ESV). Jesus endured the cross because He knew what His loving Father was doing through it. He was willing to endure the pain because of the joy, not because of the pain itself. God is not a sadist, deriving pleasure from our pain and glorified in us inflicting pain upon ourselves or in others inflicting pain upon us. He isn’t ever calling us to pain, but He is always calling us to Him. If you are in a situation where you are unsure if you are being abused, check out our blog post on recognizing abusive relationships.
Contentment requires sacrifice.
All of us are going to have to do without or encounter difficulty in some area of life. We all have to take up our cross. That call is to all of Jesus’ followers, not a select few. This means we will all have to sacrifice something as part of following Jesus. In fact, Jesus said that if we choose to “preserve our lives” instead of surrendering them to God, ultimately we will lose them (Luke 17:33), and we can “gain the whole world” and thus forfeit our souls (Mark 8:36). For us to enjoy contentment we have to first surrender. It is found not in withholding parts of our lives from God, but in surrendering all of our lives to Him. Contentment requires us to trustfully submit to God, remembering His ways our higher than our own (Isaiah 55:9), and He doesn’t waste our pain but keeps track of every tear shed, in the knowledge that one day He will wipe every tear from our eyes (Psalm 56:8, Revelation 7:17, Revelation 21:4).
In my life this has meant acknowledging the pain points and recognizing where my longings don’t align with God’s Word. Recognizing the disconnect between my will and God’s will helps me see where I need to make critical choices and sacrifices in my life. Right now, one of the sacrifices I am called to as a wife is to live unselfishly– not obsessing about my wants and needs or elevating them above those of my husband. Knowing that as a believer I am called to sacrifice helps me to embrace this pain point as part of the journey of trusting God and allowing Him to refine me.
How to practice contentment
Being that contentment is a practice and not a destination, it requires conscious intention for it to be cultivated. If you’re curious about where to start, here is a simple roadmap for getting started:
- Be honest and address your wants and disappointments.
- God is not calling you to fake it. Begin with recognizing the things you want and where you are disappointed in life. God wants your heart, and this means He wants you to be willing to admit what is in it. Grieve with Him about your disappointments, hardships, lacks, and longings, and allow Him to comfort you.
- Be honest and address the pride in your own heart.
- Where has self-seeking caused you to withhold parts of your heart and your life from God? Recognize where you haven’t surrendered, and decide in your heart to stop living life with yourself at the center.
- Get support.
- God has called all believers to family and community. Choosing to live life God’s way and denying ourselves is fraught with challenges and difficulty, and the support of other like-minded people is vital. Ensure you have the right voices speaking into your life and helping you endure when you are weary.
- Do what the Lord is saying with the Lord’s help.
- God doesn’t call us to obedience in a void. He promises to walk with us if we will allow Him to. Contentment cannot be achieved aside from God because it requires the grace and courage (strength) of God to face our lacks and longings. When Paul said in Philippians that he could do “all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13), he was literally saying, “the things I thought I couldn’t survive without, I can endure without because God strengthens me. He gives me the ability I lack in and of myself.” The same can be true for us. With the support of our divine Helper, the Holy Spirit, we are capable of things that in our strength would be impossible. God longs to support you as you journey towards Him, so do not be afraid to invite Him into your most vulnerable places. He delights in you.
Song: Blessed Assurance – music by Phoebe Knapp and lyrics by Fanny Crosby
Blog post: Have You Forgotten Who God Is?
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