I find it ironic that I am writing about the secret to contentment at a time when I feel most discontent. How then do I find the strength to truly say, “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24)? How do I strive to be like the Apostle Paul and say, “I know what it is to be in need and what it is to have more than enough. I have learnt this secret, so that anywhere, at any time, I am content, whether I am full or hungry, whether I have too much or too little. I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives me” (Philippians 4:12-13 GNB). Perhaps you are on a similar journey.
I see contentment as “a mental or emotional state of [happiness and] satisfaction... drawn from being at ease in one’s situation, body and mind.”1 From this definition, contentment is understood as a state of mind rather than a set of circumstances.
But I also want something that I can practically apply to my life: examples, proof, or someone to say, “This is where I’ve been, and this is where I am now.” So, I turn to biblical greats Paul and Job.
I have never understood these two men. How could they keep praising God and be so content when they had no reason to be so? I find myself judging them for their faith and contentment! While enduring kidnapping, beatings, shipwrecks, illness, and prison, Paul still managed to bring praise and glory to God and rejoice in his sufferings for Christ. Even after losing everything, Job was still able to say, “the LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD” (Job 1:21). Within the worst of circumstances, both Paul and Job still believed in God’s goodness and resisted becoming discontent.
When I moved to New Zealand, I found myself missing the big crashing waves of home. I could only find waves too small to make any impact, or too large for me to swim in. I told God how much I missed the waves of home, and I heard his whisper: Like waves in the ocean, the highs and lows of life make an experience worth remembering. The lows give contrast to the highs.
Both Paul and Job knew that life contains both highs and lows, and they did not allow either small or large lows to dictate their level of contentment in God. Their security, stability, and “peace... which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7) came from their rock, Jesus, rather than from circumstances.
I used to think that true contentment lay in the pockets of joy I experience when I’m with people I love—where heaven seems to meets earth. But this does not last: people move on, they die, and at times they let you down. True contentment cannot rely on circumstances. I think Paul and Job understood this.
Perhaps Paul and Job kept faith because they knew their lives had a greater purpose—to bring God glory. And maybe it was this desire that enabled truth to surpass circumstance, knowing true contentment can only come from being anchored to the one who “is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). For only God’s love can bring real contentment and lasting joy.
So, what do we do when we find ourselves stuck and discontent with our circumstances and the God who is allowing them? I have a four-step plan that I try to follow in journeying from discontent to contentment.
Step One: Acknowledge discontent
As a child, there was nothing I wanted more than a Newborn Baby Doll. I prayed, dropped hints to my parents, wrote letters to Santa, and wished on every eyelash I accidentally-on-purpose pulled out. Come Christmas morning, I unwrapped the most perfect gift, my doll, complete with her birth certificate and feeding bottle. I distinctly remember how happy I was.
But soon after I found myself thinking, “Now what?” and slowly discontent crept in. “Kirsty needs a cot,” I thought. “She needs more clothes, and she needs a sister!” Discontent tells us we must have more so we can be happier. Discontent believes we won’t be happy until we have it. Often I have wanted something like my doll so badly, and yet when I got it the momentary happiness didn’t fulfil me like I’d hoped and believed it would. I still wanted more.
The first step towards fighting any enemy is recognising it. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu says, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”2 There are times when I find the psalmists so refreshing in their willingness to bare their souls to God—they yell and scream and cry their discontent.
This begs a question: Is discontent bad? Is it a sin?
There was a time when I believed discontent was one of the Enemy’s greatest weapons to separate us from God. But I have journeyed from believing discontent comes from the Enemy, to wondering if perhaps discontent comes from God.
As Christians, we live in the tension of always searching for more because we were made for more: God “has put a sense of...future into [our] minds” (Ecclesiastes 3:11) and so we are always longing for what we do not yet have. There is an element of appropriate discontent! But still we must remain in the tension of the now but not yet. And so how do we find contentment within our discontent, and how do we turn our longing from worldly possessions to godly pursuits?
Darkness must flee where we cast the light of Christ, so I believe that to recognise the root of our discontent is to start the journey of seeking Christ-like contentment within God-given discontent. When I cry out to God, when I tell him I want more, I am acknowledging my discontent to him and opening the door to welcome the light of Christ in to my darkness. I am admitting that I am thirsty for what only God can provide, and I am listening to his call, “everyone who thirsts, come to the waters” (Isaiah 55.1).
Step Two: Turn discontent to gratitude
“It is better to be satisfied with what you have than to be always wanting something else” (Ecclesiastes 6:9 GNB).
Sometimes a pity party is a wonderfully self-indulgent thing, but it doesn’t serve me or God. Choosing to dwell on negatives and play the self-pity tape on repeat invites bitter discontent to take root and I start losing sight of what God has already done for me. To turn discontent to gratitude in spite of my circumstances is to change my perspective by choosing to focus on what is right, not on what is wrong, and find something beautiful in every situation.
A friend recently sent me a documentary on a tribe who live in the Amazon who do not have words for numbers or colours. They have no need to describe the colour of the sky or the number of fish they caught that morning. They are content with what they have and with what they don’t. They have no expectations and no disappointments. Likewise, Paul learned to show gratitude in every circumstance, choosing to use his time in prison to worship God and minister to his captive audience. Paul could have spent his time storing up bitterness and discontent. Instead he chose to thank God for and enjoy the strength that came from the power of Christ working through him.
How can we change our perspective to be like the people of the Amazon and Paul?
I find it helpful to have an accountability partner because I am stronger in community. I take a break from social media—a breeding ground for discontent. I keep a gratitude journal. Some days all I can write is, “Thank you that my cat is curled up next to me,” or, “Thank you that I still have a warm bed.” But gratitude changes my attitude and moves me from saying, “It’s not fair. How come she got the job I was more qualified for?” or, “How come they can go on holiday and I can’t?” to saying, “It’s not fair. How come I have a solid roof over my head when so many people are homeless?” or, “Why can I go to church freely without fear of being persecuted or killed?” Gratitude reminds me that no matter what my circumstances, I always have something to praise God for.
Step Three: Look up
“But I will hope continually, and will praise you yet more and more” (Psalm 71:14).
I often wonder how Jesus didn’t cave when Satan tempted him at his most vulnerable. I think he was so filled with contentment in God that there was no room for worldly discontent to take root. I find comfort in knowing Jesus fought discontent with the true Word of God—the same Word that lives in you and me and gives us the same power and truth that will set us free. Job refused to join his wife and friends cursing God; Paul continued to praise God while under the harshest of persecution; I can choose to focus not on my circumstances, but on how faithful my God is within them and what he can do through them.
So how do we move from tempted to contented?
I choose to rely on my rock, Jesus. I fix my eyes on God and place my hope in him. I choose to set aside my own desires and ask instead that his will is done. I choose to trust that he knows what I need, and I remember that he sees the end from the beginning. For me, this means memorising scriptures and songs that reorient and anchor me to God: “Be still, and know that I am God!” (Psalm 46:10); “It is well with my soul” (Horatio Spafford). I go in search of my cat who is inevitably sleeping in amongst some chaos or another, oblivious to his surroundings, and content in the knowledge that he is loved, safe, and cherished. When we know the truth our vision is clear. It shifts our attention and focus; it allows us to rest in contentment.
Step Four: Bless others
“Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4).
A past spiritual director of mine loves saying: “When you’re feeling blue, do something for someone who’s worse off than you.” We are called to have servant hearts like Jesus, and I find that when I’m helping others my own burden feels lighter and more manageable. A favourite cartoon of mine, by Francisco Javier Olea, depicts how our smile and our heart are connected: When our heart is full it pulls our mouth down into a smile; when our heart is empty so too is our smile small.
I wish I could tell you that I know the secret and I have the solution—that I am now content and have transcended my circumstances. But I’m still figuring it out and I’m still journeying through. What I do know is that discontent can either keep us stuck or propel us forward; so I fall, I stumble, I cry, and I pull myself back up. I keep pressing on because contentment is a choice I make regardless of circumstances. I let myself be wherever I am while looking up. I remember that I can be content within my discontent because Jesus is stable. And I know that “This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).
Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that the real question is actually this: “Why am I so discontent when I have every reason to be content?”
Story: Patsy Way
Patsy is on the Pastoral Care team at Windsor Park Baptist Church. She is a South African import, and an avid tea blender and drinker.
Have you thought about contentment being a state of mind rather than something based on circumstance?
Where does discontent lead you? Is this something you need to turn from?
Do you think discontent could come from God? What might God’s invitation to you be?
How might the practice of gratitude help you? Are there other forms of worship that could be constructive?
1. “Contentment.” Wikipedia, wikipedia.org/wiki/Contentment.
2.Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Lionel Giles (USA: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017), 8-9.
Photo credit: Given Ideas/lightstock.com
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.