Contentment is a radical choice these days. Our culture is consumer based which means that the world continually reminds us of what we do not have. We follow wealthy celebrities in part to experience wealth vicariously. We almost always believe we could handle it better than the shallow but beautiful people who live out their private moments in front of a camera.
Contentment is not merely radical these days; it is immoral. If we are not constantly striving to be more, have more, and have a greater impact, then we are copping out. The rat race is a moral imperative for many. I see so many couples working so hard to create their own brand of paradise, but paradise is not based on the car you drive, the beauty of your home, or your ability to entertain.
Paradise is not in having but in being.
The opposite of content is not merely discontent, despite the relationship between the two words. one of the opposites of contentment is shame. Shame drives us to accumulate more. Our possessions form an impenetrable shield around us, protecting us (so we think) against judgment. Our careers give us an identity that is unassailable in a world that codifies ambition as its highest virtue.
Another opposite of contentment is disappointment. To have our dreams shattered is to live in the shadows of despair. I think despair is the home of many who accumulate wealth or achievements.
But contentment is what we truly seek. To have enough, to be enough, these are the desires of our hearts. In order to inhabit this reality, we must be willing to appear weak or foolish. And to experience contentment, we must be willing to stop chasing our image of the perfect life. Contentment is an invitation to live in the present, but in order to live in the here and now, some adjustments must be made. Contentment is exchanging what could be or what should be for what is. Choices must be made.
I do not mean that one achieves contentment by giving up on dreams or destinies. I do not mean that one should stop working hard. Merely this.
To be content is to live anchored in the present with all its attendant emotions, to choose to live one’s life fully and intentionally rather than at the whim of surface desires, society, and the need for perfection.
So how to move towards living a life based on what you know to be true rather than on how you think others perceive you? Here are a few suggestions:
- Stay put. I spent most of my life wishing I was somewhere other than where I was. In the classroom, I wished the class was over. I waited five long days for the weekend. I counted the days until the next fun event or holiday. The problem isn’t with anticipation. Anticipation isn’t wrong. But once I resolved to be where I was, my life improved.
I stayed present while I taught. I paid attention during meetings I previously found torturous. I used my time as it came rather than trying to hurry it along past the boring or painful bits. I made what once were intolerable stretches of time (like waiting in doctor’s offices) fruitful by using that time for contemplation or planning.
When I stopped trying to get out of the here and now, I began to enjoy my life much more. I took the time to really listen to my children, my student, and my husband. I took the time to really listen to myself. Discontent is often just a habit. A really stressful habit.
- Stop trying to make things happen. The surest path to discontentment is controlling behavior because it is futile. Like the high school girl who plans every moment of her day so as to ‘accidentally’ show up where ever the object of her affections will be, we often fall into the trap of manipulating circumstances and people. And like the high school girl, we have to learn the lesson that we cannot make anyone do what they don’t want to do, or feel the way we want them to feel.
The worship of the controlling person belongs to the merciless god of “what should be.”
The whole world is made up of situations gone awry. But the attempt to control the behaviors of others is to alienate them. Sometimes I think being controlling is the ultimate portal into the realms of dissatisfaction. To resort to manipulation in order to get the responses we want or need is to know that what we gained is not really ours. Love isn’t love if we had to make someone give it to us.
The world is not what it should be, nor are we who we should be. But if we stop shoulding on everyone around us, we often find that what is can be a much more doable proposition than what ought to be.
- Resolve your past. One of the most misused verses in the Bible is where Paul tells us in Phl. 3:13 to “forget those things which are behind and press on towards what is before.” This verse is used as an excuse to ignore the painful parts of our past as well as to avoid healing or counseling. I have even read that introspection is to be full of self. But confession is impossible without self-examination.
One of the symptoms of most kinds of mental illness is the rehashing of painful moments. This obsessive behavior is to be trapped in the past. It must be faced before it can be left behind. One painful moment that haunted me for years happened in sixth grade. I must confess that I am and have always been a highly sensitive person.
So when I miscalculated what was only my second menstrual cycle, I was devastated. The boy on whom I had a crush for three years saw, much to his embarrassment as well. Sometimes the pain of that moment would hit me and I would feel the clenching of my insides. I called it the ‘inward wince’. When I asked the Lord to show where He was, I saw Him in my mind’s eye covering me with a blanket. He hid me and I felt His compassion so deeply, my memory no longer carries pain.
It only becomes possible to fully embrace your present when you can bring all the disconnected parts of yourself from the past into the present. If that small moment had such an effect, imagine what our most painful episodes can do? We keep running from the past and from the present because we feel we can’t bear the pain. Perhaps we cannot on our own, but we have a Friend who will bear it with us.
- Know what you want. A friend of mine who is a therapist once told me that the fastest way to make a middle-aged woman cry is to ask her what she wants. She went on to say that very rarely could these women identify what it was that they wanted. Many people define contentment as merely being happy with where you are and what you have. If that is true, then contentment is a dream killer.
Another common response to the ideal of contentment is to muzzle one’s heart. We reason that if we don’t have desires, then we are not committing the sin of discontent. This is not true, either. If God wants to give us the desires of our hearts, then desire itself is not the problem.
I believe the issue is that we do not really know what our hearts’ desires are.
So many Christians take the one verse in Jeremiah about our hearts being wicked as the final statement of the heart. But it is our hearts that cry out for God. He wants our hearts because they are made in the image of His great heart. We mistake surface desires for the great inner desires for significance and purpose. Unless we know what we deeply desire, we can never be content. We will wander aimlessly trying to fill our lives with achievements and things.
Contentment is a radical leap of faith.
It is the recognition that we have the things we long for. Faith is the substance of contentment. Because we know God and place our faith in Him, we know that we have all things available to us. We have the love and the purpose. We possess significance by virtue of who we are in Christ, rather than by the things we do.The revelation of our significance bears fruit as the works we do reveal the faith that must precede any good work.
In other words, good works only flow from Christ in us.
When we throw our lives in with the life of God, we no longer have to strive. We live out our days in the flow of the Holy Spirit. Once we find the kingdom of God, all the things we want and need are added unto us. Our contentment does not lie with a thing, but with a who. If our lives are hidden in God, then our contentment must be also.
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