It wasn’t just a job I wanted as I hoped for the end to this season of waiting, but all that came with it: To wake up and not find 10 job search emails to sift through reminding me of my work status each morning. To stop being micromanaged by a 22 year old at my temp job. To date. To have conversations with friends about something other than my job search. To have a fascinating answer to what I do. To resume my school loan payments. Paid time off. To be able to plan for the future. To reacquaint myself with the feeling of being on a path and not just in a job. To be the less needy friend. To be able to be more generous. To have the mental energy to write or read about things I’m passionate about without fear of emotional depletion. To increase my budget for emotional commitments above austerity levels.
But instead, the week I find out I didn’t get any of the three jobs I interviewed for—among them one that was nearly my dream job—small groups at church focused on the Philippians passage about contentment.
For the past sixteen months as things went from bad to worse to over at my old job to financially crippling un- or under-employment, contentment has never strayed far from my thoughts. How disappointed can I be? How much can I cry and still say I trust God? Does a body showing signs of stress betray proclamations of faith? Does suffering the mental health effects of episodic poverty mean I’m actually discontent? Can feelings of weakness and contentment coexist? Does it count for anything that though sorrow nearly decimates me at times my voice cries out from the rubble, “You are my good”?
As I’ve teared up hearing about friends’ new relationships, opportunities to foster parent, and new jobs these questions accompany me. They resurface as I let things go for which I simply no longer have the bandwidth. But throughout this season, I’ve burrowed into what the Bible says about despair, sorrow, joy and hope to try to make sense of this thing called contentment.
First things first, I reject definitions for contentment with happiness or comfort at their core. Yet even the best definition I found—satisfied with what one has; not wanting more or anything else—felt lacking. At least in the spiritual sense, contentment seems more nuanced than that. Looking for answers, I turned instead to framing my thoughts in terms of the emotional capacity of contentment.
What Contentment Can Hold
1 Samuel 1:10, 12-16 In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly… As she kept on praying to the Lord, Eli observed her mouth. Hannah was praying in her heart, and her lips were moving but her voice was not heard. Eli thought she was drunk and said to her, “How long are you going to stay drunk? Put away your wine.”
“Not so, my lord,” Hannah replied, “I am a woman who is deeply troubled. I have not been drinking wine or beer; I was pouring out my soul to the Lord. Do not take your servant for a wicked woman; I have been praying here out of my great anguish and grief.”
I did triage on my emotions as those potential employment doors slammed shut and I let disappointment, pain and sadness go to treat what I felt like were more serious threats.
Contentment can contain disappointment. It can sit with pain. It can hold sadness. The key, I think, is in their degree, the absence or presence of hope, continued belief in the goodness of God and his will, and an ability to recognize yet not deify your desire. These things take the bite off disappointment, keep pain from becoming debilitating, prevent sadness from deflating a sense of meaning and purpose in life, and keep a raging and destructive devastation at bay. In the case of Hannah, her disappointment and sadness are directed God-ward for relief.
Contentment doesn’t necessarily remove desires but rather shakes up their objects and relative strengths. Time after time, the Bible affirms that desire is not inherently bad. How could one make sense of the passages instructing us to ask for things from God if it were so? God hears and encourages our desires (Psalm 10:17) and even fulfills them (Psalm 145:16, 19; Psalm 103:5). At the same time, the Bible speaks to and warns about the selfish, short-sighted, transitory, sophomoric, and deceitful nature of many of our desires as well. Proverbs 11:6 says, “The righteousness of the upright delivers them, but the unfaithful are trapped by evil desires.”
What Contentment Precludes
2 Corinthians 4:8-9 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.
I love Paul’s honesty here. He admits he’s not only going through some things but is candid in how they make him feel. He’s persecuted and feels perplexed. He’s reeling from the ambush yet not totally undone.
If sadness is a spectrum, despair and and self-pity sit at the far and unhealthy end. These were among the first to receive my attention during triage. Despair has a finality and desperation to it, a loss of hope that cannot look beyond the present. Resignation and fatalism, like despair, also suggest this loss of hope. They lack postures of submission to God’s will and neither turns the corner to seek God’s strength and power.
While I let sadness go, I did tend to self-pity. When one becomes a slave to their sadness that is what it becomes—a needy, comparative and self-indulgent preoccupation with what you consider to be unfair suffering. Self-pity resists being consoled, satiated, or reasoned with. It is not a still, trusting sadness but one that bulldozes over every reason for hope then backs up and drives over them in reverse. How can the one whose head is buried in sadness and feelings of inferiority and victimization look up to cling to Help?
Disappointment I knew would recover, but bitterness was in critical condition. Bitterness mixes unmet expectations with anger and indignation. It is disappointment run amok and defiles the one possessed by it (Hebrews 12:15).
In his honesty, Paul does not deny hardship exists. Denial absorbs pain rather than surrendering it to God. It is a common way of managing loss and unmet expectations, but it is not a humble one. Denial does not admit weakness thus cutting itself off from grace (2 Corinthians 12:9). Its strength is in pretense only.
Beyond thinking about how contentment is defined and it’s emotional capacity, I also looked to the Philippians passage where Paul says he’s learned the secret to being content in plenty or in want and thought about the unique challenges those two circumstances pose to contentment.
The Plenty Side
Jeremiah 17:5 Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who draws strength from mere flesh and whose heart turns away from the Lord. That person will be like a bush in the wastelands; they will not see prosperity when it comes.
I first thought it strange that people might need help being content in plenty. Isn’t the struggle most intense when in want? Though it felt natural to ask that because I wanted something, the more I thought about it the more I saw that plenty—crafty as it is—carries its own challenges and perhaps I myself had fallen into one of its insidious traps.
First, we often do not recognize our plenty. We have what we need, we even have a generous portion of the things that we want but ingratitude and a focus on what we don’t have keep us in the dark. Oblivious to just how much we have, ungratefulness blinds us to our plenty and we fail to enjoy our prosperity. Solomon pities such a man in Ecclesiastes 6:1-6 when he says that a man who lacks nothing but is unable to enjoy his prosperity, even if he lived a thousand years twice over, would be worse off than a stillborn child because that child knows more rest than the man who cannot enjoy what he has.
Another obstacle is comfort masquerading as contentment. In truth, I find that I live vacillating between comfort and ungratefulness, but if overlooking the good that we do have marks the trap above, here we rely on a substitute for something for which there is no substitute. It’s like using confectioner’s sugar instead of baking soda in a recipe because they look alike though their properties and the outcomes they produce vastly differ. Comfort can even impede progress toward contentment by making it seem unnecessary or already achieved.
Yet another doppelganger for contentment is uncalibrated happiness. We don’t weigh what matters. We measure the wrong things. The world and its fading desires (1 John 2:17) delight us, our eyes are fixed on tangible and temporal good, and we don’t consider spiritual blessings as part of our plenty. It’s a little like using a food scale: the person who primarily thinks of plenty in terms of temporal things weighs a heavy plate with little or no food on it while the person who thinks of it in terms of spiritual things weighs a mound of food on a napkin. We have not cultivated joy in the real food that satisfies. God chastens in Isaiah, “Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.” I find myself constantly coming back to this offer.
In addition to not recognizing our plenty, confounding comfort and contentment, and discounting our spiritual riches, we also perpetually raise the bar for what constitutes plenty. We become insatiable. The Diderot Effect is a social phenomenon related to consumption that posits first that people purchase in alignment with their sense of identity and second (and more interestingly) that new purchases deviant to that lead to spiraling consumption. Denis Diderot, the French philosopher who wrote the essay, “Regrets on Parting with my Old Dressing Gown,” explaining the phenomenon, describes receiving the gift of a beautiful new gown fancier than his other possessions. Over time, he grew dissatisfied with his other tawdry old things. Upgrading the rest of his possessions, he plunged himself into debt and lamented, “I was absolute master of my old dressing gown but I have become a slave to my new one…The poor man may take his ease without thinking of appearances, but the rich man is always under a strain.” It’s true that sometimes the more we have the less satisfied we are with what we have. Our possessions, whether material or immaterial (such as power, reputation, and relationships) provide limited and temporary potency. We can be sure that our pleasures will have short shelf lives unless they are rooted in Jesus.
The Want Side
“But those who when full enjoyed God in all, when emptied can enjoy all in God. They can sit down upon the heap of ruined creature comforts, and rejoice in Him as the “God of their salvation.””
– Jameson Fawcett Brown
What is life if not a series of crash tests intended to make us stronger by exposing our weaknesses? The most simple reason I can come up with that we, at least the average American we, are not content in want is because we were not truly content in plenty. Nothing, though, has the potential to rescue us from the comfort and happiness-cloaked illusion of contentment like loss and disappointment. We often don’t realize our security was in the wrong things until they are gone. “Contentment” good only while supplies last is not contentment at all. It’s precarious because supplies never last.
The other day after a trying afternoon at my temp job, I sat on the floor of my bedroom feeling weaker than I had in a long time. My thoughts drifted to the “who is weak and I do not feel weak?” passage in 2 Corinthians where Paul boasts of his suffering. He says in chapter 11, “If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness.” I continued reading into chapter 12 and I broke down when I got to verses 8 – 10, ” Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” I didn’t want grace. I wanted a job. Paul points to a contented sufficiency in Christ I feel I hardly know. So many times I’d read these words but this particular time they hit me with new force. They seemed both cruel yet life-giving. Though I wanted a change in circumstances, for this season to end, what a relief that I could have strength without being strong and what comfort that Christ’s power rests on me.
Want is hard because it lays bare our true loves and desires. Deuteronomy 8:16 says, “He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you, so that in the end it might go well with you.” During this season I’ve come to realize just how mindlessly I sang worship lyrics about God being more than enough for me before but had such little fruit to support it. For me, want has revealed a meager and abstract love for God.
Want also often fails to see glory in humble circumstances. The Bible is the story of the natural order subverted so that the weak shame the strong, the foolish shame the wise, the last will be first, the greatest will be the servant. The meek will inherit the earth. Though God has chosen the lowly, the despised, and the things that are not we derive no joy from that, most likely, because the world doesn’t.
Want is also hard because it demands faith, the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1). I think of the scene from the movie Hook where a table is set with this lush feast but Peter can’t see any of the food and can’t understand what everyone is eating. What the kids call imagination, I think of as faith.
Want confronts a circumstance-dependent view of God’s goodness. The other day I overheard someone say, “God really came through. So many good things are happening to me. I’m so happy. I was going through a storm and was in a terrible mood. But God is so good with all this.” I am sure I’ve spoken similarly before but here is something I’m learning these days: God doesn’t ever not come through. Desire deferred? God coming through. Door closed? God coming through. Wandering in the desert? God coming through. I’m not saying we can’t be grateful for good things but I echo Job’s sentiments in Job 2:10, “Should we accept only good from God and not adversity?” Tying God’s goodness to only good things happening and not also to our storms and droughts does at least three things: it dishonors God by delimiting his faithfulness (2 Timothy 2:13), it can misinterpret God’s no’s and not yet’s as meanness or lack of care (Psalm 121:4, 34:18), and it tragically wastes storms (Hebrews 12:11).
That ‘I can do all things through Christ’ life is like being reinforced concrete or shatterproof glass. Their strength is most obvious when bearing a load or absorbing impact. With shatterproof glass the interlayer “keeps the layers of glass bonded even when broken, and its high strength prevents the glass from breaking up into large sharp pieces.” It holds pieces together even though it’s broken. So when Paul says that Christ is his strength, he is saying he’s the thing I hold tight to when the world comes at me or I suffer loss. Christ is my interlayer: even when I am broken, I cling to him and he keeps me whole.
Without even knowing, we apply a corrective to what we see and hear as our sensation of them changes. This phenomenon, called subjective constancy, keeps steady our perception of a thing or quality amidst changing sensations. One kind of visual constancy makes it possible for you see people at a distance without thinking them to be mere inches tall. Color constancy causes you to see red in the sun or in the shade and have your mind perceives it the same. It’s a fascinating phenomenon.
I’ve come to use it to think about what it means to hold on to the belief that God is both good and my good in the face of loss, frustration, and pain. Even as my brain does not automatically believe that far away people are small people though my eye senses it as such, why do I allow circumstance to distort what I know to be true of God? Why is God’s goodness inconstant to me? He is Enough. No matter how the light hits the things in my life and regardless of what kind of shadows they cast or lustre they imbue, He is Enough, my fullness. “Color constancy is a process that allows the brain to recognize a familiar object as being a consistent color regardless of the amount or wavelengths of light reflecting from it at a given moment.” What so often keeps me from contentment is that the depths of my soul fail to recognize God as being a consistent and personal good—giving of a sure and steady love, giving even through taking— regardless of the volume or quality of temporal gifts I possess at a given moment.
When you have contentment you have everything, when you don’t, you have nothing.
When you have contentment you have everything, when you don’t, everything has you.
Timothy tells us that godliness with contentment is great gain. Peter says that faith is of greater worth than gold. Jeremiah says the man who trusts God has no fear of drought. David says happy is the man whose delight is in the law of the Lord; he will bear fruit in season and out of season. Isaiah says want to run and not grow weary? Hope in the Lord.
The world has distorted true gain, worth, and happiness and we have eaten it up. Though it says that the sorrows of those increase who run after other gods, we cannot halt our pursuit.
The End of the World
Psalm 73:25 Whom have I in heaven? And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
Psalm 63:3 Because your love is better than life my lips will praise you.
Psalm 16:7 I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.”
When the world has lost its lustre, its promises have been exposed as empty, and we begin to wrap our heads around the treasures we have in Christ; when we have disentangled ourselves from every false hope and trust and take heart in God being our very great reward; when we are so reinforced by the fullness of Christ that we can crack without crumbling and all our desires are correctly ordered; when we have managed to distance our hearts from all that consumed us before only then will we find ourselves contented and free. The world will hold nothing for us.