Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2008.
I’m a privileged person. I’m a well-educated, white, middle-class, happily married man with three terrific daughters. Let’s face it, I’m not exactly from a marginalized group. I have more “good fortune” than most people who’ve occupied the planet for the last 10,000 years.
Yet I complain. Sometimes my coffee gets cold, and I have to reheat it. Several times. More seriously, I worry that I haven’t been a “good enough” husband or father, that I haven’t sufficiently served the needy, that my wife and I won’t have enough money for retirement, that, for all the relative prestige that comes with being in the professional class in a powerful, technologically advanced nation, I haven’t fulfilled my potential, or that this article will have too many long and burdensome sentences.
How are we to be content in a world constantly telling us that if we just had a fancy car or more romance or FILL IN THE BLANK, we would be happy, at least until the newer model comes along? It’s hard to be content in our times, maybe harder than at any other time in human history. Sometimes I feel like I’m battling a thousand charging soldiers, and all I’ve got is a cardboard shield and a paper sword. We would be better armed if we knew the obstacles we are facing.
Obstacle #1: The Almighty IF
If I just had X, I would be happy. Don’t you think this way? I know I do. If I just had $100,000. If I could get a new kitchen floor or a little peace and quiet. Of course, when we get what we want, when the IF is satisfied, the satisfaction lasts no longer than a surfer’s ride down a power-curled wave. Sometimes I think that all our struggles with contentment come down to this one word: IF.
We know our lives would be better off if we were “better off.” Will we admit this? Though we’d like to see ourselves as victims of advertising, we would make more progress toward contentment if we saw ourselves as willing volunteers for the Great Consumer Sweepstakes. We never have enough, and we never are enough. Veruca Salt says it well in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, “I don’t care how, I want it now!”
Obstacle #2: I Lust You. I Lust You Very Much.
Most of us admit to problems with desire. We lust (though we think lust is related only to sexual desire), and we acknowledge that we’re envious of others’ achievements (even to the point of being somewhat pleased when others fail). The Old Testament word for this activity is “covetousness” (Exodus 20:17), a term that may seem outdated, but I suspect mainly feels too strong, too “judgmental.”
God cares about our motivation. Not only does He not want us to commit adultery, He doesn’t want us to wish for it. We know the reason. Step one, longing hard after something, often leads to step two, plotting how to fulfill the longing, which leads to step three and so on. And we’ve seen how covetousness can corrupt us, moving us to think of our neighbor exclusively in sexual terms (a sex object, not a person who happens to be beautiful) or material terms (an owner of great stuff, not a person who happens to be wealthy).
Before massive depression sets in, we should notice that the commandment does not judge desire itself. It does not say that the ideal state is to be without ambition or passion, to be unconcerned about our own mediocrity or so “detached” that we don’t notice tragedy. Instead, the commandment argues against certain types of intense and destructive desires. Longing isn’t wrong, but we can long wrongly.
Obstacle #3: The “Fantasy” of the Perfect
When I need to pump myself up, I indulge in a particular fantasy. I close my eyes and imagine the object of my dreams racing toward me in awesome loveliness: a middle-of-the-plate fastball that I bash into the centerfield seats to win the game in the bottom of the ninth. Mobbed as I step on home plate, I tip my cap to the cheering crowd.
While nothing is wrong with daydreaming about a home run — and, in fact, our imagination is one of the Father’s greatest gifts to us — our ability to fantasize can puff up our covetousness until it threatens to push everything out of its way. The key to fantasy is control. We enjoy fantasizing because in our imagination we get what we want.
Some say this is fantasy’s blessing. Because fantasies are not populated by real people, we can’t hurt anyone in them. Defenders of pornography make this argument all of the time. But troubles abound. First, fantasizing can raise our real-time expectations. My spouse should be gorgeous, compliant and never have bad breath.
Second, we don’t always fantasize about non-real people. How can I love those who make my life difficult if I consistently imagine their demise?
Third, to “bless all fantasy as harmless” is to give too much freedom to our desire for control. We grow in our belief that we ought to be able to get the world to be as we want it to be — and that’s bad for contentment.
Although it’s part of human nature to seek to fulfill our goals as best as we can, we want control so everything will be perfect. But there is a difference between pursuing excellence and demanding perfection. It’s one thing to regret that our first pimple in 10 years shows up right before our big speech; it’s another to obsess over every cottage-cheese-mark of cellulite. Getting everything perfect is not only impossible, the demanding desire makes for impatience, guilt and self-hatred. It stifles hope.
What Contentment Is
As you’ve thought about contentment, you’ve probably wondered how to push for excellence without being defeated by it. How can we keep some control over the chaos of our lives without gripping it so tightly that all we have is a fist to shake at God when things don’t go our way? My definition attempts to address these tensions: Contentment is a hope that frees us to pursue the unsatisfied life in a satisfying way. I’ll walk through the definition phrase by phrase but not “in sequence” as it appears.
The Unsatisfied Life
You might be thinking, “Who wants the unsatisfied life? That’s what I’m trying to avoid!” At face value, this is true, but I mean something a bit below the surface, three aspects, in fact, of “the unsatisfied life.”
First, living the unsatisfied life means we reckon with the biblical idea that our planet is “fallen,” that it is violent and self-seeking, prone to disease and frustration. We know this — we’ve read Genesis 3 — but our expectations still scream that things “ought” to go well. Though Jesus promises an abundant life, He does not say that living will be easy or get progressively better or entirely fulfill us. We are all going to die. We will all suffer along the way. Sorry to ruin your day.
Second, living the unsatisfied life means that some things ought to trouble us. In one sense, the satisfied life is the smug life of complacency, of resignation. We should remain unsatisfied with injustice and greed, pride and blasphemy.
Third, living the unsatisfied life means that we don’t believe we will finally be happy when we receive some glamorous “prize.” We are not to put our hope in the ridiculous promises we hear, that a BMW will solidify our reputation or that losing 10 pounds will lead to romantic bliss.
Ambition seems at odds with contentment, yet “good pursuit” is blessed in Scripture. Instead of being “void of passion,” we are to “fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12). Life is difficult. Not being able to achieve perfection is no reason to cease striving, any more than we should not eat whipped cream because we can’t get it to stand up two feet high.
Interestingly, the “fight the good fight” phrase from Paul comes after he asserts that “godliness with contentment is great gain” (v. 6). Whatever contentment looks like, it means we should still “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness” (v. 11). There’s that affirming word, pursue.
A Hope that Frees
Contentment is a child of hope. We can live in the limitations of today when we trust that things will work out tomorrow or, eventually, in the thousand tomorrows of heaven. What gives us this confidence? Hebrews puts it this way: “Be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you'” (Hebrews 13:5). Our hope is in God’s character.
So, in one sense, covetousness is an expression of hopelessness. We lust when we don’t trust. If the present is all-in-all, and we feel wounded in the present, we tend to medicate our anxiety or boredom with food, busyness, pornography or constant noise, especially music. But when our hope transcends our circumstances, our circumstances cannot take away our hope. As Paul puts it, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4: 12b).
A Satisfying Way
The way to satisfaction in an unsatisfying world is to practice ars morendi, a Latin term for an ancient discipline that means “the art of dying well.” In the middle ages, the thought was that believers needed to prepare to meet their Savior, to learn to “let go” of this life and die with grace. My take on this is that well before reaching our physical decline, we have some good dying to do.
The art of dying well reminds us to surrender. We can express our trust in God’s goodness by accepting that THIS IS MY LIFE. Not my past. Not my future. THIS is my house, not the one my neighbor has. THIS is my spouse, not the one on TV or the Internet. THIS is the child I was given, the one with the strong will, the one who inspires heartache. When I feel overwhelmed grading papers and exams, I try to surrender by telling myself, “This is the life I’ve chosen.” Sometimes this one line settles me into a more contented state.
Part of surrender is “detachment.” Although the word itself might be a little off-putting, the idea is as liberating as they come. Thomas Merton says it well: “We must learn to be detached from the results of our own activity.”
Detachment does not mean that we shouldn’t care about what happens; it means that we are responsible for faithfulness, not for success. I teach as well as I can. Sometimes the teaching takes, and sometimes it doesn’t. Of course, I want it to take. But I am much more content when I concentrate on whether or not I have been faithful to the tasks I’ve been given, not on whether Joe Schmoe has actually learned.
The art of dying well reminds us that a “turning toward” is also a “turning away from.” When we face one thing, we turn our backs to another. When I turn toward the woman in a bikini on the beach, I am turning away from my wife. When I turn toward my neighbor’s car, I am turning away from my own.
Communication scholars talk a lot about reframing. When we frame an idea one way, we are not framing it every other way it could be framed. Sometimes the most important thing we can do is change the way we talk about something. Puritan pastor Jeremiah Burroughs models reframing: “A carnal heart thinks, ‘I must have my wants made up or else it is impossible that I should be content.’ But a gracious heart says, ‘What is the duty of the circumstances God has put me into?'”
To live the unsatisfied life in a satisfying way requires that we die, that we practice ars morendi. As we surrender and reframe, we conform our hearts to the heart of Jesus and learn to see ourselves as the Father sees us, as His beloved, as receivers of gifts piled higher than any Christmas “haul.” This is why Jesus says “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). It is the way to contentment.
Thankfully, His kingdom is not outside of ourselves, in circumstances we mistakenly think we can control. The kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:21). Let us live in that good news.
Copyright 2008 Greg Spencer. All rights reserved.