We are often discontent with life. How can we learn to be content?
Contented babies are great. They sleep easy and they’re happy to be alive. But a contented baby doesn’t stay that way for long. New longings will come—many of which will go unfulfilled.
Even for the youngest human beings, a desire to explore the world quickly becomes a desire to have the world. The more our desires are met, the more they grow. Left unchecked, the ensuing quest for more is a perilous journey that can make a person frightening, ugly, and unhappy. We can all relate.
And yet the Bible often talks about incredible contentment. For example, the Apostle Paul once wrote, “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.”1
Most of us aren’t content with relatively good circumstances, let alone circumstances like those Paul mentions. What was the source of his contentment? Perhaps if we can understand how Paul could be content in his situation, we can learn to be content in ours.
The first step in seeking contentment is understanding our desires and purpose. The Christian believes we were made for God.
Some religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, suggest that desire is the explanation for all human suffering.2 But Christians believe the problem is found not in desire itself but in the human heart. Our hearts seek the fulfillment of our desires in all the wrong places.
Puritan pastor Jeremiah Burroughs put it this way: “The reason why you have not got contentment in the things of the world is not because you have not got enough of them . . . but . . . because they are not things proportionable to that immortal soul of yours that is capable of God himself.”3
In other words, because we were made for God, nothing in this world will permanently satisfy us. But when we know God, nothing in this world can take away our satisfaction, for it is fixed on something eternal and immovable. C. S. Lewis echoed this idea when he wrote, “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us. . . . We are far too easily pleased.”4
If we were made for God, why do we seek satisfaction in unsatisfying things?
The Deep Roots of Our Discontent5
Today, messages about contentment surround us. Storefronts, billboards, and commercials tell us we need things to be happy. Magazines and television shows tell us that our looks define us.
But these messages are lies about what we need—and they’re based on lies about who we are. According to the Bible, the very first of these lies occurred in the Garden of Eden, the place prepared by God for the first humans, Adam and Eve.
In the beginning, humanity was perfectly content because humanity was in perfect communion with God. The story of God’s creation of mankind is found in the first two chapters of the Bible; by the third chapter, discontentment has entered the picture. Adam and Eve believed the lie that they could become like God. “[They] exchanged the glory of the immortal God. . . . They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.”6
This exchange brought sin into the world, and so began humanity’s ongoing search for contentment in everything but God.
Consequences of Discontent
In reality, Adam’s problem had nothing to do with what he actually lacked; it was about what Adam perceived he lacked. Indeed, the nature of our problem as sinners is that we do not properly perceive our problem.
That was certainly the case with Adam and Eve: “For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.”7
What followed is a story of the tragic consequences of human discontent. Cain killed Abel in a fit of jealous rage.8 The whole population came together to pursue their own glory and “make a name for [themselves].”9
In fact, the Bible’s longest portrayal of human discontentment is set in the context of some of God’s most abundant provision. God delivered the Israelites from slavery, guided them through the desert,10 and literally gave them bread from the heavens11 and water from the rocks.12 Yet each time the Lord proved his presence and provision, the people soon returned to complaining, even claiming that they preferred slavery or death to their circumstances.13
Consequently, God eventually said to Moses, “As surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the Lord fills the whole earth, not one of those who saw my glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times—not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their ancestors. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it.”14
Discontentment with our circumstances is ultimately discontentment with God himself, who orders our lives. And as the Israelites learned, constant discontent can have terrible consequences.
The Cross and the Cost of Contentment
But how can we escape the cycle of discontent? Christianity offers all of us—discontented people in an unsatisfying world—the good news of the gospel. Christians believe that Jesus came to earth and died on the cross for us. In this act, Jesus took on our sins so that we might be forgiven.
But Jesus offers us more than just forgiveness; he also offers us deep, lasting satisfaction through the gift of himself. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”15
The book of Hebrews expounds on the idea of this kind of eternal provision, telling us, “Be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’”16 God’s promised presence means we will never be alone. It means we don’t need things, good circumstances, or anything else to be happy. When we have God, we have all we need.
Biblical contentment isn’t just about being content with what we have. Biblical contentment is being content with what we don’t have—and knowing that we can still be content if we lose everything but Christ.
For Christians, God’s promise is the guarantee of a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. This is what the cross makes possible. Those who come to him will know contentment that lasts.
Waiting with Holy Discontentment
And yet there is a good and godly sense in which we should be discontented. C. H. Spurgeon said, “The Christian is the most contented man in the world, but he is the least contented with the world. He is like a traveller in an inn, perfectly satisfied with the inn and its accommodation, considering it as an inn, but putting quite out of all consideration the idea of making it his home.”17
This is what the Bible teaches. We should be in but not of the world. Our eternal focus and ultimate contentment should be found outside of this world.18 Our world is a broken, painful place—we will never be able to find lasting contentment here.
“So,” the Apostle Paul wrote, “we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”19
C. S. Lewis hinted at this idea when he famously suggested, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”20
What kind of “another world” did Lewis mean? The new world described for us in the book of Revelation:
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” . . . And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”21
In the meantime, every difficulty in this life is a preparation for that place. As Paul said, “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”22
Remember Paul’s bold claim to contentment in the midst of tremendous hardship? His complete thought is even more profound. He was more than content in his difficult circumstances—he was glad for them. He wrote, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”23
Paul found strength and truth in what God said to him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”24
The same is true for every Christian. For those who belong to Christ, even our hardest times are an opportunity to find contentment in God’s grace as we await eternal glory.