When you picture contentment, do you see a cat asleep on a cushy bed, food and warm milk nearby?
Or a man in a comfy chair, reading by a cozy fireside?
Or a woman lounging on a beach, magazine in hand, tall cool drink at the ready?
It’s easy to be content when conditions are just right and all our needs are met. But what if you’re in a filthy, stinking prison, in chains and facing a possible death penalty? That was the situation Paul the apostle faced when he wrote, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. Whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Phil. 4:13
It’s embarrassing when I compare the struggles with contentment I’ve faced at times to the example Paul set in scripture. Moving our family of eight into an old, one-bathroom house with minimal storage was one thing. Trying to keep order and function as a homeschooling family when renovations required tearing out the few closets and cupboards we had was entirely another matter. Of course, it was no hardship at all when compared with the deprivation of so many in this world. Yet that comparison failed to comfort me. And the reminder of how much I had to be grateful for seemed to last only until the next time I needed an item and had to dig through stacks of boxes in the garage. Or I was bombarded by tumbling Tupperware from my rickety make-shift pantry.
A better picture of contentment might be a dog sitting in the rain awaiting his master.
It’s a faithful trust in the God who holds all things in His loving and powerful hands, despite the circumstances. The dog is quite aware of his own discomfort, but a greater obligation and trust overrides his preferences.
So contentment doesn’t mean we don’t feel our difficulties. In fact, Christian contentment shows up much more clearly when the conditions are difficult. It’s when contentment is the least natural response that God’s transforming power in our lives is most evident.
Jeremiah Burroughs wrote that there are three things contentment is not. It is not opposed to “a due sense of affliction. God gives his people leave to be sensible of what they suffer. Christ does not say, ‘Do not count as a cross what is a cross.‘” My frustration at the inconvenience and inefficiency resulting from our lack of good storage was real. Any trial we face is real. It’s what we do with it that’s important to God.
Burroughs adds that contentment “is opposed to murmuring and repining at the hand of God…[and to] vexing and fretting, which is a degree beyond murmuring.” My frustration should never put me into a “tumult” he says. No out-of-control rants, no angry blaming of God or my husband, no wishing for the good, old place we moved from. Just a trust that even this is meant for my good.
Thankfulness. Trust. Contentment.