What is Contentment?

“I just wish I had contentment in this season.” The amount of times I have heard people say these words (and have said these words myself) is too many to count. Why is this such a struggle? Why do we continue to feel discontented in every season?

A few years ago, my family was moving cities in the middle of my time in high school, and I was having a rough time with it. I was standing with my family at a church going away party for us and I could not stop crying. I remember leaning over to my mom and saying through tears, “I’m worried that people will see me crying and think that I do not trust God in this.” That is a moment I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Sophomore-in-high-school Emily did not understand that trusting in God and feeling grief are not mutually exclusive. I am still learning this.

What Contentment is Not

The hard part about contentment is that its definition is elusive. What is contentment? What does it really feel like? I think a lot of us feel like we are not content, when in reality our definition of contentment is an impossible standard on this side of eternity. We must choose to sift through our preconceived definitions and expectations in order to understand what contentment is not. Then and only then will we understand what contentment actually is and how it looks in our daily lives.

Contentment is Not Complete Satisfaction in Christ

It seems like I have heard a lot of people saying recently things like, “Well I am just completely satisfied in Christ,” or “this person is not completely resting in Christ.” I think we need to remove this line from our vocabularies. This is an impossible standard. As John Calvin says, “our hearts are idol-factories” and if this is true, then on this side of Heaven, our hearts are unable to be fully satisfied in Him. This is because while we are still sinful beings, we will naturally run to things other than God to try to be satisfied.

This is not to say that we should not ask God to continue to show us the satisfaction He brings, and part of the Holy Spirit’s work in us is causing us to rest in Him. Let’s stop beating ourselves up for not “fully resting in Christ” because that will not happen before Christ’s return.

Socrates profoundly says, “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” This has two implications. First, it does tell us that contentment is something that is determined by our circumstances, and something that must endure and can be found in every season. But it seems that what Socrates’ statement also teaches us is that on this side of heaven, everything we try to fill our emptiness with other than Christ, will leave us hungry for more. And the truth is that we will still try to do this until we are made new, so complete satisfaction in Christ is unattainable until he comes and makes all things new.

Contentment is Not Being Happy About Every Circumstance

Another mistake we make about contentment is that contentment must mean that we are happy about every season of our lives. This is not the case. The Psalms show us over and over again what it looks like to lament our circumstances before God. Another example that has become really vivid to me is in Job 13:15 where, after losing so much that he loved, says,

Though he slay me, I will hope in Him, yet I will argue my ways to his face. – Job 13:15

Job is saying here that even though he is unhappy in his circumstances, he will still trust God in the midst of it all. However, what we learn from Job is that we are not called to silently and happily endure trials. We are allowed and should be encouraged to plead our cause to God. We can bring him our frustrations and grief and longing for seasons to end. Trust in God and understand that honesty about current pain and longings are not mutually exclusive. Contentment is not enjoying every season, but it is trusting that God is working out of love in every season whether we see it or not.

So What Is Contentment?

I think contentment is remembering, through different emotions and circumstances, that God loves us and He will never change, and being thankful for the blessing of knowing that even when life looks bleak. Malachi 3:6 says, “I the Lord do not change…” and that is our hope in suffering, longing, and discontentment. But God’s immutability means nothing if we don’t know what He is like. What we know is that even amidst suffering and heartache and longing, God is at work out of love. In John 11, we learn of Lazarus’s death and Mary and Martha’s grief. Yet it says,

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, Let us go back to Judea. – John 11:5-7

This passage is disconcerting yet comforting. Because Jesus loved his friends so dearly, he let their pain linger. God allows seasons of hardship and discontentment because He loves us. This can be frustrating, but I think it gives us great hope in the midst of deep discontentment. It is the hope that God sees the bigger picture even when we do not. He loves us. He is sovereign. We can rest in that.

Because of this, we can sing the beloved hymn:

What e’er my God ordain is right.
Here shall my stand be taken.
Though sorrow, need, or death be mine, yet I am not forsaken.
My father’s care is round me there.
He holds me that I shall not fall, and so to Him, I leave it all

In our deepest discontentment, God is with us, and He sees the bigger picture in our sorrows and longings. He never will forsake us. As this becomes truer and truer to us, contentment begins to blossom.