Six Steps Along the Path to Contentment

How content are you with your life? Are you fully content with …

… your job?

… your relationship status?

… your spouse?

… your children—their personalities, interests, and aptitudes?

… your church?

… where you live?

… your degree of worldly success?

… how much stuff you have and how new it is?

… your personal or household income?

… your health or self-image?

Discontentment has been a part of being human since … well, since Adam and Eve, and every generation since. I know I’ve struggled with it my whole life. I’d like to say that when I became a Christian 25+ years ago, I was able to overcome my struggle and have since conquered discontentment … but that’s not true. I still find myself needing frequent reminders, encouragement, and instruction on how to be fully content and accepting of the life that God has chosen to give to me, in every respect.

Along this lifelong path to Christian contentment, I’ve found much support along the way—people and books that have helped me grow in this area, step by step through the years. I can trace the path I’ve taken, book by book, mentor by mentor, and maybe some of this will encourage or help you along your path to contentment, too:

1. The first time I even became aware that contentment was an issue in my life, and an issue I needed to address, was sometime around the year 2000, after I’d been a Christian for just a few years. Even though I’d seen the effects of constant, lifelong discontentment in people’s lives who were close to me (it leads first to a core of bitterness, and then to despair, if you’re wondering), I didn’t yet see it as my own issue. But then I picked up Hinds’ Feet on High Places by Hannah Hurnard. This allegorical novel from 1979 truly resonated with me as a new Christian, especially one very minor character named Acceptance-with-Joy, a small, beautiful flower growing all alone in a barren desert. I’ve never forgotten the name of this character. The whole concept of “acceptance with joy” in my life was earth-shattering and convicting at the time … and it often still is. (This book is an allegory, much like Pilgrim’s Progress. I need to warn you about that, because allegories are not everyone’s cup of tea.)

2. Elisabeth Elliot stepped into my life at this point and, in her no-nonsense, straight-talking manner, gave me a quote that I’ve never forgotten. About contentment, she said (quoting from English theologian E. B. Pusey) : “Allow yourself to complain of nothing, not even the weather.” Again, a totally foreign concept to me at the time. Not complain? Ever? I tucked that into the back of my mind and mulled it over, allowing it to slowly change my attitude and habits of speech.

Right around this time, there was a maxim making the rounds among a group of homeschool moms I knew online: “Comparison is the death of contentment.” Twenty years later, I still know many of these moms, and we still repeat this to each other when needed.

3. Before I knew it, it was early 2011 and I was the incredibly busy mom of four children ranging from four to fourteen, homeschooling, working from home, teaching Sunday school, and trying to somehow keep all the plates spinning. You’d better believe that I was occasionally looking at other people’s lives and wondering why they were so much easier/more affluent/more peaceful/more impressive/less stressful than mine. That year, I read Ann Voskamp’s bestselling  One Thousand Gifts, which introduced me to the idea of continual gratitude. It offered, as it says on the cover, “a dare to live fully right where you are.” Oh, how I needed that dare, that challenge, that exhortation. I’m not in love with the writing style (this one also may not be everyone’s cup of tea), but the very concept of how and why to be grateful every day was life changing.

4. Which inspired a new practice for me that I continued for many years: every December, I started choosing a “word of the year” to focus on for the following year of my life. My first word was “gratitude,” and it went very well. Little by little and day by day, I was remembering to be consciously thankful for the many gifts that God had seen fit to give to me, whether big things (husband, children, my health), things that were new to me as an adult (a house, working cars, good neighbors, church), or small, everyday things (an hour to myself, a lovely sunrise, the smell of bread baking). I didn’t make a physical list of 1,000 gifts that Voskamp suggests; I was just thankful in my head, which was enough to help me form new habits and change my heart. (I ended up choosing “gratitude” as my word every single year. I tried other words, failed miserably, and returned to the only one that really clicked with me—clearly I need lifelong work in this area, anyway.)

5. Then a friend who was farther along the Christian path than I was recommended to me the granddaddy of all books on this topic: Jeremiah Burroughs’ The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. So I bought it. It’s been on my shelf for years now. I take it down periodically with great expectation and excitement, and then I open it up and see that the publisher has chosen a mind-numbing layout—perhaps the original from 1643?—that puts me to sleep before I can finish even one chapter (line after line of unbroken, identical text, page after page after page…). Maybe I no longer have the patience or reader’s fortitude that I did as an English major in college; that wouldn’t surprise me. Thankfully, another author jumped in to save the day and now I no longer feel guilty about never reading Burroughs’ classic book.

6. Just recently, I discovered Andrew M. Davis’s The Power of Christian Contentment—376 years newer than Burroughs’ treatise, with a very readable and inviting layout. Now, the thing I like most about this book is that Davis does indeed offer his own perspective on this topic, which is very thorough and helpful, but he also relies heavily and in a direct manner on Burroughs’ classic. You don’t have to have read the Burroughs book to benefit greatly from this one (thank goodness); Davis makes clear connections and then expands on Burroughs’ ideas in a contemporary and compelling way. From the very first chapter, I was especially drawn to Davis’s definition of Christian contentment as “finding delight in God’s wise plan for my life and humbly allowing him to direct me in it.”

Along this winding path to Christian contentment, I discovered two very important things: one is the relationship between gratitude (spoken, written, or in prayer) and contentment. The other is the relationship between complaining (in all its many forms) and discontentment. These are practical changes that anyone can implement in order to see significant changes in their Christian walk.

Before I became a Christian, I equated contentment with happiness, and it seemed that the overall goal of life was to be as happy as you could be, for as much of the time as possible. But when I became a Christian, I learned, much to my surprise, that a) contentment has almost nothing to do with “happiness,” and b) being content (and conversely, grumbling and complaining) was a significant topic throughout the entire Bible. The whole concept of being satisfied with what God has chosen to give you—not whining or complaining about it … not coveting what someone else has been given … and finding your contentment in Christ alone—is incredibly counter-cultural.

For more than 20 years, these six steps have helped guide me along my own path to contentment, but the most important part of the whole process has been prayer. Ask God for the gift of contentment with what he has given you. Ask frequently, and thank him for the changes he makes in your heart. Contentment may be a lifelong journey, but every step along the long and winding path brings you closer to where God wants you to be.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

To help prevent any misunderstanding about Christian contentment, here are two reminders about what it isn’t:

  • Contentment doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pray to God for healing, a spouse, a new job, etc. God makes it clear that he wants you to pray to him. Dozens of Bible verses verify this—here’s just one: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6)
  • Contentment doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dream about your future (my 23-year-old asked me to add this) or make changes if things aren’t going well in your life. Christian contentment doesn’t mean passive resignation to adverse circumstances.

Image by GuangWu Yang from Pixabay

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