Maybe you have heard it said that you will be content when you learn to empty yourself of all your desire. If you want nothing, you will always be happy with what you have. Maybe this seemed like an extremely godly point of view, and you felt guilty that you had not yet achieved a complete void of all your personal desires, hopes, dreams, and goals. Maybe you have been told that you should be content with what you have because you deserve nothing. Calvinists certainly love to focus on the T in TULIP: total depravity. We love to apply it to practical circumstances and tell each other that God owes us nothing. Maybe you have been told that if you expect nothing, you will never be disappointed.
This is not the biblical call of contentment. This kind of contentment is teetering on the brink of blasphemy. To believe that we are dust, that is true. To believe that we are owed nothing, again true. But, within the same thought, you have to believe that God can never be other than He is. God has to be merciful and full of lovingkindness. Although you live in a world where you are owed nothing, you will still be a recipient of a torrent of constant mercy because God owns this world. Instead of saying that we are owed nothing and therefore should be happy with nothing, we should say that although we are owed nothing, we worship a generous, kind, and merciful God, so we expect him to be generous, kind, and merciful. The difference is not in the premise, it is in the conclusion. Humble yourselves before the living God, so that he might lift you up (James 4:10). It does not say humble yourself before the living God because you deserve nothing and will get nothing and you should just be happy with nothing. That isn’t who God is! That isn’t who we are humbling ourselves before. When we are humble before the Lord, we should expect Him to lift us up.
Paul is always the go-to teacher on contentment because of this passage in Philippians 4: “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Paul is thanking the Philppians for their generous gifts to provide for his physical needs, and he follows up his thanks by telling them that he would be happy if they had given him help or not. He could be happy in all circumstances because he has Christ. But his last phrase, “I can do all things…” strikes me as a call to action. Instead of saying, “I have figured out how to not need anything” or “I have figured out how to not have any desires” or “I have figured out how to live on water only” he says, “I can do”. The pathway to contentment is not a pathway of complacency, it is a path of action. Paul is not saying that contentment comes from him never doing anything about his circumstances. He is saying that he can thrive by being joyful and peaceful in Christ while he does all things.
When contentment becomes complacency, it becomes a sin. When a follower of Christ believes that they should just accept bad circumstances and never try to change them, they are acting like they can not do all things through Christ who strengthens them. Paul is encouraging joy and peace with action. Obviously there are some bad circumstances that cannot be changed, and we need to learn to be joyful with the affliction, but many times we are in difficult places because of sin.
Contentment becomes a sin in circumstances like a mother who is content to allow her children to disobey her. Maybe she is just cheerfully going through her day, and doesn’t want to disrupt the peace. But that is complacency. That is laziness.
It shows up in marriages when a husband is content to let his wife manipulate and control all the decisions that God has asked him to be the bearer of. He doesn’t want to make his wife angry, so he finds a place of acceptance for the dysfunction.
It shows up in families who are tired and overwhelmed, so they convince each other they should be content with the minimal amount of education for their children. But godly parenting should never lower the goals on training up children.
It shows up in health problems, when a patient refuses to make the necessary lifestyle changes that would improve their health, and instead decides they will be content with their symptoms. Instead of working hard to improve, they are working hard to accept their own slothfulness.
It shows up in classrooms when a teacher accepts disrespectful behavior because she is content with a little bit of disruption. Instead of holding her students to a high standard and risking unhappy parents, she is content to let sin continue.
It shows up in fathers who don’t seek to provide financial stability for their families in the name of contentment. Instead of seeking to care for their families in every way possible, they allow themselves to be lazy and slap a biblical virtue onto it.
It shows up in wives who are content with their abusive marriages and fail to expose that their husbands are misrepresenting Christ. Instead of being wise like Abigail and learning how to appropriately bring up her husband’s foolishness, she empties herself of the desire for a godly marriage and hides sin.
A content heart does not look at its hard circumstances and try to convince itself that bad is good. A content heart looks at its hard circumstances and says, “Thank you, Lord, for putting me in this difficulty. Help me to be joyful in the affliction. Although I do not deserve anything better, I believe that you are good and that you have good things prepared for me. Show me what things I need to change in order to be obedient to you in my circumstances. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Lindsey Tollefson is a wife and homemaker in Moscow, ID.
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