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A young man once phoned me to
share an idea that he had for a book. He had come to the point in his
marriage where he was happy, Gerald explained--content with a certain
behavior of his wife’s that used to annoy him. This new horizon was
such a breakthrough for him that he wanted to write about it. He felt
he had a liberating message for others--that by accepting unwelcome
circumstances, in marriage and in life, they too can learn to be
content and happy.
I commended Gerald for his experience of growth. From the little I knew about him, his change in attitude seemed healthy, and evidence of God’s healing. Normally, I would have left it at that.
But Gerald wanted to write about his milestone--to explore all the nuances--and so I asked him to consider a question: Is contentment always good for us? Does God always want us to accept unpleasant situations in our life unreflectively, or does he want us to work at changing some of them?
And are we ever likely to take steps to grow or to improve our life, unless we’re dissatisfied with some aspect of it? Doesn’t God use discontentment in positive ways to motivate us?
It seemed to me, in short, that contentment and discontentment both play vital roles in our lives. Whether my observations challenged Gerald or irritated him, I don’t know, for I never heard from him again. Our discussion did challenge me, however. It made me more aware of an area of confusion for Christians that I hadn’t thought much about before. I felt instinctively that most believers don’t understand how contentment and discontentment should relate in the Christian life, and that this confusion hurts them in various ways. Yet I wasn’t certain how to explain this relation personally, and felt stirred to give the issue more attention.
Can We Be Too Content?
If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you’ve heard plenty of talk about the importance of contentment and thankfulness. Sermons, Sunday School lessons, books and articles stress the message: be thankful for all your difficulties, rejoice in every circumstance. We should learn to be content with what we have, and happy with our lot in life. If we’re suffering an unpleasant situation, we’re more typically admonished to “accept God’s will” than encouraged to change our circumstances.
Scripture indeed had much to say about the value of contentment. Paul lauded it as a virtue in his own life, declaring, “for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Phil 4:11-12). Elsewhere he notes that he was content with his possessions, as long as he had food and clothing (1 Tim 6:7-9).
In a similar vein, the writer of Hebrews counsels his readers: “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you’” (Heb 13:5).
Scripture likewise stresses our need for thankfulness. Paul urges the Thessalonians, “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thes 5:18). And he instructs the Colossians, “be thankful. [Have] gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:15-17). And he tells the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil 4:4).
In many other ways, Scripture encourages us to appreciate the benefits of our difficult circumstances, and to make our most earnest effort to be happy in the Lord as we endure them. “Let us rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope” (Rom 5:3). “Rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Pet 4:13). And Paul notes graphically how hardships he suffered helped him better empathize with the misfortunes of others (2 Cor 1).
Taken by themselves, these passages might seem to be saying that contentment and thankfulness are the end of the story for the Christian. We should strive to be happy with our life as it is, and to regard both welcome and unwelcome situations as God’s will. And we should assume that any frustration we feel is Satan’s attempt to destroy our joy and to tempt us to act selfishly.
However . . .
Scripture also shows that discontentment sometimes plays a redemptive role in the Christian’s life. To note a few examples:
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul teaches that dissatisfaction with being unmarried is an important reason to consider marrying. If I’m truly content being single, I should stay unattached, Paul advises. But if I long for the benefits of marriage, and my sexual need is strong, then I should marry--if a good opportunity presents itself. “It is better to marry than to burn with passion” (v. 9).
Discontentment with singleness, then, is part of the guidance God gives us to marry.
The Israelites became open to leaving Egypt, and were able to embrace the vision of relocating in Canaan, because they so greatly disdained their life in Egypt. At times, though, when they encountered hardships in their march toward Canaan, they longed to return to Egypt. They complained bitterly to Moses then about their plight, adding substantial burden to his leadership role. On these occasions, disenchantment with their former life of slavery wasn’t strong enough! Abhorrence of that state was healthy for them, and a necessary part of the emotional drive that God used to propel them toward Canaan.
Paul spoke of being content with his possessions. But when he spoke of his accomplishments, he expressed strong discontentment. At one point he deemed them “rubbish,” declaring that he must “press on” (Phil 3:11-13).
At one point during Elijah’s tenure as Israel’s chief prophet, his disciples grew frustrated with the limitations of their living and working quarters. “The place where we live is too small for us,” they explain to Elijah (2 Kings 6:2 RSV). Far from rebuking them for being ungrateful, Elijah encourages them to take steps to expand their personal space, and then helps them do it. The passage implies that the disciples’ concern was appropriate, and that their discontentment led to an improved environment for their work and study.
Then there is James’ enlightening instruction on prayer: “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise” (Jas 5:13 ESV). When we’re happy with our life, James says, we should sing praise to God--exactly the sort of advice we’d expect from a Christian teacher. But, perhaps surprisingly, he says nothing here about praising God when times are hard. Not that James would have thought it inappropriate to do so; in the beginning of his epistle he exhorts us to rejoice in our trials and to appreciate how they enhance our growth. But here his concern is to urge us to plead for God’s assistance when we’re suffering.
The benefits that come to us from thanking and praising God are inexpressible. Yet we also benefit remarkably from praying for his help. Doing so increases our dependence on him, and our humble awareness that certain blessings we experience come about from his action and not our own. We also experience a treasured sense of partnership with Christ through petitioning him--a camaraderie that Scripture understands as part of the abundant life he gives us. And prayers of petition are necessary, for us to enjoy some of God’s most welcome blessings; John Calvin went as far as to claim, “We see that to us nothing is promised to be expected from the Lord, which we are not also bidden to ask of him in prayers.”*
James’ counsel not only gives us permission, but a mandate to pray for God’s help when we need it. By urging us to pray when we’re “suffering,” James certainly has in mind any situation where we’re frustrated or unhappy. The corollary is most interesting: without some discontentment, we’re not likely to pray as fully or effectively as we should. It’s so often our discontentment, in fact, that spurs us to seek God’s help in the first place!
Common sense also tells us that discontentment is part of what motivates us anytime we take a major step in our life. Positive motivation drives us at these times as well. If I seek a new job, for instance, it’s likely because I’m (a) attracted to a new work opportunity, and (b) wanting to escape certain factors in my current job. Without this latter negative drive, I’m unlikely to find enough steam to embrace the positive goal of finding new employment.
W. Clement Stone had a name for this negative motivation: “inspirational dissatisfaction.” In his classic self-help manual, The Success System That Never Fails, Stone argues that discontentment is a vital life-force, giving us both the insight and the impetus for needed change. Inspirational dissatisfaction well describes this essential role that discontentment plays in our experience, Clement explains. And if we can learn to expect life to be offering us inspirational dissatisfaction, we’ll be more alert to the indispensable guidance our negative feelings may be providing us. They may be a window into how God has created us and into new directions he wants us to take.
Having such a term for discontentment’s beneficial side is indeed tremendously helpful. Making it part of our vocabulary helps us think in terms of life’s giving us “welcome guidance through unwelcome circumstances.”* We’re more alert to the possible insight God may be providing us through our troublesome experiences, and more likely to weigh our frustrations appropriately.
Being Content and Motivated
It was obvious enough to me when I spoke with Gerald that God uses discontentment to motivate and guide us, and that both Scripture and common sense tell us so. I read Stone’s book a year or so after my conversation with Gerald, and Stone’s concept of inspirational dissatisfaction strengthened my conviction that discontent is one of God’s primary means of steering our life in new directions. Still, it wasn’t at all clear to me how contentment and discontentment ought to integrate in the healthy Christian life. There seems to be a contradiction in saying that we should rejoice and be thankful constantly in all our difficult circumstances, yet also take the frustration we feel in them seriously, as an impetus to change some of them. Are we simply dealing with a paradox here? Or can we say in a clear and helpful way how these two attitudes ought to relate?
Recently the answer to this question hit me--not as a thunderous epiphany, but with the sense of a stern schoolmaster scolding, “Smith, you dense soul, how did you miss the point for so long?” The insight was so simple and basic that I couldn’t believe it had eluded me till now. Yet I knew it held an important key to staying balanced in our Christian walk--to our finding the motivation to remedy our problems and pursue our goals, while staying joyful in the Lord in every challenge and setback.
To say it simply: Scripture never calls us to be content with every circumstance in our life but in every circumstance. Thus Paul’s clear language: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Phil 4:1). Had he said he was content with every situation, his meaning would be radically different--and this is how many Christians understand his statement. Yet Paul clearly was not content with every situation in his life, and he strove to change many of them. But he had learned how to be content in every one of them, and in spite of many circumstances that were hard for him.
Fueling this “in spite of” contentment for Paul was a deep sense of Christ’s peace and presence, constantly comforting him in his challenges. Paul was also keenly aware of certain benefits his difficult experiences provided him--including:
the stimulus to grow, and lean more fully on Christ (2 Cor 12:7-10)
the opportunity to develop greater empathy for others going through similar challenges (2 Cor 1)
other serendipities and silver linings, such as open doors for ministry (Phil 1:12-14).
Thus, Paul on the one hand could be profoundly thankful for how God would bless him through his difficult circumstances, yet still feel free to strive to change and improve them. If the setting wasn’t good for ministry in one town, for instance, he would simply move on to another. And during his lengthy imprisonment, detailed in the latter chapters of Acts, Paul exhausted every appeal in his effort to be released.
What we learn from Paul, and from the entire teaching of Scripture, is that we’re not expected to be giddily happy about every circumstance in our life, nor are we expected to passively accept every unwelcome situation. There is a contentment--in fact, a joy nothing short of elation--that is possible for us in our most trying predicaments, and in spite of them. It springs from Christ’s presence and peace, and from recognizing the potential benefits our unwanted circumstances can bring us. At the same time, though, God expects us to give attention to our negative feelings, to consider them carefully, and to recognize that through them he may be providing us important inspiration for change.
Weighing Our Negative Feelings
This isn’t to say that God wants us to take drastic action every time we feel discontent--far from it! Often our frustration is momentary and shouldn’t be taken seriously. We’re human, and can get annoyed for all the wrong reasons. A bad night’s sleep, low blood sugar, and countless other factors can make us susceptible to feeling irritated against our better judgment. When we look carefully at why we’re upset, we find we simply flew off the handle. We need to slough off our bad feelings and move on.
In many other cases, our expectations are unreasonable and need to be adjusted. Negative feelings are signifying something about us that needs to be changed.
But ongoing, substantial discontentment in a given situation can also signify that it isn’t a good fit for us as God has made us. This is especially true if it’s one we have the clear freedom to change. God may be prodding us to modify our circumstances in this case, or to take a new direction in our life. Inspirational dissatisfaction is one of the fundamental ways that God motivates and guides us.
And that is enormously good news. We can know there is purpose to our unpleasant circumstances beyond what we’ve probably imagined. Yet this reality presents with a challenge as well--for how can we know for certain how God wants us to respond to a particular unwelcome situation? Does he want us to work at accepting it, and does he wish to change us so that we learn to live with it peacefully? Or is he using it to stimulate us to look at what we can do to improve our life--and if so, what action does he want us to take?
Here we’re thrown back to our critical, ongoing need to walk closely with Christ, and to constantly seek his guidance. As we devote time daily to being alone with him, seeking his renewing of our mind, we can approach our decisions with confidence that he is directing our thinking. No other single step gives us greater assurance that we are judging our circumstances with clarity and wisdom.
And no other step
better positions us to enjoy his peace in the midst of our most
difficult challenges. And that blessing is the Christian life’s most
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