March 1, 2012
Contentment and
Motivation

Are They Both Possible
In the Christian Life?
  
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A young man once phoned me to share an idea he had for a book. He had come to the point in his marriage where he was happy, Gerald explained--content with a situation that used to annoy him. This new horizon was such a breakthrough 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 attitude change 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 discontent in positive ways to motivate us?

It seemed to me, in short, that contentment and discontent 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, to give more serious thought to this matter.

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 has much to say about the value of contentment. Paul lauds 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: “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). He instructs the Colossians similarly (Col 3:15-17), and he tells the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (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 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 you're truly content being single, you should stay unattached, Paul advises. But  “it is better to marry than to burn with passion” (v. 9). Discontentment with singleness, then, is part of the guidance God gives one to marry.

The Israelites became open to leaving Egypt, and were able to embrace the vision of relocating, because they so greatly disdained their life in Egypt. At times, though, when they encountered hardships while marching toward Canaan, they longed to return to Egypt. They complained bitterly to Moses, adding substantial burden to his leadership. 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 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 discontent. At one point he deemed them “rubbish,” declaring that he must “press on” (Phil 3:4-13).

At one point during Elijah’s tenure as Israel’s chief prophet, his disciples grew frustrated with the limitations of their quarters. “The place where we dwell under your charge is too small for us,” they explain to Elijah (2 Ki 6:1 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 disciples’ discontent led to an improved setting 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 RSV). 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 that inappropriate; he begins his epistle exhorting us to rejoice in our trials and to appreciate how they help us grow. But here he urges 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. It increases our dependence on him, and our humble awareness that certain welcome outcomes result 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.

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.

Common Sense

Common sense also tells us that discontentment is part of what drives us anytime we take a major step with our life. Positive motivation inspires us then as well. If I seek a new job, for instance, it’s likely because I’m (a) attracted to a new opportunity, and (b) wanting to escape certain factors in my current job. Without this 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 discontent is a vital life-force, giving us both the insight and the impetus for needed change. Inspirational dissatisfaction well describes this essential role frustration 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 vital guidance through unwelcome circumstances. We become more alert to the possible insight God may be providing us through them.

Being Content and Motivated

It was obvious enough to me when I spoke with Gerald that contentment and discontent both play an essential role in our Christian walk, and Stone's book, which I read later, helped confirm this conviction. What was less clear to me, as I mulled this issue, is how we can be discontented with a situation yet still thankful. 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? One day the answer dawned on me--not as a thunderous epiphany, but more like the two-by-four to the side of the head!

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 ESV). 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.

How, then, 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 welcome circumstance.
       

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