As you might know if you’ve been keeping up with us for at least a few months now, I have a contentment problem. It’s the cause of my overspending, my fluctuating between laziness and hyper-diligence, my people pleasing, and so on. I tend to make choices in a “grass is greener over there” mentality. God has done a remarkable work in my heart since sometime around January and while I know I am still not where He plans to leave me, things have improved significantly in my soul as far as contentment goes.
A large part of this is due to some difficult moments of heart sifting. That is, on a few occasions now I’ve sat down with a pen and paper and sought to prayerfully discern some of the specific roots, behaviors, and attitudes surrounding this sin in my life. And one of the realizations I’ve come to is that my discontentment is a product of pride (surprise, surprise) and a failure to have a right and genuine theology of suffering.
I’ll have to backtrack for a minute here.
My parents have certainly never been affluent in any way. They and their siblings grew up experiencing real hardships – some of them very significant hardships – and I know that after they married and had me and my brother, they had a (good) desire to give us a better life. But outside of special occasions, we really struggled. I don’t want to go into too many specifics for fear of embarrassing them in any way, but we lived in a weird flux between steak dinners – when we had extra money come in – and the usual meals crafted from the canned and dry goods that we received from local charities. I was teased mercilessly at school (even by kids who were fairly poor themselves) for my clothes, my mom’s car, and our home at the front of the trailer park. Not to mention the fact that we didn’t generally have good relationships amongst ourselves when at home.
I’m not trying to earn pity, because I don’t think I had things as bad as many others. But all that to say – it didn’t take long for me to realize my life was different from the ones around me. There was a gap in both quality and quantity that did not go unrecognized, either by myself or my peers. And boy, did I live for those moments when my parents, moved in love by my tears, broke down and spent more money than we could afford on toys or a new outfit at K-Mart or an elaborate Christmas haul (we gasp and groan at this last one when we watch old home videos). Those times when I felt like I fit in and could overlook the disparities, at least momentarily, were all I had to look forward to.
I know now as an adult that my parents probably felt the same way. I know this because I’ve only recently uncovered a place deep in my heart that is constantly, relentlessly desperate to use items, aesthetics, and even experiences like a good meal to distract myself and others from the deeper problems in my relationships . . . and, let’s be honest, in myself. We as a culture at large are driven to debt, despair, and work idolatry by assurances that these things will make up for what we lack. We feel the lack very keenly, don’t we? A lack in character, lack in hope, lack in money, lack in relational stability – all these things can easily move us to seek false, fleeting redemption through worldly means.
But while we may fool ourselves and others into assigning value to our lives this way, we can never fool God. And really, we aren’t even that good at fooling ourselves, because the joy we feel when we acquire nice possessions or experiences is so quick to fade. We always want to go further . . . to have more, to earn more, to experience more . . . until we hit some barrier that causes us to implode and reveal the sickness of discontentment in our hearts.
We will only be free, you and I, when we stop telling ourselves we deserve better than what we’ve had. You cannot #TreatYoSelf into the doors of heaven. You cannot cover any gaps or smooth over any ridges by swiping your bank card. Why? Because life on earth is not all there is. Both our pains and our joys here in this world are temporary, and until we believe this more deeply than we believe all the marketing schemes and Instagram filters, we will only drive ourselves more and more deeply into discontentment, depression, and despair.
One of the most wretched things about discontentment, particularly discontentment that is tied with suffering in some capacity, is that it shows us to believe we are entitled to something other than what God has ordained for us. There’s no getting around this. It’s why we get so upset when our earthly comforts are stripped away or when someone else has something we want but can’t get. Discontentment hinges on a deep heart attitude that says our lives are ultimately our own and that we exist chiefly for our own pleasures and purposes. The idea – the truth – that God has already been more merciful than we deserve and doesn’t owe us anything often makes us uncomfortable.
On the flip side of this, contentment (both in a material and experiential sense) is not moved to meditate on whether we stand out against our peers, whether we have everything we desire, or whether things have gone as we had hoped and planned. It rejects comparison and envy. It sees the emptiness in earthly treasure. It places trust in higher purposes and higher values. It holds all things with open hand, to the glory of God and the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:8).
Contentment is surrender. Surrender possessions. Surrender wealth. Surrender self. Surrender relationships. Surrender experiences.
They never belonged to us anyway.