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Contentment: The Secret of a Lasting Calm

If someone offered me a parka in a blizzard, I’d take it. Same with a hat in Death Valley, soup during a famine or a parachute in freefall. I’d not only take these things, I’d lunge for them. You would too. When desperate, we accept help.

by Richard A. Swenson, MD
Today's Christian Doctor - Summer 2013

If someone offered me a parka in a blizzard, I’d take it. Same with a hat in Death Valley, soup during a famine or a parachute in freefall. I’d not only take these things, I’d lunge for them. You would too. When desperate, we accept help.

How strange, then, that when God offers us gifts to fit our desperate need, He finds us uninterested. His gift of contentment, for example. Even if, for many of us, this is precisely the prescription for our ailment, I never encounter the word anymore. It has so little cultural traction that I don’t even hear it in casual conversation, let alone preached or praised. The word contented has been replaced by driven, aggressive, hungry, ruthless, relentless.

Taking a deeper look, however, we notice that contentment has been a principle in good standing throughout history, endorsed by philosophers, statesmen, men of letters and theologians of all religions. Even if times were marked by destitution, tragedy and pestilence; even if gutters were filled with beggars, doorways filled with prostitutes and people beat each other with chickens; still, contentment was lifted high. Thought leaders endorsed contentment as a source of hidden comfort and riches, treasured within a human heart despite circumstances.

It is only recently that contentment has fallen out of favor. With the escalating totalitarianism of progress and economics, something had to give, so contentment was replaced by unbridled ambition. No one stopped to have a memorial service nor slowed to light a candle.

Although all humanity can benefit from the contentment principle, those in the household of faith have a stronger pull than the endorsement of history. We have the endorsement of God: 1) The Tenth Commandment demands we not covet; 2) The Wisdom Literature, particularly Psalms and Proverbs, speak of a calm satisfaction in God’s sovereignty; 3) The life and teachings of Jesus reveal a consistent endorsement of contentment; 4) The Epistles contain three passages (1 Timothy 6, Philippians 4 and Hebrews 13) where contentment is both commended and commanded.

Here is our choice. We can live with discontentment, relentlessly striving after dissatisfactions we can scarcely name while incurring the collateral damage of greed, excess, envy, comparison, unhappiness, strife, debt, ruin and enmity with God. Or we can choose to live with biblical contentment, to accept adversity with peace, to "rest in the shadow of the Almighty," to have faith in God’s plan for our lives, to believe God knows precisely what He is doing, to trust that He has considered every possibility and chosen the right course for us. God, as you know, is our friend, and, frankly, that ought to seal the deal right there.

Contentment is particularly helpful in wild and disruptive times, which should bump it up near the top of our formulary. The world system is locked in an acceleration trap, and otherwise intelligent leaders are making it up as they go. The astounding rate of change is highly destabilizing. Volatility is widespread. The math is dysfunctional on nearly all fronts.

As a result, nearly everything is being shaken— economics, the middle class, housing, education, employment, politics, the institutions of family and faith, demographics, immigration, the publishing and music industries, the military, the auto and airline industries, entitlements such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, traditions, Europe, Middle East, South Central Asia, Pacific Rim—and that’s only a partial list.

Oh, and healthcare. Bioethics too. Many in healthcare are struggling to resuscitate their vision of the future, with mixed success. "I believe this is a very special moment in history, a kind of perfect storm," one pundit recently commented. "There is a growing recognition that our world has become unmanageable." Sounds like healthcare to me.

God knows a lot about disruptive times and nothing is "unmanageable" for Him. The Father’s provision, presence and providence are always perfect, and they usher us into a state of contentment. If that sounds like a platitude, it’s actually God’s formula for wellbeing in the midst of turbulence. His gift of contentment is completely unlike anything this culture has to offer.

Following are a few illustrations of what this contentment entails.

A FEELING OF BEING UNENCUMBERED

Waiting in a Dallas airport security line, I spotted a couple from New Zealand just in front of me. When I asked if they lived anywhere near the Christchurch earthquakes, the man said, "Actually, we live in Christchurch." My smile disappeared. "Oh my. Did you have any damage?" The wife said, "Our house and my place of work were destroyed. My husband’s office was severely damaged. But we had a prepaid holiday to the U.S., so we decided to come on the trip anyway."

"I am very sorry about your losses," I said. The man said something I’ll never forget. "We feel strangely unencumbered." They both smiled.

What? You’re kidding, right? You lose everything and feel unencumbered? Most, even the well-insured, would feel trammeled for years. I wished we could have had hours together, but my gate was calling.

The truest kind of biblical contentment is a state of feeling unencumbered. It is a state of absence of fear or anxiety about what we own or don’t own. It is being unencumbered by comparisons, regardless of our neighbor or colleague or in-laws. It is being released from the perseveration of dark thoughts about entrapment or depression.

A STATE OF FREEDOM

"The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want" is God speaking code about a secret path to freedom (Psalm 23:1, ESV). Freedom from wanting more than is good for us. Freedom to wish blessing on everyone we meet without the slightest tinge of envy. Freedom to redefine wealth and possessions in biblical rather than cultural terms. Freedom to gladly surrender our strife and have it replaced by His rest. Freedom to be biblically authentic in an age of financially-forced compromises. Freedom to understand that one heart, inhabited by Christ, is enough to take on the world’s opinion machine.

There is no freedom like understanding "it is enough to exist for the glory of God alone." Once we surrender, once we are fully content to be all in, the joy begins to flow.

A SECRET TO BE LEARNED

"I have learned the secret of being content," Paul wrote in Philippians 4:12 (NIV 2011). What does he mean? J. I. Packer says the word secret was intentional and it suggests being "initiated" into a secret teaching. Paul was "instructed" in a mysterious hidden truth unknown to the world but shared among the close confidants of God.

Paul did not buy his way into this secret, nor did he acquire enough merit badges to earn it. The first step to gaining the secret of contentment is that we must want it. Second, we must agree to rid ourselves of the pincer claws of this world. Third, God must judge us earnest enough to make good use of it. Then we gain entrance to the priceless treasure.

This secret is one of both freedom and power. When God’s providence is apprehended by our soul, we realize there is no end to the spiritual riches the heavenly Father pours into our lives. We now have within us that which is above us, and our joy comes alive realizing the world no longer has access to our affections or moods.

AS UNSHAKABLE AND STEADFAST AS GOD HIMSELF

Hebrews 13:5 reads, "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’" (NIV 2011). Here God commands that we be content and links this command with His own fidelity to us.

God never forsakes His people. He demonstrated it in Gethsemane and on Golgotha. Jesus wanted to pull back, but He stuck it out. Even when He sweat great drops like blood, even when they stripped Him and flogged Him, even when they hammered spikes through His bones, even—in the ghastliest of moments—when He became a sin-bearer for me, even when the Father turned His face away, even when the Messiah cried, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46, NIV 2011). Do you think, after all He has gone through, He would abandon us now?

"It is almost impossible to reproduce in English the emphasis of the original, in which no less than five negatives are used to increase the strength of the negation," writes biblical scholar Arthur Pink. "Perhaps the nearest approximation is to render it, ‘I will never, no, never leave thee, nor ever forsake thee.’"

This is the greatest kind of security, to know that God is our friend and nothing can separate us from Him.

To those who belong to His family, neither death nor life nor angels nor demons nor the present nor the future nor powers nor height nor depth nor ObamaCare nor EHRs nor Medicare reimbursements nor hospital administrators nor malpractice attorneys—nothing can separate us from God’s love. Why? Because God refuses to leave us. He never forsakes His people.

The human version of contentment is slippery, is vaporous, cannot be guaranteed by any level of financial attainment and is almost totally a relative experience.

God’s contentment, however, is divorced from circumstances, devoid of comparisons, independent of wealth or status and entails a complete spectrum from top to bottom. Its intention is to set us free and to give us peace, rest, trust and openheartedness. Perhaps this can be glimpsed in George MacDonald’s wise words: "I do not think that the road to contentment lies in despising what we have not got. Let us acknowledge all good, all delight that the world holds, and be content without it."

Amen.

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