Robbers and Champions

Picture by Julie Axell
Picture by Julie Axell

Here’s a quick list – in no way comprehensive – of things that rob us of contentment or encourage us toward contentment. Some things are external, others are internal. Some things might be occasional robbers, but not universal. Other things (like insecurity) are universal robbers of contentment.

Robbers

Insecurity – It’s hard to be content while thinking and worrying about yourself

Magazines – Pressure to look a certain way, have certain things, be this or that, listen to this music, decorate your house a certain way. It’s hard to be content when someone’s pointing out to you all you don’t have or aren’t.

Social Media – Under the guise of keeping others up to date, it’s easy to unintentionally promote yourself, to make others feel they don’t measure up, or to feel discouraged at your own lack of…..you name it. (On the other hand, social media connects us in some wonderful ways)

Grumbling and Complaining – Just read a few chapters from the Exodus account of the Israelites wandering in the desert and you’ll understand the depth that complaining and grumbling can ravage a contented heart. How can a people go from being miraculously saved one moment to whining about their food the next? If we look at our own lives, we know the answer: easily.

Picture by Julie Axell
Picture by Julie Axell

Impatience – Until recently, I considered my frustration with my children to be an anger issue. And then the light came on inside my heart. It’s not anger. It’s impatience. I am too quickly irritated. Living one breath away from frustration is not conducive for contentment. It’s hard to feel at peace with life when our hearts teeter on the edge of being aggravated.

Fear – It’s almost impossible to identify all the various ways fear rages in our hearts and lives. Just last evening, I was anxious to the degree that I was distracted from the present moment and what could have been a fun time with my family. I was robbed of contentment.

Champions

Trust – The opposite of fear. When we surrender ourselves to the goodness and care of the Shepherd, we lie down and rest in safety.

God’s Glory – Consider the theophanies of Scripture (those moments when God’s presence is manifest among his people). Moses on the mountain or in the tent of meeting, Elijah at Horeb, Isaiah in the temple, Jesus on the mount of transfiguration. When God’s glory shows up, the trivialities of life are consumed by His fire. Read through Psalm 96. If we were to live with God’s glory constant in our sight, the passion of our lives, I think we would be quite content.

Picture by Julie Axell
Picture by Julie Axell

Simplicity – Richard Foster has an excellent chapter in Celebration of Discipline on practicing simplicity (he’s got a whole book on it, too). Simplicity doesn’t mean we deny ourselves good things to be more holy, but rather that live with a proper estimation of what is absolutely necessary. When it all boils down, we could do with out a lot of our stuff. And when we are at peace with that, we find contentment. 

Healthy Relationships – Sweet communion with those we love. That champions contentment. When we hang out with others who have an eternal focus, it garners the same in us. When we hang out with those steeped in fear and grumbling, it turns our hearts likewise. We must be careful who we bind ourselves to emotionally.

Your turn. What are the things that either rob you of contentment or encourage you toward contentment?

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The Power of Contentment

“So he said to me, “This is the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty. “What are you, O mighty mountain? Before Zerubbabel you will become level ground. Then he will bring out the capstone to shouts of ‘Grace! Grace to it!'” Zechariah 4:6-7  

There is no fuel for a content life like the fuel of God’s Spirit. We can try to simplify our jobs and social lives. We can shuffle around our hobbies. We can cut out certain foods and add others. We can pour money into beauty products and services. Get up earlier, stay up later, walk more, garden more, complain less, brush our teeth seven times a day (with oraganic, all natural, green toothpaste). We can even post crafty signs around our houses.

And in doing all this we are seeking the perfect life. If my life was just like this or that, we think, I would be content. As soon as I get my diet under control (or my TV habits, or my anger, or my sleep schedule), I’ll be at peace with myself. We are desperate for shalom.

Alas, none of this fuels contentment. Rather, in all of this, the Holy Spirit can gift us with contentment.

Consider the words above from the prophet Zechariah who ministered to the post-exilic community in Babylon. He encouraged God’s people in the rebuilding of the temple and prophesied about Jerusalem’s future place in God’s kingdom. He spoke to a brokenhearted, downtrodden group of people. Zerubbabel, as the governor, was faced with the seemingly impossible task of reviving a land and people who have been devastated emotionally, spiritually, and physically.

The Lord’s message to Zerubbabel through Zechariah is simple: Your task will not be accomplished by your intelligence, skills, good-decision making, resources, commitment, or military strength. But by my Spirit. And as if to emphasize the power of that Spirit, the Lord signs his name: Yahweh of armies, hosts, warfare (commonly translated as Lord Almighty). Great mountains will be like level plains before the governor. And the song accompanying Zerubbabel’s service will be “Grace. Grace to it!”

I’m having a “great mountain” sort of day. I’ve crashed into the mountains in my heart and the obstacles in my circumstances at sixty miles per hour. The task to which God has called me seems undoable. Not only seems so; it is, in reality, impossible. I have tried in my own strength to fulfill my calling—and to be content in the midst of it. I have tried to be wife, mother, and writer, and have only ended up falling on my face.

So here’s my version of Zechariah 4:6: Not by good parenting techniques, not by cute rule charts and character posters, nor by clever punishments or amazing spiritual pep talks, nor even by self-control, patience, and calm words, but by my Spirit, says the Lord. By my Spirit will your children know me. By my Spirit will you change. By my Spirit will your creativity and words amount to anything. By my Spirit will your marriage thrive.

Grace. Grace to it! becomes my chant. Grace to it, now—or else!

Or else this frenzied heart will shrivel and implode. Or else contentment is a cruel carrot dangling unreachable in front of my famished soul.

Gratitude and Contentment

Gratitude is a seed that grows into contentment. Every thankful thought roots contentment deeper into our hearts. But gratitude is so difficult. We are too busy complaining; we are distracted by envy and greed. And the weeds of discontentment choke out our attempts at thanksgiving.

In talking about gratitude and contentment, it is appropriate to mention Ann Voskamp’s story, as she wrote it in One Thousand Gifts.

Experiencing a difficult childhood which included the loss of her baby sister, Ann lived young adulthood in depression and fear. What finally broke open the door to joy was her discovery of eucharisteo, the Greek word for giving thanks. Jesus took bread, broke it, and “gave thanks” on the night before he was crucified—and in this Ann found freedom. Thanksgiving in a moment of trial. In her quest to be thankful, she chased after the simple and beautiful moments in life, keeping a list of gratitude for every minute thing which gave her pleasure. Her search for things to be thankful for was really a search for God’s presence. And she found Him. The more she gave thanks, the closer she drew to Him. The depression and fear subsided, and in its place, joy and contentment.

Sometimes, in the darkness, only the discipline of gratitude provides any light. It’s a discipline because we do not feel thankful when the blackness around seems impenetrable. We do not feel inclined towards gratitude when sin leads us down the wide road—again. When children demand and complain, when chores sit undone for a week, when people disappoint us, when we disappoint ourselves—how can we be thankful?

“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” 1 Thessalonians 5:17

In all circumstances? Yes. If Jesus can give thanks before the darkest hour in history when the Lord of the universe, his Father, would forsake him, then we can give thanks in the midst of failure and pain.

Ann writes, “When I give thanks for the seemingly microscopic, I make a place for God to grow within me.” The color of soapy bubbles in the sun. Fresh baked bread. A moment of silence in the midst of chaos. Having a car that works.

Having Him. His presence. His grace. If all else is stripped away, there is still Him. And thus, eucharisteo in all circumstances is possible.

The Mind of Contentment

How we engage our minds affects our level of contentment. When we dwell on the pain and trials of this world, our hearts are filled with hopelessness, worry, and fear. It takes intentionality to focus a mind on things of goodness, peace, and grace. Without direction, our thoughts float their own ways, lingering on past images seen, words heard, or memories. A mind needs to be trained. And training is discipline and hard work.

With each passing year, I lose a bit of “can-do” spunk. The battle seems too large and never finished. Remember how Paul learned contentment? Here’s a bit of encouragement on how we can learn this discipline:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” Colossians 3:1-3

Our being “raised with Christ” is our motivation for setting our hearts and minds on heavenly things. This mind transformation is possible because we are hidden with Christ.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable– if anything is excellent or praiseworthy– think about such things.” Philippians 4:8

Paul gives us an extensive list to start our minds down the road toward contentment. Don’t know where to begin to focus your thoughts? Make a list of all that is true, all that is noble, etc. We have a lot of freedom within this list. So many options for our grasping thoughts.

Then he continued, ‘Do not be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day that you set your mind to gain understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard, and I have come in response to them.’” Daniel 10:12

The words of the heavenly figure addressing Daniel encourage us toward the reward of setting our minds on the things of the Lord. Daniel’s efforts in training his mind were rewarded with intimacy in prayer and direct help from above. We do not struggle in vain to focus our minds on Christ. When we learn this discipline of the mind, we will gain greater contentment.

Contentment and Asceticism

Contentment is not about denying ourselves good things. Whereas simplicity and asceticism can be good disciplines to follow, they don’t automatically lead to contentment. In fact, when we deny ourselves things for the sake of being super spiritual, we usually end up pretty discontent. Why? Because contentment surpasses worldly circumstances. It’s not about what we have or don’t have, but what He has. And He has everything we need, and freely gives it to us.

There was a time in church history when people called the “Desert Fathers” practiced severe self-denial: fasting for weeks, living in caves, going naked, sitting on a pole, crawling on their knees. Sometimes this drew them closer to God, but other times, it just tested their limits and made them prideful.

It is the same with us. We can pare down our lives to the basics, or even strip ourselves of good pleasures, for the sake of contentment, and what will we accomplish? If led by the Lord in our self-denial, we will be drawn closer to him and find contentment. If led by our pride, we will reap mounds of frustration and will miss out on fun things.

When we make contentment into an equation such as “less stuff” + “more God time” = contentment, we set ourselves up to fail. Spiritual equations make life about us, what we can achieve. And besides, contentment is too complex for an equation.

Contentment must grow in the heart from the seeds of trusting in a good God, who is about good things, and allows us to enjoy good pleasures in this life.

The Groaning of Contentment

“For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.” 2 Corinthians 5:4-5 4

Contentment is not a superficial happiness that views life through rose-colored glasses. Contentment doesn’t turn a blind eye toward the hardships of life, pretending everything is going to be okay. True contentment is only discovered in the awareness that we were not made for this world. Such honesty allows us to reject the pain and sin of this world as not part of God’s original plan. In no way is contentment a call to “suck up and bear it”. Rather, contentment is a call to cling to eternal realities in the midst of the pain and sin of this world.

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11.

Eternity in our hearts means simply that we will groan while in this world, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling. Groaning is good for the soul. Groaning, also known as longing, yearning, reaching, wrestling . . . . Not only is it good for us, it’s unavoidable.

Evangelical Christianity often measures contentment by the level of personal satisfaction.  We can feel pressure to be satisfied with life when the questions are asked: “Are you satisfied where God has you?”, “Do you feel fulfilled in your career?”, “Are you at peace with the relationships in your life?” And if we answer “no” we get a finger waved in our faces. Tsk, tsk – where is our contentment?

Let me tell you, contentment goes far beyond a sense of satisfaction in the day-to-day living. Our struggle (and failure) to find contentment within the earthly realities of career, family, fame, or friendships, merely demonstrates we were made for something more. Certainly peace, fulfillment, and satisfaction are indicators of contentment, and God wants us to have his peace in the midst our circumstances. But just as real are the indicators of groaning, and longing, and reaching. If contentment flows from heavenly realities, doesn’t it make sense that we won’t feel a complete sense of satisfaction in this life? That’s good news for us who are dreamers, for us who are struggling.

How are you measuring contentment? Are those measurements healthy? Do you feel satisfied today or are your groans pulling you toward something greater?

Here’s a good truth upon which to base contentment:

“I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it.” Ecclesiastes 3:14

May we notice his kingdom work today and find peace in it.

 

 

The Place of Contentment is at the Intersection of Touch and Word

While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came along who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he fell with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him.” Luke 5:12-13.

Jesus offers the leper not just a command, but a touch. The significance of this touch is monumental. No one touched lepers; no one walked within fifty feet of them. No one looked at them, if it could be avoided. Jesus touched and spoke to a broken, cast away soul.

We need both his touch and his word. The place of contentment is where we feel his presence and hear his words, I am willing. His touch invites our communion, and his words invite our trust.

A word alone fails to renew a discontented heart. An admonition to “be joyful always” falls short of what a depressed heart needs. Without the touch, the word is lifeless.

The Holy Spirit is the touch of Jesus, his presence ministering to us. The Spirit is the supernatural connection between his hand reaching down and our hearts reaching up. The Spirit brings, I am willing, to life in our fearful, weak hearts.

May he meet you today with his touch and his word.

The Start of a Definition

freedigitalphotos.net
freedigitalphotos.net

Defining contentment can be like trying to sneak up on a squirrel. We can get close, but it darts away the second we’re about to pounce. Opening a dictionary can be a good start, but defining a concept goes beyond Webster. We can’t look to our own lives for a definition or we will get confused. Like anything with faith, looking inward obstructs our understanding, not enhances it. (I was content yesterday with my husband, children, house, and job, but today with the same husband, children, house, and job, I’m discontent).

Truth comes to us externally, from Christ’s Word and story.

Paul’s words, “I have learned to be content,” lead us to the beginning of our definition. Contentment is not something we attain for ourselves. It’s something we learn. Learning implies a tug-of-war process, not a linear progression from inability to perfection. It’s two steps forward one step back. It’s peeling back layers of an onion. It’s a gradual, multi-layered experience during which we’ll have times of clarity and success, and other times of confusion and failure. Thus, one day I’m content, the next day I’m not. It’s all part of the learning process.

The times of greatest learning are not those times when we feel content, but rather those moments when discontentment rages. In those unsatisfied moments, we have opportunity to focus on the true heavenly realities that are ours, and the peace God gives us through those promises.

Which leads us to another part of our contentment definition. Contentment is not based on worldly objects or situations. Paul’s admission that he’s learned the secret of contentment comes from inside a prison cell. Many of David’s Psalms are written from his time fleeing in the desert. Jeremiah tells displaced Israel to plant gardens and thrive in exile. Paul instructs us to give thanks in all circumstances.

Second Corinthians chapters 4-5 offer a beautiful picture of the realities that exist beyond our circumstances.

“Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

And we’re off on our month-long quest to define contentment. Here’s a sneak peek at what’s to come: how groaning is part of contentment, gratitude sows seeds of contentment, Paul’s story of contentment, how spiritual disciplines foster contentment, and how dreams interact with contentment.

It’s No Joke

IMG_5188

No foolin’. April’s word is contentment.

Too much noise in our ears. Too many images flashing around us. Too long of a to-do list. Too hard to overcome the gimmies. Too blurry the lines between needs and desires. Too easy the comparison between me and another.

What is contentment?

How do we find contentment in a discontented world?

Is it even something that can be found or is it granted?

I have a lot of questions, and a few ideas.