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Dissatisfied and Content: A Place for Discontent

Smiling content woman marathon runner

I’m not content with my discontent. In fact, I’m downright discontent when my soul is not at rest.

Which is, I think, as it ought to be.

Easy To Please

I’ve always been drawn to “low maintenance” types. The friends who take a 30 minutes to fix their hair and another 20 for makeup aren’t *naturally my type. Out of bed and off in 10 is more my style.

Christians ought to be the most easy to please people on the planet. We ought to be the most sit-loose people around, with our joy independent of our circumstances. I ought to be as as happy in my house in the woods as in a sunny mansion on the hilltop, as thankful with a can of Campbell’s tomato as with gourmet lobster bisque.

We ought to be. Because in Christ all things are ours (1 Cor. 3:22).

Paul penned these staggering words to the Philippians from his prison cell: I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 

Contentment is not natural. It must be learned. The good news is, it can be learned. It can be or we wouldn’t be called to be content (Heb. 13:5).

I have stilled and quieted my soul, the Psalmist wrote. Contentment is the goal. I agree, I aspire, I press on. Joyfully often. Woefully sometimes. But I want contentment to mark me. I don’t want to be the high maintenance one who needs this food or that praise or those props to put my soul at rest. I want to be easily pleased.

Because God is my portion. And because I want to grow.  But contentment doesn’t have to mean I’m always satisfied. 

Hard To Satisfy

Because self- dissatisfaction promotes spiritual growth. It does for me and I think Paul might agree. Growth starts with realizing that I am not yet what I want to be. Philippians 3:12 is about that, Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Paul was content with his outward circumstances. Yet he wanted to know Christ more.

While we are to be content physically– with our circumstances and possessions (Phil. 2:12, Heb. 13:5), we don’t want to be satisfied spiritually. Because blessed discontent often begins spiritual growth.

It’s when we feel satisfied spiritually, that we can get proud and complacent and that is dangerous. Paul told Timothy (1 Tim. 4:15), Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. In other words, don’t loiter.

Oh, that I might not loiter on my heavenly journey.

Have you heard of David Brainerd? He said that. That quote appears weekly on my iPhone reminders. Because I need it.

David Brainerd  lived his short life this way. He was a missionary to the native and died in 1747 at the age of 29. His drive for more holiness and more usefulness,  while enduring all manner of physical hardship, was a dissatisfied contentment. His love for Christ and the native people drove him.

Brainerd wrote, “When I really enjoy God, I feel my desires of him the more insatiable, and my thirstings after holiness the more unquenchable . . . Oh, for holiness! Oh, for more of God in my soul! And oh, this pleasing pain! It makes my soul press after God . . .  Oh, that I might not loiter on my heavenly journey.”

John Piper says of Brainer,

He was gripped with by the apostolic admonition: “Redeem the time for the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:16) He embodied the counsel: “Let us not grow weary in well doing, for in due time we shall reap if we do not faint” (Galatians 6:9). He strove to be, as Paul says, “abounding in the work of the Lord (1 Cor. 15:58).”

We press on. We thirst for Christ and grow thirstier still. With Paul we forget what is behind and press on for the prize. We fight the good fight.

Learned to be Content

C.H. Spurgeon cautioned, Do not indulge, any of you, the silly notion that you can be contented without learning, or learn without discipline. We grow strong in the Lord and the strength of his might.

How does one learn to be content? Dr. D.A. Carson answers,

You cannot learn contentment merely by living in difficult places. But you cannot learn contentment merely by living in happy places. You learn contentment by living in both places. And by discounting your joy as being dependent on either place.

So the formula for contentment for us as it was for Paul: look through the circumstances to the God who’s using them to shape me for good. Expect if you’re on top of the world today, he may drop you low tomorrow. I know what it is to abound and I know what it is brought low. Trust that he’ll keep us going from high to low to keep us depending on him. So we don’t get smug when all goes as planned or despair when nothing does.

I’ll share this to keep it real: this week, after 5 weeks of a sugar fast, my scale went up. That was not the plan. Weight-loss wasn’t the goal, but neither was gaining weight. So I’m at the end of myself today. In his strength, trusting God with that. My weight going up is my being brought low. It’s my proving ground for contentment. 

When we are truly content, and enduring all in God’s strength, we neither grow proud in success, nor are we crushed by failure. It’s a freeing place to be. 

But there are two places we should not be content.

When We Should Be Discontent

You’ve already heard about the first.

1. Complacency about my own spiritual condition. It’s not: I am what I am what I am, but I am what I am and his grace was not without effect to me. No, I worked harder than the rest (1 Cor. 15:10). One James McIntosh said, It is right to be contented with what we have, never with what we are. Paul was not content to stand still in his faith. He struggled with all Christ’s energy.

2. Apathy over others’ suffering. John Piper calls that “dissatisfied contentment.” He explains, “When Paul writes in Romans 12:15Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, he shows that the contentment of the believer is not a static, Buddha-like serenity unmovable by the hurts of others. When Christian joy perceives grief, it becomes “dissatisfied contentment.” It senses a lack and a need… Thus, Christian joy starts to expand in love to fill that lack.

But we turn these upside down. We get content with the state of our souls and stand off from the hurting people in our circles. At the same time we grow discontent with our circumstances and possessions, which are precisely where we’re told to rest content.

We’re like senseless beasts when we get these reversed. When we ignore those those hurting around us and our spiritual growth as we hunger for better food and a cozier den, we’re reduced. We’re like animals.

But there is another reason why we must get this right.

Content and Dissatisfied

Because, in a word, our contentment adorns our Lord. But so does pressing on to know him, eager to grow.

When my life isn’t marked by staggering success at work or ministry or children excelling at school or on the court and I still smile– well, that shines on a satisfying Savior. A gracious quiet spirit reflects the good Giver who supplies all our needs (Ph. 4:19).

And when we ignore our phones and create sacred space to know Christ more, that makes him look good too. Because, Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition (Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment).

We do have a good Father- the very best. So we both rest content with the things of this world and press on discontent, until we see him face to face.

Burroughs can close. 

My brethren, the reason why you have not got contentment in the things of the world is not because you have not got enough of them. That is not the reason. But the reason is because they are not things proportionable to that immortal soul of yours that is capable of God Himself.

For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Matthew 6:33

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Contentment & Things Too Wonderful

Mother holding contented toddler sons

My heart is not proud, O LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.
But I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me. 
Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore.
Psalm 131

I’ll just come right out and say it: I have not learned the secret to being content. My 44 year-old soul still gets restless and worked up and sometimes I fret. Paul learned to be content (Philippians 4:11-13). I am learning. 

But I had no plan to write about contentment. Until God about knocked me out with his word on a sunset walk. 

So here goes. 

My Restless Soul

It is one of the shortest Psalms to read, but one of the longest to learn. C.H. Spurgeon said that about Psalm 131. He’s right.

I spent a lot of time focused on the three verses of Psalm 131 last week, the first of which is:

My heart is not proud, LORD, my eyes are not haughty. I do not concern myself with things too great or too wonderful for me.

It’s the second half that grabbed me- not that I’ve got the pride thing all under control- only that I struggled with the meaning of too wonderful. Other versions use the phrase, too profound, or too high. It means “things that are extraordinary; things that are miraculous or astonishing; things that are beyond the bounds of human powers or understanding; inaccessible wonders; things we can’t possibly figure out.”

Reasons my reason can’t grasp.

Old-time Bible commentator Matthew Henry helped me here. He wrote,

It is our wisdom, and will be our praise, to keep within our sphere, and not to intrude into things which we have not seen, or meddle with that which does not belong to us.

I’ll admit, my soul has been a bit vexed and stirred up this week because of a decision made that does concern me but that I was uninvolved in making. I was not content. The reasons for the choice did not sit well with me.

But to decide was not “within my sphere.” I was not on that team.

Not Consulted and Not Content

Can you relate? Can you think of a time when you were not consulted and you certainly would have consulted you? A time when you felt put out that your sage insight was not sought out?

You have? You’re in good company, because I think this trigger to discontent is universal. It goes back at least as far as Job, who experts say may have lived around 2000 BC. So we’re talking 6,000 years of ruffled, restless spirits wanting to meddle outside their spheres.

Granted, Job had a lion’s share of loss. I won’t rehash that, only to say that even patient Job wasn’t perfect. His soul got stirred up.

Job started with a calm heart, but then he began to ask God and his friends the questions that come flooding in. Why questions like:

Why me, why this, why now, why?

Things Too Wonderful

But, to the point of this post, after God challenged Job with no less than 55 rapid-fire, questions to put Job back in his “sphere,” he uses the same word- wonderful– to confess and repent of his restless discontent.  

It’s in the final chapter of Job, chapter 42, verse 3: 

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 

If Job could say this after his children and wealth and health were taken from him, surely I can say it in lesser things. Surely after I’ve thought and prayed and researched and called the proper authority- who graciously heard me out and explained why “we’re moving in a different direction” -surely, I can rest, right?

Squawking Like A Fussy Child

Wrong. My soul was not at rest. It was not, to quote verse 2, “like a weaned child with its mother.” It was more like a squawky, squirmy 10 month-old year old, rooting and restless in his mother’s lap. I was not free from what “nagging self-seeking.” 

Because our minds- or at least my mind- dials back. I wondered why my opinion wasn’t sought? Because I wasn’t on the team. But then I wondered why I wasn’t on the team that decided? Why, why, why?

I won’t tell you how far I dialed back, but it was more than five cause-effect loops deep. 

Then, as is my custom, I went for a walk. It wasn’t till the home stretch they I stowed my phone and recited Psalm 131. And listened. At the last line of that first verse, the Good Lord stopped me cold. 

Hold up, Abigail. Listen to my word you quote. Listen. Stop squirming. You’ve made your case. It’s not your concern. This issue is too wonderful for you. I have my reasons. Let it be. 

God has his reasons. Be meek. Look past the “second causes,” the human decision makers- I told myself– and let it be. 

Hoping When You Don’t Know Why

Ten years ago next month my niece Hope was born. By the time my sister began to labor, Hope was already with Jesus. Grief comes in waves and life is never the same. My nieces and nephew talk about their sister Hope who’s in heaven. It still hurts. 

But.

But Danielle and Andy know. They know that the LORD will swallow up death forever and wipe away tears from all faces (Isaiah 25:8). They know that what is mortal will be swallowed up by life (2 Cor. 5:4). And they know– intimately and in real life and real time know- the God of hope (Romans 15:13). 

But there’s one big thing they don’t know.

Contentment: When You Don’t Know Why

They don’t know why. God didn’t consult them 10 years ago, and I don’t believe he’s told them since. But they rest content.

Vaneetha Risner isn’t a personal friend, but she’s endured “unspeakable, unexpected, and preventable,” loss. And she has learned contentment.

While I thought that freedom would be found in answers, true freedom was actually found in surrender. I didn’t need to figure it out. It didn’t need to make sense to me. I didn’t need to understand the details. I just needed to trust God. Trust him because he is infinitely wiser, more loving, and more purposeful than I am.

God is infinitely more purposeful than any of us. And he always has a reason. He’s probably got many, because, He alone knows all the facts.

John Piper says, God is always doing 10,000 things in your life, and you may be aware of three of them.

Or none.

By faith, we believe there are reasons. Good reasons. Believing there are good reasons for thwarted plans and for huge, unspeakable losses tends toward contentment. 

We must trust that they are simply too wonderful for us. Even if we can’t name a single one. 

Thy Will Be Done

Someone once said, God’s will is what you’d want if you knew all the facts. I like that. In the months and years since Hope’s birth, my sister and her husband did wonder why. We all wondered why. No test or doctor could explain why they couldn’t know Hope this side of heaven. Too wonderful, I guess.

Andy and Danielle learned contentment. They stilled and quieted their souls. They’re are not “concerned” with things too high, or wonderful for them. They released the need to know why baby Hope died, the “nagging self-seeking, and said “Thy will be done.” 

For instance, when you wish, and by every means endeavor, to be well, and yet remain ill, – then say, “Thy will be done.” When you undertake something and your undertaking does not succeed, say, “Thy will be done.” When you do good to others, and they repay you with evil, say, “Thy will be done.” Or when you would like to sleep and are overtaken by sleeplessness, say, “Thy will be done.” In general, do not become irritated when anything is not done in accordance with your will, but learn to submit in everything to the Will of the Heavenly Father.” (Father John, JOY AND STRENGTH, 7/21)

Thy will be done. In great trials, and with my “small potatoes.”

I’ve had my say and, unless I’m asked to explain, I will rest my case. Rest content and hope in the LORD.

Contentment Means Hope in the Lord

O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forever. That’s how Psalm 131 ends. And this side of heaven I think that’s how most of our restless stories end and how contentment is restored: Hope in the Lord.

Scripture is clear on this: Those who hope in the Lord will not be disappointed (Rom. 52-5: Is. 49:23, Ps. 25:3). In the meantime, we train ourselves to stay in our lanes and our spheres, and not to concern ourselves with things too great or wonderful.

God told Job, and God told me as I recited Psalm 131, quit trying to understand. Learn contentment instead. 

[It’s] foolish to try to know all the reasons of Divine Providence—why this affliction was sent and why that, Spurgeon wrote.

When we begin asking, “Why? Oh why? Why?” what an endless task we have before us! If we become like a weaned child we shall not ask “why?” but just believe that in our heavenly Father’s dispensations there is a wisdom too deep for us to fathom.

A wisdom too deep to fathom. Too wonderful for me. 

Weaned Children Stop Asking “Why?”

I picked the picture at the top because it’s the best one I could find of me holding a freshly weaned son. Gabe was 14-months old. He was weaned when I was on jury duty, two weeks before.

Psalm 131:2 says, I have stilled and quieted my soul like a weaned child with his mother. Weaned means being calm in God’s presence, trusting His wisdom and power and love. Weaned child = contentment. 

But this kind of contentment is not oblivious to problems and impervious to pain. It feels disappointment. It’s just that, in the end, it believes that God can see farther than we can see and knows better than we can know and that he works all things out for his children’s good

Contentment means leaving things outside my sphere to my Heavenly Father. When satisfying answers don’t come, it means trusting they’re too wonderful.

I am learning this.

Forgive us, Lord, our little faith;

And help us all, from morn till e’en,

Still to believe that lot the best

Which is, –not that which might have been. 

George Gray

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Disappointment —> His Appointment

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What’s the biggest disappointment of your life?

Maybe it’s a high hope that came smashing down with an injury, a breakup, a loss. Or maybe it was a noble dream- for healing, for children, for peace- that has slowly fizzled out.

I had some disappointment last week when some grand plans I had for myself and my family didn’t pan out. The details don’t matter. What matters infinitely more is that I learn to do disappointment well.

Because how I cope with my disappointment reflects a lot on my God.

For God’s Sake, Do Disappointment Well

My learning to cope has been slow. The devils of Self-pity and I-deserve are right there, crouching at my door, desiring to have me the second my plans fall through.

But I am learning.  Here are two things I know about coping with disappointment.

  1. Joy comes when we choose what we did not choose.
  2. Grumbling won’t make the bitter taste go away, but gratitude will.

But the third is new- or maybe it’s just a new spin on the first two.

See God’s Hand in the Crooked Path

In my disappointment, Ecclesiastes 7:14 gives me pause: Consider the work of God, for who can make straight what God has made crooked? 

Thomas Boston wrote a book on that one verse. It’s called The Crook in the Lot. Crook is short for crooked and lot is as in one’s “lot in life.”

Boston writes,

I am now meeting only what has been determined by his eternal plan. I know not what is the “reason” why it was appointed; but I see that God had resolved to do it, and that it is vain to resist him.”

When we are disappointed, can we say the same thing? That it’s not by chance or accident, but by His appointment?

Boston adds,

It is much, when we are afflicted, to be able to make this reflection. I had rather be afflicted, feeling that it is “the appointment of God,” than feeling that it is “by chance” or “hap-hazard.”

It speaks comfort to the afflicted children of God to consider that whatever the crook in your lot is, it is of God’s making and therefore you may look upon it kindly since it is your Father who made it for you. Question not but that there is a favorable design in it toward you.

And by some miracle of grace, that’s what saints do with their disappointment. They trust that there is a favorable design in their disappointment.

Because God makes no mistakes.

Too Wise and Too Loving to Err

John Paton and his pregnant wife Mary left Scotland to be missionaries to the New Hebrides islands in the South Pacific on April 16, 1858. They arrived on November 5th.  In March 1859, his wife and newborn son died.

Talk about a bitter taste and a crook in the lot.

After Paton buried his beloved wife and infant son, he said,

I felt her loss beyond all conception or description, in that dark land. It was very difficult to be resigned, left alone, and in sorrowful circumstances; but feeling immovably assured that my God and father was too wise and loving to err in anything that he does or permits, I looked up to the Lord for help, and struggled on in His work…

I do not pretend to see through the mystery of such visitations – wherein God calls away the young, the promising, and those sorely needed for his service here; but this I do know and feel, that, in the light of such dispensations, it becomes us all to love and serve our blessed Lord Jesus so that we may be ready at his call for death and eternity.

It does. In our disappointment, it becomes us all to rest assured of our God’s wisdom and love.

Love Leads in the Opposite Direction

I’ve been camping in the land Exodus lately and was greatly impacted by Tim Keller’s sermon on chapter 19.

The Israelites are three months out of Egypt but further from the Promised Land than they were before they left.

Exodus from Egypt map, ESV Study bible

God, for kind reasons of his own (Ex. 13:17), led the people in nearly the opposite direction of their destination and he took them into a desert. A mountainous, barren desert. A land far worse than Egypt.

I love how Keller explains this “history of grace,”

God says I’m going to take you over here, but I’m going to take you by way of a place that is farther from Egypt and a land that is worse than Egypt. And that’s where he meets them. And it is often so…

If you admit it, you’re further away from the the things you thought God would be giving you than you were when you trusted him and it seems like God is taking you in the opposite direction.

So often the history of grace in our lives follows this same path. God seems to be taking us away from where we thought we were going, but he’s still leading us to the Promised Land.

In other words, our disappointment is God’s appointment. That’s how God’s grace often comes.

Disappointment, His Appointment

It just so happens that the very same day I wept myself dry, I ran across this poem.

“Disappointment — His Appointment”
Change one letter, then I see
That the thwarting of my purpose
Is God’s better choice for me.
His appointment must be blessing,
Tho’ it may come in disguise,
For the end from the beginning
Open to His wisdom lies.

“Disappointment — His Appointment”
Whose?  The Lord, who loves me best,
Understands and knows me fully,
Who my faith and love would test;
For, like loving earthly parent,
He rejoices when He knows
That His child accepts, UNQUESTIONED,
All that from His wisdom flows.

“Disappointment — His Appointment”
“No good thing will He withhold,”
From denials oft we gather
Treasures of His love untold,
Well He knows each broken purpose
Leads to fuller, deeper trust,
And the end of all His dealings
Proves our God is wise and just.

“Disappointment — His Appointment”
Lord, I take it, then, as such.
Like the clay in hands of potter,
Yielding wholly to Thy touch.
All my life’s plan in Thy moulding,
Not one single choice be mine;
Let me answer, unrepining —
“Father, not my will, but Thine.”

-Edith Lillian Young

No sugarcoating: “doing” disappointment this way is both a bitter pill and a sweet remedy. I cried hard last week. Coping with disappointment this way hurts my flesh. But as it does, it heals my soul.

Even when I don’t know why, I’m learning to change that one letter and see that His appointment is a better choice for me.

“For He performs that which is appointed for me…”

Job 23:14a

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Like You Wrote It? When You’re Not Living The Dream

Like You Wrote It?

It didn’t sit right.

That America’s funny, wholesome family man- The Cosby Show was one of 3 sitcoms mom let us watch- would say something like that didn’t fit. It sounded smug, arrogant, proud.

I won’t comment on Bill Cosby’s fall from grace and imprisonment, except to say, It’s all so sad.

But Cosby’s comment does make more sense now.

These are not the exact words I heard on the TV interview two decades ago, but these are attributable, and they’re close. When asked about married life, Cosby said with that big easy grin of his,

We are living it now just like we wrote it.

It hit me wrong. Because even then, fresh out of grad school, newly married in my early 20’s, with a house and a job and good  friends, I may have been living somebody’s dream, but I knew I wasn’t living mine

My story had already taken some twists and turns I couldn’t have imagined, much less written 20 years ago. Let’s just say, I didn’t think I’d be playing these roles, with the “cast”  now. I’m not (mostly) living my dreams. This isn’t how I wrote the story.

Which is really no matter.

Playing The Part

Because, my life is not really my show.

C.S. Lewis explained like this: We do not know the play. We do not even know whether we are in Act I or Act V. We do not know who are the major and who the minor characters. The Author knows. We are led to expect that the Author will have something to say to each of us on the part that each of us has played.

The playing it well is what matters infinitely.

God wrote us each into this story, where He wanted us. He’s the Author of our salvation (Hebrews 12:2) and  the Director of our hearts (2 Thessalonians 3:5). And He casts each of us in his grand play to the praise of his glory (1 Corinthians 7:17).

And when we are on our set stages- and in our waiting stages- playing our roles with joy and thanks, we make Him look great.

Testify to Grace

Paul said something 2,000 years ago that ties all this story-play-dream stuff together for me.

In Acts 20 Paul shares some sobering last words with some old friends, church leaders from Ephesus. He explain that he will go to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to him there.

In other words, Paul didn’t know what turns his story will take. No worries, though, because not knowing the story didn’t stop him from playing his part well. Heres’s how he summed up that part (Acts 20:24):

But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. 

Is that the aim of our lives too?

Different Stories, Same Aim

Our stories are so different. But, John Piper explains, in Christ,

We do all have the same essential goal: to magnify the glory and the greatness of the grace of God in Jesus Christ. This is the racecourse all Christians are running. The turns and the terrain are different. The aim is the same.

This means we embrace the fact that we do not write our own stories. We don’t know the next page, let alone the next chapter. The way there is unknown.

Our stories twist and turn,

[A]round the corner called future and disappears into the unknown. Therefore, the unwasted life is always lived one step from the unknown. This is what faith is for. “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). That’s what faith does.

I don’t want to waste my life. Which means I need to rest content with the unknown next chapters and with parts I wouldn’t have scripted this way.

Not Living the Dream is Still Alright With Me

So, no. I wouldn’t have written myself in this way- not into this marriage or this job, not these boys, this house, or this blog. (Well, I guess I do write the blog. But it wasn’t my dream. My friend Traci spurred it on.)

But I do know this story I’m in, with both its surprise twists and its storylines that feel more static than I’d write, was scripted by God. 

And- oft in sorrow, oft in woe– often way too slowly both for the characters around me and for me- I’m learning that it’s not so much what part I play but how I play that part that matters.

Oh, sure, sometimes I let my hungry eyes drift to what seem like others’ storybook lives and dream up different parts for me. But my aim is to play my part well, which is to testify to the grace of God.

And the great thing is, I don’t have to have to be living like I wrote it, living the dream, to do that.

In fact, God’s grace might just look that much greater when the testimony to it comes from one whose story is not just like he wrote it.

I know, O LORD, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.

Jeremiah 10:23