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

Thirsty and Satisfied and Thirstier Still

Water bottle being handed to a desperate hand


When was the last time you were thirsty? I mean lips-parched, throat-ablaze, tongue-stuck-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth thirsty. I mean all- consuming, dyingfor-a-drink thirsty?

Have you ever been that thirsty?

Thirsty For Water

One day last July I came close.

I had a good podcast to feed my mind and green fields my eyes. I pedaled away as was my custom on hot summer days. A few miles out, I grabbed my water bottle. Groped, actually. Because I had no water bottle.

How could I forget? I chided myself. Should I head back? But the glutton for punishment part of me said, Finish the 18-mile course. How bad it be? I kept on.

When I felt the thirst, I’d swallow hard and lick my lips. That worked for a few miles- until cottonmouth hit and my tongue got stuck to the roof of my mouth.

Strange, I thought, how fierce thirst and sheer force of habit have me groping again and again for a water bottle that’s not here.

Before long I grew deaf to podcast and blind to the scenery. All I could think of was water, maybe a lick from that trickle in the ditch. I was consumed with thirst. The last kick up the driveway was more glorious an ending for me than ever a Tour de France win could be.

But in this CamelBak-Contigo-HydroFlask crazed culture, that kind of thirst is unfamiliar to most of us. My thirst was partly self-imposed. I could have turned around and been thirsty for the 3 miles rather than 15.

But I’m glad for that thirst. Because it taught me a lot about thirst.

Thirsty For God

O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water. Psalm 63:1

Everybody’s got a hungry heart, and thirsty soul too. Every single one of us is thirsty for love and searching for significance. Each soul longs to feel its worth. But the thirst for God himself is a thirst is peculiar to Christians.

The 19th-century English minister Alexander MacLaren wrote,

Blessed are they who know where the fountain is…and can go on to say, ‘My soul thirsts for God!’ That is religion. There is a great deal more in Christianity than longing, but there is no Christianity worth the name without it...

Dear friends! if you have found out that God is your supreme good, see to it that you live in the good, see to it that you live in the constant attitude of longing for more of that good which alone will slake [satisfy] your appetite.

See to it. Long for that good. Quench your thirst and thirst again.

Cultivate The Thirst

We can cultivate the thirst. In fact, to stay thirsty, we must cultivate the thirst for God and suppress lesser desires. If we don’t, MacLaren says, the desire will break off into a thousand little channels. We won’t feel thirsty.

But, dear friends! let us not forget that these higher aspirations after the uncreated and personal good which is God have to be cultivated… with great persistence, throughout all our changing lives, or they will soon die out, and leave us…

A man who lets all his longings go unchecked and untamed after earthly good has none left towards heaven. If you break up a river into a multitude of channels, and lead off much of it to irrigate many little gardens, there will be no force in its current…and it will never reach the great ocean…

So, if we fritter away and divide up our desires among all the.. partial blessings of earth, then we shall but feebly long, and feebly longing, shall but faintly enjoy, the cool, clear, exhaustless gush from the fountain of life-’My soul thirsts for God!’

The soul who thirst for God and his righteousness will be satisfied (Matthew 5:6). Then that self-same soul immediately renews its quest.

At once he is thirsty for God and satisfied in Him.

Thirsty and Satisfied…

I’m at Day 25 of a 40-day sugar fast. It’s helped me see how sugar is like a drug. A brownie sliver from the edge of the pan can become a slab and then a whole pan. A little is not enough. For better and worse, we crave more.

MacLaren again, on how a thirsting for God is like that, but different:

You have to increase the dose of the narcotic, and as you increase the dose, it loses its power, and the less you can do without it the less it does for you. But to drink into the one God slakes all thirsts, and because He is infinite, and our capacity for receiving Him may be indefinitely expanded; therefore…the more we have of God, the more we long for Him, and the more we long for Him the more we possess Him.

That helps me understand Psalm 63. It helps me wrap my mind around the thirsty soul in verse 1 which is the satisfied soul in verse 5. My soul thirsts for you. My soul is satisfied with you, the Psalmist cries to God.

The more we have of him, the more we long for Him. But really, isn’t this how it is with the best of lovers and friends?

…And Thirstier Still

Can’t we can spend time with loved ones and both be satisfied and have be “thirstier” for more sweet times together? To be with best of friends both quenches and kindles, satisfies and makes us thirst for more.

When will we get together again? is how time with my best friends ends. That helps me “get” what David felt for God on the run in the wilderness. He thirsted for God and God quenched his thirst so that his soul was more satisfied than even the most lavish feast. What then?

David grew thirstier still. Beg your pardon for quoting MacLaren one last time,

The two things come together, longing and fruition [satisfaction] … Fruition begets longing, and there is swift and blessed alternation, or rather co-existence of the two.

This is a blessed back and forth of thirst and satisfaction, a co-existence of the two.

God Intends To Keep You Thirsting

I love how Eric Alexander ends his message, “Thirsting For God,”

God in his great mercy by every conceivable means is going to set to work in our souls to set us thirsting after him. Sometimes that may mean…depriving you of the comforts and blessings of life sometimes even a conscious awareness of his blessing upon you, as with David. You might find yourself brought into a desert place, barren, wilderness.

But you know the one thing you can keep hold on and be absolutely certain of is that God intends to keep you thirsting for his glory.

David wrote Psalm 63 when he was in the wilderness fleeing for his life from a rebellious son who would take his life and steal his kingdom. And it was there that David’s soul thirsted so.

This is why barren places are blessed. Jon Bloom says,

They teach us both to want most and to seek most what we need most. This is a painful gift of priceless worth, because it drives us like nothing else to the only fountain that will quench our soul-thirst.

Water and water only could satisfy my thirst that July day. Our loving Lord wants us desperate and thirsty for him. For him alone.

But he might take us into a wilderness to get us thirsty for him.

Are You In The Wilderness?

For months, a dear friend has had some serious sleep trouble. She sleeps for 2 or 3 hours and then she’s awake the rest of the night. She’s tried all the secrets. But still- 2 or 3 hours. She told me how hard it is to be a good mom and a good wife and wondered, Why wouldn’t God grant me sleep for them?

I don’t know why.

But we prayed and after Amen, with wet eyes and head bowed low, she said, Maybe better than a rested mom, God wants me here. Dependent and desperate for him.

The wilderness is not comfortable. But God sends his dear children to the dry, barren place. His Beloved Son with whom he was well pleased? Off to the wilderness (Mark 1:11-12).

Adulterous Israel? Off to the wilderness. Hosea 2:14: “Therefore I am now going to allure her;
I will lead her into the wilderness
and speak tenderly to her.”

Judah, his people, the apple of his eye? Exiled in Babylon. But, they found grace in the wilderness (Jeremiah 31:2). I think he also means for us to feel his goodness in the dry, sleepless wilderness.

Being thirsty isn’t comfortable. My hot summer ride drove that home. It’s a desperate place. But comfort is overrated, so that’s good. Because God wants us thirsty. Desperately thirsty for Him.

Once upon a time Jesus said, “I thirst.” And he was in excruciating pain when he did. But he drank the cup of God’s wrath that we can have eternal, thirst quenching relationship with him. As Isaiah wrote, Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied.

That is our Suffering Servant. Because he thirsted and was satisfied, we too thirst and are satisfied. And grow thirstier still.

Yes, pine for thy God, fainting soul! ever pine;
Oh, languish mid all that life brings thee of mirth;
Famished, thirsty, and restless — let such life be thine —
For what sight is to heaven, desire is to earth. 

Frederick Faber

On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.”

John 7:37


7 Takeaways: 14 Days into the 40-Day Sugar Fast

Spoon and Fork imprints in sugar.

Today is day 14 of the 40-day sugar fast. The last post explained why I’m fasting. This post is about how. 

 

Fasting By Faith & For Faith

Yesterday a friend who’s fasting with me asked, What’s one thing you’re learning? In typical Abigail fashion, I proceeded to give her five. Then I thought of two more. They’re not profound or super-spiritual, nor are they universal. They may not be true for you. But still I’d like to share. 
 
Because this fast was borne of faith. Faith that God does indeed satisfy the hungry soul with good things (Psalm 107:9). And that whoever comes to Jesus will not hunger, and whoever believes in him will not thirst (John 6:35). But that sugar sates my flesh so my spirit doesn’t hunger, and that I go to sweets (and salty treats and Facebook feeds) to fill hunger that Christ wants to fill and he alone can satisfy.  
 
This fast was from faith, but pray it also leads to greater faith. I’m sharing these with so that you will be encouraged that God can use the loaves and fish you offer up- our desserts and sweets- to nourish others. That we may be strengthened and mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine (Romans 1:12).
 
So, please consider sharing your experience, whether mundane or triumphant. Your comment is most welcome.
 

7 Lessons, 14 Days In

1. It’s easier to fast when food is out of reach.

The word *easier makes me wince a little because fasting isn’t supposed to be easy. Maybe possible is the right word. Because the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Therefore watch and pray. (Matthew 26:41)
 
Some temptations we fight head on. We take up the shield of faith and wield the sword of the Word. But other passions- we flee. The end of 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, God is faithful. He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear, but will provide a way out so that you can stand up under it. Purging chocolate from the house has made this easier possible. It’s been a way out. So don’t expect to see me at Dairy Queen in the next few weeks. 
 

2. Old habits die hard.

I knew this. But I’m learning it in a new way, a really physical way. When a surprise batch of my mother-in-law’s frosted sugar cookies appeared in front of me last week, I grabbed one and on autopilot, took a bite, completely forgetting I was on Day 10 of a sugar fast.
 
The second the frosting hit my tongue, I remembered, humbled. Romans 7:15 popped into my head, I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Not at all that I hate the cookies- the opposite is true. But it’s not the season. Only that my response to seeing them was to take and eat, without thought, and without thanks. But there is grace for that.
 

3. Substitutes don’t force me to deal with my heart. 

And my heart is what this fast is all about. I think we know this, about substitutes. Because we trade obsessions, and compulsive eating is more common than we may think.

I just heard about a heroin addict who broke free of that evil and got hooked on cupcakes and candy instead. He never learned to handle the pain inside and now all the sugar is ballooning his waistline and seriously hurting his heart. That’s why I won’t let Stevia sweetened pecans replace my dark chocolate almonds. But truth be told, peanuts and popcorn keep trying to fill void. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, or with sugar. All things are lawful, but I will not be mastered by anything (1 Cor. 6:12). I get trading obsessions. But I need to take my hungry hollowness to God. 

4. I anticipate the feast more because of the fast.

For everything there is a season, and time for every matter under heaven, the Teacher said and the Byrds sang. Jesus Christ did both. He explained in Matthew 9:15 that while his disciples weren’t fasting when he was with them, they would fast when He, the Bridegroom, was taken away.
 
It is time for a 40-day sugar fast, but the season for feasting will come. And when it does, it will be that much more of a treat. I admit, I’m really looking forward to breaking fast on February 10th. How much more we should we be looking to the return of Bridegroom and the marriage supper of the Lamb?

 

5. Rich food is more satisfying. 

Jim and I redeemed a gift certificate last week to a local bistro. It was more gourmet than our dining out norm. Roasted olives, sourdough with salted butter, lobster bisque, and blackened salmon hit the spot.
Usually I crave ice cream after a dinner out, but the richness of our meal made the sweetness- and the after-dinner snacking- easy to forgo. That made me think of a fighter verse my friend quotes when she’s tempted by food, My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food. When we fill up on the rich food, we won’t crave fillers as much. 
 

6. Hunger pangs can be pleasant pain. 

Romans 12:2 says we are to be transformed by the renewal of our minds. Part of our mind renewal, I think, is to learn to reframe the pain. Because we know that to grow strong- physically or spiritually- we must recognize good pain, by which I mean productive pain. Hunger pains become good pains when I face them with faith that God is producing good in me through them.
 
Here’s what I mean: Not caving to my sugar craving tears down the idol of food as comforter. It makes space that the God of all comfort will fill (2 Cor 1:3). Then He gets the glory. But when ice cream soothed my after-dinner unease or chocolate bars got me through writing difficult IEP’s, ice cream and chocolate got the credit, the glory. Sweets were my refuge and retreat.

 

7. Fasting from sugar helps me pray. 

I’ve written before about how prayer can be more like a spare tire than a steering wheel. I don’t want it to be. Fasting helps me this way.
 
When that emptiness or antsy-ness or hunger pains come and I go to God first and say, Fill me, help me, He does. When that happens the Giver, Living Bread, and the God of Comfort get the glory. That’s what I meant, in #6 by pleasant pain: hunger pangs can be productive. 

So how’s this 40-day sugar fast going?

There are still 25 days to go. But this morning I did something new when my stomach growled at me. Two weeks ago I would have grabbed a few chocolate almonds and last week some peanuts. But today, I let the rumbling be a quiet call to pray. 

I didn’t drop to my knees or fall prostrate. I just closed my eyes for five seconds and prayed, Lord, I want to know you more. Please fill me.
 
That’s it. Then I did the laundry. But I did it a little more full of Christ and a little more happy in Jesus.
 
Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled. 
Matthew 5:6