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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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On Eggs, Dregs and Choosing What You Did Not Choose

Only eight words.

Eight words I grasp with my mind. Eight words I pray grace to live till I die.

These eight words: Joy comes from choosing what you didn’t choose.

The TL; DR on this post: expect delays, remember that comfort is overrated, and think twice when you pray for smooth.

Choose what you didn’t choose is really just another way to say what James said 2000 years ago: “Count it all joy, my brothers and sisters when you meet trials of various kinds.Which starts with learning to welcome- not to resent- life’s interruptions.

A lesson it may take a lifetime to learn.

Interruptions Are Real LIfe

The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life – the life God is sending day by day: what one calls one’s ‘real life’ is a phantom of one’s own imagination! —C.S. Lewis

That quote exploded my big-plan, little-margin life when I first read it years ago. Sometimes I still chafe when my plans are interrupted and I have to wait.

But He’s changing me. I know that because when the red line that suddenly popped up on my Google map had me praying just now, not grumbling, while our van crawled along for miles. And when my day-off plans were quick shortchanged by a call from the school nurse, I could count that “trial” right.

Because waiting for the green line and tending a sick son are precisely the “real” life God is sending me.

Count It All Joy

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. James 1:2-4

We will be interrupted and we will be tried. Which is why James wrote when you meet trials, not if. And that means we need to commit before they hit to count our interruptions and trials as-you guessed it- joy.

So trials are inevitable and they often come on us suddenly, like interruptions.

Which explains why James used a word  that means “meet” or “fall into.” It’s the same  word used in the parable of the Good Samaritan when a man fell among robbers, and in Acts 27 when the ship Paul was on struck a reef. The word emphasizes the surprise nature of trials.

Trials can come on suddenly. But all trials- internal and external- are tests by God intended to make us strong and mature and complete.

Lacking nothing. 

Dregs

But you know what happens when we’re not tested?

There’s a striking illustration of that in Jeremiah 48.  “Moab has been at ease since his youth,” the prophet wrote. Moab was a neighboring people to Israel. They’d lived an easy life; undisturbed and at ease.

John MacArthur closed a sermon on James 1:2-4 with an explanation of that Jeremiah text.  It has to do with wine-making. With dregs. Verse 12 says, “Neither has he been emptied from vessel to vessel, nor has he gone into exile. Therefore he retains his flavor and his aroma has not changed.” 

When wine is fermented initially it is a combination of what is sweet and what is bitter. The liquid was poured into a skin and left for a long time. Eventually, the bitter part would fall to the bottom and become what we call the dregs.

After a period of time what was on the surface was then poured into another skin and another passage of time would yield more dregs. After some time it would be poured into another skin and a few more dregs until finally it could be poured into a skin and there would be no dregs at all because all of that had been removed in that process.

What you had at the end was the pure wine.

Sweet, Pure Wine

We want to be pure wine.. We don’t want to retain a bitter flavor and musty aroma.

But without trials- trials counted joy- we’ll stay bitter and musty. Moab’s problem was that he was never poured from trial to trial to trial. Moab’s sinful, bitter dregs never went out.

That’s why maybe we don’t always pray for smooth and ease. Why, by grace, we don’t fall apart when trials and delays come our way.  Why we can sayIf God needs to pour me from vessel to vessel, and trial to trial to so the sinful dregs of my life can fall to the bottom and pure, sweet wine of righteousness remains, then bring on the trials.

And, somehow, to count them all joy. Which means we learn to choose what we didn’t choose.

Choose What You Didn’t Choose

Choose to see the interruptions as sent by God for our good. See the sickness that keeps us home and flat tires that slow us down, infertility that blocks a dream and relationships that break our hearts as for our good. That we might be mature and complete, lacking nothing.

Christian joy is grounded in our union with Jesus, and that union, not our plans coming to pass is the fountain for our joy, which sounds and is supernatural. Murray M’Cheyne’s words, “It is always been my ambition to have no plans as regards myself.”

But that sure grates against our 21st century plan-oriented sensibility, doesn’t it?

Despite the autonomy and self-determination we have, much of life consists of things we didn’t choose. And as one friend just reflected- most of her life’s greatest joys were unplanned. Is that true for you?

Control is an illusion anyway, but we can choose joy.

Eggs

Because saint’s trials are purposeful. They come to test our faith. The boot box says waterproof, but we don’t know till we hike in the rain. We say we trust God, but we don’t know till trials come our way. Alistair Begg makes it plain, Faith is a muscle. Test it and it grows. Leave it alone and it atrophies. 

The pressure builds endurance. Kind of like boiling eggs. But if we pull the egg out before the pressure’s done, the good won’t come. If you don’t leave the egg in hot water long enough, it’ll be a useless mess.

Let perseverance finish its work, James 1:4 says. Get ‘er done, mama says. Finish the work. Don’t pull out of the pot before the pressure’s done.

South African pastor Andrew Murray shares four truths that helped him to joyfully endure trials:

  1. I am here (in this trial) by God’s appointment. It’s not haphazard.
  2. I am in his keeping. He will hold me fast.
  3. In appointing my trials and keeping me, I am in his training program.
  4. I am in his training program as long as he wants me there.

Choose what you didn’t choose. Count it all joy.  If we’re going to be spiritual adults we can’t be dodging his purposes.

Let the egg boil already.

Choose Joy

Alistair Begg says, trials responded to properly are always fruitful. That’s Begg’s code, I think, for Joy comes from choosing what you didn’t choose. 

We accept that life is change and until the day day we die there will choices made for us that we did not choose. And we can resent the choices we didn’t make for ourselves or we can choose joy.

This is the day that the Lord has made. Don’t waste it. Choose what you didn’t choose. Choose joy. Because Someone who knows the beginning and the end sees it all and steers it all and loves you more than you can fully know, let those trials meet you.

They were traced upon our dial by the Sun of Love.

If You Knew Everything You Knew

Tim Keller said it this way, God will only give you what you would have asked for if you knew everything he knows. 

The fullness of the Christian life is available where you are now. You don’t need a dreamy husband or cuddly kids. You can be full and complete without a great church that sings the songs you like and work and ministry you crave. I can be full and complete without a bigger blog or a published book.

Which is not to say, don’t change your circumstances if you can (see 1 Corinthians 7:20-31). But it is to say, don’t buy the lie you can’t be full and complete until you do.  In Christ, you can (see Colossians 2:9-12).

Fullness and joy comes from being with Christ. In your presence is fullness of joy, David knew.

So choose His presence. Joy will come.

The Lord sees further than I do; I only see things at present but the Lord sees a great while from now. 

And how do I know but that had it not been for this affliction, I should have been undone.  

Jeremiah Burroughs

Props to Skye Jethani for the phrase: Joy comes from choosing what you didn’t choose. (Listen to the full interview with Skye, here.)