By Karen Joy Robertson
A dear friend lived her final years in overwhelming pain, intensified by the disappointments that came with her circumstances. “Nobody comes to visit me. I have nothing to give anymore,” she said.
Growing old is not for the fainthearted. But neither is being young.
Carolanne, age 7, flopped into my lap and whined, “I am so bored!”
Rachel, age 17, sent a text: “School too hard. Hate it. Mom and Dad are so mad at me! Just don’t understand my life is hard!”
Sarah, age 27, unloaded her life frustrations to me. “I love my job and family, but I feel so negative these days. My house is chaos and the kids are so mouthy. I’m exhausted!”
Contentment doesn’t come naturally for most of us. We find it easier to complain, to grumble, to whine. But contentment is a goal worth seeking, and may be closer at hand than we think.
The apostle Paul observed,
I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 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. I can do all this through him who gives me strength (Philippians 4:11-13).
At one point, the suffering that Paul and his companions experiened was so acute that dealing with it was “far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself” (2 Corinthians 1:8).
But by the time Paul’s journey led him to a Roman prison, he had discovered the secret of contentment. He learned it the hard way: by counting it all joy even in the midst of the worst sort of circumstances.
Instead of practicing discontentment in his circumstances, Paul practiced being content through the strength of Christ. We practice our faith by putting it into action, whatever circumstance we are in. In Keep a Quiet Heart (Revell, 2004), Elisabeth Elliot wrote, “The secret is Christ in me, not me in a different set of circumstances.” Paul said to imitate him as he imitated Christ. “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you” (Philippians 4:9).
Four-year-old Katherynn loves to pretend. Helping me in the garden, both of us soaked with sweat and dirt, she said, “Let’s pretend we’re working hard!”
She copied and practiced working hard until it became a reality. She didn’t realize she had crossed from pretending to truly working hard with me.
My friend Rhonda died young. Cancer ended her life just as she began to live her dream. Her young family was just getting started. She remained joyful while holding a newborn who would never know her, her eyes wrenching with tears of grief.
“God knows what he’s doing,” she said softly. “He can bring good from this sad mess.” I hugged her toddler closer to me, agreeing in principle, but unsure how God could turn such anguish to joy.
That’s the essence of joy, trusting the God who is able to bring good from a sad mess, the God who is able to do so much more than all we ask or imagine he can do.
I receive contentment as I practice sharing with others the hope that is in me. My friend Katina and I got to do just that together. Our friend Elizabeth was weary, and her house had gotten messy while she dealt with a difficult medical diagnosis, schoolwork, a death in the family, and caring for the special needs of her baby. Her discouragement had led us to offer our help to clean house.
Leaving Elizabeth with a much cleaner house, roses on her table, and dinner ready, we headed home to accomplish some of our own work. Rather than weary, Katina and I were filled with joy and positive energy. We had sacrificed to meet a need, and in return we received contentment. Days later Katina e-mailed, “I am still basking in the glow of our kitchen-cleaning camaraderie.”
I receive contentment from hymns and songs and favorite Scriptures as I walk through my days. As the old gospel song says, “Why should I feel discouraged? / Why should the shadows come? / Why should my heart be lonely / and long for Heaven and home / when Jesus is my portion? / My constant friend is he! / His eye is on the sparrow / and I know he watches me.”
“The Lord has done great things for us” (Psalm 126:3).
Live a life that shouts faith. Cultivate gratitude. Practice praise. Scatter kindness. Do good. As we cast our bread upon the water, it returns to us.
The older woman who was so discontented in the nursing home received many cards, visits, and prayers from her friends. She was given opportunities to share her faith. God was faithful to remind her of his love and promises through songs and Scriptures. She exchanged the discontentment and loneliness she felt for a life marked by pressing on toward the prize and finishing her race.
Carolanne is still sometimes bored, but she is soaking up contentment lessons. She listens to God’s Word spoken and taught. She is memorizing Bible verses and songs of praise. She often trades her discontentment for cuddles with the cicadas in the yard or for feeding praying mantis newborns sugar water or for sketching the world God created.
Rachel sent me a text as soon as she returned from a high school mission trip. She had just told her parents she was going to go to medical school and become a medical missionary in South America.
Sarah has a positive outlook on life these days. She recently began to teach a Sunday school class. Her family cleaned the house and started a small group Bible study for their neighborhood. She uses her breaks at work to form friendships with people who seem as discontented and negative as she once was.
Like Paul, we gain contentment one circumstance at a time as we practice putting our faith into action, walking by faith not sight, being doers of the Word and not hearers only. Be the one from whom others hear contentment.
Consider Jesus, who took his grief into the garden to pray it through. When attacked by Satan or taunted by the Pharisees, he called upon the Scriptures he had committed to memory. He was no stranger to studying the Word or spending time in prayer. The tools for contentment were available to him in his darkest hours. Emotions ran strong, but his mind was trained to be content, alert to spiritual battles, and ready to fight the enemy.
Take a look at Paul, who sang while chained to a damp, dark prison wall with bloodied muscles screaming for relief. He chose to focus not on past losses but on pressing on toward the prize. Every shipwreck caused him to choose complete dependence on the God who sees and is able. Every beating drew him closer to the God who answers prayer and has a plan. Every betrayal taught him thanksgiving for those he loved deeply from the heart.
Joni Eareckson Tada does not enjoy living her life in a wheelchair. It’s difficult to endure her challenging portion of pain and disappointments. But she enjoys her life. She bubbles over with joy because of what the Lord has done in her life. She is content to minister alongside God in a worldwide ministry to the brokenhearted. Knowing God has allowed Joni to discover the secret to contentment.
Open your eyes to the wonders of nature. Notice the people God puts in your path every day. When you live fully awake to abundant life, you not only learn contentment in every circumstance; you scatter joy seeds along the way.
Godliness with contentment is great gain. We grow in godliness as we do all things through Christ who strengthens us. Contentment is ours for the learning.
Karen Joy Robertson is a freelance writer in Columbia, Missouri.
A System for Growing in Gratitude
1. Separate a pack of index cards into two stacks.
2. Using the cards in one stack, write down things you’re worried about or stressed about—one item per card.
3. Using the cards in the other stack, write down things you’re grateful for—one item per card.
4. Do this every day for a week.
5. At the end of the week, go back through your stacks. Set aside any cards that represent items you’re no longer worried about or grateful for.
7. Pray over what’s left in each stack.
8. Do the same thing the next week, but this time challenge yourself to create two gratitude cards for every worry card.
9. At the end of the week, go through all your cards from both weeks: Set aside the cards that no longer apply, and pray over what’s left.
10. Then choose one gratitude card and write a thank you note to the person who is responsible for the item written on the card.
11. Keep challenging yourself in new ways to persist in the habit of gratitude.