By Amy Storms
If you happened to have been in southwest Missouri on a certain fall evening in 1994, I may owe you an apology. To anyone in Joplin, waiting to turn left at the corner of 7th and Duquesne, I’m sorry. There, first in line at the stoplight, I was learning to drive a car with a standard transmission.
My teacher was my college boyfriend, and our classroom was his 1988 Mazda. Andy would have made a fine instructor, had I not been so clutch-challenged. He tried in vain to make me hear the sound of the gears.
“Okay, listen for the catch. Hear that? Shift now!” I only heard an engine roar and die. The green light changed to yellow, then red, and we waited for our next turn.
“This time, try to feel the gears.” I tried. I felt nothing. I killed the engine again—another red light.
Our playfulness soon “downshifted” into a panicked argument.
“Listen for the gears!”
“Your car is so stupid!”
Five red lights and twice as many angry honks later, we traded seats. Andy turned left and drove me back to my dorm without a word. I cried.
Some lessons are hard to learn.
Fast-forward nearly 20 years. Andy and I are married now, with three kids and two automatic transmissions. I never learned how to drive that Mazda—in fact, I never tried again. But lately I’m learning another lesson, one that’s even more trying than transmissions. I’m learning contentment—and is it ever a hard lesson to learn!
Contentment means “sufficient in oneself, adequate, needing no assistance.” It’s an ease of mind, a deep-down satisfaction that says, “I don’t want anything more than what I have.” Contentment lets you sigh happily, laugh heartily, and sleep soundly—as soon as your head hits the pillow. Contentment is rest and fulfillment and joy.
Sounds great! But contentment is hard to find. Life’s tough circumstances, its tragedies and trials, make us unhappy. Worries and anxieties, like health scares and financial pressures, keep us from that “ease of mind.” Rocky relationships can bring us down, and even our stuff—stuff we have and stuff we want to have—can rob us of the deep-down satisfaction we crave.
I’ve lived the discontentment story. At age 21, Andy and I married (and sold the Mazda I couldn’t drive). At age 22, I was pregnant. I was 23 when our son Nathan was born and 24 when our first daughter Anne was born. At age 25 I had a miscarriage and we moved across the country. At age 26 I had our second daughter, Molly.
Then at age 27, I went on medication for depression. Those were my darkest days. Outwardly, I had it all—a faithful husband, three great kids, a growing church, and friends who loved me more than I deserved. And yet, in spite of all the blessings, the only cheery thing to me was my Prozac. I was empty—like a leaky balloon, deflating and impossible to fill.
A Lesson for Everyone
I wasn’t alone in my struggle. Discontentment is everywhere. When I asked my blog readers to share their discontentment stories, their answers sounded familiar.
“I feel like a hamster on a wheel. I run around and around, faster and faster, getting nowhere. I just want out of this cage.”
“I am often disappointed in my body.”
“It’s hard as a mommy to keep up with everyone and everything.”
“I usually think of contentment in terms of ‘stuff’—just being content with the possessions you have—and I don’t have a problem there. But I’m realizing that when it comes to ‘life’—circumstances and expectations of people—I’m not very content.”
I know stay-at-home moms who are unhappy staying at home, working moms dissatisfied with work, wives who are unhappily married, and single women who are unhappily unmarried. The common denominator among us all? Discontentment.
According to Psychology Today, in the year 2000, 50 books were published on the subject of happiness. Eight years later (2008), there were 4,000. Depression, fear and anxiety, materialism, addiction, marriage and friendship conflicts, insecurity, body image—all of it keeps us discontent. “I’d be happy if _____,” we tell ourselves, but we don’t know how to fill in the blank.
And yet . . .
“In all of this,” Bill Hybels wrote about our struggle, “we have a deep inner sense that contentment is possible. It can be attained. We just are not sure exactly how to get there from here.”
Possible, Attainable, Learnable
Contentment is possible and attainable. The apostle Paul explained to the church in Philippi that contentment is learnable, and what’s more, he said he had learned it. “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances,” he wrote. “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).
Rich or poor, healthy or sick, good times or bad, Paul says, “I’m content.” He found the deep-down satisfaction we seek.
When I hit rock bottom at age 27, depressed and dry and devoid of joy, I begged God to reveal Paul’s secret to me. I asked him to teach me Paul’s lesson of contentment completely—and preferably, quickly. I didn’t especially want to learn contentment. I just wanted God to wave his miracle wand over me—poof! Instant happy, and make me content.
Learning contentment, it turns out, is hard. Harder than turning left in a Mazda. God heard my prayer and went to work on virtually every area of my life—my identity, insecurity, and more. He meddled in my relationships, my attitudes, my addictions, and even my checkbook. Truly learning contentment was a process of trial and error. There was no quick fix, no Ten Easy Steps to a More Content You.
I’m not there yet. Like that night in Joplin, when it comes to learning contentment, I often spend more time stuck at red lights than turning corners. But God is a patient instructor. Much of what he teaches can be found in the book of Philippians, a veritable contentment textbook. There, in four short chapters, Paul repeats three main themes: joy, the mind, and Jesus.
Joy, the Mind, and Jesus
Of all Paul’s epistles, Philippians is his most joyful letter. In it, Paul mentions the words joy and rejoice more than a dozen times. Paul’s joy seems ironic, considering his circumstances. He wrote from Nero’s prison! And yet, Paul told his readers to rejoice “in any and every situation.” Joy is vital to contentment.
Even more than joy, Philippians makes 16 references to the mind—to remembering and to thinking. Contentment is a choice—a mindful decision—and a changed heart comes from a changed mind. Paul says a contented person decides to give thanks, and he lists the topics on which a contented mind dwells: things that are true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy. “Want to be content?” Paul seems to ask the Philippians. “Then think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).
More than joy, more than the mind, Paul writes about Jesus. More than 40 times in four chapters, Paul mentions the name of Christ. Why could Paul rejoice in prison? Because his mind was set on Jesus. Paul learned that lasting contentment comes, not in his own sufficiency, but in depending on the Lord. “I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).
Today, nearly two decades after failing miserably in the Mazda, I still can’t drive a car with a standard transmission. Almost a decade after asking God to teach me Paul’s contentment lesson, I still haven’t learned all there is to know. I still have dark days—even weeks—when I battle crippling fear and anxiety. I still make a daily, sometimes hourly, recommitment to be content.
But I’m determined to learn the lesson well. I’m determined to rejoice no matter the circumstance, to keep my mind fixed on Jesus, and to love him more and more deeply as I find my sufficiency in him. Thanks to a gracious, faithful Instructor, this contentment-challenged girl will keep learning, until one day I will say “Lesson learned,” because with Paul, “I have learned the secret of being content, in any and every situation” (Philippians 4:12).
Amy Storms is a freelance writer in Santa Clarita, California.
Technology and Contentment
In our modern era, it’s no secret that cell phones, e-mail, and social media can lead to a lack of contentment. In an effort to combat stress, Christians often fast from these things. And that may well be what you need to do. Many of us may need to reevaluate our day-to-day use of technology or restructure our habits to minimize discontent for the long haul.
First, identify the enemy of your contentment—comparing yourself to others on Facebook, feeling like you don’t have a moment’s peace because you’re constantly checking your e-mail, lacking face-to-face connections because you’ve got your smart phone.
Then ask God to show you the lies behind the action—and repent. Some possible lies behind your actions may be: (1) that your value is based on looks or social status, (2) that people need you always to be available, and (3) that real-life connections with people are dangerous.
Then come up with a practical, day-to-day solution. Limit your time on Twitter or e-mail, or keep your phone out of sight when others are around. Give yourself grace as you build a new habit.