Before anything else, we must establish the fact that we as Christians ought to be content. This is easy enough to do. Hebrews 13:5 says, “Be content.” Having established that, we have to know exactly what is contentment. Rather than pull together various Bible verses and re-invent the wheel, I will rely on the very apt definition by Jeremiah Burroughs, who, in the seventeen century, wrote a thoroughly biblical and pastoral book called The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. He says: “Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.” So this is what we as Christians must strive to possess, as per the command in Hebrews. Finally, and still by way of introduction, we must acknowledge that, however far we may be from being truly content, it is in fact possible to be content in this life. We can affirm this because Paul said, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (4:11). This verse shows that at one point Paul was not content, but eventually he reached a state of contentment.
It is not my intention in this post to unpack Burroughs’s definition or explain how he got there or to engage in profound exegesis. Feel free to order the book if you desire that. Rather, in this post I want to be very practical about how we can become more content. For this, I will take it for granted that most of us (I certainly include myself in this) struggle to be content with who we are, what we have, etc. How can we be content in every situation we are in? How can we have a “sweet, inward, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition”?
I could just say, “Practice the ordinary means of grace. Go to church, read the Bible, and pray, and over time God will sanctify you.” Those are all good things to do, and doing them faithfully may very well help, but for most of us that just isn’t enough. We have been going to church, we have been reading the Bible, we have been praying, and we are still not content. Is there advice that is more pin-pointed to the issue of contentment?
We have to cultivate a deeper awareness of the fact that God is wise and good, and as a Father, He gives to His children what is good for us at every moment. We have to believe this, even when we lack the things we desire. The verse previously quoted from Hebrews more fully says, “Be content… for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” It is the presence of God that makes us content, if it is the presence of God we most desire. If we desire stuff more than God, then the reason given in Hebrews, that God is always with us, does not do us much good. But if God is our chief delight, then whether we have the things we want or not, we will still be content.
Now, this is not rocket science. At least, we probably all know this in our heads. But, still, I would imagine many of us continue to have trouble being content.
So, if we know we have to delight in God, and that if we truly enjoy and pursue God and not the things of this earth, then we will be content, but if we fail to do this, then what do we do? What follows are some very practical suggestions that I have found helpful for myself. I hope one or more of them may be of help to you, if you too want to grow in contentment.
First, work. Nothing breeds discontentment like wandering thoughts and covetous desires, and nothing fuels wandering thoughts and covetous desires like free time when we can think about the things we want that we don’t have. The best antidote to this negative cycle is productive work. So, work hard. If you are a student, study hard. If you are a student on summer break, continue to study hard. Whether you work or study, immerse yourself in the things you do. If you do this, I am confident that covetous desires will fade away and you will be satisfied in the things you have accomplished, and so contentment will arise.
Second, do something for God. We are often discontented because we covet things, and we covet things because we want to please ourselves. So, we need to shift our desires away from ourselves. We need to do something for God instead of running after the things we want. We need to do this even if we don’t feel like it. We cannot wait for our desires to change in an instant or for us magically to be turned into content people.
Third, get off social media. Few things fuel covetousness like constantly looking at pictures of people whose lives are apparently perfect because they are healthy, rich, happily married, etc. Newsflash: everybody has issues, and the cute smiling kids in the picture aren’t always cute and smiling, and the beautiful family photo just masks the arguments that occur when the camera isn’t pointed at them. Social media breeds illusions. Not to mention a whole host of other potentially sinful issues. So, just delete Instagram and Twitter and Facebook. If we aren’t constantly comparing ourselves to others, we are more likely to be content.
Fourth (and this is not a joke), eat well and exercise. It is difficult to be truly content if we binge eat chips and chocolate while watching Netflix. That is not conducive to anything, and certainly not contentment. To be content, one of the best things we can do is actually to achieve something. So, eat well, sleep enough, exercise, and when you’re awake and healthy, do something you’re good at, learn something new, get creative. Don’t say, “Well I’m not good at anything and I have no interests.” That’s not true. If you are passionate about photography, get out there and take the best pictures you can. If you are skilled at piano playing, get even better. If you love the challenge of learning something new, teach yourself German. These things breed contentment. Binging does not.
Fifth, cultivate good habits. We are creatures of habit. We have to train ourselves in virtue. Sanctification occurs every time we say “no” to sin. We know this for obvious sins. But we also need to train our thoughts. If we have a tendency to daydream or to crave things we want that we don’t have, we will naturally do that more and more. So we need to cultivate the spiritual discipline of saying “no” to covetous thoughts, just like we need the spiritual discipline of saying “no” to more obvious temptations.
Finally, enjoy life. Rather than complain about all the things we don’t have, let’s enjoy what we do have. When we truly enjoy good things, lawfully, we are by definition content. So, if you really enjoy running, run! If you really enjoy reading, read! It is apathy and boredom that breed discontentment. But if you devote your time and energy to doing things you love, you won’t be discontent.
I hope one or more of these six very practical suggestions can help us all to be more content. It is not my intention to downplay spiritual duties for practical suggestions. But, sometimes, we just need practical advice.