A couple months ago my kids and I were taking a morning walk around our neighborhood. It was the same usual route full of the same usual houses. But for some reason, on this particular walk, I really saw these houses. What size they were. How well-kept their yards were. How pretty their flowers were. What color their front doors were.
This noticing struck me.
Initially I think it was because I am not typically observant about things like this. At all. My husband could probably recall how many windows are on each of the houses around the loop we take. Me, I couldn’t even tell you if a single house had windows. But the thing that really struck me was the reason I was noticing. I would love to say that it was out of appreciation or admiration that I was taking note of such things. It wasn’t. What my heart was doing that day was making a subtle list of what we didn’t have. Or of what we did have, that wasn’t quite as big or as pretty or as fancy or as appealing, as theirs.
Of course this was nowhere near the first time I had caught myself playing the comparison game. But honestly, on the list of recurring struggles I’ve had in my life, this hadn’t ever made the top of the list for me. My eyes were not usually prone to wandering to other peoples lives, relationships, or things. So when mine did in a very obvious way, it took me off guard.
And it caused me to realize, on much more serious and deep levels, the kind of hold this thing we call the “comparison trap” had actually started to have in my life. It had taken on many ugly forms for many ugly reasons, and I’m painfully thankful this little walk around the block opened up my eyes to this reality.
I started to wonder “is this just part of being an adult?” or “maybe this is what it feels like to settle into an area for more than 5 years? I’m not just passing through. So it makes sense to now look around me at others who have done some part of staking their life here, and what their life looks like compared to mine, right?” Maybe there is some truth there. But as I have been reflecting on (or more aptly put- wrestling though) what contentment is all about and why it really matters for a Christ follower, I realized I couldn’t let myself settle for the answer that I was just “adulting.”
To the Christian, contentment is both necessary and possible. We have a reason to be as well as the means to be. Therefore, like most things in the Christian life, I am able to both rest in what has been won for me (the power to be content) and also fight hard for it at the same exact time.
And I promise you this, as I promise it to my own forgetful heart, it will always be worth both the resting and the fighting, because we are called to it. And whatever we are called to in Christ, is worth it. Every time.
How I am learning to fight for contentment
- Call it what it is
One of those spiritual “hurts so good” moments was when I heard someone say that essentially believers should stop using coddling words and phrases to make us feel better about what the Bible calls, well, sin. For example, she said, stop saying that we are just “comparing.” Comparison, used culturally, insinuates a sense of dreaming. Maybe it is a little misdirected but it’s really just wishful thinking that means no harm. It’s normal. It’s to be expected. We’re only human. It helps us push for greater. It allows us to achieve our #goals. But the Bible calls it something quite different. It changes a vague and harmless habit into a directed and soul depleting sin. And calls it coveting. In Romans this word coveting is pitted against love itself. It is antithetical to it. If you love your neighbor you will not murder, commit adultery, steal, or covet. This is not a picture of simply striving after greatness but rather it is a picture of wanting what does not belong to us. Of not loving but rather sinning.
So the first self-denying yet life giving way I have found to fight the fight of a contended heart is to call my coveting what it is. And then to see what God has to say about it. And me. And Him.
- Pray for those I am envying
I have always heard that it’s hard to hate someone you are praying for. In the same way I have come to find that it is hard to want a part of someone else’s life for myself when I am praying it becomes even more theirs. When I not only thank God for what they have, but also ask that he bless them even more. I can’t put into words the beauty that takes place deep within when a prayer is choked out for the flourishing of another’s friendship that we wanted for ourselves. Or the raw request for someone else’s continued success, that magnifies our own failure. God does a sanctifying work in those moments. It is a hard moment. But it has the ability to become a holy one. One that turns a harsh shout of envy into a soft whisper of celebration.
As we pray for the thriving of others we ourselves begin to sense this mysterious settledness seep into the once hidden and envious crevasses of our hearts. Prayer opens these dark places up and allows the light to come in. The light of contentment which in and of itself, paired with godliness, is great gain (1 Timothy 6:6)
- Count what I have
I can hear generation after generation of the sweetest voices in my family singing “count your blessings, name them one by one. Count your blessings, see what God has done. Count your blessings. Count your many blessings.” And they would all attest that these are more than words of a song to them. That there was never a time in their life that they did not have more to be thankful for than they even knew to count. And when I start to “name mine one by one” I find that the same is true. I find that I have so much to be thankful for that if I spent my whole life rehearsing the list, I wouldn’t have enough time to think about what I do not have. Or what others have. Counting my blessings tunes my heart to the contented rest I should continually be at. But it’s not only a catchy little timeless song. It is something we are told to do over and over again in scripture. Giving thanks softens and enlightens and cultivates. It opens its hands to receive and keeps them opened to praise.
- Name who I am
While I have found the power of a good bullet-journaling session to name all I have to be grateful for, I have found that even this, as effective as it might be, is not the true secret to contentment. While rehearsing blessings certainly puts things into perspective it can not truly anchor a soul down in contentment. While envying is wanting what we don’t have and thankfulness is remembering what we do have, the focus is still the same. Our happiness, or lack of, is still tied to what we do or do not have.
It is only when I, along with Paul, can say that I know how to be brought low and how to abound and in every circumstance have learned the secret of facing hunger, abundance, and need: I can do all things though Him who strengthens me. Strength when I look across the yard at my neighbor and want what I do not have. Strength when I do have it. Strength when I never get it. Contentment is not dependent on what is outside of me but rather who is inside of me.
Our heart’s are only ever fully, completely, satisfyingly content because of Christ. Christ in us.
- Claim who He is
“Just as a cup of tea gets stronger when we give it time to steep, so we become more content when we spend time in God’s Word and allow it to steep into our lives, transforming us to be like Him.”
“Lord, you have assigned me my portion
and my cup; you have made my lot secure.” Psalm 16:5
“I know of no greater simplifier for all of life. Whatever happens is assigned. Can we say that there are things that happen to us that do not belong to our lovingly assigned “portion.” Are some things, then, out of the control of the Almighty? Every assignment is measured and controlled for my eternal good. As I accept the given portion other options are cancelled. Decisions become much easier, directions clearer, and hence my heart becomes inexpressibly quieter. A quiet heart is content with what God gives” Elisabeth Elliot on Psalm 16:5
A quiet heart is content with what God gives.
Because it knows who God is.