Chapter 1: What Is Contentment? Already Not Yet
To me, there’s nothing more frustrating than wanting to be home after a long trip overseas. A few years ago, I was returning home from Kenya to Idaho after teaching at the beautiful Kenya College of Ministry, which trains local pastors in practical ministry to help them build healthy, thriving churches. Every trip is unbelievably rewarding and so enjoyable! You’ve got to love that Kenyan tea! But after a few weeks of teaching all day, fighting mosquitoes, and trying to tame my wild, frizzy naturally curly hair, I was ready to head home.
This particular year I brought the greatest travel buddy ever with me, Vierra. Vierra is the quintessential international traveler. This girl is a legend and such an adventurer. She’s traveled all over the world, so you don’t have to worry about her handling the terrain of rocky roads or the unique local delicacies offered. Not to mention, she knows how to make you laugh.
But after a great few weeks with our lovely Kenyan pastors, both Vierra and I couldn’t wait to get home. You know you’re ready to go home when you leave for the airport way before you need to. I think we arrived a solid five hours before our flight was scheduled to depart, but we didn’t mind one bit. We made our way to the airport lounge and settled in with free Wi-Fi and snacks. After a few hours of lounging, catching up on emails, and all things social media, we decided we should head for our gate since they would be boarding soon. Once we had arrived at the gate, we heard the news no traveler ever wants to hear: “Your flight has been delayed.” Ugh. The worst. We felt like we had already been waiting for days. But, oh well. What are you going to do about it? So we settled in to the boarding area, and after another couple of hours waiting there, we finally heard the best news ever, which was “We’ll be starting our boarding now.” Praise the Lord! We’re on our way now! Home is calling! It won’t be long now.
Vierra and I comfortably nestle into our seats (as comfortably as you can in economy for a ten-hour flight) for the first leg of our journey home. Following a significant time for boarding and getting everyone seated, the pilot came on and said that air traffic control had delayed us. The pilot went on to say he wasn’t sure how long the delay would be, but that he would get back to us as soon as he heard anything. Two hours later, we finally took off from Kenya, heading to Amsterdam. En route the flight attendants kept assuring the passengers that we wouldn’t miss our connections and not to worry.
But worry is what I do best. So you bet I was worrying. Plus, I did the math in my head, and there was no way we were going to make our connection to the States with the already short layover that we had scheduled.
Sure enough, upon our arrival to Amsterdam, Vierra and I ran, tired, haggard-looking, through all the checkpoints to get to our gate, only to be told what we had already suspected: “You missed your flight.”
We all have two options in these moments. One option is to freak out at the gate agent, who probably has about as much control over the delay and you missing your flight as you do over a two-year-old’s temperament. So freaking out at the poor airline representative never seems like a great option. Or option two, to calmly accept the alternative plan the airline representative offers you and try to not let it ruin your life.
So Vierra and I chose the latter option and walked away, feeling a little dejected at the thought of being so close to, yet so far away from, home. We were smack-dab in the middle of two places. We weren’t in Kenya anymore, but we still weren’t home. Nevertheless, we chose to enjoy some extra time shopping at the airport and getting some coffee that, the closer we got to home, tasted more and more like American coffee.
By the time we arrived at our new gate and flight, we realized we had been going pretty long on this journey without a shower, brushed teeth, combed hair, or fresh clothes. We felt gross, and we looked gross! But remember, I told you, Vierra makes me laugh. So with all the inconveniences of the day, Vierra and I kept finding things to laugh about.
Just as we were getting ready to board the second leg of the trip, we heard, “Miss Wilde and Miss Reid, will you please see a gate agent?”
Vierra and I quickly jumped up from our seats and hurried to the first available gate agent, who told us we had been upgraded to business class due to the inconvenience of our previous flight and delay. Tears of joy welled up in my eyes, and I kept thanking the agent over and over. It was like the dam of our hearts broke open, and we began to share every little detail of our horrible journey with this kind person. At one point, I mentioned to her how awful it had been because look at how haggard we looked, to which the gate agent responded, “Yeah, like your hair,” as she pointed at my hair with a look of both pity and compassion. Vierra and I roared in laughter. No one else would have been that bold to address my frizzy mane, which had increased in volume and frizz.
As we boarded and took our lush business class seats for the flight home, I recognized that being stuck between two moments isn’t the worst thing in the world. However, it’s always our goal to make it all the way home.
Have you ever felt stuck between two moments? As if you were almost somewhere but not quite there, and for whatever reason, you couldn’t seem to get there? It’s one of the most frustrating feelings to experience. We’ve all been there from time to time in our lives. You feel ready to be married, but there’s no one even in sight. You feel so prepared to have children but struggle to conceive. You know you’ve worked overtime to get that promotion, but your boss doesn’t seem to even know your name. It’s a terrible feeling, stuck between wanting something and attaining it.
I’m learning that contentment is our true home. The journey to get there is not always easy, comfortable, or how we want it to look. Contentment is, in fact, not based on circumstances or the way we get there. Contentment is not the means to the end for true happiness and joy. Contentment is the end.
I believe at the bottom of every human soul is the deepest desire to be at home in contentment. The problem for most of us, however, is that we can’t seem to find our way there. We get discouraged by every little and big disappointment in our lives. We seem only to be happy when the circumstances are just as they should be according to what we think or feel. We struggle into the depths of fear and anxiety, and we cannot even fathom feeling content in anything. It feels a whole lot like living in a perpetual already not yet
This book is an attempt to help us all find our way back home to contentment. A place that doesn’t need perfect circumstances or scenarios. In fact, home takes you as you are and helps you learn to build a life that is content no matter what life throws your way.
Together, I hope to explore how we can learn from what the Apostle Paul learned and knew when he said in Philippians 4:11, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”1
I have been so inspired by the life of Apostle Paul and his unwavering faith. A man who (as far as we know) was never married, shipwrecked three times, put in prison on several accounts, and had numerous assassination attempts on his life. Yet he famously teaches us that no matter what life throws at you, you can learn to be content.
The thing about Paul is that before he was Paul the Apostle, he was Saul of Tarsus. Paul endured a long journey to become who we know and admire as the great Apostle Paul today. Saul of Tarsus was a young man raised in a strict Jewish tradition and thought and was devoted to the ancient traditions he was raised to follow. Saul and his contemporaries believed so vehemently that these codes were to be followed that they thought violence was justified if someone strayed from these strict traditions. Saul, likely, persecuted those who did not follow his beliefs. It is believed that Saul was in attendance and likely participated in the stoning death of Stephen. Stephen was one of the seven deacons chosen by the apostles in the early church to do the work of the ministry (see Acts 6). So how did Saul the persecutor become Paul the Apostle?
The short answer: a journey. The long answer will hopefully be unpacked throughout this book.
In Acts 9, Saul is walking along a road in Damascus when all of a sudden he encounters the God that he thought he was defending, but was actually persecuting. We have come to know this as the great Road to Damascus encounter. Certainly, this is the moment Paul receives a revelation of truth, and transformation follows. But Paul didn’t become the Apostle overnight after this incredible face-to-face encounter with God. That day was his fresh start and the first day of his journey to the contented life in Jesus. In fact, Paul wouldn’t even preach a message about Jesus for over a decade after the Damascan road. Paul, just like us, was on a journey to discover and rediscover who Jesus is, what He has done, and what that meant for his life. It would be close to three decades after his God encounter on the road before he ever wrote “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”
Paul’s road to contentment was a journey and so is ours, which is why I could not pick a better model than Paul as we embark on this voyage.
My aim, my desire, my life goal is to learn to be content in whatever situation I may find myself in. If that’s your goal as well, I invite you to journey alongside of me. I pray the pages of this book encourage your weary waiting soul, and help you learn how to live in every season, content.
As we take this journey together over these pages, we want to be working from the same understanding. That’s why we need to get clear on just what contentment is… and what it is not. Sometimes we think of contentment as that feeling that comes over us when all is right with the world, when all the circumstances and details line up just so. But that’s not contentment. And it is not contentment because it is contingent on things outside of our control. Anytime I try to make my contentment dependent on other people’s actions, reaching some goal I set for myself in ministry or fitness, or even just getting across town on time with no traffic, I’m confusing contentment with being soothed.
I have the most precious twin nephews. They are ridiculously cute, and I love my role as aunt to them, along with my other nieces and nephews. They were born a little early, so we all learned a lot of new things about working with babies who startle a bit more easily, have a little bit harder time digesting their milk, and who are also being raised in a home with adorable and noisy siblings. As I would rock and swaddle and burp each of those little babies, I would think about how content they would be once I got their diapers changed, got that feeding into them, got their siblings to settle down around them.
But here’s the deal with those babies: That clean diaper I just got on one of them will get dirty. That bottle they drained will soon be a forgotten memory, and they’ll be squalling for more. That “contented” nap they’re taking in my arms (and, by the way, one million points to moms of twins! It’s bananas, I tell you!), that nap will end, and we’ll start the whole ordeal over again, diapers, bottles, and all. See, that kind of “contentment” is transitory and circumstantial, meaning that it doesn’t last long, and it’s all based on how those babies are feeling. I’ve successfully soothed them, but that’s bound to change… and change quickly!
That’s not the kind of contentment I’m talking about for you and me. I’m talking about the kind that sticks with you, even when the heartbreak comes. I’m talking about the kind of contentment that triumphs over an unhealthy restlessness. I’m talking about the kind of contentment you can stay in, you can rest in, even when things don’t go the way you want or when life seems a little boring.
Or when life gets too dramatic.
That kind of contentment. It is not being soothed, although that has its place sometimes.
I want for you and me the kind of contentment that lasts.
Wanting What You Have, Not Having What You Want
I’ve heard it said: Contentment is wanting what you have, not having what you want. That sums it up well. It is embracing the life we have right now, the season we are in right now. It doesn’t mean we don’t have goals or vision, or that we don’t aspire to be the best version of ourselves. It doesn’t mean you put away those dreams you have.
mean that you don’t put off living your life with joy and fullness, even when you are tempted to catalog what you think is missing. Contentment is a place of gratitude, a gratitude that sometimes confounds or seems at odds with specific details in your life.
And while we don’t often think of it this way, contentment is power. Contentment protects you from the expectations and side-eye glances of those who think you should be at a particular place in your life by a certain age. Contentment frees you from the arbitrary timelines and deadlines we put on ourselves. Contentment gives you a magnifying glass to find joy no matter how small. Contentment is safety, a refuge from the disgruntled groans and jadedness of the world. Contentment is an antidote to fear. Contentment allows you not to take yourself too seriously. Contentment equips you to follow the contours of peace.
Contentment makes you at home, even when the circumstances of your life seem unfamiliar and strange.
Before we dive into the life and ministry of Paul, let’s take a quick look at the words of James to see what robs us most often of living in a place of contentment. James was the younger brother of Jesus. Talk about pressure!
We don’t know precisely when James got on board with Jesus’s ministry. The book of John says it was not in the early days of Jesus’s public ministry, “For not even his brothers believed in him” (John 7:5).2
But at some point, James did become convinced that his older half brother Jesus really was the Messiah, and he spent the rest of his life teaching others about Him and pastoring a huge church in Jerusalem. The letter he wrote to the early church is full of practical advice and some pretty strong words about how to truly live in the grace we have received. He even addresses why we struggle to make contentment our home and instead resort to conflict with one another and with ourselves. “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill.
You covet but you cannot have what you want” (James 4:1–2, emphasis added).3
Too often, where we live in our souls is a war zone. When a dream I’ve had gets smashed or something is taking a long, long time to come to fruition, my emotions start throwing bombs into the middle of my heart. You’ve been there, too. But a battleground isn’t supposed to be our home.
Now, I get it. I understand that as believers in Jesus, we’re going to do battle. Late in his life Paul tells his young mentee, Timothy, to “fight the good fight of the faith” (1 Timothy 6:12).4
Paul elaborates this battle metaphor in his letter to the Ephesians when he says, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).5
So, absolutely, we’re going to have to fight in this life.
But we should be fighting against the dark forces in this world, not ourselves. When you and I allow discontentment to invade our hearts and to begin hurling its bombs of “not enough” and “when?” and “not fair” and all the rest, our protective borders have been breached, and we exist in that state James described so well, those “desires that battle within you.”
Here’s what I think: I think that Satan loves it when Christians are all up in their own heads. When we wring our hands over what we wish for that hasn’t happened yet, when we live in a place of comparison and feeling like we come up short. When we put off living fully until sometime in the future, that whole “I’ll be happy when…” phenomenon. I think he loves it because it keeps us so internally focused. And if he can keep us consumed with ourselves, then he keeps us living like babies, soothed by a fresh diaper, outraged by an empty bottle.
But we can grow up. Staying in a place of childlike wonder and faith, absolutely. But mature in our ability, through the power of the Holy Spirit, living free of Satan’s schemes and aware of his tactics. One of Paul’s highest aims was to help people get to a place of growth and maturity: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:28–29).6
But Paul was often frustrated by the discontent he found with believers when they acted more like they had colic than contentment. He wrote to believers in Corinth, “But for right now, friends, I’m completely frustrated by your unspiritual dealings with each other and with God. You’re acting like infants in relation to Christ, capable of nothing much more than nursing at the breast. Well, then, I’ll nurse you since you don’t seem capable of anything more. As long as you grab for what makes you feel good or makes you look important, are you really much different from a babe at the breast, content only when everything’s going your way?” (I Corinthians 3:1–3).7
That last line of this passage gets me: As long as you grab for what makes you feel good or makes you look important, are you really much different from a babe at the breast, content only when everything’s going your way? A discontented life will take us there every time, oblivious to how the enemy is whispering lies of comparison and jealousy to us, making us ever more fixated on ourselves.
So let’s start with a true definition of contentment, that condition of our soul in which we trust, we live with joy, we stay in peace, regardless of what is swirling around us. And let’s add to that understanding that contentment isn’t just some pleasant state of mind: It’s one of the very things that can keep us aware of and alert to the schemes of Satan. When we live in contentment, we wise up to how he will use comparison and envy to trip us up, how comparison leads us to making a bad relationship or financial or behavior decision.
Here’s my challenge to you: Change your definition of contentment. And not just your academic definition, or one that you store in your mind and can repeat back to me by rote.
Think of it this way: A lot of us head to the gym, and we lift weights, and we start building muscle. And then once that muscle begins to grow, what’s that word we start throwing around? Definition. We want our muscles to become defined. And for those muscles to become defined, it’s not about trying to lift even heavier weight. It’s about getting intentional about what we’re feeding our bodies. It’s about adding additional reps to the workout. And ultimately, when you’re living in that place—where clean eating and consistent reps and the right balance of high intensity meet—then you start to see definition. There aren’t any shortcuts.
That’s where we want to get to over these next few chapters, where the muscle of our faith gradually takes on the definition of contentment, the place we live, the place that is home for us. It’s going to take multiple reps of lifting our expectations and placing them in prayer before God with surrender. It’s going to take multiple reps of lifting up our disappointments and allowing ourselves to be released from them. It’s going to take a clean eating plan of consuming the word of God with intention. It’s going to take cutting out the little extras, those cultural carbs we try to tag onto our understanding of contentment.
Contentment, when showing definition in our faith muscle, is the state in which we live, all the time, regardless of storm or sunshine. And if you are willing to adjust your understanding and make that kind of contentment your goal, well then, you’re halfway there.
Contentment to the Core
I used to do a lot of running, and I loved it. But over time, I knew I needed to get stronger to my very core. So I adjusted how I was training. I set a goal to run a marathon before my thirtieth birthday. I trained for months. I also secretly hoped I would achieve a slimmer bod for my dreaded pending birthday. Instead of losing a few pounds, I actually gained weight. Due to all the calorie burning, I found myself needing to carb load… constantly. I craved mostly cheeseburgers, avocados, and fries. I needed strength training as much as endurance.
So I started lifting weights. I started doing planks. (Which I have a deep love/hate relationship with. Love what they do, hate doing them. That kind of complicated relationship.) I started doing burpees. And guess what? All the lifting and working for definition made me an even better runner. See, when we condition ourselves for strength and adaptability and definition to our very core, our ability to get even better in other areas expands.
Think about that. If you are willing to train yourself, with God’s help, to get contentment settled deep into your heart, deep into your soul, embedded into your core, your spiritual race will become all the stronger. We have been trying to run the race of faith on the strength of our legs and our will only. But with contentment as central to how you live, then your whole being can move forward in more excellent balance, with greater strength, with greater intention.
Check out this amazing passage from Proverbs: “Do not let them out of your sight, keep them within your heart; for they are life to those who find them and health to one’s whole body
. Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:21–23, emphasis added).8
What we’re making our inner dialogue, how we are defining things for ourselves in the internal chatter we always have going—it affects everything. In fact, it affects our “whole body,” Proverbs tells us. And when our definition of contentment doesn’t match God’s, it weakens us at our deepest level. It colors and hampers how we experience life. And when left unchecked, our flawed definition of contentment can make us heartsick to the core, when life batters against the shores of our sanitized dreams and blasts cold spray onto the fragile watercolors in which we paint our ideas of happiness.
So, yeah, how you define contentment, how I define it, it matters. We’ve got to start by getting it right if we’re going to get well conditioned for exploring it in the following pages. Let’s pinky swear (or affirm, depending on your theology), right here and now, that we’re going to let go of searching for a contentment based on circumstances. Let’s agree, right here and now, that we’re going after a contentment that stands in spite of how we feel or what our circumstances may be. A contentment that cannot be taken from us. A home for the heart, built of contentment, that rests and trusts and believes that God has us, that He’s for us. That we always have Him, no matter what shows up in our lives, is taken from our lives, never happens in our lives.
If contentment is wanting what you have, not having what you want, then let’s get to the core of what we have: We have Jesus. And if we can start there, then we can learn the secret ways of contentment, we can embrace its mysteries, we can represent the calm in any storm because we know the One who calms the storm.
Let’s get back home together, to a place called contentment.
Take a moment and read, ponder, and answer the following questions. As we proceed through this book, come back to your answers and see if they change or evolve by the time you finish this book.
- How have you been defining contentment?
- Have you considered contentment as something that comes and goes? What do you think about the idea that you can have consistent contentment, no matter what is going on?
- Do you associate contentment more with an emotion or with a decision?
- What makes it difficult for you to choose contentment?