What is contentment? Is it actually possible? What does it look like (and not look like)?
These are questions I have always wanted to dig deeper into. Who doesn’t want to know how to feel more constantly at peace and more consistently content? So, as a result, I have started reading Erik Raymond’s book Chasing Contentment. In this work, he leans on the Bible and other impactful church thinkers to help us see what contentment is.
In this post, I will simply rehash how he defines contentment. He gives four main characteristics of it which are biblical, insightful, and really quite helpful.
1. Contentment is Inward
To begin, it must be emphasized that contentment is inward. This means it comes from the inside, rather than from something external, especially our circumstances.
In biblical support of this, Raymond discusses Acts 16 where Paul and Silas in Philipi were attacked by a mob, beaten up, thrown into the dungeon, and then put in the stocks. He points out that even here, they displayed a unique contentment. “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25). Therefore, their contentment clearly could not have been external. It originated from something inside instead.
This is confirmed by Paul’s famous statement about contentment in Philippians 4: “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Philippians 4:11-12).
In both instances (and throughout the Bible), contentment is not based on external circumstances. It occurs within, often in spite of external circumstances. Raymond writes,
“Contentment is not based on circumstances. It can’t be. Paul and Silas were content in some of the worst circumstances imaginable. Their singing in the midst of terrible circumstances shows that contentment works inside out. But doesn’t this seem counterintuitive? So often we think that if we could just change our circumstances, we could be happy. We are restless because of what we perceive as difficult circumstances. We focus our attention on our jobs, health, relationships, children’s behavior, problems at church, physical appearance, and so on. ‘If this would just change, then my life would be so much better.’ . . . If we realize that at its heart contentment is not primarily about what’s outside us but about what’s inside of us, we will be well on our way toward learning this lost art” (Chasing Contentment, 25).
2. Contentment Avoids Complaining
Raymond uses the word ‘quiet’ to describe this characteristic. What he means is that “a contented heart showcases itself by not grumbling or complaining” (Chasing Contentment, 26). Raymond asks some convicting questions concerning this:
“When you talk about other people, are you generally charitable or complaining? When you discuss your job or church, are you prone to grumble or to emphasize what is good? If you are comfortable enough to cut through the fog of superficial politeness with people and answer the question ‘How are you doing?’ do you tend to be negative? Jesus taught us that what we say comes from our heart (Matthew 12:34). What is in the well comes up in the bucket” (Chasing Contentment, 26).
Moreover, complaining ultimately shows us something we believe about God.
"Whether explicitly or implicitly, this type of grumbling is directed at the One who is sovereign over such things. Grumbling and complaining, then, are a theological issue that casts God as incompetent, unfair, or irrelevant. We can see why discontentment is considered unchristian. . . . Contentment knows how to sing in the stocks as well as at the banquet feast” (Chasing Contentment, 27).
3. Contentment is a Work of Grace
After reading that true contentment is something comes apart from circumstances, and that excludes complaining, one might think that it is out of reach, it is just idealistic, or it only is given to those who are ‘super spiritual.’ But this is not the case. Rather, contentment is a work of grace. This means that God is the one who gives this jewel of contentment to people. And he does so not because they deserve it, but out of his grace. Raymond explains,
“The inward working of God upon the heart is the work of grace. . . . If we are honest, at first blush this discourages us. ‘You mean I can’t do this? I can’t gin up the effort to get it done?’ It’s true—you can’t. In fact, if you try to, you will fail miserably and even fuel further discouragement. But as we being to think about this inability, it’s actually quite encouraging. The fact that Paul (and so many others) lived with contentment can give us hope. In other words, God has a track record of making people like you and me content in him. . . One of the functions of the gospel is to fix our hearts upon God. We move from restless to resting, from hurting to healed, and from hungry to satisfied. God makes otherwise restless people content in him (Psalm 73:26). This is a work of grace” (Chasing Contentment, 27-28).
Grace then is what enables us to actually experience contentment inwardly, often in spite of circumstances. It is a gift of God. So, we get the help, but he gets the glory.
4. Contentment Joyfully Rests in God’s Providence
This final characteristic reveals that the reason we can be content is rooted in God’s good providence, meaning, that he is truly in control and orchestrating all things. Raymond explains,
“Embracing the doctrine of providence is vital for learning the art of contentment. . . . Providence teaches us that God is not disconnected from what is happening the world today. There is no such thing as chance, luck, or fate. Rather, an all-wise, loving, powerful God is upholding, governing, and ordering all things as if they come from his very hand” (Chasing Contentment, 29).
Raymond then cites the story of Joseph from Genesis to solidify this point. Joseph was a man who went through terrible external circumstances over and over. But through it all, he is shown to be a man of contentment in God. So how could he have such contentment? Because he truly trusted in God’s providence through it all. When Joseph was recounting all that had happened to him throughout the years, he boldly proclaimed to his brothers, “As for you, you meant it for evil against me, but God meant [not used, but meant] it for good” (Genesis 50:20). In other words, Joseph's contentment rested and was rooted in God’s control over everything.
You Can Be Content
These then are the four main characteristics of contentment. As Raymond summarizes, “contentment is inward as opposed to external. It is quiet rather than complaining. It is a work of grace rather than a result of human effort. It rests in God’s providence rather than complaining against him” (Chasing Contentment, 32).
Explained like this, contentment is not only desirable, but truly attainable. Contentment can be thrown around as an ill-defined ethereal or idealistic idea. But when we realize that it is a gift of God, rooted in his good providence over all, which allows us to inwardly trust, not complain, and rest in him, we see that, if Jesus so wills, it is something we actually can experience.
Since this is true, as Raymond’s book title suggests, let’s chase after contentment in Christ.