Active Contentment

The other day, somebody asked me if I was a “content person” and my automatic knee-jerk response was a heavy sigh.  Or a groan.  I can’t remember which reaction it was, but it was not eloquent.  They probably left that conversation thinking, Wow. Ashley is obviously having some issues with contentment.  They wouldn’t be incorrect in that assumption, because contentment is a heavy sanctification area for me right now.  Contentment does not always feel like my state of being.  But what does it mean to be a content person?  Can I categorize myself as a content person, even if I don’t always FEEL like a content person?  I’ve been thinking about it and here are some thoughts…

Stoicism isn’t contentment.  Placidity isn’t contentment.  Coziness isn’t contentment.  Happiness isn’t contentment.  True contentment doesn’t depend on my willpower, my circumstances, or my feelings.  Contentment doesn’t mean fooling myself into thinking everything is perfect.  Ignoring problems in order to feel warm and fuzzy is just delusion.  A content person does not equal a delusional person.  If everything was perfect, we wouldn’t even need contentment.  If all I needed was warm fuzzy feelings, I could get a giant mug of hot cocoa with whipped cream and sprinkles and call it good.

I keep seeing motivational posters with pretty lettering that say You Are Enough.  I understand that it’s supposed to be encouraging, but that isn’t good news.  That slogan is trying to cover up a gaping hole with decorative lettering.  I know that I’m not enough on my own.  I’m mortal.  As soon as I was born, I started dying.  I’m under a death curse.  I’m not perfect.  My words and actions have hurt people and I’ve been hurt myself.  How could I possibly be enough on my own?

On my own, I can’t make myself righteous or content.  On my own, I’m broken, dying, incomplete, constantly breaking – a textbook example of entropy in motion.  Just saying I Am Enough won’t change that. That’s like putting up signs that say Everything’s Perfectly Fine all over a critical nuclear reactor and expecting the posters to fix the meltdown problem.  The real good news is that I’m NOT enough on my own.  I am in Christ and He is enough.  All I brought with me was my brokenness, my debts, my sin, and my discontent.  All my not-enough-ness.  He healed my brokenness, payed my debts, took the penalty for my sins, and gave me rest in Him.

The rest and peace I have in Christ is my contentment.  I trust in God, because He truly is enough.

Apart from Christ, there are two ways to try and handle the brokenness.  People can try to fix themselves and fill the gaping hole through self-improvement.  They try to achieve contentment by losing weight, getting the perfect job, curating an immaculate house, dressing to impress, getting high grades – excelling in any way they can.  They try to control their environment, because that feels like the only way to control life.  And it’s easy to not worry about being content when you’re too busy to slow down and think, right?  On the opposite end of the spectrum, some people embrace the brokenness as a feature, not a problem.  They focus on loving themselves, flaws and all.  They preach acceptance and tolerance and inclusivity, because they want to feel included and accepted, because those feelings mimic contentment.  If you flip to the end of either of these stories, you’ll see that neither of these methods work.  The Type-A self-help people will work and work and try harder and harder, without reaching a point where they can rest or be content.  It’s like being on a stationary bike – it doesn’t matter how hard you pedal, you still aren’t going anywhere.  The “Love Your Brokenness” group will struggle to maintain the levels of love they want to give to themselves and to other people.  They’ll get frustrated by conflict, feel guilty about feeling guilt, and blame other people’s negativity for bring them down.

Both ways are exhausting.  They are heavy and self-imposed burdens.  That’s why Jesus said, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)  We want rest and contentment, but we can’t get it on our own.

But I know the truth and I still struggle to trust God sometimes.  That’s the sanctification part.  Sometimes I’ll realize I’ve been trying to change on my own.  (If I only try a little harder, I’ll be better.)  It’s hard for me to see it while I’m in it, but I’ll realize it once I’m exhausted and frustrated and burned out.  The temptation usually starts when I look at my circumstances, get scared, and attempt to control or manipulate them somehow.

The following scenario might sound stupid, but it’s very real:  I have four siblings and all four of them are married and each family has four kids.  (Yes, I have 16 nieces and nephews.)  If I allow my brain to start doing the Terrible Math, I am behind everybody else.  I’m missing one husband and four kids.  The Math preys on the mind, because it’s all about comparison. Everybody else is a unit of six and I’m still just a unit of one.  I’m behind and I’ll never catch up.  I’m 31.  There isn’t enough time.  Why don’t I have a family yet?  Then I try to figure out what’s wrong with me.  Why am I not married yet?  What is the matter with me?  Then feel like I have to fix whatever is wrong with me before I can move forward with my life.  It feels like it’s my fault for not knowing what’s wrong AND not knowing how to fix it.  So I’ll be stuck forever.  Maybe if I’m prettier – maybe if I’m thinner – maybe if I’m friendlier – maybe if I’m more outgoing  – maybe maybe maybe maybe.  All of this internal monologue and accompanying temptation happens faster than I can even express.  The randomized guilt hits fast and hard and goes straight for the gut.  I know it doesn’t make sense.  I know God loves me and that he is telling the best story with my life.  He isn’t trying to manipulate or torture me.  He’s got everything under control and He loves me more than I can even begin to comprehend.  I thank the Lord that contentment does not rely on my own performance, because I’ve had to confess my lack of trust so many times.

That’s why I choked when somebody asked me if I’m content.  I don’t feel like I’m always content.  But that’s a feeling and contentment isn’t a feeling.  I wish contentment could be as simple as breathing.  I want to swim through contentment like a fish.  I want to soak in contentment like a warm sunbeam.  But it isn’t that simple.  Contentment isn’t passive.  It isn’t enough to sit still and hope contentment just happens to me.  With every change in circumstance, there’s a choice – whether or not to trust God in that circumstance.  It requires vigilance and active trust.  I can say I am a content person, not because I’ve reached some mythical balance in my life, but because I trust God and I’m content in Him.  I’m not trusting myself to never fail.  I’m trusting Him never to fail me.  And that’s enough.

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