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The Elusive Virtue of Contentment

Erik Raymond. Chasing Contentment: Trusting God in a Discontented Age. Crossway, 2017. 166 pp. $14.99, cloth 

 

Contentment is a virtue that is much easier to discuss than to practice. Whether in the back of church or on social media, the definitions roll easily off our tongues. “It is being satisfied with everything that God has given us.” “It is not being angry or bitter when God withholds certain things from us.” “It means being happy with everything that might happen to us since we recognize that it all comes from our loving Father in heaven.” Erik Raymond in his new book on contentment gives this definition (pointing out his reliance on Jeremiah Burroughs), “Contentment is the inward, gracious, quiet spirit that joyfully rests in God’s providence” (23).  

As long as everything is going our way, it’s easy to claim contentment. And then your hours at work are cut back, making your difficult financial position seem impossible. Or a friend buys something you’ve always wanted, but can’t afford. Maybe the girl you wanted to date is more interested in your friend than in you. Or, more serious and devastating, the diagnosis comes back as cancer and you face the prospect of life without your father.  

The words of 1 Thessalonians 5:18 that we give thanks “in every thing,” which so easily flowed off of our tongues in Bible study now seem to get caught in our throats. Give thanks to God for this?  

The age in which we live today is not a contented age. It is an age of consumerism, greed, and self-indulgence. This age knows nothing of the self-denial that must characterize every true believer (Luke 9:23). Contentment does not come naturally to us, and the world around us does all it can to make us dissatisfied with our lot 

Perhaps we have ourselves convinced that if we had just a few more things, then we would be happy. The cruel irony is that those who have “a few more things,” specifically those who have amassed fortunes exceeding $25 million, are, according to a Boston College study, a “generally dissatisfied lot, whose money contributed to deep anxieties involving love, work, and family. Indeed they are frequently dissatisfied even with their sizable fortunes.” And in news that surprises no one who has wrestled with a lack of contentment, “they say, they would require on average one-quarter more wealth than they currently possess” to be financially secure (67–68).  

Raymond points out that circumstances cannot be the reason for contentment, and points to the Apostle Paul as an example. Sitting in a Philippian jail after having been stripped and beaten, all for having freed a girl from her demon tormentor, Paul and Silas’ response was not self-pity, but rather, they “sang praises unto God” (Acts 16:25). Raymond writes, “Their singing in the midst of terrible circumstances shows that contentment works inside out” (25).  

A lack of contentment is often a private sin, so it is one we feel that we can indulge in it. We ask, foolishly, what’s the harm, anyway? In addition to doubting the goodness of God to us, it is not long before a lack of contentment gives birth to its evil offspring, covetousness. John Calvin in his commentary on Ephesians 5:5 (which equates coveting with idolatry), shows the seriousness of this sin: “All covetous men must deny God, and put wealth in his place; such is their blind greediness of wretched gain.” According to that same verse, no covetous person “hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.” This should serve as a sharp warning to any of us who thinks the sin of coveting is a second-tier sin, and not as serious as murder, adultery, or theft.  

Coveting destroys relationships. Many relationships have endured arguments and even strong disagreements, but envy is another creature altogether. “Wrath is cruel, and anger is outrageous; but who is able to stand before envy?” (Prov. 27:4).  

Contentment is not something that you are born with, but rather, something that must be learned. As Erik Raymond shows in his new book on contentment, “the apostle Paul himself had to learn contentment. It was no more natural for him that it is for you” (cf Philippians 4:12).  

 Raymond provides a good test to gauge how content we really are. He challenges us to ask those who are close to us if they think we often complain because this would reveal a lack of contentment. Since none of us will do that, we may follow his next bit of advice. “Inventory what you think about. Are you constantly embracing God’s goodness in the valley’s as well as on the mountaintops? Contentment knows how to sing in the stocks as well as the banquet feast” (27).  

Contentment, Raymond points out, is a work of grace. We must “feast on Christ” (68) by reading the Bible and through prayer. Even in this, however, our trust must not be misplaced. “The basis for answered prayer is neither our goodness nor our skill in prayer. Instead, it is God’s grace, kindness, and love. Any success in our praying comes from the successful work of Christ.” Later he writes, “Our boldness in prayer is based upon God welcoming us to the throne on the merit of Christ (Heb. 4:14–16).” He references a quote by John Calvin who writes that “Christ is the only way, and the one access, by which it is granted us to come to God” (77). In other words, it flows out of faith in Jesus Christ. Do you lack contentment? Pray that God would forgive your lack of faith, and cause his Spirit to dwell in you richly so that you can learn contentment.  

How often are we not discouraged by our attitudes towards the things of this world and our lack of contentment? So often it seems we are on this hamster wheel of frustration and futility, always running, always pursuing, always buying, but never satisfied and never truly content. We should be frustrated and discouraged with that life. That is not the Christian life. That is the life that needs to be rejected 

But there is hope. That hope is found in the finished work of Jesus Christ. You are united to this Christ (47), and in him, you are a new creature (2 Cor. 5:17). Use the means God has provided to educate yourself on what contentment truly is, what the root cause of coveting is, and how to address and “mortify it” (Col. 3:5). This book can be an aid to doing just that, but this book, like any other good book on the topic, will drive you to the word of God, and him who is the object of our faith and trust, Jesus Christ. Raymond provides what he calls a “simple formula,” to learn contentment. “If you want to be content, think less about yourself and more about Christ” (159).