January 7, 2009

Finding Contentment

2009 1501 page26 capontentment is not a prized value in today’s culture, in which we are constantly being prodded toward dissatisfaction. “Upgrade” and “makeover” are part of the new vocabulary defining our discontent. Advertisements aim at persuading us to be dissatisfied with our hair and our clothes, our looks and our bodies, with the kind of car we drive and the house we live in. And the result of all this cultural cajoling is that many of us spend our time constantly reaching after more, only to end up with what Henry David Thoreau long ago diagnosed as “lives of quiet desperation.”

But this pervasive inner disquietude is just the opposite of what 
the Bible advocates for us Christians. God’s Word tells us to “be content with what you have” (Heb. 13:5). The writer of this epistle knows something we seem to have lost sight of: the key to contentment doesn’t lie in looking at the other person’s toys, yearning for some of them or some just like them. It rests in being satisfied with what you already have, in being content “with simple things,” as Ellen G. White recommends in The Adventist Home, page 156.
2009 1501 page26But, you may ask, if I am content with what I have, isn’t that a sign that I am complacent and lack ambition? Not at all. Contentment does not rule out ambition, trying to improve your own life and the lives of others. What it does mean is that you are not constantly anxious, always focusing on what you lack. Along the road to achievement and growth you can experience an underlying calm. Setting aside craving, you acknowledge the good in your own life and in the world around you.
A teacher I had when I was in elementary school left me with a lasting portrait of a contented person. He had not been long out of college and intended to go to medical school but lacked the money. He didn’t own a car—he rode a bicycle—and we students noticed that he had few clothes, none of them of the designer variety. But whenever anyone greeted him with the customary, “How are you today?” he would respond with a resounding, “Wonderful!” His countenance exuded good cheer. This was his attitude at the same time that he was counting pennies, saving for his medical education—something that he later accomplished along with financial success and professional acclaim. He was wonderful every day that he had a chance to live and be the warm, caring teacher he was.
How can you become more content? Certainly not by chasing after it. You can achieve contentment if you are open to experiencing it in personal and simple ways.
2009 1501 page26 num1Acknowledge God’s faithfulness. Contented people do this naturally. They have learned from Scripture and experience that God is faithful, and it always settles them and quiets their fears when they realize how consistent He is in His morning-by-morning doling out of new mercies just for them. You, too, can appreciate God’s faithfulness in your life. Begin counting your blessings, and you may find it hard to stop, because God’s goodness and mercy are always following you around. He even blesses you behind your back, as one young preacher observed.
2009 1501 page26 num2Cultivate God’s friendship. Having the companionship of a caring heavenly Friend is one sure way to be content. An anecdote about a cheerful peasant living in austere circumstances exemplifies this well. When he was asked about his relationship with God, the peasant responded, “He’s fond of me.” Such a happy thought! God is fond of you and wants to be your Friend. If you reciprocate, you can have a bond with Him that makes contentment inevitable.
2009 1501 page26 num3Take a practical step—save. If your discontentment is based on your never having enough money, begin deliberately to reduce your debt level and so lower your stress level. Learn to do without things you don’t need. Avoid buying things for the purpose of appearing to have more money than you really do, because keeping up appearances feeds discontentment. Cut back on needless items and save.
2009 1501 page26 num4Share with others. The warmth of emotions that comes from giving to others, no matter how small the contribution, is a luxury everyone can afford. And remember, you do not have to give things or money; time, expertise, and friendship make solid gifts.
2009 1501 page26 num5Accept life’s inadequacies. Life is a tapestry of the good and the bad. Whatever you experience is all part of the big picture. One individual writing about his great job that he absolutely loves says he relishes and thrives on the good parts and accepts the downsides. Accepting the downsides in life along with the good can make a big difference in your attitude and inner peace.
2009 1501 page26 num6Accept yourself. It is hard for some people to love themselves. If you are one of those individuals, begin today to feel appreciation for who you are—a unique being whom God made and sustains. Add unexpected moments of joy to your life as you savor the special blend that is you.
2009 1501 page26 num7Make a habit of thinking positively. What are the things you consider beautiful? What brings you joy? “Whatsoever things are lovely, . . . think on these things” (Phil. 4:8, KJV). Think of the many seemingly “unspectacular” miracles that surround you daily. A mind occupied with the praise of the good and beautiful will have little room for the negative contemplations that produce discontentment.
So, be content with what you have, even as you look forward to what you may get in the future through divine providence. Settle into the peace that Jesus bequeathed to you (John 14:27), and when you do, you will find not only that “contentment will surround you,” as poet Rod McKuen says, but contentment will also be within you. 

Judith P. Nembhard is a former university professor and administrator. In retirement, she lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where she is an adjunct English instructor and freelance writer.