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Trusting God in a Discontented Age
By Erik Raymond
Good News PublishersCopyright © 2017 Erik J. Raymond
All rights reserved.
Tom Brady is one of my favorite athletes of all time. He is an ardent competitor, a practical joker, and a flat-out sensational quarterback for my hometown team. One of the things I appreciate about Brady is his candor. In a 2005 interview with 60 Minutes the quarterback said:
Why do I have three Super Bowl rings and still think there's something greater out there for me? I mean, maybe a lot of people would say, "Hey man, this is what is [important]." I reached my goal, my dream, my life. Me, I think, "God, it's got to be more than this." I means this isn't, this can't be what it's all cracked up to be.
Brady is absolutely not satisfied. Prior to the 2015 season and coming off of a 2014 Super Bowl championship (his fourth), he released a video in which he said, "You know what my favorite ring is? The next one." Let's remember that he says these things from the top of a social mountaintop. From an achievement standpoint, he has it all. He has plenty of money, fame, success, and respect from his peers. He is married to a supermodel, has healthy and happy children, and lives in a mansion. But when you listen to him, he sounds like a guy who just watched an overhyped movie. He's never satisfied.
Some might interpret his words as showing how driven he is. I'm sure that's part of it. But there's more. He is restlessly searching. He is scratching his head with his hand adorned with four championship rings and asking, Is there more than this?
Many of Tom Brady's experiences are unique to an All-Pro NFL quarterback, but discontentment is common to us all. We relativize and minimize our impatience. We laugh and joke about big splurge purchases that "we just had to have." Complaining is second nature for us. Instead of running to the Lord in prayer or being content to be wronged, we often grumble and complain.
Have you ever noticed that people say they're very busy, yet everywhere they go they're on their phones scrolling through social media? When you post something online, have you noticed how many people ask you about it? Often these are the same people who are so busy!
Some cultural observers have noted a growing phenomenon called fear of missing out (FOMO). With so much information at our fingertips we become restless wondering what our friends are doing, whether we have any emails, what is happening in politics — anything other than what we are doing at the moment. FOMO may explain our constant connectedness, but discontentment explains FOMO. Discontent comes because we are restless, unhappy, unsatisfied, and curious. It seems that within a few decades of technological development, many can scarcely engage in the menial tasks of life for very long without checking their phones. It's as if we're saying, "I have learned in whatever situation I am in to be discontent."
Contrast this with the words of the apostle Paul in Philippians 4:11: "I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content." The cry of the hearts of all people, whether rich or poor, is for more. They are discontent. The heartbeat of Paul in this text is that whether he has a lot or not very much, he has what he needs. He is content. We all naturally fall into the first group. We thirst for and pursue more. But as Christians we are called to live in the company of the apostle, to say we've tasted and are satisfied — we have what we need. We are to be after the elusive but ever-prized jewel of contentment.
Before going further, we need a clear definition of contentment. After all, we want to know where we are going and when we arrive there. So, what exactly is contentment? Leaning heavily upon others, I offer this definition: contentment is the inward, gracious, quiet spirit that joyfully rests in God's providence.
Have you been to an orchestral performance and witnessed the tuning process? It almost seems like part of the performance itself as the musicians allow each other to go ahead and tune their instruments prior to beginning. As I sit in the audience I am fascinated by the carefulness and patience exhibited by the musicians to ensure that they are on the same page. This is what this chapter aims to do. It is a "sync up" or tuning, if you will, to a biblical understanding of contentment. As we walk through the definition, we will certainly identify some areas that are out of tune. That's okay. The goal is to build the foundation and then learn this art of contentment.
Contentment Comes Inside Out
Think with me about Paul and Silas sitting in a Philippian jail. The authorities had ordered them to be bound in the "inner prison" or dungeon, as we might say. Their feet were fastened in the stocks. These were the same stocks often used to torture prisoners in the ancient world. But to get an accurate picture we must remember how Paul and Silas got there.
The book of Acts tells us that earlier in the day, they were preaching the gospel in the town of Philippi and seeing fruit. In fact, the impact of their preaching was such that the local industry of fortune-tellers feared for their business. Feeling desperate, they attacked Paul and Silas and dragged them into court. Soon a mob of people began physically attacking them, and the rulers tore the evangelists' clothes, stripped them naked, and ordered that they be beaten with rods. After Paul and Silas had been sufficiently beaten, the magistrates ordered that they be thrown into the dungeon and locked in the stocks (Acts 16:19–24).
By all accounts this was a rough day. If there was ever a day when we would expect Paul to complain or at least grumble a bit, this was it. But we don't see that at all. In fact, we see quite the opposite. "About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them" (Acts 16:25).
What we read in verse 25 is astounding in light of what we read in verse 24. Paul and Silas, after being stripped and publicly beaten with rods, were hauled off to prison and thrown into the dark, musty basement where they were fastened in the stocks. If this were a movie, the camera would zoom in on the missionaries and then fade out. They would look pitiable. These are horrible circumstances. The film would let us know that a few hours have passed when guards come in to check on the poor, beleaguered evangelists. Expecting to find them either dead or groaning, we'd discover them praying and singing hymns to God!
These guys not only had enough strength to live, but they had the will, the desire to sing and pray to God. When we read of them together like this, we can almost see the narrator's smile as he includes this nugget: "and the prisoners were listening to them" (Acts 16:24). I bet they were.
Here's the million-dollar question: How could people who had been through what they'd been through and then endured the circumstances they were enduring find it in themselves to lead a prayer meeting and a hymn sing? Here's the simple answer: they were content. Paul says as much in a letter to the church he planted in this same town, "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" (Phil. 4:11–12).
Contentment is not based upon 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."
This is where we see that contentment is far more powerful than a change of circumstances. Instead of being sourced on the outside and subject to changing circumstances, biblical contentment comes from within and endures through the spectrum of circumstances. How else can we explain the singing that filled the Philippian dungeon?
This is part of the tuning process that we need to undergo. If at the very outset we misunderstand contentment, then we can't possibly come to fully enjoy its immense blessing. On the other hand, 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.
Contentment Is Quiet
Just as we can learn a lot about people by listening to them talk, we can learn a lot about ourselves by doing the same thing. 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 (Matt. 12:34). What is in the well comes up in the bucket. If your heart were a body of water, would it be a peaceful lake or a stormy sea? A contented heart showcases itself by not grumbling or complaining (Phil. 2:14).
I should nuance this a bit, because there is a type of biblical complaining that is healthy. I am not saying that we should be numb or insensitive to the difficulties of life. Contentment does not mean ignoring problems or pretending they don't exist. Quite the opposite! A contented spirit is one that realizes the difficulty but can nevertheless rest in God in the midst of it.
Second, contentment does not mean that we don't voice our complaints to God. The Scriptures are full of prayers from godly people who cry out and complain to God (e.g., Pss. 3:4; 34:6; 55:16–17; 77:1; 142:1–3). In fact, we are commanded to cast our cares upon the Lord (1 Pet. 5:7). The motive for this is that he cares for us. But mark the contrast; there is a difference between complaining to God ("How long, O Lord?") and complaining about God. The first is supported by an enduring trust that God hears and loves. The second is betrayed by an eroding trust that God hears and loves. It is a privilege for Christians to bring their burdened hearts to their Father for soul medicine.
Finally, contentment is not opposed to seeking help from others for deliverance out of present afflictions by lawful means. Jeremiah Burroughs makes this point clearly when he shows that contentment is not at odds with using God's means to find relief from affliction: "And so far as he leads me I may follow his providence." We seek help in such a way that we are submissive to God's will and how God wills. In this, says Burroughs, "our wills are melted into the will of God. This is not opposed to the quietness which God requires in a contented spirit." The complaining of discontentment includes grumbling. The grumbling is a distrust of God, an anxious concern that the future won't work out the way we want it to. Discontentment can also be characterized by bitterness. This is a frustration that the past has not gone the way we'd like. Further, discontentment can be characterized by distraction in the present. Unable to focus on what should be prized and prioritized today, the discontented heart rages amid its busyness and worldliness (1 John 2:16-17). 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.
It may be helpful, when thinking about contentment, to ask those close to you if they think you often complain. Consider what you talk about. Inventory what you think about. Are you consistently embracing God's goodness in the valleys as well as the mountaintops? Contentment knows how to sing in the stocks as well as at the banquet feast.
Contentment Is a Work of Grace
Earlier we saw that contentment works inside out. Now I want to push that a bit further along. The inward working of God upon the heart is the work of grace. How else can we explain such strange behavior?
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 discontentment. But as we begin 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. As we will see in the next chapter in more detail, 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 (Ps. 73:26). This is a work of grace.
When the Philippian Christians first got the apostle Paul's letter, they would have recognized Paul's call to contentment as revolutionary. In their culture, contentment was a key topic of ethical discussion from the time of Socrates.
In Stoic philosophy it [contentment] denotes the one who "becomes an independent man sufficient to himself and in need of none else." The goal for the Stoic was that "a man should be sufficient unto himself for all things, and able, by the power of his own will, to resist the force of circumstances." ... By the exercise of reason over emotions, the Stoic learns to be content. For the Stoic, emotional detachment is essential in order to be content.
What a stark difference for the Christian. Instead of achieving contentment through being strong in reason, the Christian learns contentment by being weak enough to be strengthened by grace.
At this point you might be saying, "I'm not much of a complainer; I'm involved in my church, and I think overall I'm fairly content." The challenge is to look honestly at the evidence in our lives. Can we be sure we've learned contentment by grace? Has this worked inside out? Or are we simply consoled by having the things we want? This is an important question.
Think about a crying baby who finds consolation when given a toy. Is she content from the inside out? Of course not. Take away the toy and you'll discover soon enough the source of her contentment! The same is true for grown men and women. We have a smile and a peace when work is going well, the bills are being paid, and the kids are minding. But what happens when something goes awry? Has this contentment been worked inside out by means of grace? Or is this happiness similar to a baby's with a toy? The source of our quietness is revealed by how we respond when God brings a trial.
Contentment Joyfully Rests in God's Providence
Embracing the doctrine of providence is vital for learning the art of contentment. In chapter 7 we will look into this further, but for now we should at least set the table a bit. Providence teaches us that God is not disconnected from what is happening in 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. The Heidelberg Catechism says it very well on Lord's Day 10:
God's providence is his almighty and ever present power, whereby, as with his hand, he still upholds heaven and earth and all creatures, and so governs them that leaf and blade, rain and drought, fruitful and barren years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, indeed, all things, come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand.
A biblical example of where this doctrine reveals contentment is the story of Joseph. He was one of the twelve sons of Jacob. Joseph's older brothers became jealous of him because of their father's favored treatment of him. Jacob had made him a special coat that Joseph no doubt proudly wore before his brothers. What's more, Joseph had a dream in which his brothers were all bowing down before him. And to make matters worse, he told his brothers about the dream. This led to their plotting to kill him. When cooler heads prevailed, they decided instead to sell him into slavery and tell their father that Joseph was tragically killed by an animal.
After all of this plotting, Joseph ended up in Egypt, where he was promoted through the ranks and became the lead guy for Pharaoh. Things were looking up for Joseph until the king's wife falsely accused Joseph of attempted rape after her failed efforts to seduce him. As a result, he was thrown into prison. While there he interpreted dreams for some other prisoners and made a name for having wisdom. Later, Pharaoh called on him for this same purpose. Joseph shined in the moment and was given great honor in Egypt.
Meanwhile there was a famine in the land, and Joseph's brothers all felt its impact. So they made their way down to Egypt to ask for food. Through a series of events Joseph, while keeping his identity veiled to his brothers, provided for them and persuaded them all to come to Egypt. At last he revealed his true identity to his brothers, and they were gripped with fear of his revenge. But Joseph spoke something profound in reply: "As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today" (Gen. 50:20).
Excerpted from Chasing Contentment by Erik Raymond. Copyright © 2017 Erik J. Raymond. Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 Defining Contentment
1 Understanding Contentment 21
2 The God Who Is Content 34
Part 2 Learning Contentment
3 Better Than I Deserve 51
4 Left, Right, Left 64
5 See Through the Shiny Wrappers 81
6 Just Say No! 97
7 Be Still and Know 112
8 Be a Faithful Bride 129
9 You Are Not Yet Home 146
General Index 167
Scripture Index 171
What People are Saying About This
“Just about every day, I wake up and read Erik Raymond’s insights on pastoral ministry, discipleship, and everyday living as a Christian. He always challenges me to love Jesus as I trust in the sufficiency of his work on the cross. As someone who struggles with contentment, I need his wise counsel to walk with Christ in freedom and joy.”Collin Hansen, Vice President for Content and Editor in Chief, The Gospel Coalition; Host, Gospelbound podcast
“Contentment may not be as elusive as we think it is. Erik Raymond’s enthusiasm in explaining the biblical text regarding contentment really shines in this book. Whether you’ve been wearied by trying to squeeze contentment out of the world or you’re happy right where you are, Chasing Contentment will refresh your perspective as you marvel at the sovereign joy of Jesus.” Gloria Furman, author, Alive in Him and Labor with Hope
“Erik Raymond is one of my favorite writers. Discontentment is one of my deepest struggles. What a joy, then, to have this author speak wisely, biblically, and pastorally about the value, the importance, and the pursuit of contentment. If you struggle as I do, you’ll find help and hope in the pages of this book and, ultimately, in the Book of books it points to.”Tim Challies, blogger, Challies.com
“Too often our search for contentment leads us to sources unable to bear the weight of our desires. We trust in money, relationships, and circumstances, only to find ourselves increasingly dissatisfied. This book helps to clarify our understanding of contentment, as well as redirect our hopes to the One who is able to provide lasting joy. Raymond combines wisdom from church fathers with modern insights and examples that make this book readable, applicable, and needed.” Melissa B. Kruger, Director of Women’s Initiatives, The Gospel Coalition; author, Growing Together
“Does any word better define our culture than ‘chasing’? Does any word better describe what’s missing in our culture than ‘contentment’? By pairing these seemingly contradictory words, Erik calls us to end our pursuit of more and to begin our pursuit of enough. Read this engaging and enjoyable exploration of Christian contentment and decide, as I did, that this chase is well worth the effort.”David Murray, Senior Pastor, First Byron Christian Reformed Church
“Erik Raymond is the right man to write the book Chasing Contentment. I was immensely blessed and challenged by this fine work. You will be too as you read and apply it.”Jason K. Allen, President, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
“For decades, when asked for a book recommendation on Christian contentment, I always had to reference books by Puritans like Burroughs and Watson. I knew of no solid modern book on the matteruntil now. Erik Raymond’s Chasing Contentment is that modern work I have longed to see and use. This book contains the wisdom and insights of the timeless Puritan works, yet brings a culturally relevant pastoral sensitivity that will make this the go-to book on this subjectthoroughly biblical, immensely practical. I highly commend this book and the faithful man who wrote it.”Brian Croft, Senior Pastor, Auburndale Baptist Church, Louisville, Kentucky; Founder, Practical Shepherding
“In this book, my friend Erik Raymond isn’t saying anything newhe’s reminding us of some very old wisdom that has gone unheeded and unheralded in our discontented age. Drawing from the prophets, the Puritans, and his own personal experience, he puts his finger on our malaise and offers us gospel medicine. I need the truth in this bookand I’m betting you do, too.” Robert H. Thune, Lead Pastor, Coram Deo Church, Omaha, Nebraska