If you asked a few people whether they were satisfied with their lives, you would not be surprised to find the majority would respond with the negative – and you might easily be one of them.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that we should rid ourselves of greed and “be content with what you have for he has said ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you,’” (Heb. 13:5). Already we are met with several problems: ridding ourselves of greed and covetousness, maintaining trust in God’s nearness and goodness, and most importantly, how in God’s whole creation are we to be content? On that scale, it sounds ungrateful that we should ever experience discontent, and actually it is! Jesus tells a story about the kingdom of heaven where He describes its joy as hidden treasure, or a “pearl of great value”, and the man who finds it hurries away with great joy and sells all he has in order that he might buy it and own it (Matt. 13:44-45).
Nonetheless, it would be naïve to deny that we have serious difficulty with this one. And we, who have Christ, should know better. Yet we are creatures of extreme longing. If I were to ask myself whether I was satisfied, I know very well what I ought to answer, and I also know very well how easily would spring to mind a list of things I am not satisfied with. For example, being a girl of romantic inclination, singleness is one of my most trying spiritual issues (although I have many other vices besides). It is for me the desperation of a person eagerly awaiting a train to go to some wonderful holiday destination, and the train, far from being delayed, shows no sign of arriving at the station at all. I am well acquainted with the fear (and the actuality) of being dismissed with either the pitiable cat-lady spinsters or the bitter, angry singles. I have had both the disdain of those who think I’m prudish, or half-complete, and the pity of those who think I’m ‘nice,’ and therefore pray for a future husband – because he is the best possible good they can imagine to wish on anyone.
The Disease of Discontentment
And I have had to hear that I was guilty of idolatry in my discontent. It was a truth hard to bear. I found when God didn’t give me what I’d wanted, the power of obsession and neediness overwhelmed faith; it provoked questioning of His goodness, causing anger, anxiety, frustration and despair. It can be found in the first of the ten commandments: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). And are the objects of our desire not exactly that? Jesus teaches the first commandment in this way: we are to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” (Luke 10:27). It leaves no room for anything else to take precedence in the emotion’s or intellect’s priority list. Profoundly, the love of God includes all our capabilities: emotional, spiritual, volitional and intellectual. This means that God is capable of eliciting in us a response that may be expressed in every facet of our life. He is not a God who demands that we neglect intellectual thought when we approach Him. Delighting in God is not simply a turn of phrase but an actual possibility. He has given us powerful bodies which we may use in worship and service of Him. Nothing can take a higher place in our priorities because there is no area of myself that He does not rightfully require of me. The heart can truly strive towards only one thing at a time. Thus: persons, circumstances and desires without the sincere surrender of the prayer “thy will be done” are beautifully flower-lined paths, yes, which can only lead away from Christ.
Yet idolatry does not present itself obviously. The theologian and author G. K. Chesterton was once quoted in the Illustrated London News saying, “Idolatry is committed, not merely by setting up false gods, but also by setting up false devils.” On this, he is helpful, for the blessings God gives – such as love, vocation, security; a spouse, a certain type of living, a job – are not to be distrusted necessarily on principle. The trick is to recognize what lies behind them – and if it isn’t God; if your faith in God’s goodness would be seriously rattled should He see fit to take it from you. If this is the one thing of which you would say to God “Anything but that!”, this is what most needs surrendering to Christ. How weak is such faith! It is the tantrum of the child in the supermarket who is denied sweets, and accuses the mother of cruelty.
And how often I come to God as that child! I think I know what is better. I am distracted from God by what I believe will do me good, make me happy. C. S. Lewis describes it like this: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like a child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased” (The Weight of Glory). We have only infinite joy to be found in Christ and growing satisfaction in knowing and discovering God – how can we let the mud pies of the here and now block from our thoughts of paradise that is on offer?
What I often refuse to realize is that discontent is not the outrage against unkind circumstance but a symptom of a greater disease. Trials are not confined to one area of my life; discontent will feed off anything. God knows, if I am given my heart’s idolatrous desire in one area, I will soon crave after another. As Augustine sums up in his Confessions, “Wherever the soul of man turns, unless towards God, it cleaves to sorrow, even though the things outside God and outside itself to which it cleaves may be things of beauty.”
Surrender to a Sovereign Will
But if I love God over and above all things, with all my faculties – heart, soul, mind and strength – I teach my heart to direct its yearnings to the only thing completely fulfilling and worth desiring. In doing so, I also show the world the enviable picture Peter describes as being filled with “inexpressible and glorious joy” at “receiving the goal of your faith” (1 Pet. 1:8-9). I find and I also project enviable satisfaction in God’s glory as it is meant to be seen.
Still, life is a process of sanctification; we have not yet attained perfection, but we forget what is behind (be it trials, tears or tantrums) and strain to what is ahead; that is God (Phil. 3:12-14). Paul offers us the secret to contentment, that through the strength God will give us, we have Christ-mindedness to face any situation “whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil. 4:12-13).
You see, as Christians, we have affirmed that our greatest and highest good is found in the glory of God. Submitting ourselves to a sovereign will, who shapes our lives in accordance with a good and perfect plan, is something extraordinary, something wonderful! It removes the pressure of believing I need to control my life to bend it into the shape I think I need. If we believe God is sovereign and loving, we assert He knows better for us. There is a beautiful song in Joseph: King of Dreams, one which must often become my anthem to myself:
I thought I did what’s right,
I thought I had the answers,
I thought I chose the surest road,
But that road brought me here.
So I put up a fight,
And told You how to help me,
Now, just when I had given up,
Your truth is coming clear.
You know better than I,
You know the way,
I’ve let go the need to know why,
For You know better than I.
And to that I add, in my life, let Your will be done.