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Practicing Contentment

If ever we’re going to learn to be content, we must live with the confident expectation that the best is yet to come.

Jan 22, 2021

It was nine months ago that Ontario went into lockdown. Since then, we’ve experienced varying levels of restriction on private and public gatherings. Some of these measures have been very sensible, while others have defied all sense. And now, we’re staring another lockdown in the face. Yes, the lockdown is only temporary. Yes, a vaccine is now available. Yes, the “talking heads” indicate that there will be some return to normalcy in the summer. Yes, the situation could be far worse. While I realize all that, I still find I feel like grumbling at the prospect of another lockdown.

Thomas Manton describes grumbling as “the scum of discontent.” (Ouch. Only an old Puritan could express it in such piercing terms.) According to Jeremiah Burroughs, discontent is an unwillingness “to submit to, and delight in, God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.” Putting it all together, we discover the following: the cause of grumbling isn’t the pandemic, nor is it the restrictions imposed by the provincial government, nor (for that matter) is it any other circumstance in life. The cause of grumbling isn’t anything that’s happening to us or around us. The cause of grumbling is what’s going on in our hearts—we grumble because we struggle with discontent, and we struggle with discontent because we refuse to submit to our heavenly Father in every circumstance of life.

Recognizing this, I’ve been meditating today on Paul’s statement in Philippians 4:11, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” I want to be able to say that. And so, here’s my question: How can we learn to be content (even during a lockdown)?

Before proceeding, let me be clear on what I’m not doing in this article. I’m not critiquing Canada’s policy regarding the lockdown (or, its overall handling of the pandemic), nor am I addressing the serious long-term problems and struggles that a lockdown creates. These are important issues, and I believe we ought to think seriously about them. But that’s not what I’m doing here. I want to consider how I (as a Christian) can mortify my tendency to grumble (vent, complain, murmur) when things get difficult or unpleasant. Again, here’s my question: How can we learn to be content (even during a lockdown)?

1. We Practice Thankfulness

“Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord” (Philippians 3:1).

For this to happen, the gospel must occupy center stage in our lives. We need to remember God’s love in devising our rescue from sin and death. We need to remember what Christ accomplished at Calvary’s cross. We need to remember how God brought us to saving faith in Christ. We need to remember God’s gift of His Spirit and His Word. We need to remember how God has protected and preserved us in ways we don’t even realize. We need to remember how God has provided us with life and breath, food and drink, shelter and provision. Thomas Watson warns, “Discontent is an ungrateful sin, because we have far more mercies than afflictions.” If ever we’re going to learn to be content, we must consciously and consistently turn ourselves to numbering our blessings and practicing thankfulness.

2. We Cultivate Heavenly Mindedness

“But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).

Investments can evaporate, houses can crumble, jobs can disappear, relationships can sour, and health can fail. But hope is the confident expectation of glory based on the unchanging Word of God. “If we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience” (Romans 8:25). Hope is fixed on the return of Christ, the resurrection from the dead, the full and final deliverance from sin, and the renovation of the entire cosmos. Hope makes this future certainty a present reality, and this becomes a light that penetrates the shadows. It’s immune to every illness, every threat, every grief, every worry, every challenge, and every loss. What a glorious prospect! “God will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through with such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly (though, of course, on a smaller scale) His own boundless power and delight and goodness” (C. S. Lewis). If ever we’re going to learn to be content, we must live with the confident expectation that the best is yet to come.

3. We Trust God’s Providence

“For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Philippians 1:29).

This is a very difficult concept to grasp: God “granted” to these early believers that they should “suffer” for Christ’s sake. Does God really ordain our suffering? Yes. And He promises to work “all things” (including our suffering) for our good (Romans 8:28). For this reason, we must “submit to, and delight in, God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition” (Jeremiah Burroughs). (1) We do so because He’s wise (Job 21:22). His wisdom isn’t our wisdom, and His ways aren’t our ways. Our knowledge of things is severely limited, whereas God’s knowledge is absolutely limitless. (2) We do so because He’s sovereign (Job 26:7–14). He’s unperturbed by the apparent chaos on earth. He doesn’t fret, panic, or worry. “Wild confusion may reign around us, yet the hearts of the righteous rejoice because God is not—and cannot be—dethroned” (William Plumer). (3) We do so because He cares for us. “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7). If ever we’re going to learn to be content, we must impress the wonder of God’s providential care deep within our hearts.

4. We Treasure Christ

“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).

If we place disproportionate value upon things in this world, they will eventually capture our heart. The problem is they can’t satisfy us because they aren’t designed to satisfy us. As Jeremiah Burroughs writes, “The reason you have no contentment in the things of this world isn’t because you don’t have enough of them, but because they can’t satisfy your immortal soul. You’re like a man, who tries to satisfy his hunger by opening his mouth to swallow the wind. He thinks the reason he’s still hungry is because he hasn’t swallowed enough of the wind.” Christ alone is of “surpassing worth” (Philippians 3:7–8). He’s the greatest good, the closest friend, the richest grace, the highest honour, the kindest comfort, the finest beauty, the deepest truth, and the sweetest love. If we’re ever going to learn to be content, we must esteem all things in comparison to Christ’s inestimable worth.

I pray I can say with Paul: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11).