The little boy was throwing a fit all the way out to the car, mad because Mommy wouldn’t buy him one of those cheap toys that line the checkout aisle. My mom told me the story another mom had shared about her shopping trip with her son. That little boy didn’t know that his Christmas presents were safely tucked away in the trunk, better and bigger and more expensive toys than the object of his tantrum. If only you knew, his mother thought, what I have planned to give you? It’s worth so much more than what you think you want.
I have always thought contentment meant gratitude in the face of ongoing hardship, or choosing to look for the silver lining when it’s hard to be patient for an answer to prayer. In my mind, contentment involved a kind of teeth-gritting, self-bracing choice to be grateful despite all of the obvious reasons not to be. Whenever I thought of contentment, this is what I pictured – stubborn happiness in spite of whatever else is going on.
My definition of being content was missing an important component: reality.
Since my youth pastor showed us that common reading plan for Proverbs – the one where you read the chapter that corresponds with each day of the month – I’ve read through the book several times.
“It is not possible to ever exhaust the mind of the Scriptures,” an early church father wrote. “It is a well that has no bottom.” So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I “found” a verse I must have read several times before.
“The fear of the LORD leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm” (Proverbs 19:23).
Whoever fears God, knowing He is big enough and good enough to take care of our needs, can rest satisfied. They can relax, because they know God is in charge. Knowing this satisfies us.
This is contentment, I realized. To be content is to be satisfied.
Think of how full we are after Thanksgiving dinner, when we are so full we couldn’t possibly hold any more. Think of a sleeping baby – never has an infant made the conscious choice to be content, but only when all their needs are met do they let you rest.
When all their needs are met.
To be satisfied is to have your needs met.
What Do We Need?
We’ve all seen Maslow’s pyramid theory of human needs. Even without it, we know there are things we need. Food. Clothing. Shelter. We need friends, purpose in life, and meaningful work.
The more we think about it, the longer the list grows, adding things like movie tickets and new technology and, without question, hot showers – something a friend of mine in Haiti regularly lives without.
But our real needs are so much more basic than the latest trends or high-dollar items that will be old news not long from now.
‘”I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
Therefore go out from their midst,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
then I will welcome you,
and I will be a father to you,
and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty“‘ (2 Corinthians 6:16b-18).
If only we could really grasp that the only true need any of us have ever had is … God.
He sees the needs we could never meet and gives us Himself, giving us the right to be His children (1 John 3:1). Paul says that this relationship gives us “boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him,” the right to walk into His presence without any limitations or even red tape (Ephesians 3:12). We forget how incredible this freedom is, how even Moses stood in awe of it. “‘For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?’” (Deuteronomy 4:7).
Our deepest needs have been satisfied.
Contentment is never in spite of anything, but because of the love and care of our God who is our Father and Savior and Helper. It doesn’t mean naively pretending that we’re happy in spite of unmet needs but recognizing – honestly – that all our needs are seen and completely satisfied by Jesus. Merriam Webster tells me that “contented” is “feeling or showing satisfaction with one’s possessions, status, or situation.” Yes, we should be content. Because we are satisfied.
Contentment is not a result of something I try to force into my behavior, but an honest realization that God has done all the work and I can trust Him to continue to provide as He always has. Like a baby sleeping on its mother’s shoulder.
So Much More
So it would seem there’s another way to approach this. No more teeth-gritting, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps, get-it-together attempt at faking contentment.
“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you”” (Hebrews 13:5).
Don’t worry about money, the author of Hebrews tells us. Don’t wish to have more than you do. Why? Because Jesus will never leave you – and this knowledge and reality is an infinitely greater treasure than having more dollars to spend and give away. The money won’t always be with you. But Jesus will be.
We are satisfied with what we have. Why? Because we have Christ. Once we know this, then wherever we are and whatever is going on, we can rest. Satisfied. Content.
What we’ve been given is so much greater than any little toy we think we want.