From our earliest years, we place a variety of personal qualifications on our contentment. If only we could possess that new toy, get into the right peer group, gain acceptance to a particular college, find job satisfaction, marry the person of our dreams, buy just the right home in just the right city, have children, experience lovely vacations, maintain our health, enjoy financial stability—then, and only then, can we expect to experience contentment.
If we can just have the items we long for at any time, then we expect to find satisfaction. It’s not too much to ask, is it?
While God invites us to enjoy His gifts in a variety of ways, temporal items are unsatisfactory foundations for lasting joy and peace. Culture may view contentment as something we gain through relationships, wealth, power, and privilege, but the Bible sets forth very different qualifications for contentment. Biblical contentment unfolds from the Spirit’s work in a believer’s heart, mind, life, and hope. These four qualifications set an eternal foundation for unwavering contentment that holds steady through life’s seasons and storms.
A Trusting Heart
The cornerstone of contentment is a heart that trusts the Lord. Jeremiah 17:7–8 confidently asserts:
Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.
This passage, alongside similar imagery in Psalm 1, presents a lovely picture of contentment. The tree’s ability to flourish is independent of circumstances because it has an enduring source from which to drink. Whatever season may come, the tree is always bearing fruit.
On the eve of His death, Jesus furthered this imagery when He taught His disciples: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Just like the tree, we possess an everlasting source from which to find nourishment. We abide in Jesus by spending time in the Word, seeking Him in prayer, and walking in obedience to His commands (John 15:7–11). Jesus is our fount, providing the strength, refreshment, and encouragement we need to withstand any and every circumstance we may face, while still bearing the fruit of contentment.
Apart from Christ, we are dry branches, parched and thirsty, always craving more. Jeremiah 17:5 warns, “Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He is like a shrub in the desert and shall not see any good come.” It is impossible to have biblical contentment apart from abiding in Christ.
By trusting in Jesus, we do not have to fear either abundance or hardship. When difficulties and trials come, His strength is sufficient. When joys and pleasures come, His grace enables us to rejoice in the Giver of all good things. A heart that trusts in God can joyfully proclaim with Paul, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).
A Teachable Mind-Set
A heart that trusts in the Lord is also one that will learn from Him. If we hope to find contentment, a second qualification is that we have a teachable mind-set. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul explains:
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. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Phil. 4:11–13)
Contentment does not suddenly descend upon us; it is learned. Can you recall the last time you learned something new? Usually, learning involves both study and observation, but at some point it requires application. If I learn to ride a bike, I may begin by reading about it in a book. I may also watch and observe someone else as they ride. But to truly learn how to ride a bike, I must actually sit upon the bike and attempt to ride it myself.
This moment of the learning process is also the most fearful. Questions plague us: What if I fall off? What if I get hurt? What if I never learn it? Yet we miss the joy of riding if we are unwilling to apply what we know to our own experience.
In a similar way, we can learn contentment by reading books on the subject and watching others in their contentment. But at some point, we must apply our study and observation to our own lives. We may be plagued by fears as we learn to trust God for our contentment: What if I get hurt? What if I miss out? What if God is not enough?
These are normal fears as we learn the secret of contentment. However, by setting our minds on things above, considering that which is lovely, praiseworthy, and true, we can rise above our doubts. Biblical contentment is not a natural disposition or personality type; it is the result of learning and growth in the Christian life.
A Sacrificial Life
Jesus explained a third qualifier for contentment when He taught His disciples:
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? For what can a man give in return for his soul?” (Mark 8:34–37)
He who gains the most trinkets and toys does not win contentment in the game of life. When the world is gained, it may provide momentary happiness, but it is impossible for lasting joy to be sustained from temporary pleasure.
In contrast, the upside-down way of the gospel leads us to deny ourselves, and in doing so, we encounter a surprising result: we find life. Contentment is won not by gaining, but by giving. Not by addition, but by subtraction.
Going forth as living sacrifices, we are alive not for consuming the things of the world, but alive in hopes of being consumed for it. We give of our money, time, and talents, hoping to use all that is entrusted to us to forward the work of the gospel. We face trouble, hardship, and persecution, knowing deep within our souls that though we may possess nothing, we have everything: “He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12).
The beauty of a sacrificial life shines brightly as it burns, consumed but content.
A Heavenly Hope
The Spirit empowers us with a trusting heart, teachable mind-set, and sacrificial life because we have been given a heavenly hope. Our misplaced expectation of this world greatly affects our ability to enjoy it. Diligently as we may try to squeeze contentment out of the things of earth, this world simply cannot produce what it was never intended to give.
Richard Baxter wisely exhorted:
If everlasting joys were more in your thoughts, spiritual joys would abound more in your hearts. No wonder you are comfortless when heaven is forgotten. When Christians let fall their heavenly expectations but heighten their earthly desires, they are preparing themselves for fear and trouble. Who has met with a distressed, complaining soul where either a low expectation of heavenly blessings, or too high a hope for joy on earth is not present? What keeps us under trouble is either we do not expect what God has promised, or we expect what he did not promise.
Jesus instructed us, His followers, to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. He understood that where our treasure is, there our hearts will be also (Matt. 6:19–21). By setting our hopes fully on what is to come, we will be enlivened in a new way to enjoy our days under the sun.
By living as strangers and pilgrims, we let go of unrealistic expectations. While traveling, we understand that we most likely will be uncomfortably situated, jostled out of place, and may look a bit worn around the edges. Yet deep within our souls, we rest content. We are on our way home. Just thinking about the sights, smells, and joys of home fills our hearts with delight.
By the Spirit’s work, we can walk this journey with joy. A trusting heart, a teachable mind, a sacrificial life, and a heavenly hope—these things serve as the best of traveling companions. These qualifications for contentment make our hearts ready to experience lasting fulfillment that withstands the fiercest trials and storms. What the world is unable to provide, Christ freely gives. May we be found in Him, overflowing with joy, resting content in all things.