What is the way to contentment?

Once we have identified discontent in our lives, how do we make our way to contentment? Paul had to learn contentment, as he tells us in his letter to the Philippians: “for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” And if the apostle had to learn this lesson, no doubt we will need to learn it as well, one assignment at a time with an occasional quiz or comprehensive test. So here are some more gleanings from those old preachers, Watson and Burroughs.

Contentment is not natural, but an inward work of grace in our hearts. We do not need any lessons in discontent. That is easy enough and the flesh runs that direction well enough on its own. But how do we learn contentment? By bridling our thoughts and emotions. That means putting a bit in the teeth of our thoughts, and steering them in the right direction. By mortifying (putting to death) our desires, and keeping our hearts from being set too much on the creature. These are hard lessons indeed. And if we think it’s as easy as snapping our fingers, we don’t yet understand contentment.

We often think that if we could get our circumstances up to our desires, then we would be content. If only we could pay off the debts or move into a bigger house or find the man of our dreams, then contentment would be easy. But that never really works. If you have a discontented heart, you will simply take it with you right into the bigger house and right into the marriage with you. And then you will find something else to be discontent about.

Rather, we come to contentment by subtraction, and not by addition. We come to contentment by getting our desires down to our circumstances. But no one really wants to do that. It goes against the grain, which means it goes against the flesh.

Contentment says, “What God would have, I would have too; I will not only yield to it, but I would have it too.” Obviously, that kind of attitude requires supernatural grace, and God is willing to give us that kind of grace. He gave it to Paul, and Paul learned to be content in all kinds of circumstances.

Consider 2 Corinthians 4:7-12 and 16-18, and then chapter 6:4-10.  Paul was no pansy when it came to handling tough circumstances. He dealt with just about every kind: beatings, imprisonments, tumults, labors, watchings, fastings, troubles, persecutions, dishonor, and  sorrows.

Contentment requires a change in outlook. Instead of looking for the things we want, those external blessings, contentment looks to our duties in our present circumstances. Thinking about other circumstances, all those enticing possibilities, is merely a temptation that we need to resist. Those thoughts only feed discontent, and we need to starve discontent right out of our hearts and minds.

So make a list of your blessings and a list of your troubles. Take your time and fill it in. If you do this honestly, you will have many more blessings than troubles. Thank God for it all. He is kindly loading you with blessings that are often overlooked. And those troubles in the other column are entrusted to you from a wise and loving Father. Use those troubles to turn a profit. Be a good and grateful steward of your blessings and your troubles, and God will see that you harvest a hefty crop of spiritual maturity and contentment.

Paul turned his troubles to a profit (2 Cor. 6:10): “As sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.”

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12 thoughts on “What is the way to contentment?

  1. You wrote: “Rather, we come to contentment by subtraction, and not by addition. ” and this is, I think the true kernel of the matter. Removing of every external support, every crutch except for our trust in God.

    Growing in our knowledge of Him helps us trust in Him. Trusting in Him helps us to know with certainty that all of our needs ARE met.. not just that they will be met… sometime in the future, but that they are met. Right this very moment, and every moment of our lives. When we realize that, all our needs are met, we can rest in contentment. Because we have no unmet needs;)

  2. I’m really enjoying your posts on contentment. It is an area that I really struggle with, exacerbated by worry, my other struggle.

    One thing that has recently dawned on me is that the worry and the discontent seem to become a self-perpetuating cycle for me — and both represent a lack of trust in God (as stated above).

    Also, several years ago, I realized that when I was in high school-college, all I wanted was to date. When I started dating, all I wanted was that ring. When I got engaged, I wanted to hurry the wedding. When I got married, I just wanted a baby. It was at that point that I realized I had spent so much time wanting to get to the next stage in life, that I had totally missed out on enjoying the stage God had me in when He had me in them. I decided then and there to start enjoying the sitution I’m in instead of looking ahead to the next stage.

  3. Last year we lived in a nice house, 8 miles out of town, with barely any income, and very “interesting” neighbors. Although we had very little, I found myself full of joy and peace…content. Our cirrcumstances looked rather dismal to those around us but we were at rest.
    We had to move rather unexpectedly… into a larger home, with a beautiful yard, and fellow Christians next door. God even provided for my dh to go back to school and extra income for us, but now I find myself struggling with contentment.
    Having can breed wanting.
    I have found myself very convicted, challenged, and encouraged by these last few posts. Thank you.

  4. Great stuff.

    Karla, that “Having can breed wanting” bit is so true! Just when I’m content with what I have and what I don’t have, I get one of those things that I used to want before becomming content with not having it. THEN I want all the other things I used to want and have to work on that contentment stuff all over again. Good thing it’s God doing the work and not me. I’d never master it!

  5. This is timely, as my husband just left on a business trip and I have 4 kids recuperating from strep throat. :0) Thank you for the reminder that I have much to be joyful for, and that my circumstances do not change this fact.

    I needed to read this today.
    God bless you and your wonderful family.

  6. “Rather, we come to contentment by subtraction, and not by addition. We come to contentment by getting our desires down to our circumstances.”

    This is a serious Amen.

  7. Hi, Nancy et al,

    I don’t see a way to write you directly… I unexpectedly have the opportunity to spend several days alone in a cabin after a crazy hectic busy season. I’d like to have some sort of spiritual retreat– what resources do you know of? My own minister is out of town for the summer and I’m hesitant to just order something off Amazon. My goal is deeper fellowship with God.

    Thank you!

  8. Thank you for writing this. I just found your blog (having quite awhile ago read a few of your books). I have three little boys, ages 3, 1 1/2, and 5 months, and having had them later in life, am struggling with the “tension” between utter gratefulness for my husband and children and home and also having my head spin from the absence of time to think and read and write and pray the way I used to in my long singleness. I spend so much time in this quirky, good, old little house in the middle of this city and I have thousands of ideas of how to make it better and how to parent better and how to “wife” better, and pictures I would love to draw and paint and textile projects for this person and that and yet, I do not have time, nor money to do these things. I am so so busy and feel so so satisfied and sometimes weirdly empty at the same exact time. Anyway, I need to submit to the wonderful opportunity I have right here in my lap to learn contentment “on the fly”….Thank you for reminding me of what God is already telling me.

  9. I just re-read this … it hurts, especially when God sends you a test and you fail. When you are waiting on the Lord to move in a particular area, to change a circumstance, etc. etc. how do you get your desires to come down to your circumstances when your circumstances are hard, when the circumstances are nowhere near your desire? You’ve told me before to “look away” and to “look to Christ.” I guess we all have seasons where that’s just really hard to do.

  10. Luma,
    Of course it is easy to be content when things go the way we want. But what do you do when things go contrary to your desires? You lean back hard on the providence and sovereign kindness of God. You do not want to be somewhere, anywhere, that our good God has not ordained. Faith believes He is protecting you, looking out for you, not punishing you.

  11. Thank you, I know you’re right. You know, you have this habit of making me cry (in good ways of course). 🙂

    Proverbs says “The plans of the diligent lead surely to plenty, but those of everyone who is hasty, surely to poverty.” Because of my great zeal for diligence and deliberateness, I think sometimes I excuse discontentment and hastiness as a need to be diligent and deliberate. Does that make sense? I will have to be on guard for this.

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