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Cultivating Contentment

As a young child, I escaped daily to the woods behind my house. Welcomed by the familiar scent of decomposing leaves, I disappeared into the landscape. I roamed between trees and forged across creeks. The same rocks and stumps greeted me on my continued adventure. The same two friends and I swung on unstable vines and scaled rock “cliffs” to secret caves. I went willingly, expecting the unvaried encounters of the day before. Energized by the routine, I never longed for anything more or different. Instead, each day I happily reconvened with nature. I was content.

Content is not a particularly positive word in my vocabulary. I often associate it with settling— being satisfied with mediocre instead of striving for greatness. Content feels a little bit like failure. Why wouldn’t it in a world fueled by the opposite? The American culture thrives on improvement. If we were wholly pleased with our lives, our economy would crumble. Instead, I, like so many others, am enticed by the need to be better.

Buy this, change that.

Eat this, never that.

Be younger, lighter, thinner, tighter.

The noise is ever streaming and impossible to ignore. The direct message encourages improvement, while the subliminal breeds discontent. It preys on my pride, arguing that only the naive find satisfaction where there is much to be gained.

The reason this message is so effective is because, on some level, it is true. There is an understanding in us that we are not quite what we should be. However, that longing is not for things of this world. Instead, we desire to be closer to the intended wholeness for which we were created. This state is not accessible by superficial improvements. We crave a renewing of the soul, not a refinement of the flesh.

I do not need the newest remedy born of culture. I can trust God, the faithful creator, to fulfill his promises. "And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 1:6 ESV). He is my remedy. This steers me toward a contentment defined by hope. It promises that work is happening, despite my fickle flesh. I no longer need to chase the fleeting embellishments of the world. God’s good grace moves me in the direction I desire, even as I am unable to imagine it. I can be content in this moment. “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who [or what] can be against us?” (Romans 8:31 ESV) Contentment is not an act of accepting the second rate state of things, but a cure for the deep longing in my soul. I can find peace right where my feet are planted, trusting in the eternal wholeness to come.

This is such good news in a year lacking much. It feels impossible to find happiness amidst discord and disease. Fear and responsibility trap the most privileged in their homes and the rest risk exposure to make ends meet. My reality feels like Groundhog Day as I try to stimulate two small children and fill the space between naps. It feels shameful to admit I am discontent while others are dealing with loss of finances and life. However, this pandemic reveals suffering in many forms. In this place, I find myself reaching for the curious child of my past, content to be ever among the trees.

Is it possible to embody her pleasure in this new sameness?

Can I thrive in the monotony and find hope in the heaviness?

Do I dare believe that God is making big moves in each identical day?

If I brave such contentment, I welcome a new perspective. I embrace joyful generosity and surrender fear-fueled hoarding and resentment. It feels rather risky and does not promise to deliver in this life. However, the alternative offers me nothing.

“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.” (Philippians 4:12 ESV)

So I strive to gravitate toward thankfulness. I sway in our tree swing, relishing my daughter’s repetitive dialogue with her stuffed hippos. I try on the old garment of contentment and list reasons for gratitude. The way the setting sun paints the sky orange and pink. The warm home that welcomes us when we finish our outdoor exploration. I am grateful for the consistency, knowing tomorrow my children will again wake me before the sun. I get to enjoy playing the same game, kissing the same boo boo, quieting the same tears. I do not need to long for more when I have been given so much.

At the same time, I do not ignore the heaviness around me. Instead, I allow the darkness to make certain the light. l pray over each passing siren. I make space for the child I lost, without diminishing my delight for the other two. For the sorrows God does not eliminate in this life, I pray for enduring faith. Where circumstance fails, I seek God’s greater perspective and trust Him with seemingly impossible promises. I welcome today for what it is, a day redeemed by a Risen Savior. Confident in a faithful God who promises to bring an end to every affliction- the superficial and infinitely deep. A God who depends not on our insufficient actions to deliver us, but who already frees us by faith in the One who suffered for all.

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