Contentment is hard

  • Lee Carter
  • 11 July 2018

Like most people, I’ve been through hard times in my life. Sometimes they’ve stretched on and on for years. At other times they’ve been relatively short-lived.

But like all people everywhere, I’ve also frequently experienced the kind of difficulties that are best described as minor, momentary or just maddening. They make me grumpy and irritable, and they probably make you grumpy and irritable too.

Imagine. You arrive early for an appointment, but it takes fifteen minutes to find somewhere to park your car, so you end up sprinting to get there on time. You buy a new microwave, but after a month it stops working, so you have to find the receipt and take it back to the store. You look forward to having a decent holiday, but when the day finally arrives you come down with the flu and have to cancel.

We all have experiences like this; they’re a part of normal life, though naturally we wish they weren’t. And because we have no control over them, our instinctive reaction is to find a sympathetic audience and have a good whinge. It’s such a relief to moan and gripe to others about the inconvenience or disappointment we’ve experienced. It’s easy to be cranky and so hard to be content.

But why is it so difficult to resist the urge to grumble? And why does it matter?

Even a skim-read through the book of Exodus will expose the ancient Israelites as habitual grumblers and complainers. God rescued them from slavery to be his people, but they had short and selective memories, especially when they were hungry. Lacking food to eat in the desert, they looked back at the grinding poverty and brutal oppression in Egypt and decided they’d rather have that again (Exod 16:3).

But God graciously responded to their accusations, promising Moses that he would provide food for them. In fact, he provided food for them for 40 years. Nonetheless, when the Israelites later camped at Rephidim and couldn’t find water, they got Moses in their sights and again accused him of treachery: “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our livestock with thirst?” (Exod 17:3).

Fearing for his life, Moses cried out to God for help, and he provided the water they needed. It’s worth noting here that the embattled Moses renamed that place Massah and Meribah, which meant ‘testing’ and ‘quarrelling’, because: 

… of the quarrelling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” (Exod 17:7)

Deep down, when things were going badly, the Israelites were not content, because they didn’t trust their God. Even though he had responded to their need by rescuing them from the cruel Egyptian yoke in a miraculous way, they chose to focus on what they feared and on what they lacked. In the end, their discontent caused them to wander for 40 years. Testing God and quarrelling with Moses seemed to be what the Israelites did best, and so—with the notable exception of Joshua and Caleb—God prevented that entire generation from ever entering the promised land. They died in the desert.

We would be wise to remember the incident at Massah and Meribah. It gets a dishonourable mention several times in Scripture because it demonstrates that grumbling and complaining are signs of a sinful, unbelieving heart. It’s a cautionary tale and a genuine warning: don’t be like the Israelites who hardened their hearts (Heb 3:6-13).

And yet we are just like the Israelites. We grumble and complain, and contentment eludes us. This makes us just as likely to reject the God who has saved us, because when life gets difficult we focus on our troubles and forget to turn to him in humble trust. Like the Israelites, we allow our fear of danger or need or discomfort to rule us, rather than relying on our heavenly Father to provide for us and be there for us. We make comparisons and wish that our lives were easier; secretly, we might even think we deserve better.

But when we focus on our fears, wants and needs, our attention soon shifts to ourselves and away from God our Provider. If we then give in to our discontent, we will grumble and complain because we are no longer trusting or thanking the One who saved us. Ultimately, our discontent tempts us to question God’s goodness and justice, and turn away from him in bitterness. That’s why it matters.

In Psalm 73, we find an astonishing account of Asaph’s inner journey as he struggled with envy and discontentedness. It’s astonishing because he’s brutally honest about what happened to him when he took his eyes off God and focused on the injustices and inequities he saw around him.

Asaph felt shaken. He clearly loved and worshipped God as sovereign, just and good—but he couldn’t reconcile what he witnessed in the world with the God he knew and served. The way he saw it, the arrogant and wicked people prospered while the faithful ones suffered. But wasn’t it supposed to be the other way around? Wasn’t it true that God blessed the faithful and punished the wicked? Why couldn’t he see that in real life?

Asaph openly envied the easy lives the arrogant and wicked enjoyed, and wondered why he had bothered to keep his heart pure and his hands innocent. Although he had been faithful, he was afflicted with troubles and felt like he was being punished unjustly.

But, although this experience made no sense to him at all, instead of turning away from God in his pain, Asaph brought his complaint to him, humbly but boldly. Asaph wanted to understand, so he went to the Lord, saying, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be!” When he entered the sanctuary of God, suddenly everything made sense again and he found comfort in what he knew to be true:

But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord God my refuge,
that I may tell of all your works. (Ps 73:28)

I know how it feels to be shaken to the core—how it feels when life pulls the rug out from under everything that seemed secure and knowable. Maybe you do too. But we live in the ‘now, but not yet’ period of salvation history, and sooner or later we all encounter a gap between our expectations and experience. Just like Asaph, we struggle to reconcile what we know God is doing and can do with what we actually witness and experience.

Even within the family of believers, some experience suffering so great we simply cannot comprehend it, while others experience blessing so generous we find it hard not to envy them. But, in either situation, it’s our job to keep our eyes on the Lord and to rest in him. You see, true contentment grows from the positive, confident assurance that God gives us everything we truly need. True contentment comes to the pure in heart, who want just one thing—to see God, to love him and be with him forever. Just like Asaph.