Holy joy—oceans of ink have been spent on each of these words. When placed together, we dive to new depths. John Wesley wedded the words “holiness and happiness” as though they were one flesh. This marriage is profound. Where you find holiness, you see happiness. Where you see happiness, you find holiness. They are an inseparable couple. One cannot be happy apart from holiness, and holiness happens only in reference to God. Wesley wrote, “One design ye are to pursue to the end of time—the enjoyment of God in time and eternity. Desire other things, so far as they tend to this; love the creature, as it leads to the Creator.”1 He is describing both holiness and joy.
Fueled by Discontentment
Sadly, the fuel that seems to power many people today is neither holiness nor happiness, at least in the sense that Wesley or, more importantly, God’s Word describes them. Rather, it is often discontentment. The prospect of sitting still, or in these days, the order to stay put, has unearthed a motherlode of discontentment, which is proving to be more contagious than the coronavirus. People are restless. Patience is spent. Suffering has been too long. Stillness has become a cure worse than the disease.
What is God doing?
When a large part of our “normal” life has been stripped away, what is the Christian reaction? God’s word calls us to learn contentment.
If we sit still long enough, we may discover that there is a lesson about contentment in all the upheaval. If we truly consider what it is that has been lost, we may discover that first to die was our own false sense of peace. The things that filled the nooks and crannies of our time and space have suddenly been paused or parted from us. Our daily calendar reminds us that much of our life has been canceled. The prospect of aborted busyness makes us restless and sleepless. Understandably, many of us have scurried to discover new ways to achieve some semblance of normalcy. But is the old normal our best way to pursue holy joy?
Two elements should be kept in mind in answering this question. First of all, I offer no particular explanation for why God allowed such a deadly mutation of a pathogen. It is more generally a manifestation of a world groaning under the pain of sin, longing for the redemption of the world (Romans 8:19-23). Second, I know that God calls me to be holy and happy. For me, quarantine has been yet another lesson in contentment. I long to say with the Apostle: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11). The offspring of holiness and happiness is contentment.
Reflections on Contentment
Contentment occurs when we seek first the kingdom of God; discontentment arises when we occupy ourselves with the kingdom of man. Thomas á Kempis wrote, “When a man reaches a point where he seeks no solace from any creature, then he begins to relish God perfectly. Then also he will be content no matter what may happen to him.”2 Discontentment, on the other hand, lies behind every vice.
Take the vice list in Galatians 5:19-21 as an example: behind sexual immorality, impurity, and sensuality is dissatisfaction in one’s sexual experience; idolatry and sorcery are born from discontentment with our ability to control our circumstances; enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, and envy are expressions of discontentment with other humans, and so on. Rarely do people openly show these vices for the sins they are. No, human pride works hard to dress them up in disguise, adorning them with beauty, health, prosperity, or power. Discontentment very often rises when we want what someone else appears to have—health, popularity, power, beauty, and knowledge are just a few things that come to mind.
Comparison is the root of discontentment. Comparison breeds competition. In turn, competition has few benefits and many dangers for humanity.3 Notice how many of the vices listed in Galatians 5 relate to competition between people. Is it a wonder, then, that the Bible says comparing ourselves among ourselves is unwise (2 Cor. 10:12)? Discontentment always hangs its Hamans on gallows of their own making.
Discontentment lies behind every vice. It always hangs its Hamans on gallows of their own making.
The New Testament has much to say about contentment in the Christian experience. Here are two of the best-known Scripture passages on the matter:
Philippians 4:11, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”
1 Timothy 6:6-8, “Godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”
Contentment must be learned. It does not come easy. In fact, there is some irony in this. There may not be a greater manifestation of discontentment than our incessant pursuit of more knowledge. It is not that the pursuit of knowledge is itself mistaken, but very often our motive for greater proficiency stems from some basic discontentment.
Contentment is learned through suffering. Paul immediately follows his statement on learning contentment with these words, “I know how to be brought low.” As a reminder of how difficult this lesson is, apparently one-third of the angels never learned the art of contentment (Jude 6).
Contentment is confidence. More specifically, contentment is confidence in the providence and grace of God. Even more specifically, contentment is God’s providence and grace through Jesus Christ who said, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). Contentment is the flame of Christian faith. Discontentment occurs when we lack this confidence. It is based on the false premise that we do not have enough, that we are not ourselves enough, and, ultimately, that God’s providence and grace through Christ is not enough. Discontentment breeds feelings, thoughts, and obsessions with obtaining more than God has given us. When our desire is holy, the desire for more is good; but, when our desire is centered on our own quest for power, prosperity, prestige, possessions, popularity, or proficiency, it only makes our heart restless. “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.”4
Contentment occurs when we seek first the kingdom of God; discontentment arises when we occupy ourselves with the kingdom of man.
Discontentment may have been the first sin. Augustine believed the first sin was pride. Pride and discontentment are two faces of the same sin. Yes, sin is always two-faced because it is inherently deceptive, betraying even the sinner himself.
One of the best illustrations of discontentment is the sports world. A fan, a player, a team is never satisfied with one win or one championship. There is always more to be had, another win, more championships. I am a sports fanaticus serenitas, otherwise called a fair-weather fan. I cheer when my team is winning and ignore them when they are losing. It is impossible for sports, or any other earthly enjoyment in itself, to foster the sort of happiness or joy that Christian faith infuses. When competition alone—making losers of someone else—is the end, there is no winner.
Finally, many seeds of discontentment are sown in the field of social media. Perhaps some form of social distancing will enhance our “ecclesial” experience as Christians. John Wesley once said, “The world is my parish.” That was before the age of the internet. My parish is the people of the local church whom God has entrusted into my pastoral care. Pastoral ministry is local because it is present, physical, and embodied. Virtual church can never replace ecclesial embodiment.
Social media is a phenomenon that broadens our connections and, under normal circumstances, may be a good thing. But social media also tends to thin out our relationships by stretching our time, focus, energy, and care across a much broader platform. Social distancing compounds the problem. Pastors, I believe, must double down in our effort to maintain thick relationships with our local congregation. This means our work to replace embodied presence requires more effort, a consolidation of resources, a sharper focus on our own congregation, and creative care. Utilizing social media is an easy way to be seen and heard but it is a lousy way to maintain thick relationships. Social media is a blessing for large gatherings that are speaker-focused, but maintaining thick relationships requires more personal connections. Furthermore, social media adds fuel to the fire of discontentment. It artificially simplifies the complexities of people and circumstances and puts them on a deceitfully even plane. Real life just isn’t that simple.
Called to Contentment
When a large part of our “normal” life has been stripped away, what is the Christian reaction? God’s word calls us to learn contentment. These days have unveiled all sorts of discontentment in my life that may not have otherwise been discovered. I have been reminded that when all of my own provisions have been stripped away, and I am left with only that which comes from the hand of our Creator, I can still experience holy joy. The Psalmist wrote, “You open your hand; you satisfy the desire of every living thing” (Psalm 145:16).
Contentment is a choice to be satisfied and happy with God’s provision and grace. In a single moment, the little discontentments of my life can quickly be exasperated. As I reflect on learning contentment, I recall how C. S. Lewis once described “lust,” by which he meant any desire for lesser things. He wrote, “Lust is a poor, weak, whimpering whispering thing compared with that richness and energy of desire which will arise when lust has been killed.”5 When normal life has become cluttered with poor, weak, whimpering whispering things, Lord, help me to see the richness of eternal things.
- A Plain Account of Christian Perfection, 6.
- The Imitation of Christ 1.25.
- Tom Rath, StrengthsFinder 2.0 (New York: Gallup, 2007), 69.
- Augustine, Confessions, 1.1.
- The Great Divorce, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1974), 102.