Godly (Dis)contentment

Nineteenth-century author and hymn-writer Elizabeth Payson Prentiss lived a life of exemplary faith in the midst of serious trials. For most of her life, she was confined to bed as an invalid, and her husband also suffered from ill health. In 1852, in a period of three months, their two young children died.

Later, Prentiss wrote in a letter: "To love Christ more -- this is the deepest need, the constant cry of my soul. Down in the bowling-alley, and out in the woods, and on my bed, and out driving, when I am happy and busy, and when I am sad and idle, the whisper keeps going up for more love, more love, more love!"

Prentiss bore patiently through extreme trials, and yet her words about Christ sound a lot like something we don't often associate with piety: discontent.

Content, Yet Unsatisfied

Most Christians are, of course, familiar with the command to contentment exemplified in Paul's words: "I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content" (Phil. 4:11). The mind trained by God's Word rightly recoils from grumbling and envy and yearns for satisfaction with all God's ways. We know we ought to be content.

What we may not know is that Christians--even contented ones--also experience righteous discontent. In his classic text on contentment, Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs wrote that a Christian is "the most contented man in the world, and yet the most unsatisfied man in the world."

It might seem contradictory to say that we are to be content and discontent at the same time, but the Bible holds both to be true. Because we live in a fallen world and because we are not yet arrived at our eternal home, we will necessarily--and rightly--be discontent in some areas:

Our knowledge of God. Like Elizabeth Prentiss, our highest desire in all of life is to know and love our Lord more. And in this life, we will always be peering intently at glorious truth reflected in a scratched mirror (1 Cor. 13:12). We are content, but we are unsatisfied.

Wickedness in the world. It is right for us to be frustrated when ungodliness abounds. As the psalmist writes, "My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law" (Ps. 119:136). When people around us profane the name of the Lord and wholly reject his Word, we are discontent--not because it's inconvenient to us but because it's rebellion against our God.

Our own sin. Until the day of Christ's return, when we are made perfect in holiness, we will always be dissatisfied by our own sinful actions. Paul voices this godly discontent in Romans 7: "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing" (v. 19). Every time we speak harshly to our children or fail to worship God we ought to be frustrated by our lack of holiness.

Godly Discontent

The unsatisfied Christian life--what William Barcley calls "godly discontent"--bears little resemblance to the discontent of our ungodly neighbors.

Our ungodly neighbors are frustrated with their circumstances but unconcerned about God's glory. Their discontent with traffic and test scores overflows into grumbling, envy, and anxiety. Life's difficult circumstances only serve to entrench their hatred of God and his ways.

The Christian, on the other hand, trusts that God will accomplish all his holy will in and through our circumstances. And our holy discontent always draws us closer to him.

Interestingly, this godly discontent actually leads the Christian to greater contentment. Barcley writes, "If sin is our greatest burden, all other burdens are made lighter." When we are faced with frustrating circumstances--when our plans fall through and the rain clouds mount on the horizon--we should make God's glory our first concern. Whatever our circumstances, no matter how disappointing, the thought of disappointing our God is even more pressing.

The psalmist in Psalm 73 is so intent on seeking God that he calls it his only desire: "Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever" (vv. 25-26).

He isn't saying, of course, that there is literally nothing else he desires. He is saying that, by comparison, every other desire seems like nothing. He is content, but he is unsatisfied.

Like the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11, we are those who don't always have our right desires satisfied in this life, but who are constantly "looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God" (v. 10). And in this hope, we rest content.


Editor's Note: This article is adapted from Megan Hill's new book Contentment: Seeing God's Goodness (P&R, 2018), a 31-day devotional for Christians seeking to cultivate contentment.

Megan Hill is an editor for The Gospel Coalition. She is the author of Contentment: Seeing God's Goodness (P&R, 2018) and Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer: In Our Homes, Communities, and Churches (Crossway/TGC, 2016). You can follow her on Twitter.