The Secret to Authentic Contentment?

Lael Arrington's picture

I was talking with a friend today about contentment. She told me that she was content in some areas of her life. But in other areas she was not…and having long talks with God about it. I could so relate. I remember being in that exact, same place. I am older and further into recovery. And my recent experience with Ann Voskamp’s book, 1000 Gifts: a dare to LIVE FULLY right where you are has further rearranged my ideas about contentment. It’s made me wonder…is God’s idea of contentment the idea of being content in every “area” of our lives? Or is it perhaps a richer, deeper experience and feeling of contentment that is not “area” specific, but rather seems located in a different place entirely?

“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content…I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Eph 4:11-12). I used to read those verses and think, “Good for you, Paul. I wish.” Contentment and I have a troubled history. Many reasons: chronic illness, physical limitations, a propensity to live in the future ( I think I will be content when I get married…and then…I will be content when I have a baby…get settled in our home…reach this career milestone…accomplish this ministry vision…get all the circumstances and significant people in my life to line up in neat little rows…it never ends). There is always a new challenge, a new goal. We future oriented people especially live with chronic holy frustration. We can just SEE how good things could be if our children did this or our husbands did that or work or ministry looked like the picture in our heads…. Which is why Ann’s close-to-the-heart chronicle of her journey into contentment, and my processing it with her, has felt like discovering Paul’s missing, long-sought-after secret.

Ann describes herself as a “woman who speaks one language, the language of the fall—discontentment and self-condemnation, the critical eye and the never satisfied.” Her childhood story of loss and betrayal breaks your heart. Beside her mountain of daily responsibilities how can I possibly complain about my little molehill? Ann took a dare to list 1000 gifts in her everyday experience. In the midst of piles of dirty laundry, piles of dirty dishes, squabbles among six children and her husband’s concern over the viability of their farm in today’s economy, Ann begins to train her eyes to see God’s gifts. She even picks up a camera to illustrate her daily lists. (You can read her notes and see her pictures at her blog)

Three things stand out to me as I think about Ann’s book. First, the connection between searching out and listing God’s gifts and the Spirit opening the eyes of her heart to see their true value. Try as we might to see spiritual reality, it is a work of God’s spirit. Paul prays for the Ephesians (1:18) that God would “open the eyes of their hearts”. Sometimes God gives us the grace to see the treasures of his kingdom fully and sometimes he withholds until the right moment. What unfolds in Ann’s life is the unmistakable link between the intentional seeing of God’s gifts, a cognitive acknowledgement of gratitude and contentment in our heads and the Spirit’s gift of a far richer seeing—a seeing the true worth and spiritual beauty of something that triggers a deeply authentic feeling and experience of gratitude in our hearts. As Ann records the richness and abundance of her often overlooked gifts her focus changes from what she does not have to what she does have. Gratitude enables a way of seeing that leads to a deeply authentic contentment which leads to more gratitude…

Secondly, we see the connection between gratitude and a deepening trust in God. The longer Ann’s list becomes, the more she expresses thanks, the more she sees, experiences and feels the goodness of God’s heart. She becomes overwhelmed with God’s grace and lavish generosity in her life. She counts the ways in which he deeply loves her and is for her, more than she ever realized. There is, she notes, a direct correlation between gratitude and trust simply because, when you have eyes to see all God’s gifts in your life, you begin to value the giver more and more. Like a bride drawn to her groom’s lavish and sacrificial gifts given to woo her. When you begin to richly experience God’s goodness in that way, you naturally begin to trust his heart far more. Even when the giving of thanks--for a child’s maimed hand, a Mother’s betrayal by her spouse--is hard, hard, hard.

Thirdly, as I journey with Ann through those hard places and watch her choose to say words of thanks instead of words of anger or despair, I am inspired to do the same. I find myself in a hard place. Someone has let me down. I want to write “the book” on how unfair this is. How damaging to our relationship. How all these negative consequences will ripple out to diminish and destroy. Instead I make my mouth say “thank you for”…and make my mind fill in the blank. I do it again. And again. And, as Ann bears witness, it is the closest thing to magic we may ever experience. The anger softens, the eyes of my heart are opened to God at work. God drawing near. Love returns. This too shall pass. All is well. I am learning. Not arrived. But I am finding that wellspring of contentment in searching out the gifts of my Father and seeking, really seeking his face…

As often happens when we are reading a life changing book, God deepens the impact with extra links and sidebars. I began to think about what I wrote about my own spiritual journey in Godsight years ago: "At a relatively young age rheumatoid arthritis forced me to surrender the hope that I would find the life I long for here. With gratitude I looked back to the cross and Jesus' sacrifice. But gratitude for what God had done for me in the past did not fully engage a heart that lives in the future." God had mercy and truly opened the eyes of my heart to see the worth and beauty of his Kingdom, especially the hope of heaven. It was like installing a Vortek V-8 engine into a limping old Volkswagon. Hope is the jet fuel that pulled me out of duty and resignation and propelled me into an outward, kingdom-building life.

But jet fuel is highly combustible. To live mainly motivated by hope, especially the hope of transformation and bringing God's kingdom in this world is to continually deal with
holy frustration. I'm learning that giving thanks is like an engine additive that makes hope far less combustible. We focus not just on the future but on the present where God is giving us so many beautiful expressions of his love. Life is so much more peaceful, contented when I live from hope AND gratitude.

One more sidebar: I read in Psalm 50, “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving…the one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me…” New thought to ponder: In what ways is thanksgiving a sacrifice? What do we give up? I’m thinking it is many things…the temporary feel-good buzz of our anger, of writing “the book”…our right to self-justification, even justice…our vision of what should be or could be…our finite perspective on a situation…

When we sacrifice all this what might we gain? Authentic, down to the bottom of our souls contentment.

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