Recently my family and I were going through a department store and walked by one of those racks that hold magazines that show all the various toys that can be bought in the store. Of course our kids each grabbed one, even the two-year-old who can’t even read, and took them home, found a red pen, and began to circle all the items in the toy magazine they wanted for Christmas. On the one hand, this made shopping easy for us but, on the other hand, we wondered if we were simply encouraging covetousness/discontentment. With that thought in mind, and being in the throes of the Christmas season, I began thinking about what the Bible has to say about contentment.
Thus, I pulled from my shelf the third volume of Wilhelmus à Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service to see what he had to say about contentment. By way of introduction, Wilhelmus à Brakel was a 17th century Dutch Reformed theologian and pastor who was himself a product of the Second Dutch Reformation. The Dutch reformers were masters of not just theology, but of applied theology. In other words, they believed and taught that theology should always lead to a life of doxology; that is, a life of worship, a life that is conformed and transformed into the image and character of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That being said, he has a very good chapter in his third volume on the topic of contentment. The following is a summary of that chapter.
He begins by pointing out that the word contentment comes from the Hebrew dai, which means fullness or abundance or sufficiently. He then points out that this word is part of one of the names of God by which he calls himself--El Shaddai. That is, he is the “God who possesses everything and who is able to bring forth everything out of His fullness.” In other words, being El Shaddai means that God is completely satisfied and content in himself. He needs nothing outside of himself.
À Brakel then goes on to provide a detailed definition of contentment, which he then fleshes out throughout the rest of the chapter. “Contentment is a Christian virtue consisting in a correspondence between the desire of God’s children and their present condition—this being true because it is the will of their God in Christ and according to His sovereign determination. In this they rest with delight, in quiet confidence, joyfully, and with gratitude, trusting that the Lord will cause the present and the future to turn out to their advantage. This causes them to utilize their present condition to the advancement of their spiritual life and to the glory of God.” Thus, he first states that “contentment is a Christian virtue,” and rightly so. If Christians are to seek to be like Christ (1 Cor 11:1), and if they are commanded to be imitators of God (Eph 5:1), and if God is unequivocally content in himself, then those who bear the name of Christ must also possess and display the virtue of contentment and be unequivocally content in God.
He then points out that this virtue consists “in a correspondence between the desire of God’s children and their present condition.” In other words, “contentment is not a matter of words. It is not of a compulsory nature, nor does it consist in refraining from pursuing the goods of this world. It is not a mental determination to keep ourselves satisfied, but it is a disposition of the soul.” Contentment is about having the desires of our hearts aligned with God’s will for our life. And since God is sovereign, then we are always right where God wants us to be. We are content, satisfied, and fulfilled with God’s will for us. This is not to say that we can never have goals or aspirations. It is to say that “contentment neither excludes the having of desires nor the use of the means, but it excludes all those desires which are focused on sinful matters.” So long as that which we desire is or can be glorifying to God and is not sinful, nor is desired for sinful pleasures, then it is not contrary to contentment to desire such things—the construction worker who desires to be a firefighter someday, the waitress who desires to be a school teacher, the married couple who desire and pray for children, the chronically ill who prays for healing. In other words, “contentment consists in the correspondence of our desires with our present circumstances, and in a willingness to be in the circumstances wherein we are and in none other” (emphasis added). For example, contentment is a willingness to say, ‘Although I would like to have a different job someday, and will certainly work toward that goal, so long as I am where God has me, I will be content and not murmur against God.’
But how do we get to that point? Many believers can struggle with that concept, the idea of being content where God has you at the moment. What then is the foundation for true and godly contentment? À Brakel goes on to state that the “foundation upon which our present circumstances are based, and why we are satisfied with them is because that such is the will of our God in Christ Jesus, and he has directed these circumstances to be thus.” In other words, God works all things for the good of those who love him (Rom 8:28), and it is God “who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). Thus, the foundation of contentment is knowing and believing with all our whole heart that we are exactly where God wants us to be, that God doesn’t make mistakes, and that our current condition or station in life is no accident.
When Christians pray for and possess true contentment, à Brakel notes there are seven effects or fruits of contentment. First, a being pleased with our current circumstance knowing that this is the will of God for our life. Second, possessing a quiet confidence knowing that we are not lost. We have not made a wrong turn. We are on the path God has foreordained for us. Here à Brakel cites Psalm 39:9, “I do not open my mouth, for it is you who have done it.” Third, possessing a cheerful disposition. James 1:2-3 tells us to “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.” Fourth, contentment produces gratitude knowing that whatever comes from the hand of God comes from our loving Father and is for our good and his glory (Rom 8:28). Fifth, contentment produces a “resting and trusting in the Lord’s providence.” Psalm 91:1-2 reads: “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.’” Sixth, true contentment produces spiritual growth. “Malcontent either engenders many sins and keeps us in a sinful condition, or it impedes the practice of many virtues.” Hebrews 12:1 exhorts us to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.” Malcontent makes it very difficult for us to “lay aside every weight and sin” which drags us down in our pursuit of holiness and godliness. And seventh, true contentment is glorifying to God because it displays to the world that He is real and that we are fully trusting and resting in his plan for our lives, that we are content and satisfied with his will for us.
À Brakel reminds us that throughout scripture in many places and in many ways, we are exhorted to strive for contentment. “But 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” (1 Tim. 6:6-8). “Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act” (Ps. 37:5). “Cast your burden on the LORD, and he will sustain you; he will never permit the righteous to be moved” (Ps. 55:22). “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Heb. 13:5). “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all” (Matt. 6:31-32). “Cast all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:7).
In the end, à Brakel leaves the reader with six practical suggestions for learning to be content. Number one: always keep in mind what you deserve (hell), and you will be very happy and content with what you have (Christ). Number two: look to unbelievers and you will not want to trade places with them, no matter how prosperous or how many worldly possessions they may have. With Christ as our treasure, we have far more than they could ever possibly imagine. Number three: remember the words of Christ who said, “do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matt. 6:34). Stay focused on today and stop worrying about tomorrow. Number four: your circumstance may not be as bad as you are making it out to be. “You must therefore make more of an effort to adjust your desire to your circumstances—considering it to be the will of God—rather than seeking to improve your circumstances in accordance with your desire.” And number six: “Let your focus continually be upon heaven, and consider the insignificance of all that is upon earth.” The apostle Paul stated it this way: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:8-9). Peace and contentment come from staying focused on heavenly things and not on earthly things. This holiday season let’s all try and remember this.