The Habit of Contentment

It’s easy to think that contentment is a function of our circumstances.

If only I had x or y, I would be content.

But when x or y arrives, we find that something new is necessary for our contentment.

When we find ourselves in difficult circumstances, we might be tempted to think that if only we had done something differently we could have been content. I could have been content if only I’d chosen a different major in college, not taken out the loans I did, taken this job offer instead of the other. I could have been content if only I hadn’t married when I did or the person I did. I could have been content if we’d have chosen to buy a different house or to build instead of buy (or vice versa). I could have been content if I’d have had fewer children farther apart – or more closer together.

But Elinor Dashwood’s reflections upon Mr. Willoughby’s character in Sense and Sensibility should be instructive.

“‘At present,’ continued Elinor,’he regrets what he has done. And why does he regret it? Because he find it has not answered towards himself. It has not made him happy. His circumstances are now unembarrassed – he suffers from no evil of that kind; and he thinks only that he has married a woman of a less amiable temper than yourself. But does it thence follow that had he married you, he would have been happy? The inconveniences would have been different. He would then have suffered under the pecuniary distresses which, because they are removed, he now reckons as nothing. He would have had a wife of whose temper he could make no complaint, but he would have been always necessitous – always poor; and probably would soon have learned to rank the innumerable comforts of a clear estate and good income as of far more importance, even to domestic happiness, than the mere temper of a wife.'”

A discontented heart finds something with which to be discontented regardless of circumstances.

A contented heart learns to be contented in all circumstances.

I am challenged as I look at my own life, at the woes I pour out upon my husband each day when he returns from work. No matter how good a day may be, I always can find something to complain about. My heart is too often a discontented heart, considering whatever I currently lack (whether it be sleep or a clean house or quiet children or chocolate) to be of far more importance than any of the many things God has granted me.

If I get all the sleep I desire, but am not content, I will still be just as crabby as I am now. If I had a clean house, but not a contented heart, my soul would be just as shabby. If my children were quiet, but I was discontent, the clamor of my own heart would be enough to disturb the peace.

Because contentment is not a function of my circumstances. Contentment is a habit of the heart. And contentment is learned through practice.

So when the laundry overflows the hamper and I despair of ever catching up, I must turn my eyes upward and declare “With this, I am content.” When all four children want my attention at the same time and all I want is quiet, I must calm my soul and declare “With this, I am content.” When the day draws to a close and I still have thirty undone tasks on my to-do list, I must turn off the screen and declare “With this, I am content.”

And slowly, perhaps, I will begin to be able to say like Paul:

“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
~Philippians 4:11b-13 (ESV)

In Christ’s strength, I can learn the habit of contentment.

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