One of my favorite quotes of all time is this by Karl Rahner: “In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we come to understand that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.” He’s essentially saying that in this life we will never be satisfied. This is what it means to be human. We are infinite beings living in a finite world, our hearts have been imprinted with the very fingerprints of God, and nothing this side of eternity can fully satiate that.
When we begin to wrestle with this idea, it is tempting to throw our hands up in the air and say, “Well then what’s the point? If nothing satisfies us here on earth, why bother with anything at all?”
I have done this. For a long and searching season I didn’t know how to reconcile my endless, restless yearnings with the unfinished symphonies of life – even with God walking beside me.
Then I look at what the Apostle Paul wrote in Philippians:
...I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:11-13 NIV)
By this point in his life, Paul had lived it all! He had been wealthy, powerful, successful, blind, imprisoned, beaten near to death, starved — there’s not a whole lot he hadn’t experienced. Yet he says he has learned to be content.
Ok, so how?
If I were writing this passage, I think the opposite would be true for me. I have learned to be discontent whatever the circumstances. Wherever I am, whatever is happening to me, I have a hard time being all there. I dwell on the past, I fixate on the future, I notice all the ways this moment falls short of perfection and how I wish it were just a little better. I don’t know if you think or feel the same way I do...maybe it’s easier for you to be content no matter the circumstances thrown at you. But I think some level of discontentment is actually humankind’s status quo.
And so, I present to you, my Secret To Unlocking The Power Of Contentment Or Your Money Back Guaranteed.
No, not really. But I do have four obstacles to contentment and the remedies that overcome them in my own life.
1. Being Preoccupied vs Being Present
I’ve written many times before about how hard it is for me to be present, so this shouldn’t come as a surprise for the first obstacle to being content. I am always at some other place inside myself, too restless to be fully wherever I am at.
But I need to remind myself that I only have this moment. I don’t know how many more I will be given. I can’t control much of my life - only how I experience this moment in front of me. If I invite the Lord into that, if I invite Him into every small moment instead of waiting for the perfect time or worrying about if I’m doing it right, then how can I not be content?
So how can you be more present? Turn off that phone or computer (after reading this, of course!). Be intentional about scheduling a Sabbath day of true rest. Let go of the past and the worries of the future - even if for a few minutes. This takes a lot of intentionality on our parts to fight the urge to drift out of the “now.”
2. Comparison vs Gratitude
The moment we start to compare anything in our lives to someone else’s is the dangerous first step toward a spirit of discontentment. Comparison is a dangerous game because it ignores the gifts we have right in front of us, as well as negates the unique beauty inherent in our experiences and selves.
The remedy to comparison is gratitude. We have been given much. And if we feel we haven’t been given much this side of life, we still have been given much because we’ve been given Jesus. There is always something to be grateful for on this side of the fence, without having to peek over and covet the greener looking grass on the other side.
What are you grateful for? Write a list. Do this daily. At the end of each day compile a list of three things that you were grateful for. Or start the day this way. But there is always, always something to be grateful for, and when we can shift our minds and hearts into an “attitude of gratitude” it really helps to settle us no matter what circumstance we find ourselves in.
3. Striving vs Stillness
We want more. More money, more promotions, bigger houses, more clothes, more skills, more friends, more likes, morevideo views, more more more.
Now, don’t get me wrong. As with anything, there are lots of nuances here. It is okay to strive for things. It is okay to have Godly ambitions and to work hard for them, furthering the Kingdom.
But when “having” or “working” or “achieving” becomes the ultimate goal apart from God instead of directing us to Him, that is where the problem lies.
There’s a passage in Luke (16:10) that tells us that those who are faithful with a little will also be faithful with a lot. I think the same principle holds true for contentment: if we can’t find contentment in the little things, then we won’t find contentment in the big things.
Let’s never lose sight of the One for whom we strive. Are we ceaselessly striving? Let’s stop and rest in the arms of God. Is it possible that He just wants you, as you are, and not what you’re doing? Let’s take some time to just breathe and be still.
4. Restless Longing vs Redirected Longing
I think something that unites all of humankind is our loneliness and our longing. To some degree we all feel lonely, and we all long for something, for someone. When I was single, I longed to be married and to be a father. I was discontent with the life stage I was in. When I was married, I found myself with longings and loneliness. It was a season of contentment in some respects, but I still didn’t rest in the stillness of that season as well as I could have. I was looking ahead too often. I was still longing for things. Then we became parents and more contentment came. But I longed for other things like rest and productivity. And then my wife Aletha died and I’ve been in a long season of discontent - longing for how things used to be. And now, as a father, I am still lonely and longing.
During each of these seasons, there have been moments of contentment, but my longings and loneliness always resurface. Loneliness and longing are the great unifiers of mankind.
As Ronald Rolheiser says: “We are destined for a great love. Thus our eros is wide, our longing is infinite, our urge to embrace is completely promiscuous. We are infinite in yearning and infinite in capacity. Yet, in this life, what we meet is never the infinite but the finite.”
I used to think the answer to this was to deny my longings, to ignore them. I would pray for my longings to go away since they would often point me in the wrong directions. But the remedy isn’t to become an anhedonist or a nihilist or so stoic that we can’t feel anything. We are to redirect our longings to point to God. They remind us that He put them in us, that we need Him, and so we should submit our longings, our loneliness, our desires to the Lordship of Christ. It’s here that we find contentment, not in chasing after them or ignoring them.
And that’s the secret to finding contentment. Easy, right?
Not so much.
It’s humbling to realize that much of our lives are out of our control and will leave us ever-longing. But it’s also freeing, when it points us to the One who made us and who will one day fulfill us.
So let’s give it a try. Let’s take our desires, sit in the stillness of His presence, with a deep sense of gratitude, truly given over to the present moment, and invite Him into the gaps we feel - into the unfinished symphonies of our lives. How then could we not be content?