The Winter of Our Discontent
From Gospel Translations
By Don Kistler
Part of the series Tabletalk
One of the selfish lies our generation has believed and perpetrated is that we should have no unfulfilled needs or wants. Books ad infinitum ad nauseum are being written to tell us how to meet the needs of our wives, the needs of our children, or the needs of our husbands, as if any human could. But David wrote in the beloved 23rd Psalm that, since the Lord was his shepherd, he had everything that he needed. Yet who among us lives out that scriptural reality? Raise your hand if your spouse or children have said to you at any point, “No, thanks, I have no further wants or desires.”
We have been sucker-punched by advertising firms who play on our sense of finitude. Though, to be fair to advertising, in paradise the serpent was able to convince Eve that she did not have enough, though she had a wonderful, sin-free husband, no weeds to pull, and no garbage to take out.
The Puritans were wont to say that discontent, or complaining, is possibly the greatest sin we Christians can commit — for in those things we accuse God of wronging us. But while He could have done something less painful to us, He could not have done anything more glorious to Himself.
Right behind this urge to have our needs met, an exaggerated understanding of “rights” drains us of any hope of contentment. We are told to get the service we “deserve.” Former generations focused on their responsibilities; this generation is obsessed with its rights. Even in the religious realm we are offered immediate freedom from pain, from debt, and from the effects of our sin. “After all,” the hawkers of this snake-oil religion say, “we have a ‘right’ to this, given by God.”
In light of the Scriptures, we should not ask, “Why is there so much pain and suffering in the world?” but, “Why are there any remains of happiness in the world?” But the gratitude that should spring from such biblical questions does not come easily in our culture, even in the church.
Why are so many dissatisfied? Why is it that God can never seem to do enough to please us? The person with the discontented heart has the attitude that everything he does for God is too much, and everything God does for him is too little. He feels that God places too little value on all that he is doing for the kingdom, and imagines God is not doing equivalent works in return.
In 2 Timothy 3:2–3, Paul lays down a sample list of sins which flourish in the hearts of men. Men are lovers of themselves rather than lovers of God. Men become boastful and arrogant. Men think that knowledge begins and ends with them, and they revile everyone and everything else. Children are disobedient to parents. People in general are ungrateful. For emphasis, he ends up with ungratefulness and unholiness. I’m not sure we believe that ingratitude, which is another variety of discontentedness, is actually that bad. Whining is an art form in the church, with the squeaky wheel seeming to get the most attention.
Psalm 106:6–8 gives yet another view of this idea. The Psalmist declares the corporate guilt of the people, stating their iniquity and wicked behavior. The basis for this activity is: first, they did not understand God’s wonders; second, they did not remember them; and, finally, they rebelled. They did not understand and they did not remember, so they rebelled. This problem of not remembering is not a simple error — it is the sin of ingratitude, and it plays a critical role in creating a life of rebellion.
Notice the way discontentment plays a part in unbelief in Romans 1. Low thoughts of God lead to no thoughts of God, and then to lofty thoughts of oneself and dissatisfaction with one’s condition. The more elevated the position men assign to themselves, the more they feel they have coming to them.
How do we get back on the road to contentment? Colossians 2:6–7 (NASB) says, “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, having been firmly rooted and now being built up in Him and established in your faith, just as you were instructed, and overflowing with gratitude.” Paul commands the Christian to walk in Christ in the same manner that he received Christ. We came to Christ in complete dependence upon Him for strength, faith, eternal life, and sustaining grace. Now, we live in Christ in complete dependence on Him for strength, faith, eternal life, and sustaining grace.
Exactly what is the Christian walk? It is an extension of our gratitude to God for who He is and for what He has done. We must be grateful for who God is, not just for what He has done. Everything that God does flows from His character. God loves because God is love. If we only love God for what He does for us, then we only love ourselves, for we see God only in terms of those activities He undertakes which somehow improve the quality of our existence.
Gratitude to God lengthens the strides of our Christian walk. And the basis for gratitude is an intimate knowledge and trust in God and His ways. This kind of relationship with God creates overflowing gratitude — and outer obedience will flow more readily from the heart that is already open in worshipful gratitude to the Father. We witness and proclaim the glory of God as an act of gratitude. We study the Scriptures from a grateful heart.
It is not receiving all that we desire that brings contentment, but having our hearts emptied of the vain “needs” and “rights” our culture offers us, and being filled with gratitude for what we have.
I repeat, we will not be content if we have all that we want, but only if we realize we deserve nothing at all. Contentment will not come from having the quality of our lives raised, but from having the desires of our heart sanctified to where we can say with David, “Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is none upon earth that I desire besides You” (Ps. 73:25). Anything God may be pleased to give us will be much more than we deserve. As the Puritan Thomas Goodwin said, “Anything this side of hell is mercy.”
The following Puritan titles on the subject of contentment are in print at this time, and make for excellent reading: William Bates, “The Great Duty of Resignation to the Divine Will in Afflictions” in volume 2 of The Works of William Bates (Sprinkle Publications); Thomas Brooks, The Mute Christian Under the Smarting Rod (Banner of Truth); Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (Banner of Truth); Thomas Watson, The Art of Divine Contentment (Soli Deo Gloria). Though not a Puritan work, James W. Alexander’s work, Consolation: Addresses to the Suffering People of God, is also most helpful (Soli Deo Gloria).