Review: The Power of Christian Contentment

the power of Christian contentment

The Power of Christian ContentmentAndrew M. Davis. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2019.

Summary:  A biblical study of Christian contentment, exploring in what it consists, how it may be found and learned, the great value of contentment, and how contentment is sustained in one’s life.

It seems that a characteristic of the modern condition is restlessness–a relentless dissatisfaction with one’s circumstances. More is better, or in the words of a cell phone carrier’s ad a few years ago, bigger is better. We never have “enough.”

Contentment seems like a strange idea and yet for generations of Christians, one of the marks of the depth of one’s relationship with Christ was contentment. In 1643, a Puritan pastor, Jeremiah Burroughs penned what became a Puritan classic, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. In this book, Andrew M. Davis draws upon both scripture and this classic in a contemporary exploration of this classic Christian quality.

After reflecting on our contemporary discontents and the profound contentment that the apostle found in Christ, a contentment that brought him strength in weakness, Davis reminds us that contentment is commanded (Hebrews 13:5) and draws upon Burroughs for a definition of contentment:

“Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.”

He parses out this definition word by word, noting the mindset, and our submission to God’s decisions. He then proceeds to show how contentment is rooted in a trust in the providence of God. He describes the “mysterious mindset” of contentment that is both completely satisfied in the world while completely dissatisfied with it, a paradoxical mindset that can embrace suffering with joy. In our quest to find and learn contentment, he directs us to the teaching of Jesus: his example, God-centeredness, atonement, resurrection, the access he has won for us, his presence, his demands,, the worth of the kingdom, and the defeat of our fear and anxiety.

Contentment is of great value. It fits us to worship more excellently, is central to all the fruit of the Spirit, prepares us to receive grace, prepares us to serve, enables us to resist temptation and comforts us with our unseen hope. By contrast (and this was a challenging chapter), Davis explores the evil and excuses of a complaining heart. The excuses are particularly convicting: “I’m just venting”; “God has abandoned me”; “You don’t know…”; “I never expected this”; “You’ve never experienced what I’m going through”; “I don’t deserve this”; and “I admit I’m complaining…but I can’t help myself.”

He explores the contours of contentment in suffering and how we find contentment in suffering by asking for wisdom, resting in God’s goodness, expecting suffering, acknowledging our limited perspective, accepting that suffering can sanctify, anticipating our eternal glory, and sharing hope. He then shares a Puritan example, Sarah Edwards, and two contemporary ones. In the following chapter, he discusses what may be even more difficult, to be content in seasons of prosperity. He challenges our lack of generosity without calling us to asceticism, but rather commending the enjoyment of goods and knowing when to say “enough” and to realize the fleeting nature of wealth.

His final section is devoted to staying content. He draws an important distinction between contentment and complacency. Contentment can be zealous for God’s kingdom and is not complacent about hell. The last chapter talks about very practical practices to protect our contentment.

What is striking to me in all this is that contentment is not attained by a passive “chilling out” but by the active pursuit of Christ and the active forsaking of things that undermine our contentment. Contentment is not about having all the conditions of our lives just right. Paul is content in any and all circumstances because he “can do all things through Christ.” Contentment is far from settling for less. It is realizing that in Christ, we already have everything that matters, something that makes us bold and passionate for the things of God, because we have nothing either to fear or lose.

This is so different from all the positive thinking, best-life-now books on the market. These feed on discontentment rather than lead us to true contentment. My biggest beef with them is that their vision is too small. Davis offers us the expansive vision of a provident God who meets us in both plenty and want, offering us the sufficiency of the work of Christ, and our ultimate hope of glory. As Burroughs says, this is the jewel, worth exchanging everything else to obtain.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

The Other Side of Thanksgiving

1870 Thanksgiving

It is customary, usually as a prelude to carving up the sacrificial bird of Thanksgiving, to take time to reflect on our blessings–blessings of family, friends, substance, the goodness of life, the grace of God. This is right to do. What I want to reflect on is what happens on the other side of that meal, which in so many ways is contradictory to the spirit of Thanksgiving, and the corresponding quality of contentment, that rejoices in life as it is and our possessions as they are. Contentment essentially seems to say, I’m thankful that I have enough and don’t need a little more.

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Actually, it often begins with the meal itself. It is one thing to be thankful that we have food and are not hungry. It is another to stuff ourselves more fully than the bird on our table! This is one with which I struggle. I am a bit like Simon, my son and daughter-in-law’s beagle, who basically will eat until he explodes. Perhaps this year, I can simply eat to the point where I am not hungry, where I’ve enjoyed something of everything without reaching that state of bloated uncomfortability.

We also give thanks for the family and friends in our lives. Being content with them is another matter! We often would like to make them a bit more “the way we want them”. And herein is the grief of many Thanksgiving gatherings! Why do we not simply let each other be who they are with all their endearing and sometimes annoying foibles? Truth is, we won’t change them and to try only changes the mood–for the worse.

Another area of thanksgiving is our material blessings. For many of us, we have so many of these we are constantly having garage sales and down-sizing and clearing out! What then is it that compels us to acquire even more? This year, we can’t even wait until “black Friday” as more and more of our stores stay open or open late on Thanksgiving day. True, some of this is early Christmas shopping–gifts for others who in most cases also have more than enough! I realize that at least some of this can be genuine expression of affection for people we really care for and sometimes it can be fun to choose gifts that we think will be just right for the person for whom we care. Yet much of this seems fueled by the sense that “more is better” and “we want more” as the children in one recent commercial argued. Instead of being content with what we have, to say that what we have is enough and more, “enough” becomes “more than we have”.

Why is contentment so hard? Why is it that thanksgiving is often little more than a passing sentiment soon forgotten in our dissatisfaction with life as it is? Is our discontent really with our food, friends, and stuff? Or is it an inner discontent–the longing of restless hearts? And where do we go to find rest and contentment for the restless heart? Augustine in The Confessions wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.” And so I would close this reflection with the prayer that you might truly enjoy thanksgiving with contentment and rest of heart today!