The walls felt like they were closing in around me. The air in the room grew heavy, and each breath I took stole every last ounce of my energy. With puffy eyes, a weary body, and an aching heart, I was desperate for an escape. Escape from a broken world, escape from a broken body and escape from a broken heart that felt it could bear no more. For more than a decade, trial upon trial came around every corner. Chronic illness, five surgeries and seasons in a wheelchair, illness in all four children, depression, financial loss with enormous financial needs, the loss of a home, marital struggles, unrelenting fleas in a rental home, and the list could go on. Yet, as difficult as all of this had been, it was nothing compared to the fourteen years of heartache caused by life-altering special needs in our child that we’ve mostly borne alone.
I admit, more than once, I have pleaded with the Lord to take me home – desperate to be free from the crushing weight of grief, pain, sin, and loss. But for reasons beyond what I can understand, he has chosen not to. Instead, he’s called me to endure. Even more, he’s called me to be content within it.
Yet in moments of crushing grief, I’ve often wondered … How can I be content?! And why would God ask me to be content in such deep pain? I can persevere if I must, but how can I possibly be content with this?
The same response always rings in my ear – Yes, my child, there is contentment to be found – even in this. But it won’t be found in your circumstances; it will only be found in me.
The Source of Contentment
How can we be content in circumstances that we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy? For years I have struggled to grapple with this question.
Yet little by little, despite all my pity parties and spiritual temper-tantrums, God has patiently opened my eyes to understand more of what the Apostle Paul meant when he said that he learned to be content in all 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 4:12-13).
Undoubtedly, as painful as my trials have been – the apostle Paul knew far worse.
“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness” (2 Corinthians 11:23-30).
Paul learned the secret of contentment by giving up his self-dependent ways and accepting his own weakness in exchange for Christ’s strength in its place.
Contentment doesn’t mean we no longer feel or grieve the pain. It doesn’t mean we sit back and do nothing to improve our situation. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we should glorify suffering and always have a smile on our face in response to the pain of this world. Even Jesus wept at the grief of those he loved.
Instead, it’s learning that even the best the world can offer doesn’t contain the secret of contentment. Our circumstances (whether good, difficult, or horrific) have never been and will never be the source of contentment. Instead, it’s finding the strength and presence of Christ within our pain to be of greater value than freedom from it and our joy and satisfaction in Christ to be of greater value than any earthly gain we may desire.
It’s easy to band-aid a verse or positive sentiment over our pain, squeeze our eyes shut, and hope our questions, pain, and heartache will dissipate. And often, that’s what others offer us as well.
But faith is active, which is why Paul wrote that he “learned” contentment. He didn’t magically feel content. It was a gradual process. One that took perseverance, fight, and a variety of circumstances to “learn” contentment in each season, regardless of whether it was one of prosperity or struggle. In seasons of prosperity, he had to taste the dissatisfaction of earthly pleasures – learning that true joy could only be found in contentment in Christ. In seasons of struggle, the rose-colored glasses of prosperity were removed, and he was forced to ask himself – if I lose everything in this world, is Jesus still enough?
Friend, the same is true for us. Whether we are in a season of comfort or one of pain and sorrow, the path to learning contentment remains the same – accepting our lot in faith that Jesus (and all he provides) is enough and will never fail us. Instead of resigning ourselves to what we can’t change, which signifies defeat, we surrender ourselves and accept our circumstances as from the hand of a Father who gave his own Son for us and promises he is at work, even when we can’t see his face trace his hand.
Paul could truly say – I have tasted prosperity and yet, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8). And I have tasted pain, sorrow, grief, and loss, and learned that I am content in whatever the sovereign will of God brings because of Christ who gives me the strength.
Jesus is the source of our contentment – not relief, money, acceptance, revenge, healing, or escape. Our circumstances are merely the teachers that are meant to lead us from head knowledge of the truth to heart and life transformation.
The Stages of Contentment
Most of us are aware of the stages of grief, but I believe there are also stages that help lead our hearts to contentment. And at times, I have to rehearse it multiple times a day until my heart believes it.
- Grieve the pain of living in a sin-cursed world. God grieves it, and so should I. God can handle my tears, questions, and pain (Psalm 55:22).
- Remember, I have an enemy actively seeking to turn my heart away from my Heavenly Father. What better way than to inflict pain that tempts me to question his goodness, sovereignty, and love, or give prosperity that distracts me from what I truly need.
- Remember that God is sovereign over every millisecond of my life (including the enemy’s attacks) and has a good purpose for everything that comes into it.
- Ask what lies I’m believing? Do I believe I know better than God? Do I believe that the God who set boundaries to the seas, rules over the length and intensity of my trials? Do I believe I would be content if I just had _____? Do I think I deserve better? If so, why?
- Recite God’s promises: He is faithful (Deut. 31:6). He is working all things for the good of those who love him (Rom. 8:28). He is our safe refuge (Psalm 91:2). Nothing can snatch us out of his hands (John 10:28). He gives strength to the weary (Is.40:31). His love never fails (Is.54:10). He has redeemed me to himself through salvation and is even now redeeming me to be more like him through this circumstance (Col.1:13-14). He will fight for me (Ex.14:13-14). He will give me the wisdom I need (Jam. 1:5). He will supply all my needs (Phil.4:19). He will be with me in the fire and only allow the heat until I am refined to reflect his image (1 Peter 1:7). And countless more.
- Do the next thing in confidence that the strength of Christ will meet me.
- Remember it won’t last forever. Healing, freedom, or restoration will either come in my lifetime or be fully redeemed in the presence of Christ. My “present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in [me]” (Romans 8:18).
By God’s grace, moment by moment, day by day, season by season, we will grow in learning the secret of contentment.
In plenty, may we be able to say – all I have has been given by God to be stewarded for his glory. I will not live in discontent out of a desire for more or fear of loss because I believe Jesus is enough.
And in seasons of sorrow and loss, may we be able to say, “The Lord gives and takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). My heart grieves the pain, and I ache for redemption, healing, and restoration. I am weary, worn, and hurting and keenly aware of my weakness and failures. I believe You are good and faithful, but help my unbelief! Give me the strength to endure, faith to rest in your promises, and hope for today and the future. I long for relief, but if this is the path You have called me to, help me to press on in faith that You will carry me through and won’t waste a moment of it. Give me the grace to walk faithfully with contentment, perseverance, joy, and steadfastness.”
Friend, I have no idea how my story will unfold, and I grieve what’s been lost daily. But I am not hopeless. Because in the darkest of nights, I am learning that the secret of contentment is not escaping from the darkness but trusting and resting in the strength and faithfulness of the Light that’s within it. For when I am weak, through Christ, then I am strong.
Sarah Walton is a stay-at-home mom with four kids under twelve years of age. She is the co-author of Hope When It Hurts: Biblical Reflections to Help You Grasp God’s Purpose in Your Suffering (The Good Book Company, April 2017) and the co-author (alongside her husband) of the forthcoming book, Together Through the Storms ( Coming Spring 2020). After more than a decade of trials and learning to walk with Christ as her family navigates Lyme Disease, special needs, financial loss, and many other challenges, she shares how the gospel speaks into all areas of our lives and gives hope to our suffering. She blogs at Setapart.net and is a contributing writer at Desiring God, Revive Our Hearts, and Unlocking the Bible.