There is one desire in the heart of all people that compels them. Unfortunately, this desire does not have a simple name. The Germans might say “fernweh” and anglophones might say “wanderlust” but these are words that do not adequately convey the feeling. They are mere labels for something ineffable. Within the heart of all people is a desire for something more, better, something “out there.” Without that desire being met—the desire for something we don’t fully understand—contentment will always be out of reach.
Contentment is a fickle mistress. She is usually gone and when she is near, she always threatens to leave. She is rarely around for long. Confucius understood this and figured a life of singleness was the only answer—why pursue contentment when it will always elude. We might as well avoid the desire for contentment, and all desire for that matter, and settle for neither contentment nor desire, but something nebulous in-between.
Many follow Confucius, and for good reason. His answer is much better than the common one—pursue contentment at whatever cost necessary. When I became a Pennsylvanian for a time, I was greeted with this phrase: “Welcome to Pennsylvania, Pursue Your Happiness.” Of course, this alludes to “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” but, it strikes me as roughly synonymous with: “Try as hard as you can to fall asleep.” Contentment (or happiness) like sleep, only comes when we don’t strive for it. Our relentless striving for secular contentment has historically produced an American society of discontents which has, more recently, devolved into a society of malcontents.
Like losing weight, the answer is simple but the solution often seems lightyears away. To drop those added pounds, simply burn more calories than you take in. To be content, simply find your ultimate contentment in God. Simple answers. Difficult solutions. We all know where fat comes from, but America is embarrassingly overweight. In the same way, the church knows where contentment comes from, but we are just as addicted to the world as those who call this their only home.
Our brains are part of the problem. They are in a relentless pursuit and it is automatic. They are in a perpetual balancing act called homeostasis. When our brains are flooded with “feel good” chemicals (serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin) the natural response is to adjust those chemicals downward. When they are too low, the response is generally the opposite. Our brains, like Goldy Locks, seek that “just right” balance. If a person eats a piece of pie every afternoon, his brain will interpret that action in the same way that another brain does when eating the daily dose of baby carrots. Nothing special is going on. Carrots for one, pie for another, but humdrum in both cases. This is because of homeostasis. It is evident on the faces of overweight people as they gorge themselves. No trace of pleasure can be seen. They are merely surviving. If one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, one man’s dessert is another man’s daily fare. Contentment, then, is permanently allusive to those who constantly seek to content themselves. Eating pie all day long will never produce contentment even though, paradoxically, eating pie can be very satisfying in the right circumstance.
It seems we are at an impasse. There is nothing that we can do to ourselves to cause contentment since our brains will always fight us with the stick of homeostasis. This is the genius of Confucius—recognize the fight is futile and give up. Rather smart in a secular world.
However, the world we live in is not just made up of brain chemicals and dessert. Significantly, there is a spiritual component to our world. Jonathan Edwards might say our world is most essentially spiritual—the physical is merely a copy of spiritual ideal. And this is precisely why all human beings desire something more, better, or “out there.” Dessert tickles our dopamine receptors, but the divine essence of God (2 Peter 1:4) fuels our souls with burning contentment. God is, in every conceivable way, “more, better, and out there.” But He is also available to us through Jesus Christ. When we experience God though Christ, we experience something that does more than shift brain chemicals (though it does that too)—it moves your very soul. C.S. Lewis famously said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” When we give in to that desire for more, we will find ourselves satisfied. And this makes perfect sense—our efforts to find contentment in worldly things are no more logical than a man who seeks romantic satisfaction from a robot (though some today make the attempt). We, and he, need the real deal, not a manmade counterfeit. Again, Lewis said, “We are far too easily pleased.”
The Puritans were not afraid to say that many who profess faith in Christ are not really Christians. Paul was not afraid to say, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” Many who are in churches today do not really know Christ. They have never really been satisfied with Him because they have never really seen Him. Rather, they are being strung along by the idea of Him. Therefore, worldly enticements vie for preeminence in their hearts (dessert and the mere idea of a savior are roughly equivalent). But, when a man looks with the eyes of his heart into the eyes of his Savior, he is filled with such almighty ecstasy human words cannot contain the reality. Words are mere labels for the ineffable feeling. They are, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, “so much straw” when compared to the experience of loving embrace with Love Itself. Contentment can only, and will only, be found There. Like sleep for wearied bodies, contentment comes easy when sought under the yoke of Christ. When we look for Him under every rock and in every moment, we begin to see Him. When we begin to see Him everywhere and all the time, we are yoked to Him. When we are yoked to Him, we are satisfied everywhere and all the time, because He is Contentment.
Do you lack contentment in your life? The answer to this problem is somewhat ironic—look for Christ everywhere. In everything you do, search for His heart. While you drink a glass of water, thank Christ for that gift. When you wake up, thank Him for new life. When you walk, thank Him for walking with you. When you look, eat, sleep, drive, think, talk, live, do so with the hands of your spirit resting in His. When we stop looking for contentment in everything and we start looking for Christ in everything, ironically, we find contentment everywhere. This is because, as Augustine said, “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in You.” When all the things we experience in life are in and through and to Him, all the things in life become much more satisfying because all the things in life become channels to see Him. We must stop the obsession with contenting ourselves and start being obsessed with Jesus Christ, the Lord of lords, King of kings, beautiful, eternal, sovereign, the Name above all names, the fullness of the deity of God, the One to whom and for whom and through whom all things were made, the very essence of God Himself, ineffable yet the friend of children, mighty yet the friend of the weak, gentle and lowly yet high and lifted up, the cornerstone of the living temple of God, the head of the church, the captain of our souls, the light of your life, the bright sweetness of our heavenly Father in the midst of the dark and bitter world, the eternal Son of God made flesh and blood for your flesh and blood, your drink, your meat, your portion forever, the One to whom every knee shall bow and every tongue confess, the rider who brings a sword with blood on His garments yet the friend at whose side we recline and rest, the One whose infinite fullness fills all in all, including your tiny desires.
The problem with our pursuit of contentment is that we are trying to scratch itches with feathers, and not the quill side. Tickling our senses does not satisfy them. Overwhelming them, on the other hand, not only provides satisfaction, it provides a metamorphosis. It renews us so that our way of thinking is no longer worldly, but heavenly. Experiencing Christ in mind and spirit changes both into something so great that contentment is no longer thought of. Not because it’s not important, but because it’s been utterly fulfilled in a bygone age. Christ is not sitting on His throne today contemplating what to eat or drink so that He will have a nice afternoon. He is beyond that and He wants to take us with Him. When we begin to see Him everywhere we stop gaping at trinkets. Rather, we see Beauty and can’t take our eyes off of Him. The path to Contentment is easy, and His yoke is light.