A Glass Darkly

The Limits of Contentment

We can know some things about ourselves only when we are tested.

Margie and I have taken “The Defensive Driving Course” that’s offered to drivers over 55 years of age. Completing the 8-hour course and 4-hour refresher every three years makes us eligible for a 10% discount on our insurance. Online this year because of the pandemic, there are occasional tests. No score is kept, but when I chose a wrong answer the image of a frowning cop appeared on the screen with the word incorrect! I was disgusted with myself for missing a few.

Times of stress, uncertainty and sudden change act as tests of character, revealing what we are really like rather than how we think of ourselves. I may believe I have mastered patience until I find myself caught behind someone in a drive-up coffee lane that is ordering exotic drinks and then paying with coins dug out of the car’s cup holders and glovebox. Tests may appear as brief occurrences, quick events in a busy day, or in a prolonged period like the coronavirus but they are always revealing. The quick ones go by so quickly we may gain little, but perhaps one of the hidden graces of the pandemic is that its test of our character is too sustained to be easily ignored.

And we would be wise not to ignore it—what’s the point of living through the pandemic if we don’t grow through it as persons and followers of our Lord? Our calling is not to endure or survive but to mature, not to be satisfied with the status quo but to become more like Christ.

Each of us may find ourselves being tested in different areas. The fruit of God’s Holy Spirit covers a range of character: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Your area of neediness is not necessarily mine (for which I am very thankful) and mine is not yours (believe me, be very thankful).

We might be struggling with loving Christians who hold different views on opening society, especially those who join protests with neo-Nazis carrying Confederate flags. Or we might find ourselves angry at the interruption the pandemic represents, outraged that our peace has suddenly been shredded. We may be so overwhelmed by the news, the data, the updates, the boredom and loneliness that joy has slowly leached out of our lives. Perhaps we are weary of trying to find ways to be kind, resisting exploring creative ways to minister to neighbors during the social distancing. Or maybe we’ve found ourselves slipping in self-control, allowing our need for rest to descend into a too-easy embrace of distraction and addiction.

Perhaps what we all share during this pandemic is the need for contentment. St Paul claims “there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment” (1 Timothy 6:6). This was not merely theoretical to him—Paul’s life had periods of real hardship. “I have learned to be content,” he says, “with whatever I have” (Philippians 4:11). That’s far easier said than done, far easier calligraphed onto a wall hanging than practiced. And we aren’t helped by the fact that in our polarized society, discontent—in the forms of outrage, grievance and dissatisfaction—is actively encouraged.

The person with the most to say about Christian contentment is Jeremiah Burroughs (1599-1646), who wrote a book on the topic. A Puritan preacher who ministered in Rotterdam and London, the motto posted on the door to his office was, “Difference of belief and unity of believers are not inconsistent.” He knew the reality of pandemics: The Black Plague exploded in London during his life, killing, for example, 30,000 in 1603, 35,000 (1625) and 10,000 (1636).

Here is Jeremiah Burroughs’ definition: “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.” Utterly realistic in facing the brokenness and tragedy of our fallen world, Burroughs nevertheless insisted that contentment is to be—and by God’s grace can be—a mark of the believer’s character.

I have no idea why God is calling us to live through the coronavirus pandemic, but if I gain in contentment from the experience, I will be glad.

Source: The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust; 1648; 1987) p. 19.

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash