We live in a culture of lack. The signs are everywhere. “You’re not enough. You could do more. Something’s wrong with you.”
For me, these signs are more like voices, loud, consistent, authoritative voices. In the morning, the voices whisper, “You didn’t get enough sleep. You didn’t spend enough time with your wife last night.” As I shut it down in the afternoon, the voices say, “You could have accomplished more at work today.” At home, the voices say, “You don’t have what it takes to be a great parent or husband.”
I’m not the only one who struggles with this, I’m afraid. As a pastor for five years, I listened to more than a few people share stories of shame and bitterness, regret and self-loathing, anxiety and depression.
Discontentment is an oft-used tool by Satan. His original tool, you could argue. In the beginning, God gives Adam and Eve access to everything, except one tree. Rather than resting in what they have (eternal communion with God and creation), Satan coerces humanity’s first couple to focus on the one thing they lack. Satan knows there’s something about lack that’s especially destructive to the soul.
Here’s the good news. God loves contentment and never struggles with lack. Contentment is absolutely attainable. In fact, it’s a natural by-product of seeking God.
What is contentment?
Discontentment is associated with lack and scarcity, we already know that. So, contentment and abundance are joined at the hip, right?
How ’bout no.
“Abundance and scarcity are two sides of the same coin,” says Brené Brown in Daring Greatly. “The opposite of ‘never enough’ isn’t abundance…the opposite of scarcity is enough, or … wholeheartedness.”
Contentment is a steady assurance that who you are right now is enough. It is courageous, brave, and almost always vulnerable. Contentment is an active pursuit of worthiness and meaning. Contentment chooses love over fear, hope over despair. That’s contentment in a big, broad nutshell.
So, practically speaking, how do we push back against a culture of lack and “never enough”? Here are a few suggestions:
1. Trade in perfectionism for good enough.
In American culture, excellence is championed. Nothing against excellence. It’s a value of mine. But excellence, left unchecked, becomes perfectionism.
Perfectionism is unredeemed excellence, a refusal to let good enough be good enough.
Perfectionism says, “If my spouse changed this, we would get along much better. If I had one more hour, I could finish this project. If I had a few more dollars, I could turn my financial situation around, maybe even get out of debt. If I had his job or her life, things would be better.”
Perfectionism says contentment is just around the corner, an arm’s length away. But with every turn or stretch, the prize alludes you. And it always will.
For its most destructive lie, perfectionism says if you’re perfect, you can avoid the crappy part of life, stuff like failure, rejection, and the like. This sort of thinking belongs in the same world with leprechauns and money trees.
You can experience contentment and value excellence. But, you can’t find contentment while pursuing perfectionism. The line between the two is razor thin. If you want to avoid being cut, you must seek God through prayer and contemplation.
2. Find a community and share your life with them.
I’m an American. Individualism is in my wiring. I want to believe I’m OK. Whatever happens, I can handle it on my own, thank you.
But contentment, like most Christian virtues, finds life in community. If you’re a Christian, this shouldn’t be breaking news, but humans are wired for connection. You can’t become who you’re created to be alone. You just can’t.
Seasons when I’m closest to God and prioritize what matters most, are the seasons I’m plugged into community. For me, this community flows from my church. It’s a small collection of believers who know me on a heart level. It’s a place where walls are non-existent and vulnerability is oxygen.
Don’t expect to find contentment as a lone ranger. No man is an island.
3. Stop grasping for control of the things you can’t control.
Not long ago, news broke that a young man at my alma mater, Mississippi State University, was shot and killed. My sister-in-law knew this guy, even dated him a few times. He was smart. His future was bright. But with one bullet, his light was extinguished.
As a father of two boys, stories like this bring a flood of emotions. I can’t imagine how any parent copes with such a tragedy. I’m reminded how fragile life is, that tragedy could strike at any moment.
Whether you’re a parent or not, you must accept that some things are beyond your control. Sometimes cancer strikes healthy people. Sometimes people with evil intentions destroy innocent lives. Sometimes your child walks away from God even though you model Christ-like faith. These things happen. And no decision or action on your part can prevent them.
This is not to say all things are outside your control. But, some are. And, in my experience, the American church has done a poor job of embracing uncertainty and mystery. This only exasperates tragedies, adding an additional layer of shame to already present layers of doubt, despair and grief.
Discontentment wants you to live in fear and swim in a sea of “what if” scenarios. Led by the belief that nothing “just happens”, discontentment points to some supposed failure or mistake as the reason for tragedy.
Contentment, however, says life is a wild bull you will never tame. Fortunately, as Christians, we worship the God who tamed the bull. So, rather than grasping for control, we can trust the Father, who controls all.
4. Practice gratitude every day.
Brené Brown says, “If the opposite of scarcity is enough, then practicing gratitude is how we acknowledge there’s enough and we’re enough.”
Gratitude is about perspective as much as action. Unfortunately, gratitude doesn’t just happen. For some reason, we prefer to focus on what’s missing, what we fear, who’s to blame, etc.
Neuroscience has now proven that negative thoughts stick to our nerves like Velcro while positive thinking and gratitude slide off those same nerves like Teflon. In his book Hardwiring Happiness, Dr. Rick Hanson says you must focus on something positive for at least 15 seconds for the thought to stick.
Gratitude is more than acknowledging what you have. It’s reflecting on those things – at least 15 seconds – but preferably longer. Your contentment depends on it.
5. Protect your integrity with clearly-defined boundaries.
Contentment asks you to listen to your heart, not the demands around you. People with clear boundaries, the ones who know themselves well, aren’t seduced by the allure of pleasing people or instant gratification. Content people are OK with saying “no”.
Unfortunately, much discontentment, even in Christian culture, results from people who sacrifice their integrity because they need external validation or a quick fix for some pain or discomfort.
Your integrity matters. It’s fertilizer for the seeds of contentment.
The road to contentment isn’t easy, but the reward is more than worth the struggle. If your heart is dry from “never enough” thinking, I hope and pray these practical tips sprinkle some contentment on your life.