The Contentment Paradox

Lindsay Gray

During a celebration of Epiphany, my college chaplain passed around a basket of gold paper stars. Each star had a word written on one side. As each person selected a star, my chaplain explained: “This is your Epiphany star. Let this word guide your day, your week, or even your year. What might God teach you through this word?”

aaron-burden-170493-unsplash FTRWhen my turn came, I pulled out a star bearing the word contentment. At the time, I was a first-year college student—homesick and missing my former roommate, who after our first semester had transferred to a school closer to her family. Contentment? I thought. Am I supposed to be content with being sad and lonely? 

As I continued to consider the word, I began to see several possible meanings. Contentment was a challenge: How could I learn to be content with my situation? Contentment was a prayer: May I find a community to support me and to help me be at peace. Contentment was also a call to action: What should I not be content to accept as it was? What changes did I need to make in my life, my attitude, my world? Living with this word for a year taught me about myself and brought me closer to God.

For me, contentment held a paradox, a both/and tension I couldn’t ignore: Be content; don’t be content. I tell myself, “I don’t really need anything else” or “I have probably done enough”—and that may be true. I’m a responsible person who takes pride in fulfilling my duties. I am privileged to have a good job, a supportive family, and the material necessities I require. I also strive to be grateful for these blessings. But contentment comes with a risk: Being satisfied with our status quo might prevent us from living as abundantly as God would have us live. Being content might mean resisting the urge to buy the flashiest new gadget; it does not mean giving up on dreams or limiting the possibilities God may have for my life. When our contentment becomes complacency and we settle for less than God has imagined for us, we need to make the move from contentment to discontentment.

Following Jesus’ example, we can learn to balance grateful contentment with righteous discontentment. His ministry shows us how to live in the paradox of (dis)contentment. Jesus was dissatisfied with the way society valued people and with the way religious groups enforced laws. To combat what he saw as unjust, he hosted meals with the misfits of society, healed people whose communities had cast them out, and turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple. Yet Jesus also modeled contentment. He was fulfilled in his identity and calling from God as well as through the beloved people he encountered. When Jesus tells his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” (John 15:9, NRSV), he expresses the deep contentment that God wants for all of us.

Content with our identities as God’s beloved children, we can act on our discontentment with the injustice in the world. In doing so, we abide in God’s love.



Take some time today to consider these questions. Allow your thoughts to set your intentions for the week to come:

+ How might you follow Jesus’ example of being (dis)content?

+ Name one way you will strive to be more content this week.

+ Name one way you will act on your discontentment this week.

Lindsay Gray received a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from Hollins University. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband, Dawson. Their two cats, Lady and Earl, keep them entertained.

—from devozine (November/December 2018). Copyright © 2018 by The Upper Room®. All rights reserved.

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