Contentment, Confinement and the Cross
On a warm July day in 1967, a 17-year old girl named Joni Eareckson dove into the Chesapeake Bay expecting a refreshing swim. Instead, having misjudged the depth, she suffered an accident that would change her future completely. She had enjoyed horseback riding and other physical exercise on their sprawling property near Baltimore. But in a single moment, that summer day, her whole life changed, no longer able to move or feel anything below her shoulders.
One of the main themes in Joni’s story is her very slow, painful process of learning to become content in her condition of physical confinement in a wheelchair. Joni didn’t wake up one morning and choose to be joyful. God very slowly and painfully taught her, in Paul’s words in Philippians 4:4, to “rejoice in every circumstance.” Joni slowly learned that the key to thanksgiving is contentment.
For many of us, 2020 was a year of confinement. One person described it as “living more inside the news than in our own homes.” It was as if we were paralyzed, and month after month, taken places where we didn’t want to go. As we sit around our tables this year, hopefully learning lessons from last, let’s look at what contentment is, why we need it, and how to get it.
First, what is it? Contentment is a quiet confidence that lives knowing you already have everything you need. David writes in Psalm 131:2, “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” When you’re raising a baby, there is only one moment when you know your home will be quiet: right after the baby has eaten. Contentment is a quiet heart that is finally satisfied.
Paul writes in Philippians 4 that he had to learn the secret of contentment both in circumstances of abundance and in need. This surprises us. We tend to assume that we only need contentment when we feel we don't have enough. Paul needed contentment in abundance. We tend to think that contentment works from the outside in. The more I have on the outside, the happier I’ll be inside. Pastor Erik Raymond, in his book Chasing Contentment, explains that it works in reverse. Contentment works from the inside out. The more our souls are satisfied, the more we see that everything God has provided for us is enough.
Second, why do we need contentment? There is no genuine gratitude or thankfulness until we are content. Contrasted with the quiet heart of the weaned child, think of the Israelites on the road to the promised land. Rescued powerfully out of slavery, they had been brought through the Red Sea by God’s miraculous work. God himself went with them, in the cloud by day and the pillar of fire at night. They woke up every morning with bread from heaven. But it wasn’t enough. They grumbled against God. Did God really claim to love them when they had boring food to eat? Our hearts will always grumble, just like the Israelites, if we are not first satisfied and content with what we have. We need contentment in order to be truly thankful.
Finally, how do we get contentment? Paul writes, very simply in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Verse 19 says, “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Joni Eareckson came to quiet contentment, not by solving the problem of evil (why did God allow this to happen!) but by remembering that Christ was with her, even when she couldn’t move physically. She learned that God wasn’t distant and uncaring, powerfully directing the universe, while unaware of her suffering. He was with her and knew her suffering more than she could imagine.
God had come into our flesh, and clothed himself with suffering, being confined at the end of his life on a cross. She writes, “I discovered that the Lord Jesus could empathize with my situation. On the cross for those agonizing, horrible hours, waiting for death, He was immobilized, helpless, paralyzed. Jesus did know what it was like not to be able to move—not to be able to scratch your nose, shift your weight, wipe your eyes. He was paralyzed on the cross.”
Contentment comes, whether we are full or empty this year, in knowing that Christ has suffered the confining, paralyzing death on a cross. And now he gives himself to us freely as a gift. Since the Father has loved us enough to provide his most-loved Son for us, won’t he also, together with him, provide everything we truly need? (Romans 8:32) A quiet and calm heart is satisfied knowing that if Christ is all we have, Christ is all we need.
In His Service,