Our New Affection
In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine listed “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.” At the top was Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” Second on the list (presuming no bias in the choices made by the magazine) came the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” This song, both in its intended sense and even when pruned of its innuendo, has served as the anthem of the past half-century (it was released in 1965). It therefore comes as no surprise that USA Today reports that the majority of Americans, in every age group, feel that they have never discovered their destiny. There is no reason they should have. For once we cut ourselves off from the ground, means, and end of both our satisfaction and our destiny, we simply starve to death spiritually. No satisfaction means no contentment.
Here is one more facet of the gospel that meets our culture at its point of need: Jesus Christ gives what the world cannot—contentment.
This at least is what Saul of Tarsus—one of the least naturally contented of men—discovered: “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound … I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:11–13).
What does it mean to be content? Paul may have startled his Philippian friends by using a Stoic term for a Christian disposition. Was he hinting that what Stoicism sought—detachment from the disturbances of strong emotions—the gospel alone provides, but without denying or avoiding the reasons for the emotions themselves?
By contrast, for Paul contentment comes to expression in situations that arouse strong emotion—having plenty, having nothing—but it is learned in a different school from the Greek Stoa.
Back to School
How, then, can we discover what Jeremiah Burroughs called the “rare jewel of Christian contentment”?
Some of us naively believe we are naturally “contented people.” But higher tolerance levels are contentment lookalikes, even imposters. Spiritual contentment is learned, not natural. And it is learned in situations that test us, as Paul indicates—when we are brought low and when we abound. Contentment is the ability to be equally satisfied in both situations, not just in one or other, but in both.
That may seem paradoxical, even contradictory. But the contented believer is one who believes that God’s provision is always sufficient and His appointments are always appropriate. Only when we have faced both good and bad (as most of us do, to whatever degree) can we know that neither draws us away from the anchor of our contentment in Christ. Both situations, then, become the school in which we learn to rest in Christ as our sufficiency and to do all things through Him.
Loss of contentment has a long history. Its origin lies before the dawn of time. Satan was (and still is) discontented. For whatever reason (was it, after all, jealousy that the real King of the angels was the Son of God?), he was not content with God’s provisions or appointments. And the discontented always seek company. So the serpent deceived our parents. They, in turn, became discontented with being the creaturely likeness of God, and they desired to be as God Himself. Their folly led to our misery.
How, then, are we to learn contentment? Thomas Chalmers spoke rightly of the importance of “the expulsive power of a new affection.” Discontentment can only be reversed and driven out by an affection that is both greater than and opposite to it. Enter, then, the riches that are ours in union with Christ.
Only when our Christ is big enough to satisfy us can we be content no matter our particular circumstances; more than that, satisfied with the circumstances and not merely despite the circumstances. This is a telling point. We have not yet attained to biblical contentment when we would be content with Christ were it not for our circumstances. No, genuine contentment is realized both in our circumstances and with our circumstances.
A Four-dimensional World
Wherein, then, lies this contentment? In the following four dimensions of our knowledge of Christ:
Dimension 1: Everything we need and everything we lack is found in Christ. All Christians believe this. But do we? The power of our union with Christ in our lives requires a growing knowledge of all that is ours in Him. Yet the doctrine itself can be enthusiastically endorsed while it remains what Jonathan Edwards called merely a “notion.” We have the idea, but the reality does not touch our affections. As John Owen would put it, we know the truth but not the power of the truth.
How, then, does it become a reality? Only by having our hearts soaked in the lavish grace revealed in such passages as Ephesians 1:3–14 or Colossians 2:6–3:4. This is the tonic Calvin eloquently prescribes: “We see that our whole salvation and all its parts are comprehended in Christ. We should therefore take care not to derive the least portion of it from anywhere else” (Institutes 2.16.19). Calvin tellingly ends by contrasting those for whom this is true with those who are “not content with Christ alone.”
Dimension 2: This all-sufficient Christ is with us. Hebrews 13:5–6 famously exhorts us to “be content with such things as you have” but also explains why. Whether we win or lose, whether we have or have not, whether in joy or in sorrow, “He himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you‘ ” (emphasis mine). The Greek text here contains an entire handful of negatives—bad in English grammar, permissible in Greek, but glorious in theology. The message is: this all-sufficient Lord Jesus is with you; no way will He leave you. This is all you need. At the end of the day, He is your only sufficiency—you will have nothing else as you breathe your last. But since He will be sufficient for you for all eternity, He is no less so now as well.
Dimension 3: We are in this all-sufficient Christ. We are united to Him in the eternal counsel, in the federal union, by His incarnation, and through faith. All the fullness of the Godhead dwells in Him bodily, and we have come to fullness of life in Him—indeed, we are complete in Him (Col. 2:9–10). As Calvin teaches us: in His incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension, session, and return, Christ considers Himself incomplete without us. What contentment is found in knowing this to be true!
Dimension 4: This all-sufficient Christ is in us. We can say with Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). We do not minimize the shocking parallel reality that “sin … dwells in me” (Rom. 7:17). But neither should that fact diminish the more staggering truth of Christ’s promise to come to indwell us in the power of the Spirit—even to make His “home” with us (John 14:17, 20, 23b; 17:23).
Those gripped by these truths learn in whatever state they are to be content. In Christ, they find all that they need and all that they lack.
The Fifth Dimension
Paul understood this (see Phil. 3:7–11). However, he also knew that neither he nor we have attained to its full realization (vv. 12–14). But Christ is also in us as “the hope of glory” (that is, the present assurance of what has not yet been realized; Col. 1:27). One day, He will appear and transform our lowly bodies to be like His glorious body (Phil. 3:21). Then, we will awake and be satisfied with His likeness (Ps. 17:15; see 1 John 3:2). Then, possessing new resurrection capacities, we will at last be able to drink in all that Christ is and has done for us, and know the utter contentment for which we were created. We already taste this now; then we will eat and drink it unendingly in the new heaven and earth.
We were actually created to feast on glory. But we have sinned and fallen short of it (Rom. 3:23). It has become unattainable. No wonder, then, that those made for the eternal are by nature discontented with the temporal. We try the broken cisterns, but their waters fail and mock us until, in God’s providence, we learn that there is “none but Christ,” as the old hymn states:
Now none but Christ can satisfy, None other name for me!
There’s love, and life, and lasting joy, Lord Jesus, found in thee.
Psalm 131:2 pictures all this for us. By nature, we are like unweaned children. We have a desire only for milk. We have no taste for solids. We are discontented until we confess, “I can’t get no satisfaction.” Exhausted, we yield to Christ and learn to say, “My soul is as a weaned child.”
Here is the blessed paradox: the moment you give in to Him is the moment you begin to learn contentment. May God grant this contentment for all who know Him.