I couldn’t stop cataloguing the flaws and “not enoughs” in my life, until I received an unexpected reality check.
My first apartment with my husband was — like many newlywed homes — modest and small. Initially, it didn’t matter to me. I was thrilled to set up my very own grown-up kitchen, raid Target for matching hand towels, and arrange the furniture so it was most comfortable for hosting friends. The older appliances, worn linoleum floor, and less-than-transcendent view of a parking lot didn’t bother me. I was just happy to share a place with my handsome groom.
As our first year of marriage wore on, I started to notice the flaws in our modest home. I began wondering if perhaps we should’ve leased a place with nicer carpet, a better location, or maybe our own fenced yard. My heart gradually grew discontent as I strove to be the perfect host, and compared my home to those of friends and acquaintances.
This initial flicker of comparison quickly flared into an obsession: I was constantly sizing up what I had and didn’t have, and noting the ways in which it was imperfect. When our lease was up, we upgraded to a small cottage with a large backyard, but my lust for more was not sated — in fact, I found more things to be discontent about. My furniture was still inadequate and the bathroom wasn’t big enough. My heart essentially ignored the blessings I had been given — both material and intangible. Soon, however, we were forced into circumstances that made me re-evaluate my fault-finding.
Shortly after our first child was born, we went through some difficult job transitions, and had to move in with extended family for a few months. As we shared space with others, and suffered through a discouraging season of unemployment, I began to long for that dinky old apartment or our humble little cottage. Oh, how I would’ve counted my blessings!
To search for joy is natural
Virtually everyone is searching for contentment, for happiness, for peace deep within our souls. But we tend to search for joy in better things than what we already have; we try to obtain more cars or appliances, a more desirable appearance, a different social status. We say that we’ll be happy once we have the next thing: once we buy a home, get a better job, get married, have children, have an empty nest, etc. Many of us go about our pursuit of happiness in ways that will ultimately leave us empty.
So how can we pursue happiness, and strive for the feeling of contentment, when the material world so often tempts us? There are three strategies …
New York Times best-selling author and researcher Dr. Brene Brown writes: “In 12 years of research, I have never interviewed a single person with the ability to really experience joy, who does not also actively practice gratitude.”
When my husband and I first entered our season of financial hardship, I must confess I was definitely not thankful. I was worried and felt humiliated that we needed help at all. But in truth there was so much to be grateful for. First of all, the fact that we had family willing to help support us (physically as well as emotionally) during those few months was a huge blessing. As I began to change my mindset to being grateful for things both big and small, my heart became softer and I was blessed with greater contentment — during our economic crisis and beyond, and even once we were back on our feet again.
Prayers of thanksgiving go a long way in satisfying our need for more or better things — whether we’re longing for a new house, a better job, a better wardrobe, or a boyfriend. When I choose to be grateful for what I do have, instead of focusing on what I lack, I am far more content. Instead of worrying that I don’t have enough — financially, professionally, socially — I focus on the gifts of great worth that I have already been given.
As Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” God has given each of us a unique life. Sometimes we may feel we got the short end of the stick, but God can use any difficult circumstance to bring us joy. We never know what will come of tough situations, and we never know how we may grow because of a storm we have weathered. As Jon Acuff says in his book Quitter, “Never compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.”
I was humiliated when we were out of work and had to move out of our home. I wished and prayed with every fiber of my being to just get out of that situation. But, looking back, I can see that I learned valuable lessons during that time: I learned compassion for the millions of people in the U.S. struggling to pay the bills or get food on the table. Through my own financial hardship, I grew in love and understanding for others, and for that I am deeply grateful. That season was indeed part of our “middle,” though we didn’t know that then — and we are better off for having passed through our middle. I see now that God had a purpose for that time, that middle part.
Look to God
The apostle Paul wrote “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
So what was Paul’s secret? It’s “through Him who gives me strength,” Paul says in Philippians 4:13. Peter 1:3 echoes this sentiment and we are encouraged “that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.”
These passages remind us that we are able to find contentment — through God first. When we focus on Him and what He has done for us in Jesus, we are able to bear earthly disappointments and challenges with grace and perseverance. Nothing in this life will ever be perfect, but if our contentment and satisfaction is rooted in God, we can go from extreme wealth to scraping the bottom of the barrel with our joy still intact. I know this to be true in my quest for contentment. When I trust that God is in control of my life, and when I trust that He is good and will work everything out for my good, my joy is steadfast — no matter the circumstances. When I am focused on living my life in pursuit of His ways, I am deeply and truly content.
Contentment seems so hard to come by in a world full of near-constant advertising. We’re bombarded with messages that proclaim our greater joy is found in a new living room, a shinier car, or a more toned body. These things can be great gifts to us, but if they (or other things) are the source of our happiness, we surely will not be happy for long. We will always find something better, something newer to “bank” our joy upon. It is a daily journey, almost a battle, to find contentment that will last. But it’s a battle I’m willing to fight, and I bet you are too, because after all, who doesn’t want to be genuinely happy?