My neighbor Claudine's face was always set in a mask of discontent. For years, I'd see her out my kitchen window as she would water her garden, carry in her groceries, or talk to her children, and I couldn't help but notice that a deep frown was a permanent fixture on her face. Her mouth was set in a long, hard line that rarely curved into a smile.
When I talked to Claudine over coffee, I quickly learned that nothing was ever good enough for her. Her house might be attractive, but it needed paint and her husband was too lazy to paint it. Her kids might be polite, good students, but they were too much like her in-laws to suit her taste. The weather might be nice, but if all this sunshine kept up, we'd soon be facing a drought.
Claudine was unable to enjoy anything fully because there always was a fly in the ointment. If she didn't see it immediately, she'd find it eventually. The poor woman was chronically dissatisfied. Her discontentment was like an ulcer that gnawed away at her sense of gratitude, her peace of mind, and her enjoyment of life.
Discontentment is an emotion that is capable of dwarfing us spiritually because it is directed against the Lord. If we are discontented with His will for us, then we're not going to grow in our faith.
The people of Israel on their journey from Egypt to Canaan provide a rich source of illustrations for this particular emotion. We've already seen how their complaining affected their leader, Moses. They often discouraged him and angered him. As we move forward, we'll see how their discontentment affected their own lives and brought God's judgment upon them.
None of us will ever be able to imagine what it must have been like for at least two and a half million people who had been slaves for four hundred years to be set free from their bondage. For one thing, their freedom wasn't provided by a presidential emancipation paper. Their deliverance was a spectacular demonstration of the sovereignty and power of the Most High God who had chosen them to be His people.
God totally devastated Egypt, a proud nation that had ruthlessly oppressed the Hebrews. He humiliated the Pharaoh, who had arrogantly asked, "Who is the Lord that I should obey Him?"
Now the Israelites were gathered safely on the eastern shore of the Red Sea, which they had crossed on dry ground. Egypt lay in ruins behind them. "And when the Israelites saw the great power the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant" (Exod. 14:31).
Take a few minutes to read Exodus 15—it is the song the people sang to celebrate God's victory. They sang and danced in joy and freedom. They were on a mountaintop, dizzy with the wonder of it all. If God could deliver them from Pharaoh, He could do anything!
But it didn't take long for their point of view to change. First came three days without water. Then they found a spring that only poured forth bitter water. Soon came the ominous words that stamped their character throughout their journey: "The people grumbled against Moses, saying, 'What are we to drink?" (Exod. 15:24).
The principles God demonstrated to the discontented Israelites so long ago are still strategic to us as we seek contentment in today's world.
The solution was so simple. The Lord had no intention of abandoning His people. He just wanted their trust. When Moses appealed to the Lord, He showed Moses what to do: "Then Moses cried out to the LORD and the LORD showed him a piece of wood. He threw it into the water, and the water became sweet" (Exod. 15:25).
Less than a month later, we find the people not only grumbling but looking back to Egypt with nostalgia. "In the desert the whole community grumbled against Moses and Aaron" (Exod. 16:2).
The food they had brought with them was gone. Already they had only a selective memory of their slavery in Egypt, recalling not their bondage but the meals provided by their masters. They whined, "There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted." So they accused their leaders of wrong motives, saying, "You have brought us out into this desert to starve."
In response, Moses and Aaron put the right perspective on the Israelites' discontent. The two leaders told them, "Who are we, that you should grumble against us? . . . You are not grumbling against us, but against the LORD" (Exod. 16:7-8).
The Israelites were dissatisfied with God and the way He was handling things. Whenever they came to an obstacle that required faith in the Lord who led them, whether it was thirst or hunger, they complained. They could have encouraged each other by saying, "God has brought us this far; He must have a plan to take care of us the rest of the way." But they never did. Their immediate response was to question God's motives and to doubt His goodness and his power. They were never content to just rest in Him.
What about us? How do we react to difficulties? Do we angrily add them up as examples of the way God has let us down? Is the glass half-full or half-empty for us? Do we shake our fists at heaven and say, "Why did You let this happen to me?" Do we withdraw from God, refusing to read our Bibles or pray?
Or do we say, "Lord, You have cared for me so far, I trust You to supply the wisdom and the resources I need for this situation. I am content to leave it in Your hands." Our attitudes make all the difference in the way we face our circumstances.
Of course, as far as His people were concerned, God had a plan. And His plan was something they never could have even imagined. He knew they had to eat. He knew there were no supermarkets in the Sinai wilderness. He knew they couldn't plant gardens and wait for food to grow and still travel at the same time. So He just sent fast food—bread from heaven that contained all the nourishment they required. All they had to do was to go out every morning and pick it. The manna fell wherever they were every day.
But the Israelites never seemed to learn from these incidents. Their faith didn't grow with each demonstration of God's provision. They seemed determined to be discontent. Manna was not enough to satisfy them. For example . . .
"They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. So they quarreled with Moses and said, 'Give us water to drink'
"Moses replied, 'Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the LORD to the test?'
"But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, 'Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?'
"Then Moses cried out to the LORD, 'What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me" (Exod. 17:1-3).
They continually quarreled and grumbled, and Egypt was looking better all the time. Of course, they had forgotten a few small items regarding Egypt: bondage, oppression, cruelty, and death. However, God was still patient with them. He satisfied their thirst by supplying a river of water from a rock.
Do you look back on the "good old days" of your life and think you were happier then than you are now? Stop and ask yourself whether you were really content back then. Wasn't there always something else you wanted to make you happy? Discontentment casts a dark shadow on our lives. It's a worm that nibbles away at our peace and joy.
Israel's dissatisfaction reached its zenith when God brought the people to Mount Sinai. He spoke in an audible voice that thundered from the mountain. Then he called Moses up to Him, and for forty days He gave Moses the Law His people were to live by and the plans for the tabernacle, where He would dwell among them. Unfortunately, forty days was too long for those chronically discontented people.
"When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, 'Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him"' (Exod. 32:1).
It's rather hard to believe, but the people weren't satisfied with what God had already done. And since their circumstances weren't exactly the way they wanted them to be, they decided to exchange God for a golden calf.
This time God was infuriated, and He punished many of them with death. But when Moses interceded for the people, God forgave them, and they continued on their journey. However, God's patience was finally wearing thin. Each time their discontent erupted, the punishment was more severe.
"Now the people complained about their hardships in the hearing of the LORD, and when he heard them his anger was aroused. Then fire from the LORD burned among them and consumed some of the outskirts of the camp. When the people cried out to Moses, he prayed to the LORD, and the fire died down.
"The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, 'If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna" (Num. 11:1-2, 4-6).
First the Israelites complained about the hardships of their journey; God sent fire to consume some of them. Then they complained about the steady diet of manna; God sent them quail enough to eat for a month, and many of them died as they ate it. Then came the last straw—they refused to enter the wonderful land God was giving them as a gift. Ten of the twelve spies discouraged them from obeying God and taking possession of the land. They reported huge, dangerous inhabitants of the land who seemed to grow larger and more menacing with each telling of the story. They said, "We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes and we looked the same to them. . . .
"That night all the people of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, 'If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the Loiw bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? . . . We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt" (Num. 13:33b and 14:1-4).
After two years of seeing God miraculously meet their every need, the people were dissatisfied with His care and His purpose for their lives. Their hearts yearned for Egypt. Egypt was their homeland, not Canaan. They had blanked out the agony of slavery; they lusted for the food of Egypt. They were still slaves in their hearts—slaves to their cravings. Their constant dissatisfaction and complaining led to rebellion. This time God was finished with them.
When Moses pled with God to forgive them the Lord responded, "I have forgiven them, as you asked. Nevertheless, as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the LORD fills the whole earth, not one of the men who saw my glory and the miraculous signs I performed in Egypt and in the desert but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times—not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their forefathers. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it" (Num. 14:20-23).
It was all over for the discontented. They wandered in circles for thirty-eight more years like one long funeral procession as that generation lived their lives without anticipating anything but death. The people's dissatisfaction with God's purpose for them, their disdain of His bountiful provision, their disregard of His mighty power, and their distrust of His great love brought them to a point of no return. God had no more patience and provided no more second chances. It was all over. They were alive, but they looked at a bleak future that led nowhere but to the grave.
Why should we study this ancient story? Maybe you've already noticed that it bears a striking resemblance to our own emotional behavior. Discontent lurks in each person's heart. If it existed in Eden, it exists everywhere. That's why God tells us we need to carefully study Israel's experiences with God. As Paul wrote, "Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: 'The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry! We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died. We should not test the LORD, as some of them did—and were killed by snakes. And do not grumble, as some of them did—and were killed by the destroying angel" (1 Cor. 10:6-10).
The temptation to sin usually begins with discontentment about what we are or what we have. For instance, consider financial sins. How much grief would be avoided if we were satisfied with our income? if we didn't crave more and more of the things money can buy, would we enslave ourselves to creditors? "Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income" (Eccles. 5:10).
Another example of discontent involves emotional and sexual adultery. Immorality and the devastation it brings on families, individuals, and society would never happen if men and women were satisfied with their mates. As the wise Solomon wrote, "May you rejoice in the wife of your youth. . . . May her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love" (Prov. 5:18-19).
Sinful actions always spring from ungodly thoughts and attitudes. An ungrateful, discontented spirit is an open door to unholy behavior, causing us to turn our backs on God and take matters into our own hands. This kind of rebellion doesn't have to happen. God is faithful, and we don't have to yield to the temptation to be discontented with our families, salaries, jobs, and life in general. Temptation is not a sin, but yielding to it is. What should be the attitude of a woman who is a child of God by faith in Jesus Christ and is indwelt by the Holy Spirit? We find the answer in Paul's letter to the Philippians:
"Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe as you hold out the word of life" (Phil. 2:14-16a).
"Do everything?" Does this mean the housework, the carpool, the visits to parents, church work, or community service? Do everything without complaining? Yes, that's what God's Word says.
Naturally, we don't develop this kind of positive attitude without some instruction. For example, I used to hate to fold clothes. With five children, there was always quite a lot of it. Then I heard someone say that while she folded clothes, she thanked God for each person in her family and prayed for him or her. What a difference that simple attitude adjustment made!
When I studied the word content as it is used in the New Testament, I found something very interesting. In other places the same Greek word is translated, "enough," "sufficient," and "to be strong enough." Obviously, godliness and contentment go together like hand and glove. And "godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that" (1 Tim. 6:6-8).
The woman whose heart is filled with Jesus will be grateful for every blessing, and she will trust Him through every difficulty. We won't like to admit it, but we really can live with just the bare necessities—food, clothes, and shelter. In fact, in many parts of the world, people are relieved to have that and can't imagine having anything more. And we have so much more than just the essentials—we have a heavenly Father Who will not abandon us. He knows what we need, and He has promised to supply it. What He wants most from us is simple, childlike trust. But that's not always easy for us because it doesn't come naturally.
The apostle Paul learned to be content. His physical circumstances did not determine his attitude or control his emotions. He wrote, "I am not saying this because I am in need, for 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 everything through him who gives me strength" (Phil. 4:11-13).
He said the secret to being content is knowing that Jesus Christ gives us the strength we need to do whatever He wants us to do. The secret of being content is believing that Jesus is sufficient.
In another familiar passage, Paul had a physical infirmity that he pleaded with God to remove: "Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness! Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me" (2 Cor. 12:8-9).
The Lord told Paul, "Don't be upset and discontented because you are limited by this infirmity. My grace will make you strong enough to bear it. You'll have to depend on Me every day, and I'll be here. So you can be content because I will be enough for all your needs."
We are instructed to be more than grateful—God wants us to share our blessings with others. Paul wrote, "Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work" (2 Cot 9:7-8).
The phrase "having all that you need" is represented by the same Greek word that is translated "content" in other places. Are you getting the picture? We don't have to greedily hang on to our possessions, fearful that we won't have enough for our own needs. We can give cheerfully and generously to the Lord, knowing He will see to it that we always have enough for ourselves and enough to give away.
God's Word tells us to be content, satisfied with our material resources and physical condition because the Lord is with us: "Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, 'Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you" (Heb. 13:5).
How can we possibly depend on health, money, and possessions for our security when we have the Lord, and He promises never to forget, neglect, nor abandon us? We are precious to Him. We are His children, and He is our perfect Father.
This lesson of trusting God became a part of my life in a way I will never forget when, after a breast examination, I had a call from the diagnostic center. There was something irregular about my mammogram, and the doctor wanted me to come in the next day for further tests. Maybe you know just how I felt. You can't help the thoughts that crowd your imagination. Suppose it is cancer. Has it spread? Do I have to look ahead to surgery, chemotherapy, and death?
During that time, I was studying the meaning of the Greek word used for "content," and it was a revelation to me in a new way. I'm always telling people to look at the worst-case scenario and then tell the Lord you trust Him no matter what. Now it was my turn.
I began to see that no matter what the additional tests might reveal, the Lord would be with me and He would be enough. He would be sufficient. He would make me strong, whatever the verdict was. Having Him is better than health, better than wealth, better than any form of security or happiness we depend on. And what is death for a child of God? It is nothing but a dark valley we walk through, our hand in His, as He ushers us into His glorious presence for all eternity.
I can't tell you the joy and peace all this gave me. When my children called and asked if I was worried, I said, "No. No matter what happens, the Lord is enough. I can't complain. I've had very good health for all these years. I'm not immune from any disease." That peace stayed with me all day, all through the further exams. Even when I waited in the examining room for the doctor, looking at the picture on the sonogram of this dark, alien thing in my breast, there was peace. Then the doctor came in, and I asked, "May I call my husband in?"
The doctor replied, "Well, all I want to tell you is that it's a benign cyst filled with fluid."
Of course, I was happy. But I know the day may come when the news will not be good. I only hope that I will still be satisfied and contented because I have the Lord and He is enough to meet my every need. His grace is sufficient. But it's only there when we need it. God's grace is not available to us when we envision the future, imagining trouble ahead of time.
"The fear of the LORD leads to life: Then one rests content, untouched by trouble" (Prov. 19:23). Fear of the Lord means a loving reverence for God, and that includes submission to His Lordship and His Word.
Do you see how revering God, being content with your life and enjoying its blessings, and trusting Him through its difficulties will bring stability to your emotions? You won't be at the mercy of every new circumstance.
To be "untouched by trouble" doesn't mean we won't have troubles. This is a fallen world, and trouble and suffering are part of life here on earth. "Untouched by trouble" does mean trouble will never touch the inner core of our being where we live with God. Troubles will not devastate our faith—on the contrary, they will give us endurance and maturity. We can be content, even in our trials, because God is sufficient. Is discontentment your problem? If so, gratitude to God for His faithfulness is your solution.