How Can I Be Content When I’m Unsatisfied?

On the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality inventory, my type is INFJ. Among other things, this means I struggle with idealistic perfectionism. Here’s a quote from 16 Personalities, describing INFJs like me: “INFJs are all but defined by their pursuit of ideals. While this is a wonderful quality in many ways, an ideal situation is not always possible–in politics, in business, in romance–and INFJs too often drop or ignore healthy and productive situations and relationships, always believing there might be a better option down the road.” Does this sound like a description of someone who might not be adept at contentment? It is.

And while striving for perfection, or at least a better option, is a hallmark part of my personality, contentment is a significant topic addressed in Scripture, and clearly it’s part of our calling as Christians. Both a lack of contentment and a failure to look to God as the source of provision can be at the root of what causes people to turn away from God and his ways. So much so that a wise man named Agur son of Jakeh made a counterintuitive request of God which I need to learn to pray, immortalized in Proverbs 30:8-9:

“Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.”

This is a compelling picture of contentment. And in a sense, this is a prayer for unsatisfaction–for the fulfillment of only immediate needs, not the neutralization of need itself. This is because unsatisfaction–not dissatisfaction, desperation, or superabundance–provides the best environment for contentment to grow. It makes sense to pray for only our daily bread. Having only what we need is good for our spiritual condition if we embrace its benefits and learn to be content rather than constantly strive for more.

When someone asked Jesus to arbitrate a family dispute, he dismissed the issue’s significance and confronted the covetousness behind the man’s request: “Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ Jesus replied, ‘Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?’ Then he said to them, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions’ ” (Luke 12:13-15). One of the things I hear in Jesus’ response to this man is disgust with the idea that people would come to him, the highly disruptive source of abundant and eternal life, who is making all things new, and ask for the means to get more comfortable where they were. That disgruntled brother missed the point as profoundly as we do today. Like him, we sometimes come to Jesus with the request that our lives be so full of blessing that we no longer feel our need. But Jesus wants us to remain aware of our need for him and what he will someday lavish on us. In the meantime, we can be content with what we have while acknowledging we are not fully satisfied by it. We are content while we continue to be in need.

Although we like to believe God is concerned with making his people’s circumstances as happy and snag-free as possible, his priorities are very different from ours. In the words of my friend Dr. Stephen Grcevich, one hurtful result of bad theology can be that “We fail to recognize that it may be OK with God if we struggle or suffer so long as it accomplishes HIS purposes.” When God works through things like suffering, pain, and disappointment–as he often does–we need to learn to be content in a world where we will not be satisfied.

Let me acknowledge that we should not be content with everything. The world we live in is undeniably broken and full of tragedy. We ourselves are not who we were made to be, and we’re always in need of growth and correction. We should not be content to overlook injustice, ignore the effects of rebellion against God, or allow people to suffer when we can do something to help. We should not be content with our own level of goodness at any given point. A passionate pursuit of righteousness is not the opposite of Christian contentment; it’s the opposite of apathy or inertia. When I advocate for contentment here, I’m not talking about complacency.

True contentment does not cause us to stop caring about the world; it enables us to care for others when our own circumstances aren’t what we would choose for ourselves. It does not stunt our growth; it enriches our lives. It halts our constant striving for more, calms our appetites, helps us see the good in where we are, draws our eyes off ourselves and our own comfort so we can live missionally and with God-given purpose. True contentment does not wait for full satisfaction; it engages most powerfully when we recognize our hunger and thirst and helps us focus on the provision made for both. Contentment helps us gracefully stay where we are. It also helps us make transitions and adapt to new places and situations.

Contentment is a beautiful capstone to the pursuits I discussed in the previous three chapters: it helps us find fulfillment where God has placed us instead of pursuing more and greater; it helps us find meaning and make an impact where we are instead of always trying to change our circumstances; it helps us find pleasure in life as we know it. We have far more to gain from contentment than from all the wealth and happy circumstances we are so easily convinced will make our lives enjoyable. We will find more freedom in a state of contentment than we ever will in all our efforts to fill a void within us with shadows of things to come.

This post was excerpted from chapter 8 in my newest book, Blessed Are the Unsatisfied: Finding Spiritual Freedom in an Imperfect World. If you want to read more, you can find the book here or wherever you buy books.

Taken from Blessed Are the Unsatisfied by Amy Simpson. Copyright(c) 2018 by Amy Simpson. Used by permission from InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515.

© 2018 Amy Simpson.