Contentment is not about perfection, but about perception. How we view our lives and ourselves, the lens through which we look and perceive the world around us, especially that immediate world of our daily lives, can cause either contentment or discontentment to settle into the heart.
Psalm 34:5 tells us, “Those who look to the Lord are radiant with joy.” (CSB) When we look to Jesus and let His light illuminate our sight, such joy fills our hearts that we radiate with it. We reflect the Light to which we look. It shines on our lives, giving a joyous glow no matter the circumstances.
There is contentment when Jesus is our focus.
Yet there is much that distracts and shifts our focus. Our sight becomes clouded. We view our world through the fog of worry, jealousy, selfishness, fear, bitterness, loneliness, rather than through the Light.
Sticking with the theme of last week’s post on cultivating, over the summer I’m going to be writing about cultivating certain areas of our lives, that we may continue to grow and flourish in our relationship with Jesus.
The first series will be about cultivating contentment.
Contentment is something I’ve been growing in for many years. Learning to be content in Christ even when circumstances aren’t perfect. Learning to live fulfilled in Christ even when dreams go unfulfilled. Learning to see my life, and myself, as beautiful and glorious in Christ, even when things are a bit broken and messy.
Contentment can be elusive. It doesn’t take much for the wishing and wanting and waiting to dislodge it from our hearts. We are back to searching for it again, looking and hoping to find it in situations of perfection and successes achieved and possessions attained. And while we may see its shadow and sense its shape in these times, we can never seem to capture it through the perfecting and achieving and attaining.
What exactly is contentment, this state of being we chase so relentlessly? What does it mean to be content?
Everyday, we are bombarded with messages about beauty and what it means to be beautiful. Some of the messages hold true, while many twist reality.
Look this way, wear these clothes, use this makeup, fix your teeth, lose more weight, style your hair, engage in these activities…
We can often be our own worst critic when it comes to our looks. We look in the mirror and see flaw upon flaw. There is always something that could be better. There is always a way in which we just aren’t enough.
We want to be beautiful, because everyone likes beauty. Beauty brings enjoyment and delight to the beholder. A beautiful sunset. A gorgeous flower. A pretty painting. A lovely song.
We want to be beautiful because we want to know we bring enjoyment and delight into this world. Really, our quest for beauty is a quest for belonging. To know we have a reason to exist, and that our existence does indeed make the world a little brighter.
But so often, we don’t feel beautiful. We don’t feel delightful or pleasing. We don’t feel we belong.
Besides physical flaws, there’s much else that can make us feel ugly: past mistakes, present struggles, fears and worries, shame and guilt. We feel we are too broken to be beautiful. And we search for things to fill the cracks and mend the breaks, so that maybe, just maybe, we can attain beauty and belonging. But the cracks are too big. The breaks are too wide. Nothing fills them completely.
We’ve heard the phrase, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” So in our quest for beauty, we need to ask ourselves: Who is our beholder?
Who are we trying to delight and please? Who do we want to name us beautiful? Who do we want to belong to?
Because our search for beauty is the same as our search for satisfaction and worth: that which we are seeking can only be found in one place. In one Person. In Jesus.
Beauty that is based on others’ opinions, on looking a certain way, on how we feel, will always leave us lacking. We’ll always find one more flaw, one more fault, one more failing that needs to be fixed. And that constant state of brokenness leaves us feeling so estranged others, so alone in our pains and struggles, hiding in shame of our ugly cracks and breaks.
We can’t fix our brokenness. Try as we might, we can’t fix our brokenness.
But the thing is, we aren’t meant to fix our brokenness. And realizing that is where true beauty is found. Realizing there is only One who mends all breaks. One who was broken for us, so He restore us. One who took our place on the cross, so we could have a place with Him forever.
Beauty that is found in Jesus, in how He sees us, in what He names us, in who He created us to be, that is true beauty. That is beauty even in the brokenness. That is turning the broken to beautiful. And in this beauty, there is belonging.
We see a picture of this beauty in the worshipful act of a woman who loved Jesus, and from her act of worship, we can learn to find beauty in Jesus, and live as ones who belong to Him:
As Jesus reclined at the table, partaking of the dinner, as Martha served, as Lazarus and the disciples ate, Mary does something unexpected and rather shocking; improper even. She disturbs Jesus as He eats by pouring perfume over Him, and then wiping His feet with her hair.
In this passage, we see Judas’ disapproval. In Matthew 26 and Mark 14, we find that many others present joined in the disapproval of Mary’s actions.
But Mary only saw her great need for Jesus and His great love for her. In devotion, she worshiped Him. Forsaking all else - others’ opinions, outwardly appearance, even her own possessions and comfort - Mary’s only focus was Jesus. Mary’s only aim was to worship devout herself to Him. It was as if it was just Him and her.
Mary gave her most valuable possession: a pint of pure nard, which was an expensive perfume. It was kept in an alabaster jar, which Mary broke open to pour the fragrance over Jesus. (Mark 14:3)
Mary also wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair. Attending to someone’s feet was a job for menial slaves. It was a job of humbleness and submission. And a woman’s hair was considered by Jews to be her glory. It was that which gave her beauty; her crown of womanhood.
And here Mary is, laying down her glory at the feet of Jesus. She gave what was seen as her mark of beauty, and surrendered it in service to Jesus. Jesus was Mary’s beholder.
Those who watched this extravagant worship only saw extravagant waste and impropriety. Why waste the perfume? It could have been sold for a high price and the money given to the pour!
Others saw Mary’s actions as not good enough. She should have done something different. She should have done something better. She was scolded and criticized.
But Jesus was delighted in Mary. He spoke of His pleasure in her, saying, “She has done a beautiful thing to Me.” (Matthew 26:10, NIV)
Unbeknownst to Mary, this pouring of perfume was a foreshadowing of Jesus’ sacrifice. The breaking of the jar like the breaking of His body. The fragrance filling the room like Jesus, who “offered Himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God.” (Ephesians 5:2, NLT)
In order for Mary to wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair, her hair would have been down, unbound and uncovered. In that time, women were not to be seen in public with their hair in this state. Only a father or a husband would see a woman’s hair loose.
But Mary unbound her hair for Jesus, devoting her life to Him, choosing to live as a daughter of God and the bride of Christ.
And that is who we are in Jesus. Daughters of God. The bride of Christ. We are beautiful. We are His.
The breaking of the jar was declared beautiful. The laying down of her glory, her beauty, her heart, however broken and bruised and “not good enough” it might be, was declared beautiful.
When we, broken and humbled, overcome by the pouring out of Jesus’ love, fall at His feet in worship of Him as we fall in love with Him, choose Him as our beholder, to behold our brokenness and hold our broken hearts, we find we are beautiful in His eyes.
The broken is transformed to beautiful, for the broken belongs to the One who makes all things new. And in the breaking, in the laying down of ourselves at the feet of Jesus, the fragrance of Him in us fills the air around us; a pleasing aroma to God.
I’ve been called an over-achiever.
And I’ve probably earned the title. Whatever I do, I like to do well.
I’ve had to learn, oftentimes the hard way, how much I can handle. Otherwise, I end up saying yes to everything and taking on more than I can handle.
This drive to do well isn’t always good. What starts out as wanting to do a job well done can turn into a fear of failing. And this fear can turn me into a controlling perfectionist. It can cause me to be stressed to the point of cracking and overwhelmed to the point of drowning.
And sometimes, I find myself basing my worth and my identity on what I do and how well I do it. When this happens, I begin to strive for success in order to earn approval. I do things for my own glory, not to glorify God.
This happens to a lot of us. We believe that what we do is who we are. If what we do isn’t good enough, then we’re not good enough. We’re failures. And we so fear failing. And the fear causes us to attempt to plan it all, control it all, figure it all out, and hold it all together, so everything can be (or at least appear to be) perfect.
Have you ever been there?
But the thing is, trying to do things good enough so we can be successful enough to earn enough approval, acceptance, love, and worth, really just isn’t enough. It isn’t the point. It isn’t how we were meant to live.
All of our good works and success and over-achieving will fall short if our goal is to earn something. Rather, we need to find our identity and worth in Jesus, who has given us everything.
We see this in the lives of two sisters who get a visit from Jesus:
Jesus and His disciples are on their way to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover. They go through the village of Bethany, and here they are welcomed into the home of these two sisters, Martha and Mary. We learn from John 11 that these woman also had a brother named Lazarus, who was probably among those sitting and listening to Jesus’ teaching.
We read that Martha was not among that group of eager listeners. She was busy preparing a dinner. A big dinner. One that would have to feed several men, hungry from their travels. She takes her duty of hospitality seriously, as any woman of that time and culture would.
Soon, Martha becomes distracted by her preparations. She is worried about the details. She is upset over her sister not helping. We get the sense that she wanted everything to be perfect for Jesus’ visit, and so she was trying to control everything. Even her sister.
Can you relate? I know I can.
Details becomes a distraction. Preparations become a need for perfection. The scrambling to appear put together on the outside leaves us falling apart on the inside. We become worn and weary with trying to plan it all, control it all, figure it all out, and hold it all together.
Martha reached that point. But she had a solution: Tell my sister to come help me.
Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet instead of serving with the woman, where tradition would have her. But Jesus didn’t mind this break of tradition. He tells Martha that Mary has discovered the one thing needed, the one thing worth being concerned about. That one thing is being in Jesus’ presence.
Martha’s hospitality wasn’t a bad thing. Carrying out our responsibilities isn’t a bad thing. Completing the tasks given us isn’t a bad thing. Striving to do a job well done isn’t a bad thing.
But Martha had become more concerned about performing and perfection than about being present with Jesus. And don’t we all get caught up in the performance trap at times? Don’t we all begin to place our worth and identity in our successes and achievements? We work hard and diligently for Jesus, hoping to earn that good-girl status, while forgetting to just be in Jesus’ presence.
The work we do in service to Jesus was never meant to distract us from Jesus. It was never meant to be a worrisome, cumbersome burden. It was never meant to be a show of performing and appearing perfect before God and people. It was never meant to earn us our worth and identity, which are only found in Jesus.
Some versions of Luke 10:40 have Martha asking Jesus, “Lord, don’t You care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?”
Don’t You see me and the work I am doing? Don’t You notice me? Don’t You value me?
That’s really what Martha wants. To be seen and to be valued. To know she has worth in somebody’s eyes.
Deep down, we ask the same question as Martha as we scramble to succeed. Lord, don’t You care? Don't You see me? Don’t You notice me? Don’t You value me?
Because deep down, our scramble to succeed is a search for significance. To know we have worth in somebody’s eyes.
Jesus tells Martha that yes, He does see her. He sees how worried and upset she has become. He sees how distracted her heart and mind have become. And He tells her that she needn’t be so concerned with pulling off the perfect dinner party. My dear Martha, only one thing is needed.
Success isn’t needed. Achievements aren’t needed. Things don’t need to be perfect. We don’t need to earn approval or acceptance or worth or love, because Jesus has already given us these. We don’t need to plan it all, control it all, figure it all out, or hold it all together.
We just need Jesus.
I long to be content. That deep sense of joy and peace, void of anxiety and insecurity. To be satisfied with my life and with myself, rather than feeling like something is always missing and I am always less-than.
I think we all long for contentment. A place of satisfaction rather than a state of chasing, striving, searching for more to make us feel happy and secure.
So often that chasing, striving, and searching ends in vain. Maybe there is some sense of happiness and peace for a little while, but the temporary always fades. We’re left once again falling short and wanting more.
But what if we could be satisfied? What if, even as the hard stuff of life presses in, and the messy, broken pieces of ourselves cause a bit of aching, there could still be joy and peace, and a promise that hope will be realized and love will be forever? What if we could stop the chasing, striving, and searching for more, and instead lean on, rest in, and seek more of Jesus?
Because more of Jesus - knowing Him more and growing to be more like Him - is the only more worth having. Even in seeking more of Jesus, there is satisfaction in Jesus, for He always satisfies the heart that longs for Him. With Jesus, we can both desire more, and have enough at the same time.
We can learn a lot about finding satisfaction in Jesus from a Samaritan woman. We meet this woman in John 4:
Jesus had several legitimate reasons to not talk to this woman. First, she was a woman, and in Jewish culture, a man would not converse with a woman in public. Second, she was a Samaritan woman, and Jews did not associate with Samaritans. She was a Samaritan woman living in sin, for she lived with a man she was not married to. Strike three.
Yet Jesus did choose to speak with her. He looked past appearances and saw a heart longing for love and worth, and looking for it in all the wrong places. This woman was trying to satisfy her heart’s desire to be loved and valued, but instead was ashamed and alone.
Noon was an odd time to be drawing water. It was the hottest part of the day and right in the middle of the day. Rather than fetching water in the cool morning for her daily chores, the woman comes to the well at a time when it was unlikely anyone else would be there. She avoided facing others because of her shame.
With a simple request, “Please give Me a drink,” Jesus begins a life-changing conversation with this woman:
Jesus offers the woman the satisfaction she has been looking for. He speaks of living water; of full, abundant, fresh life flooding her lungs and flowing through her veins. It is water that quenches all thirst. It is life that satisfies all longings.
The woman replies with a big “YES!” She wants this water and the life of satisfaction it promises to bring. I don’t want to keep coming back here to get water. I don’t want to keep chasing, striving, and searching for love and worth only to come up empty-handed and empty-hearted. I don’t want the temporary fix, I want the eternal satisfaction.
When the woman asks for this living water, Jesus calls her to confess her sin; to recognize and acknowledge her need for Him, repenting of her sin.
Does this woman’s life seem familiar? I certainly know I can relate to her, with a heart full of longings and the pull to seek out my satisfaction in other people, in the mirror, in controlling my circumstances, in arriving at the next exciting event on my calendar. And when I let the pull drag me down its path, I find myself living in ways that don’t line up with Jesus’ character and will. I find myself giving into fear and worry, rather than trusting Christ. I find myself acting selfishly, rather than lovingly. I find myself trying to earn God’s approval, rather than entering into His presence.
The woman spoke of a longing for the Messiah, the One who would fulfill and complete and make right. Jesus declares He is the answer to that longing. She need not chase and search and strive any longer.
We see the woman leave her water jar behind. That which was used to draw out the unsatisfying, the unfulfilling, the un-thirst-quenching was forsaken for the sake of knowing Jesus. And in choosing Jesus, the woman went from being shamed by her sin, to sharing her Savior.
Jesus offers each of us living water. He calls us to drink deep. To seek Him. To choose Him. Jesus is the eternal satisfaction we long for. He is the only one who can fill our hearts and fulfill our longings and needs.