Ask yourself to name your most contented moments in life and chances are good you’ll think of times when everything clicked. Positive circumstances prevailed. A relationship came together beautifully. Life worked in your favor. You were at peace.
I wonder, however, if the true nature of Christian contentment doesn’t have more to do with our inner life than our outer circumstances. In other words, doesn’t contentment have to do with a basic satisfaction with one’s own life, accepting what God has made one to be? When writing from a prison cell one day, the apostle Paul insisted that personal circumstances had no impact on his contentment meter. “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.” Contentment comes from the inside out, not from circumstances and forces on the outside deciding to calm down.
I thought about all of this recently while in a Boston museum studying photographs of Frederick Douglass. Did you know there are more known photographs of this 19th century orator and abolitionist than there are of Abraham Lincoln? Douglass sat for 160 photo sessions over the course of five decades, mostly because he didn’t want the prevailing racial stereotypes of the day or caricatures of black people to cover his deepest humanity.
Prior to his escape from slavery in 1838, Douglass’ owner, Thomas Auld, sought to prevent him from learning to read. Literacy would make him a restless slave, Auld reasoned. Not only would he become unmanageable and of lesser value to his owner, “[literacy] would make him discontented and unhappy.” Indeed, reading made Douglass fiercely discontented with his enslavement. But as friends of Douglass later noticed, his freedom from a plantation owner’s bondage wasn’t half as important as his discovery of a deep internal sufficiency. When Douglass decided late in life to visit and forgive his former owner who lay dying, his supporters discouraged him. But that encounter turned out to be unforgettably emotional as both men held hands and wept.
True contentment entails some degree of detachment from external forces, fetters of iron in the case of Frederick Douglass; other stresses, maladies, and difficult circumstances for others of us. But, even more important than that detachment from externals is the discovery and attachment to an internal freedom and sufficiency God has planted in us. It doesn’t take magic to discover this liberating internal contentment. It certainly doesn’t require affluence or poverty, according to Paul. It only requires our daily consent: To be who we are and who God made us to be, and who God wants us to be. Searching for and honoring this internal sufficiency – call it divine GRACE embedded in the human heart – might save us time from complaining about our conditions and longing for different circumstances.