Sunday, September 08, 2013

The chestnut of contentment

I have to confess, that there was a time when I bristled quietly on the inside at the mention of the word “contentment” (which perhaps says more about me than anything else), because it just seemed that you couldn’t talk about singleness for thirty seconds before it came up. So I gave up talking about singleness, because I felt like I knew the contentment answer. But, maybe I didn’t quite know the contentment answer.

I feel a pang of guilt over this, because you know how I said I was given a Kindle? Well it had about thirty of my friend’s books on it. And even when I deregistered her account and registered my own, they stayed there. But, this friend and I lend each other books often, so I am considering some of these on loan till I read them. One of them is The Gospel Centred Woman by Wendy Alsup. (I know there are differences in interpretation of Genesis 3:16, but all that aside, there are riches here.)

In this book Wendy writes a chapter on Godliness with Contenment and starts by unpacking 1 Timothy 6:6-8 where it says “But godliness with contentment is great gain”. I’ll see if I can paste in enough here to show the argument of what she goes on to say:
Now, consider the word contentment. The Greek word is autarkeia. It means a condition of life in which no further aid or support is needed or in which you have sufficient supplies for the needs of the moment. It is used one other place in the New Testament. There, it is translated sufficiency.

2 Corinthians 9:8 And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.

Sufficiency means you have what you need. You have adequate provision and adequate supplies. In a world of people and situations that consistently miss the mark of God’s perfection and all He intended us to be as His image bearers in Eden, you and I have adequate, sufficient supplies for this season For this struggle. We have something that bridges the gap between those things for which our piety and devotion [she has shown ealier that “godliness” most closely means piety and devotion] to God calls us to long and the reality of our experience at this very moment. We have a bridge between our godly longing and our fallen reality that sufficiently equips us to deal with each struggle.

It is the gospel.
But stay with it here, because, scandalous as it may sound, I have added a little something to my standard summary of the gospel.
... Over the years, I have come to understand that the good news of Christ is not just that, through Jesus, my debt to God is canceled. God did more than just bring my account up to zero. He also has lavished positively His grace on me, crediting to my account Christ’s righteousness.

2 Corinthians 5:21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

It is the Great Exchange. I had an infinite debt to God. I was by nature deserving of His wrath, dead in my sins and unable to save myself. I have benefitted greatly from Christ’s death, the penal substitution. But, oh, the benefits to me from His life, called imputed righteousness in theological circles. Christ’s righteousness is in my spiritual bank account now, and that is every bit as precious as the payment for my sin.

If by contentment I mean passive acceptance, then no, I am not supposed to passively accept this [all the horrible, or less than ideal, things we see happening in this world], nor am I supposed to encourage my friends to passively accept such things. This is not the fullness of God’s kingdom come! These things are not OK. But if by contentment I mean that I have faith that God has adequately supplied me and them through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection; that He has sufficiently equipped us by lavishing on us a spiritual bank account with great equity to face these struggles head on; that the same power that rose Christ from the dead is now the power supernaturally at work in us, equipping us to deal with these struggles and empowering us as we wait for the fullness of Jesus’s kingdom—if that is contentment, I understand why devotion to God coupled with that confidence is great gain.

Godliness with contentment doesn't mean pulling yourself up by your bootstraps ... The gospel does not obligate you to contentment. It equips you for contentment ... 
It’s a subtle, but also rather seismic, shift in what I understand contentment to mean or require. It doesn’t mean I, or my suffering friends, am supposed to muster up a warm glow about all my circumstances, but it does mean that I am to live knowing that I am equipped, through Christ, to deal with them, and more, to do good in them.

(Incidentally, I don’t know what the Greek word translated as contentment is in Philippians 4:11. Perhaps a Greek nerd can help. But this understanding of the idea of contentment as sufficiency seems to fit with what Paul goes on to say there that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”.

There is also a great little chapter in this book on Equipped to Forgive and be Forgiven if that is something you struggle with.)


Pia said...

I'm not a Greek nerd, but do you know this - admittedly also somewhat nerdy - website:

Clicking on 842[e] shows:
Cognate: 842 autárkēs (the adjectival form of 841 /autárkeia, "contentment") – properly, self-sufficient, content in the sense of being satisfied because living in God's content (fulness). This inward sufficiency is as valid in "low times" (suffering) as in "high times" (temporal prosperity). See 841 (autarkeia).

Ali said...

Ah Pia, thank you, thank you. I love that! I just went down a rabbit hole on that website and it is now bookmarked! This is an interesting spin on how we usually understand contentment, "living in God's content". I like that.

Jean said...

This reminds me of something my husband once said to me about God giving us strength. I asked, "If God gives us strength, why do I feel so tired?". He said, "God gives us strength to keep doing good even when we are tired." In other words, God is on about patient endurance (which brings him glory), and about equipping us for that, rather than about escape. It transformed the way I think about it - just as your post did for contentment. Thank you!

Ali said...

You’re welcome Jean (and all credit to Wendy)! I appreciate your husband’s counsel here too.

It’s rather strange isn’t it, how we can go along for years and then have these little personal epiphanies about what things actually mean. It’s encouraged me to probe harder more often.

Catherine said...

Such a helpful post, Ali. I think your epiphany of that shift in emphasis is very helpful indeed! Thanks for that excellent post, Ali.

Ali said...

You're welcome also Cath! I'm pleased it was helpful to others beyond myself.