I recently listened to a podcast from the Gospel Coalition on contentment and singleness. (I can't find the link, but will update if I can find it!)
While I was listening to it I was struck by the common thread between Christians who desire a relationship (in whatever form) and any desire a Christian might have that is particularly valued by our culture. It also struck a personal chord with my own desire for children.
And I realised that it’s a struggle with contentment. Contentment is a funny word. I always associate it with self help books, mostly aimed at women with bright pink flowers on the cover and close to illegible curly script on the cover. Despite this, I think that the idea of being content with what God gives us in our life on earth is an important one. But I think that contentment in our life situations actually comes from something more than just acceptance.
In the podcast, Jennifer Marshall made some really great points (specifically about singleness) that got me thinking about how contentment in any life stage can be a struggle, but is important, especially as a Christian.
These are the two points that stood out to me and some of my reflections;
Our culture is obsessed with manmade milestone which we desire. Things like dating, marriage, children, owning a house, having a great job etc.
We celebrate them and make a big deal of them, they are tangible.
This means that they are more in our face, and in our minds. They are in the media, books, TV, friendships, workplaces, school, uni, everywhere.
Spiritual ‘milestones’ are less tangible and can be harder to identify and celebrate. This makes putting our spiritual desire of being conformed to look more like Christ much harder because it can be harder to see progress. They aren’t all around us in a touchable, experience-able way like the manmade milestones are.
As a result, we can neglect working towards spiritual growth because we are so focused on either working to obtain the manmade milestones, or on the fact that we don’t have/may never have those things we desire.
(Update - I want to clarify, after a few conversations I have had with people since posting this. I am not saying (and I don't think Jennifer Marshall was saying) that desires for marriage and children etc are purely 'manmade', nor am I saying that these things aren't good gifts from God. They are all good things which ought to be celebrated for sure! The language of 'manmade milestones' rather, is to show the overemphasis which our culture places on these things in making them 'must have' experiences to be a whole person. So it is more that there is a 'manmade emphasis' than the desires themselves being manmade.)
These are some of the suggestions which Jennifer Marshall gives in seeking spiritual growth rather than other desires;
- Take time to review and thank God for the things He is doing in your life and in you to make you more like Christ. This helps to make spiritual growth more tangible and encouraging.
- Meditate on the Word when you’re having a tough time with it.
- Build community with the church.
- Caring for one another in church family life across life stages.
- Know people well enough to ask the hard questions of how they are going and vice versa.
- Celebrate with other people for their milestones.
All of these suggestions are really important, and I have found them helpful in times when I am putting my worldly desires over my desire for God. But this last one can be really challenging. I have a single friend who knew 40 friends who either got married or engaged last year. They and another single friend were so over being invited to other people’s weddings that instead of just saying they couldn’t go to one particular wedding, they drove to the other side of the state to ‘escape it’ so they could have a legitimate reason not to go.1 I could give so many more examples of letting other people's lives get the better of us. I have also been that person who has let myself be affected by bitterness to the point that I couldn't celebrate the happy news of others.
I really appreciated this podcast because I feel that these are things which are relevant to any struggle with contentment around anything, whether it is unemployment, singleness (whether you’re heterosexual, or same sex attracted), marriage, children, anything. It's not so much a question of trying to be happy with what we have, but seeking something better.
As Christians we should first seek to know and love God more and to grow by the Spirit to be more like Christ (Matthew 6:25-34). But for some of us this may mean that we may never see some of those desires fulfilled. And this might cause us to suffer for the sake of becoming more like Jesus.
This is a quote from ‘The Plausibility Problem: the church and same-sex attraction’ by Ed Shaw which has been an incredibly powerful book in teaching me what it is to give up worldly desires for the sake of the Kingdom. This comes after he quotes 2 Corinthians 4:7-12;
‘I’ve yet to find a part of the Bible that better describes my life experience, but which also articulates so well why it’s worth it: that God’s power might be seen in my perseverance in the midst of my sufferings, for the benefit of others, and for his glory. That’s the sort of life Jesus lived for me; that’s the life I want to live for him. And that is, as Jesus made clear in Mark 8, the authentic Christian life, the life all those who follow him are to embrace: suffering for the good purpose of becoming more and more like him, and so pointing more and more people to him.’
Giving these things up, or at least, giving the obsessing and desiring of these things, will still be hard. People will still do or say things, or ask questions, which are insensitive or hurtful. Last year I put on a bit of weight and people kept asking me if, or even assuming that, I was pregnant. They didn’t know that those comments stung because I wanted to be pregnant more than anything.
For other people this could look like being around friends who are dating someone and are mushy and physically affectionate in public all the time, or like my friend, just the shear volume of other people celebrating milestones can become overwhelming. It might be having been looking for work for months, maybe years, and for people to say ‘oh you just have to do this, this and this’… There are all sorts of ways we can be hurt by things which are normal parts of life, but sting if we are sensitive to them.
It can especially be hard if you don’t feel ‘called’ to whatever situation you find yourself in. Not feeling ‘called’ to be single, or childless, or to be in your particular occupation. It can be so painful to feel so strongly that you are meant to have something, or be someone you aren’t at the moment. Our culture tells us that we should embrace everything we desire. But we know that this is not always the best option, and sometimes not even a possible option.
For me, even though it is difficult sometimes, I still really desire having children, but I know that I want my ultimate desire to be like Christ and that it is better and more valuable than my desire for children. And I also know that if I feel like I am missing anything in this life, it is only a shadow of what will come in the new creation.
Because of this I can enjoy my life stage right now, (even though there will be rough patches) and serve God to the best of my abilities and keep seeking to grow in Christ-likeness until either God blesses me with children, or Jesus returns, or I die and go to be with God. And that’s okay. It’s more than okay. It’s good.
And this is a truth I need to keep reminding myself of, especially when these desires come to the surface and cause me pain. Giving up my desires in this life is worth it for the sake of the Kingdom, and I know that God works for my ultimate, eternal good, even if that doesn’t seem good to me right now.
And I hope that perhaps this can be something that will be helpful for anyone reading to remind themselves of too.
'I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.'
I have their permission to share this story! ↩