Do you know that moment in the evening-time, when you finally sit down to rest—maybe on the deck– after picking up sticks and pulling weeds and mowing the grass and fixing supper and cleaning up the dishes? It’s that moment when everything’s done that’s going to get done today. A time when you can relax and breathe, and just let yourself enjoy—maybe for the first time in a while–how beautiful the sunlight is spreading across the yard, how good the breeze feels, or how nice it is to just have a few free moments of peace.
That’s contentment, right? Fullness. Ease. A sense of having done what we set out to do, or maybe simply having done our best to do what we set out to do, even if we didn’t get it all finished. No more pushing. No more striving for today. After some rest and a good night’s sleep, most of us will probably pick our busyness right back up again in the morning. We’ll begin with our coffee in one hand and our to-do list in the other. So many things to do, buy, see, and plan.
Most of our lives cycle between busyness and rest, and there’s a rhyme and reason to that pattern. We tend to feel engaged and productive, maybe even happy when we’ve got enough—but not too much—to do. Too much, as we all know, causes stress. We can feel overwhelmed. Buried in our obligations. But not having enough to do, by contrast, may bring a feeling of emptiness, of boredom, maybe making us feel we’ve lost our purpose in life.
Everybody seems to be on a quest to find the golden mean of happiness. We expect happiness of ourselves, from our lives, and we look at each other’s lives to see if they’re happier than we are. That’s why Facebook is so popular. Who is happy, what are they doing, and what can we do to look just as happy as they do? A quick search on Amazon will show you that there are more than 200,000 titles on happiness alone! You’d think that someone would have found the secret by now, wouldn’t you? Of course, all the 199,999 other authors probably wouldn’t be happy about that.
But here’s the thing. Nobody “out there” can solve the problem of our happiness. It’s in here. It’s an inside job. The key to our abiding well-being, which I think of as contentment as opposed to a state of happiness, which seems more fleeting somehow, the key is completely wrapped up in our one-of-a-kind relationship with God. Our beloved divine source has the key that fits in that delicate, little soul-shaped lock on our hearts. And no matter how many things, tasks, and triumphs we pile up, trying to earn a sense of contentment, God isn’t going to give up that tender and sacred gift for something that’s temporary and material. God will bring contentment to our hearts when we turn in spirit’s direction and listen with a receptive heart.
The Psalmist writes, “You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Richard Foster, in his commentary on this verse, adds: “This verse distills the reasons the psalmist relies on and is loyal to God. It’s no burden.” I love that–the psalmist relies on and is loyal to God. This isn’t about a brief happy afternoon where we found just the pair of shoes we were looking for. That’s a momentary happiness. The psalmist’s contentment—his fullness of joy—comes from his reliance on and his loyalty to God.
In the scripture Sherry read from Philippians, Paul is thanking the folks of the early church for their care and support of his ministry, but he’s quick to add, “I’m not saying I need anything from you, because I’ve learned to be content in all things. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In all circumstances, I’ve learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” Both sides.
The next line of his letter says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
We might be struggling with the stress of having too much to do, worrying about the future, feeling concerned about our health, or racked with upset for family members. Or we might be going through a time of fun and fullness, where everything seems to be going right and contentment is within our grasp. Either way, Christ is the one walking beside us, teaching us to find balance in the emotional highs and lows, helping us to feel God’s nearness, God’s provision, God’s protection in all that we do. That’s contentment, and it arises from reliance on and loyalty to God.
Sometimes we feel far away from contentment because the needs in our lives are getting in the way. Abraham Maslow was an American psychologist who developed what’s now called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. He studied some of the leaders of his day—Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frederick Douglass—to try to figure out what motivated people through the course of their lives, especially people who lived up to their great potential. He identified a number of important needs that had to be met as people grew and developed. He diagrammed his hierarchy as a triangle, with the biggest, most basic needs at the bottom, and each level above the last, a higher level need.
His idea was that our ability to live up to our potential is shaped—and sometimes limited–by our quest to fulfill our basic needs:
- First, our physical needs, the basic things we need to live—air, water, food, sleep, clothing, and shelter. If we are missing, or worried about, or struggling to find any of these basic necessities, that need will consume our thinking and contentment will be a far-off dream. Note that there are many people in the world today who right now are struggling for these basics. How far they must feel from contentment. It reminds me of the way Mother Teresa gave the poor people of Calcutta food, water, and medicine before she began to share the gospel stories.
- The next level in Maslow’s hierarchy is about safety. We need to feel personally safe, financially secure. We need to feel healthy and have a sense of well-being. Again, in all cultures around the globe, people struggle with physical and financial safety. So many feel unsafe, unwell, and vulnerable, fearing the future.
- The next need is social belonging. Throughout our lives we develop friendships, intimate relationships, families. We need connection in order to feel good. Remember that Barbara Streisand song, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world”? This is why. Connection is a basic human need.
- Once our physical, safety, and social needs are met, we want to feel okay with ourselves and what we bring to the world. We need to feel that we’re respected, we’re accepted, and we have value. Again, so many people—you can probably think of half a dozen people—are struggling with this one basic need. It’s the root cause of many of the battles we have in our families, in our workplaces, perhaps even in our politics. We want respect. We want to be accepted. We want to feel valued. All healthy human beings need that.
I wish there we could say to every person struggling alone in the world today: “There is help for you. Yes, our governments should care. Yes, our systems should be more just. But there is one, with you right this very moment, who cares that your life is hard and wants to help you find peace.” We can pray for all who are despairing today that they will feel the loving arm of God around their shoulders and—maybe for the first time—be open to God’s help.
- The final need in the hierarchy, Maslow says, can be met only after all the preceding needs have been addressed. This one he calls self-actualization, which is a big term that means something like, “being all you can be.” It’s a sense of having done what we came to do. The claiming or the fulfillment of a purpose. Arriving at the gate.
That’s contentment. That’s self-knowledge. That’s a doorway in to truth and light and compassion.
Each of the needs in Maslow’s hierarchy explains something interesting about human development, identifying the pieces of a puzzle we’re all working on. It reminds us that our hearts open gradually as we change and grow. It takes time. And deepening and maturing. The good news is that we’re not doing it alone—God designed our growth this way, the same way God placed the image of the oak tree in the acorn and the sunflower in the seed. Through all the stages of our life, God is there, in every point, leading us toward the resources, safety, connection, acceptance, and purpose we seek.
Paul tells us he had learned in all circumstances to be content. There were times when his basic needs weren’t met—times he went hungry and times he was full. The secret, he said, was in turning toward the One who traveled with him, the light of Christ that was teaching him the secret of contentment, circumstance by circumstance. In the Light, the need dissolved, and peace and enoughness remained.
I love what St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions, back in the year 397. He said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” There is a similar line in the Qur’an that says, “Truly, it is in the remembrance of Allah (God) that hearts can find contentment.”
There’s a little story I love from Meister Eckhart that fits here. Our minds and lives can be consumed by so many things that seem important. But all along, God is there, pouring love and blessings our way. Any moment now we’ll see it, and we’ll know that contentment is nothing more or less than the soul in love with God.
Eckhart writes, “All day long a little burro labors, sometimes with heavy loads on her back and sometimes just with worries about things that bother only burros. And worries, as we know, can be more exhausting than physical labor.
Once in a while a kind monk comes to her stable and brings a pear, but more than that, he looks into the burro’s eyes and touches her ears and for a few seconds the burro is free and even seems to laugh, because love does that. Love frees.”
Perhaps we too can remember, when contentment seems far off and our heads are full of worries, that the One who loves us so tenderly is right here, looking into our little burro eyes and scratching our burro ears. When we can take a breath and open our hearts in prayer, love will free us from our burdens, and we’ll find our contentment, already present because God is near.
- OT: Psalm 16: 11
- NT: Philippians 4: 11-12
- Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: