A couple of weeks ago Dr. Lisa McMinn, a former Wheaton sociology professor, spoke in chapel about contentment. She was one of the most popular profs on campus (and one of my favorites), and her message was on the whole pretty good, with one major flaw.
Contentment, she said, is being present in the moment, even when your plans are waylaid. Being at peace regardless of your present circumstances. Being aware of the world around you and being present in it, even when you are in pain. So far, so good. Except the basis of Christian contentment is that God is in control and will eventually work everything out in our favor. God will one day fulfill everything that we (or Christians, at least) long for, even if it doesn’t happen within our lifetime, so because God is constantly at work, we can/should be content in the moment. Because the future has already been decided, and there’s nothing to worry about in the long run, we should realize that present struggles are part of the process of redemption, and be fully present in them.
So I ask: what kind of contentment is that? This is the same kind of reasoning that Christians use when they talk about accepting death, which I wrote about in a previous post. Just as truly accepting death means accepting that it really is the end instead of glossing over it with heaven, true contentment is being present and accepting that things don’t always work out. Some desires and injustices will never be fulfilled, now or in the future, and we have no idea which things will or won’t turn out for good. Contentment is accepting that and being present in the moment when you have no ultimate insurance policy, and you know that some bad situations will just end up being bad. In the face of suffering or injustice, you do all you can to change it, and then you accept what you can’t change. You live with the sucky aspects of being human because that’s what we are, and in some cases neither we, nor our future descendants, nor our future resurrected spirits will get what we long for.
I’m not a pessimist by any measure; I believe quite recklessly in hope. But I also believe in facing reality. Now, believing in an ultimate redemption of all things may be quite harmless. It might help you through a tough situation, give some psychological buoyancy, to believe that every disappointment and wrong in the universe will be righted. In the long run, you’ll probably be no worse off. The main problem with the Christian approach to contentment isn’t that I think it’s based on completely false premises. The problem is that it’s not contentment at all. The challenge of contentment is being content and present when there is nothing to be content about, and the future is a big unknown. If you have a guarantee that everything will work out in the end and that by the time eternity starts, all your longings will be fulfilled, what are you actually accepting? Sure, the pain of suffering and injustice is real even if it’s temporary. But it’s far easier to be content if you have future fulfillment as a prerequisite, just as it’s easier accept death if you don’t believe it’s really the end.
I get annoyed when Christianity presents itself as having the ultimate solution to something like contentment or death. The Christian solution to these challenges is not to just man up and face it, but to say, “we can face it and truly accept the problem because we know that it’s not a real problem, or because we know that God has the solution”. That’s not facing a problem at all.
For those of us who want to face reality, there are problems to face in death and suffering and disappointment. There’s no easy way to live with these things, other than facing them for what they are. Bearing the full brunt of what it means to suffer or die or be wronged. Knowing that some disappointments or longings will never by fulfilled, that death is truly the end, that some things are just bad until the end. If you can be present in the moment while accepting those things, that is true contentment.
 Here’s one thing Lisa McMinn said that I agree with: “At the root of all contentment is the sense that I belong to something bigger than myself.” For Christians that something is rooted in God. For me, that something is the world, the earth, the universe– the “onion” (see this post). The never-ending beauty and complexity of the universe is what I draw from to pursue contentment. It gives no guarantees, and there’s no puppet master working in my favor on a cosmic timescale. But I take joy in natural processes and knowing that I am a product of them, a part of the living universe. What is the source of your contentment?