Contentment: Is Contentment As Elusive As It Seems
I warily stepped down from the train onto the stark platform in Belgrade. Scanning the sea of faces, I was glad to see two smiling ones I recognized. I’d come from Budapest to encourage our workers in Yugoslavia. As we scooted my bags out to the car, Liz and Penny eagerly went over all the planned activities during my short time with them. “Tonight we’re having a meeting with all the women – the students in our movement and the staff. We’d like you to share your convictions on singleness,” they said. I gulped. The timing was interesting. During the eight-hour train ride, I’d been struggling with that very topic. I’d realized long before that dealing with being single was not a once-for-all thing. There were seasons when I felt very content with my life; other times my neediness was acute.
At age fourteen, when I became a Christian, I gave Jesus my whole life and future. I was sincere. I said, “I’ll trust you no matter what. Even if You make me be a global worker in Africa or an old maid.” But, of course, I never thought He’d really do it! (I wasn’t in Africa, but I’m sure God was smiling.) And then at age 21, when I obediently broke up with a non-Christian boyfriend, I thought, “Surely God has someone better for me.” Then when I graduated from college and joined Campus Crusade staff, I said “Whatever you want, Lord”, but secretly I was convinced I’d get married. The guys liked me and I was cute. Again I yielded my singleness to Him when I turned 25. I just expected Him to give it back to me – not to keep it! I was glad to have fun now before I’d have to settle down and never have it again. Age 30, another milestone and another surrender. I thought I’ll probably get married, and how great it is that I got to have a career first so I won’t feel I missed out on that when my time comes. Age 35, there’s a good chance God still has someone for me. Age 38, there’s a chance. I stopped saying “when” I get married and started using the word “if”. (I should’ve used that word all along.) And then I turned 40. I still wanted a husband someday, but I had to start thinking of it as a slim possibility, and grieve the fact that I’d probably never have children. At each milestone, I meant it when I told God I trusted Him. I just couldn’t predict how I’d feel in the future.
That day on the train, my mind was flooded with memories of my very first trip to Yugoslavia. It was exactly ten years before. I was living in Berkeley, California and went on a pioneering cross-cultural trip for the summer with ten of my very favorite people. We were all single then, all ministering to college students around the Bay Area. I pleasantly recalled that summer that set the course of my life, and thought of each of those friends and what they’re doing now. I realized that nine of them were now married. Guess who was the only one who wasn’t? “What’s wrong with me? Am I unable to love? Do I have too many walls up? Am I not loveable? Not desirable? Too ugly? Too intimidating? Not submissive enough? Was my boss right when he said I’ll never get a husband until I learn to cook? Do I repel men?” Each thought was like a sharp arrow piercing my heart.
God gently reminded me of what was true that day. And that’s what I shared when I spoke to the Serbian students. He brought His Word to my raw heart, soothing each jab. His Word is truer than how I felt on that train, truer than the messages from society, the condescension from Christian married couples. He reminded me of Colossians 2:10. “In Him, You have been made complete.” Period. He didn’t say in Christ plus a spouse. I’m complete now, I reasoned. Just as I am. He reminded me of His promise to provide all I need (Phil 4:19). Since I wasn’t married, I didn’t need to be. It’s that simple. And then Matthew 6:8. He knows what I need before I ask. Psalm 84:11. He’ll never withhold any good thing from me if I walk uprightly. I guess that up until that point in my life, a husband wouldn’t have been the best thing for me. My mind was racing now. When I ask God for a husband, He won’t give me a snake instead. He gives good gifts. (Matt 7:9-11). Singleness was a good gift for me. It wasn’t punishment. It wasn’t because there was something wrong with me! His will for me is good, acceptable, and perfect (Rom 12:2), for my future and hope and welfare (Jer. 29:11). He tells me He’s my Good Shepherd and He takes good care of me. I won’t ever want for anything. (Ps 23:1).
Contentment does not come naturally, not to me anyway. I was not born with an innate sense of fulfillment and ability to accept whatever life throws my way. The apostle Paul says that contentment must be learned. He then goes on to say, in Phil 4:11-13, that it’s a secret to be content in any situation. Hmmmm. The theme of Paul’s letter to the Philippians is joy, I mused. If I learn the secret of being satisfied, I will probably learn the secret of the joyful Christian life. I eagerly read on. Paul said that God is the One who strengthens me to do all things. I can experience joy and learn contentment when I draw on His strength. Contentment is really an issue of trust, I further pondered. Paul had learned to trust God, to have faith. A dear friend of mine defines faith as simply taking God at His Word. It’s trusting God’s character, His faithfulness. Trusting that His plan for me is good and that He is able to carry out this good plan in my life. Discontentment, then, really means disbelief, a lack of faith.
Contentment is not just something elusive for singles. Everyone struggles with it. We all need to accept whatever we wish we have but don’t, or whatever we don’t want but we’re stuck with anyway. God may provide a husband, but then you want a more attentive husband, you long for children. If He gives you children, you may want better-behaved ones, more grateful ones. We want bigger flats, better teams. We tend to think the grass is greener on the other side. But it never is. Every life, every season, every situation has problems of its own. It’s never ideal. Erma Bombeck said the grass is only greener over the septic tank! I asked the single Serbian women that night if they were lonely. I told them that the loneliest women I knew were wives. They were incredulous. In my shepherding role, traveling around Eastern Europe and meeting with staff women in many countries, the wives finally convinced me that they were lonelier than me. Their husbands could not possibly meet all their needs (nor should they), they weren’t as free to hang with their girlfriends (that is, if they even had any where they now lived), they were isolated with kids at home, they were less involved in ministry and often felt useless. When we look longingly toward the other side, we miss the lush green grass at our own feet. The Shepherd says, “Look to Me. Don’t let your desire for what you don’t have rob you of joy for what I’ve given you.”
So then how do we reconcile Psalm 37:4? “Delight yourself in the Lord and He will give you the desires of your heart.” It had been a desire of my heart for 20 years to have a husband, but God hadn’t given me one. Not yet anyway. I asked the Serbian women if they desired a spouse. Do you? All that means is that you’re alive. You’re a normal human being with God-given emotions. It doesn’t prove that it’s God’s plan for you. We need to pour out the desires of our hearts to the Lover of our Soul. He knows it all anyway. No use pretending or stuffing or gritting your teeth and bearing it. Tell Him how you feel. Be honest. Invite Him to enter into your pain and bring His healing balm. Use your loneliness to draw closer to Him. Let Him fulfill your longings. That’s intimacy; that’s delighting in Him. Realize that the real, deep-down desires and longings of our soul are for one thing – God and God alone. And that He gives us freely! He more than meets what our souls long and yearn and thirst and pant for. He will never leave us or forsake us.
The Christian sub-culture gives so many disheartening messages to singles. Unmarried believers need to bathe their minds and hearts with the truth to withstand the constant “Why aren’t you married yet?” bombardment. If you’re reading this and you’re married, I hope this will aid your desire to be more sensitive to your single sisters.
Truth: You’re not second-rate because you’re single, and you’re not alone. Forty percent of the adult U.S. population is single. (Not so oddly, a much smaller percentage of church members are single.) There are many godly examples of single lives. In the Bible, there’s Jesus, Paul, Jeremiah, the three siblings Jesus loved (Mary, Martha and Lazarus). There are global workers, like Amy Carmichael and Corrie Ten Boom.
Truth: We are not “rewarded” with marriage. I was single for 44 years and I’ve just been married for two years now. I wasn’t a loser for all those years and now I’ve finally made it to a higher plane. God didn’t bring my dear friend, Steve, back into my life at a time when I was on a spiritual mountaintop. Our whirlwind courtship began two months after I moved back to the States, in shock after a decade in Eastern Europe. I was spiritually numb. There have been so many other times in my life when I felt closer to God. I didn’t do one thing to earn the gift of Steve. I’m still the same person I was. My life had meaning and purpose before marriage; it has meaning and purpose now.
When I was single, I heard the full gamut of advice. Women would say God gave them a husband once they finally understood some deeper truth about Him. Or when they prayed more (maybe even fasted) for a spouse. I love this one – some said it was because they stopped praying and stopped wanting to be married. (Either we’re not praying enough or we’re praying too much!) They’d say it was when they got a new haircut, learned to cook, lost weight, got contact lenses. Husbands would tell me they married their wives because they were so beautiful. (In the next breath, they’d claim they were only seeking the more important internal qualities. Hah!) There are no magic formulas. It’s all delusion!
Truth: God has handpicked His gift for each of His children because of His great love for us. He’s the one who decides what we need. Some people are more easily conformed to Christ’s image through the struggles, heartache, and responsibility of marriage and family. Some through trusting God for what they don’t have and learning to live with unfulfilled desires. All God’s gifts come out of His character of grace. His gifts are not a reward for our efforts. We can never merit God’s grace and His gifts. I’ll tell you a secret: sometimes even ugly people get married, and women who hate to cook, and spiritually immature people. And sometimes beautiful and godly people are called to be single. People like you.
Truth: Marriage is not the goal of the Christian life. Jesus is! There is much more to life than marriage. I can say that because I happen to be married to one of the most wonderful men God ever created. But he’s not my whole life. He’s second to Jesus. When Jim Elliot was single, he described the Sleeping Principle. Like Adam, we need to let God be the One to see our needs and provide for us (if He chooses) as we sleep peacefully, resting in our trust in Him. When Adam awoke, there was God’s provision waiting for him. There was no need to go hunting. We don’t need to “help” God out by being in the right place at the right time. We can be free to just be friends with guys instead of evaluating each one we know as a potential spouse.
Contentment is not just passive resignation. It’s active. It has a lot to do with remembering and being thankful. Recounting, over and over again, God’s faithfulness to us in the past, thanking Him for the specific instances, and then, by faith, thanking Him for whatever He has in store for us in the future. Re-affirm to Him, “Father, I believe You love me. I trust You know what I need. I’m confident that You’re in control, and You will provide all my needs.” Thank Him for the present gift He has for you. And don’t just half-heartedly mumble “thanks”; instead, make the most of it, live life to the fullest. Enjoy Him! See the blessing of these years of greater freedom, fewer distractions, and fewer responsibilities. Really get to know the Lord. Serve Him with abandon. Amy Carmichael wrote, ”May my home on earth be empty, Lord, that Thy home in heaven be made more full.” You may be single now because God wants you to raise a whole brood of spiritual children who will look just like their Father.
Don’t wait to start living. Don’t push the “pause” button until you get married and can finally hit “play”. Live now. When you feel lonely, don’t sit at home and feel sorry for yourself. Initiate with people! Enjoy friendships. Make your home a haven and a refuge now. Concentrate on being the person God wants you to be. Don’t ever settle for someone who you’re not sure loves you as Christ loves the church, someone you’re not sure you respect. It’s not worth it.
If His plan for you includes marriage some day, you can trust Him to bring you both together, in His way and in His time. He can do it. No matter where in the world you are. And if that’s not His plan for you, His plan is still good. Corrie Ten Boom’s father once wisely responded to her longing for a husband by tenderly saying, “Ask God to open up another route for that love to travel.”
Taryn served 21 years with Campus Crusade for Christ, 10 of those years in Eastern Europe. She recently married (at the age of 44) and now lives with her husband in Marin County, California.