Podcast: Can We Really Be Content? (Erik Raymond)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Chasing Contentment?

In this episode, Erik Raymond discusses what it looks like to cultivate a spirit of contentment in a world that often seems dead set on helping us do just the opposite. He explains what is unique about a distinctly Christian approach to contentment, highlights the connection between contentment and gratitude, and offers practical advice for navigating the consumerism of the holiday season that's just around the corner.

Chasing Contentment

Erik Raymond

In this immensely practical and encouraging book, Erik Raymond establishes what contentment is and how to learn it, teaching us to trust in the God who keeps his promises rather than our changing circumstances.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:32 - The Relationship between Contentment and Gratitude

Matt Tully
Erik, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.

Erik Raymond
It's great to be with you.

Matt Tully
We're coming up on Thanksgiving in a few days, and it seems to me that contentment and gratitude are two closely related concepts. How do you define each of those two words, and how do you see them relating to one another?

Erik Raymond
The old definition of contentment is the inward, gracious, quiet spirit that basically shows itself in resting. It's inward; it's not external. It's quiet; it's not grumbling. It's a spirit—it's your being and person. It is able to really endure through various experiences and circumstances. So contentment is the ability to sail through these different seasons without going too high or too low. You're able to sail like the apostle Paul in Philippians 4. Gratitude, I think, is the heartfelt response to a particular circumstance that engenders praise and thankfulness. It realizes that it doesn't come from yourself; it comes externally, whatever this gift would be. I think there's definitely a relationship between the two. If you're living with a sense of personal indebtedness and dependence upon, in our case, God as our Creator and that everything we have is a good gift from him, that really should cause us to be able to be experiencing things in life with contentment because we know that everything good we have has come from God. We should be grateful people, and that should make us be content because we have that perspective. Gratitude will relativize all of our circumstances in light of God's good gifts, and that should make us happy; it should make us content.

Matt Tully
When you were initially defining contentment, it can almost sound a little bit like a stoicism in the face of whatever might come, good or bad. Is that what you're saying? Is there an element of stoicism to it?

Erik Raymond
I think there's a difference between the two. Stoicism is trying to really master yourself by yourself. That's a really reductionist view, but in essence that's what you're doing—I have the power over myself to endure these things. Whereas what we're talking about—Christian contentment—is the result of the Holy Spirit working and living inside of the believer, and it's his grace operating in our lives. When Paul is able to say that he's learned to be content in any circumstance, he's not saying, I'm the master here. I'm on the varsity level of Christianity because I'm able to do all of this stuff. Look at me! Rather, he's attributing his praise to God through Christ—“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”(Phil. 4:13). So I think there's a difference in terms of the source and the constraining power in the life of the Christian. So there's a difference between stoicism in that regard.

04:54 - The Uniqueness of Christian Contentment

Matt Tully
It does seem to me that in our culture today, but even if you look more broadly around the world or in history, the importance and value of contentment is well understood. It's often held up as a virtue even among non-Christians or people of other faiths. Can you elaborate on that a little bit? What is it that makes the Christian view of contentment distinct?

Erik Raymond
If anybody is able to endure really difficult patches in life or maybe even an entire life of difficulty—non-Christian or Christian—it sticks out and it gets your attention because that's not the norm. Normally people are taken high and low based upon their circumstances. For the Christian, I think we're coming at this with the recognition that in ourselves we really don't have anything. The fact of the matter is that any of this virtue that we seem to be demonstrating in our lives is solely attributed to Christ and his power and his working in us. It should be something that's growing in the life of the Christian. It's not like on the day of your conversion you get zapped with contentment and you have these super powers; but rather, it's something that is ongoing. The apostle Paul says that “he's learned” (Phil. 4:11). This is something that is a process in life, and so for Christians—whether it's in full bloom or in the bud form—it should be something that's on display. It should be a mark of grace in the life of the Christian. You might look at a non-Christian and say, Wow, that's remarkable. This person has this affliction or this difficult patch in their life and this person really sticks out. That's remarkable and noteworthy and we should be grateful and honor those. But looking at the Christian, on other hand, we should be able to look at them and say, This seems to be a distinguishing mark of the Christian. The one who is trusting in Jesus seems to have marks of contentment in their lives that seem to be a distinguishing mark, much like love would be for those who follow Christ.

Matt Tully
Do you think it's the case that for some people contentment as a general attitude or norm would come more naturally to them? It seems like for some people it's part of their natural makeup or personality that they are more content and other people maybe struggle more. Do you think that's the case?

Erik Raymond
I think so. People have different struggles and different tendencies. Some people might be more prone to anxiety and worry, and for other people it might be bitterness, and other people are maybe just go-with-the-flow kind of people, and other people feel like they want to try to control circumstances. So I think it can definitely vary with different people.

Matt Tully
What would you say is your experience with contentment and discontentment? Where do you fall on that spectrum?

Erik Raymond
One of the reasons I wrote the book is because I struggle with it. I felt like in reading Hebrews 13 in particular that the Lord was reminding me that he is the source of everything good that we have and he's the one who is faithful. Even if you lose everything else, you have him; and then you're rich even if you have nothing. That's an amazing reality. For me, I struggle on the side of trying to make what I think are good plans, try to execute those good plans, and then they don't go the way I want to. That's really discouraging and can put me into a spiral and a funk and I get bitter and discouraged. Then you realize that's actually a trial that's intended to point you to Christ and to walk in his strength and his power and for his glory rather than your own. Oftentimes discontentment becomes a subtle rebuke of a day to day lack of treasuring Christ.

Matt Tully
I'm struck that discontentment can tie into other struggles or sins that we might often struggle with.

Erik Raymond
I think discontentment becomes some of the rotten fruit of our sin that we begin to see come out. Kind of that restlessness, the grumbling, the anxiety, sharp, biting comments, devouring one another, gossip—all those things. They're revealing that there's real discontentment in the soul that doesn't fundamentally pivot around the circumstances, but actually on God himself who is in control. He's the sovereign one.

10:06 - Contentment in a Consumeristic Culture

Matt Tully
We hear a lot of people these days, including non-Christians, promoting the importance of cultivating gratitude in our lives, whether that's for the sake of our relationships with other people or for the benefit of our own psychological well-being. It is said that cultivating a grateful heart goes a long way in helping you be happy and satisfied. On the one hand it does seem like our culture is all about gratitude and contentment to some extent, yet it also seems like our culture is obsessed with getting more and getting bigger and better things. We're very consumeristic. We're always looking for the next thing to entertain us. What do you make of that seeming contradiction? On the one hand it seems like gratitude and contentment are seen as virtuous and promoted like that in our culture, but then we're also very discontent.

Erik Raymond
I think it's compartmentalized pragmatism. We don't think holistically. The natural default of especially Western American thinking is pragmatism, and we compartmentalize it. On the one hand you can say it's a good thing to be grateful and we should do that—Oh yeah, that sounds good. I should be grateful. Grateful for what? I'll make a list. Grateful to whom? That's really not important. Just be grateful, that's a good thing. There's a Harvard University study that says it's very good to be grateful, so that makes sense. I should try to be more grateful and practice gratitude. There's really no consideration of to whom we are grateful and what that means for our day to day lives. And contentment, that sounds really good. We should be content and have this ability that seems almost like a super power to be able to do that. But what really does that mean when you're getting bombarded with advertisements and constant solicitations to buy more things and to upgrade this and to trade this in and to change your wardrobe and get a new job. The seeds of discontentment are constantly being sown in our face, and I think that's just compartmentalized pragmatism. It works for the people that are putting up the signs; it works for the people that are selling the self-help books; it works for the people that are trying to help you be a better person. It all works, but it's not working if you think about what's behind the whole thing. There's usually some type of selfishness behind it that really doesn't sustain you and it can't bear the freight of what you need.

Matt Tully
You've said that we live in a discontented age. What are some of those specific things that you think are contributing to a uniquely challenging time to live when it comes to contentment?

Erik Raymond
I think discontentment has been a challenge ever since the Garden of Eden. We probably have more opportunities now to fuel our discontentment, obviously, because of technology. You can open up any of the various social media platforms and are reminded, just by opening up someone's profile, what they have and what you don't have. They have a blue check mark, you don't; they have more followers, you don't. And then you start looking at what people are posting and you're seeing people's lives—what they have and how they're spending their time—and suddenly you realize, I don't really have a lot. I really want this, and maybe if I had these shoes or this physique or this vehicle or this job things would be better for me. These are just ways in which we're bombarded, and that's before you even finish your morning cup of coffee. And then you read the news and you're told how to think and you get commercials—You need to do this; you need to act on this; you need to go. And then you get into a situation where you don't think you have enough money and you're at work and you're thinking, I need more money. I need a better job. I need to move here—and now you're looking up houses! It's so easy; you've got it in the palm of your hand with your phone. You're able to just keep going. The phone is not the problem. The heart is the problem. The phone is a tremendous tool, but we just have the opportunity to continue to scroll through these various things that tend to make us more and more discontent. That's just a unique challenge. Somebody a hundred years ago—even forty years ago—doesn't have that access. They might read the newspaper and think of a couple of things in the morning, but then you're off and running with your day. So I think technology definitely helps to put a little accelerant on our discontentment. Anyone who is trying to be mindful of contentment would need to take into consideration their technology intake.

14:57 - The Tension between Contentment and Desire

Matt Tully
You mentioned a couple of things like looking for a new house or a new pair of shoes or a new job—I think that might raise the question in people's minds, Is it ever okay to be discontent? Is there a category of wanting things that you don't have and that being okay? Many of us will have bought a house or many of us would have bought new clothes. How do you distinguish between contentment and a desire for things that you don't already have?

Erik Raymond
I think that's a key question and a key point. From a spiritual growth standpoint, there should be a holy discontentment in the sense that we should constantly want to be more Christlike and to grow and to be more godly. We should never be content in the sense that we're like, Alright, I'm just fine with this level of sin and this is just where I am. We should always want to be striving and pressing on and growing. Contentment is not saying we're not trying to grow or advance or take advantage of opportunities, provide for our family, provide for self, to take on more learning. If you're reading books, you're learning. It's not necessarily because you're discontent; you might just want to learn something, or take up a hobby and get better at it, or move to another area, or take another job. I think where it starts is you have to think, Why am I doing this thing? Am I trying to fill in a hole? Am I trying to provide for some type of identity or functional savior that's going to fulfill a need and make me feel whole or complete? These are the types of things that we have to think through. It's not necessarily wrong to want to get different clothes, buy a house, or get a new car. These are reasonable things, but the question is, Why do you want to get it? What's pushing you to want to do it? These are the types of questions that cause you to evaluate spending and appetites and why you're doing what you're doing. These are good questions that it seems like responsible Christians should be engaging in regularly. We don't just eat whatever is in front of us. That's what kids do and parents tell them, You can't just eat this food all the time. You need a healthy diet. So we need to think behind why we are doing these things, and I think that's what it comes down to.

Matt Tully
It seems like there can be a conflation of contentment on the one hand and almost an apathy on the other—people who are not ever going to pursue that next job because they don't really have a motivation to. It can sort of be spun as, Well, I'm just really content. How would you distinguish between those two things?

Erik Raymond
I'll give you another example: I had a conversation in church with a guy who has a debilitating sickness, and there's really no cure—at least at this time—for what he's going through. It really renders him with low energy and he's not able to do a lot of the things he wants to do. He was telling me, I'm trying to grow in my own personal contentment, and I think the Lord has allowed this in my life to help me to grow. As I hear you talking about contentment, should I just sit back and not pursue any other treatment options and just be content? I told him that he was confusing contentment with complacency because it sounds like you're content with the lot that you have and what the Lord has done. You're not complaining, you're not grumbling, you're content with this being your station. You're willing to accept that from the Lord. Complacency would say, I don't really need to do anything. But there's potential treatment options and there's doctors to go see, and so if you go trusting in the Lord and wanting to get this treatment or wanting to talk to a different doctor, I don't necessarily think that's discontentment. I think that's merely availing yourself to opportunities. I think you could say the same thing with professional life. If you're just constantly trying to take that next step up so that you can get more to spend on yourself for your own personal glory and for your own honor and your own comfort at the expense of service and taking care of family and blessing the church and blessing others, these are the things that would really help you to work through that. I think one of the things you can ask is, If I don't get the job, if I don't get the house, if I don't get the whatever, what is my reaction? Just give it a little time. What if you just wait a week or wait a few days and think about this and pray? You oftentimes may see it was kind of a heat-of-the-moment thing and pretty selfish. Oftentimes our initial motivations are pretty tinged with selfishness instead of godliness.

Matt Tully
It seems like you're saying contentment is less about what we're actually choosing to do and more directly connected to our hearts and our desires and our attitude in making those decisions. Someone could be very content and yet still be pursuing that new job opportunity that they don't currently have.

Erik Raymond
Absolutely.

20:42 - Discerning between Contentment and Selfish Motivation

Matt Tully
One question that came up in my mind as you were talking about this and about talking with your friend from church who struggles with this illness is what's the role of other people in our life—other Christians in particular—in helping us to determine whether or not we're being content or whether or not we should pursue something? I'm struck that sometimes it's hard for me to discern my own heart and whether or not my motivations for pursuing something are truly godly or if they're actually selfish in some way.

Erik Raymond
I think the church is an underappreciated resource. God has given us the lives of believers together to encourage one another and help one another. We're supposed to speak the truth in love, and one of the ways we can do that is just to listen and to apply God's word. So often we have our vision tainted by our own selfishness and we're not able to necessarily see. But if you talk to a brother or sister and you spend time with them and say, This is what I'm thinking—can you let me know what you see? Oftentimes the wisdom and the counsel and just the insight of brothers and sisters who are indwelt by God in the Holy Spirit and that love and care about you and are not jaded one way or the other—they want what's best for you and glorifies God—they can often speak into a situation that is really helpful. I would definitely encourage people to talk to church members, pastors, friends, and just people that you love and you trust that really want what's best for you and they love the Lord like you do as well.

Matt Tully
That can be really though, can't it? It can be hard to ask someone a question like that because maybe we already have an answer that we maybe like and hope is the answer, and opening yourself up to hearing something difficult from somebody can be a challenge.

Erik Raymond
That might be a tell, right? That's kind of a tell that you might really want this thing so much that you're not open to what other people say. Anything that is really worth doing and especially something that's going to be difficult, you want to make sure that you've cross-examined it in a thoughtful way. You know the nature of the human heart and the tendency to pronate towards self. I think if somebody says, I want to be a pastor and you say, Have you talked to anybody? and they say, No, I haven't talked to anybody about that, I would think you would want the feedback of pastors in your church and church members or your wife and your friends.

23:17 - Growing in Contentment

Matt Tully
Speak to the person listening right now who, as they hear you talk about contentment and the lack thereof, they're feeling a little bit of that twinge of You know, that is me. I'm struggling with contentment. Maybe I've been struggling for a long time in one or two areas. What encouragement and advice would you offer to that person who wants to grow in that regard?

Erik Raymond
I think one of the most helpful things for me on this is to consider the big picture. The big picture helps to inform the day-to-day narrative. I would want to make a list of everything that I have and don't deserve. You're going to find that in reality, from a biblical framework, that list is going to be humongous. It's going to have every single thing in your life because we don't deserve anything. Everything we have is a gift, starting with our own life. And then you go onto the other side and you could say, What about the things that I want and that I truly deserve—the things that are causing me to be discontent? I think that relativizes the whole conversation into the place of ultimate need and to put you into the place of really thinking about these terms that I'm using—I need. Everything you need has been provided. So now we're at the level of wants and desires. These are good things. Once you've relativized the playing field, now you look at it and think in biblical categories about what these things are. Does God's word speak to this category of life? Does it give me any wisdom on these things? And then you start working down into the nitty-gritty of the circumstance and ask why you want this and what would happen if you didn't have this? And then I think you would want to try and have some friends come in and to help you and have a healthy conversation if you get to that place where you're really lacking wisdom at that point and really don't know what to do. But I think that first step of relativizing the playing field and just remembering that for the Christian anything short of hell should be an occasion to rejoice. I think it was Sinclair Ferguson that said everything we need and everything we lack is found in Christ. So we have it all. Oftentimes our desires are so wide and our appreciation for what we have is so small. So if we could open the lens a bit and see everything that we have and God's grace, that helps to put into perspective the things that we really think we need but actually really want. And then we can navigate there with a looser grip on those things with gratitude and with patience because we know that God cares for us.

Matt Tully
I'm struck that even hearing you say that quote from Ferguson, just the idea that we have all that we need in Christ, it can often maybe sound a bit trite or cliché to someone who's grown up in the church all their life and they do believe that. But the idea that you're proposing of sitting down and actually writing all that stuff out can be such a helpful thing because it helps us to get beyond the one phrase, the cliché-sounding phrase, and actually meditate on that truth that we do have all that we need in Christ.

Erik Raymond
Absolutely. We're just so used to desire, and then all of a sudden we're on Amazon and we buy it; or we fire off an email, or we just go do it. The space between a desire and an execution and satisfaction of a desire is so often so small, and we could use a bit more reflection and consideration and prayer and consideration of what God has done and what he has given us and really what the moment means for you as an individual.

27:16 - Practical Advice for Contentment in the Holiday Season

Matt Tully
On that front—the idea of desire and the satisfaction of that desire—as we enter into Thanksgiving and then immediately after that we have Black Friday and then the holiday buying season kicks into full gear and it can be such an overpowering, consumeristic kind of season for us—what practical things do you plan to do as you enter into Thanksgiving and this season to guard your heart and to cultivate a contentment that would endure through all of that?

Erik Raymond
That's a good question, and I hesitate to answer because I think different people are going to have different ways that they need to go about these things. For me personally I try to set basic priorities and boundaries, whether it's finances or gifts or time or any of those things that we're going to do, usually that's a conversation between my wife and I. We try to get in front of it and ask what we are trying to do. We vary Christmas from year to year—the way that we do things in our home. We'll have a conversation in the fall and what's upcoming and how we want to do what we're doing in light of the context. So we try to get on the same page with that. There may be a season where there's an opportunity to give more gifts or to bless a wider range of people, or there may be a season where it's more difficult to do that. I think just sitting down together, having a plan, trying to think it through, rather than just going out on Black Friday with a credit card with a big limit and then thinking about it later. It's February 10th and you're like, Oh man, what did I do? Just going with a plan—I think that's stewardship too. It's stewardship of our money and our time and our own hearts. Even giving gifts in the context of a family, that perpetuates from year to year and before you know it it's out of control and people start feeling bad and discouraged. It's just a good opportunity to try and sit down on the front end, think it through, plan effectively, if you're married, talk to your spouse and work it out, pray, ask the Lord for wisdom knowing that these are temptations.

Matt Tully
It seems to me that one of the big takeaways from talking to you this morning is the importance of being aware of our own tendencies towards discontentment in different areas and then being intentional about thinking about those things and our own hearts.

Erik Raymond
Absolutely. We're constantly engaged in a conversation with ourselves and we don't even realize it's going on. We're oftentimes reinforcing our own selfishness in the midst of that conversation. Anytime you can press “pause” on that conversation and actually objectively talk to yourself, inform your mind, wash it over the Word, and have an edifying conversation with a spouse or a friend, I think you're beginning to win. But if you don't, you're basically being conformed by whatever your hearts desires are. And that's just not a good place to be in.


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