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On Closer Inspection by Angie Fuller

My childhood photo album holds a faded picture of me the summer I turned four. Barefoot and seated on a hand-me-down tricycle, I’m clutching a stuffed white dog, sucking my thumb, and steering the tricycle with my elbow. I still have vague memories of pedaling small, lazy laps around our patio. When I see this photo, I think, “How content I was! Life was easy…not a care in the world!”

Our society, however, fosters discontent at an alarming ratein our possessions, politics, relationships, self-image, and even our ambitions. Media in its numerous forms and even well-meaning people bombard us with both glaring and subtle suggestions that something about our lives needs to change,
whether we have control over it or not, n order to be happier, more successful, more worry-free, more fill-in-the-blank. We are both jealous and prideful. Our perpetual discontent drains us of joy and peace.

When writing to the Philippians, Paul said, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.” (Phil. 4:11-12a) Paul’s statement seems perhaps unattainable, but notice the two verbs. First, he has LEARNED to be content. Paul mentions opposing circumstances, because true contentment doesn’t come and go based on the events of our lives. Nor is it something we acquire once to last a lifetime. Anything that is learnedfrom walking or multiplying fractions, to compromising or forgivingtakes practice! It’s a process that involves setbacks and hard work. Second, Paul has learned to BE content, not “feel” content. It isn’t a changing emotion. It’s a choice… an intentional attitude… a way of living.

Thankfully Paul didn’t leave his readers wondering how to learn this attitude in our fallen, self-centered world. “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation...I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Phil. 4:12b-13) His “secret” is a statement we find on mugs, bracelets, and even tattoos. We boldly claim this verse when we need courage or stamina…and rightly so. But it doesn’t say, “I can endure difficult times through Him who gives me strength.” We need God’s strength to do ALL things. Contentment comes when we depend on God in everythingwhen we thank God when life is going well, acknowledge God’s presence and peace in daily activities, lean on God’s strength when our legs are knocked out from under us, and extend God’s love even when it pulls us from our comfort zone.

When I look at that photo of four-year-old me, I realize it’s the dog who is truly content, not me. Granted, the dog is just fur and stuffing! But it represents complete reliance on the one carrying it. Regardless of its journey, the dog relies on the arm wrapped around it and submits to the one steering the tricycle.

Reliance and submissionthese aren’t words we usually associate with contentment, and they’re certainly countercultural! In a world that showers us with pride, doubt, and restlessness, may we listen more closely to God than to the voices surrounding us. May we open our eyes to what matters to God and have the courage to choose and practice contentment.