Recently I was teaching a conference on evangelism. After one of the sessions a dear couple in their seventies came up to talk about their burden for the lost in their family and community. Throughout our conversation, they talked about the Lord’s goodness. At one point, with eyes full of tears, the woman said, “We have lost two of our sons.” She paused to gather herself, then continued, “But the Lord has been so good to us through all of this.” The couple went on to tell how the Lord had graciously sustained them through two unexpected and particularly heart-wrenching events. They were not yet through these trials or the pain of loss. But even though God’s plans upended theirs, they continued to trust, love, and rest in him. They remained content in God.
When considered biblically, both seasons of blessing and seasons of affliction provide opportunities to learn contentment in God. Isn’t this what the apostle Paul shared with the Philippians in his letter to them? “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Phil. 4:11–12). Paul experienced both ends of the stick: abundance and affliction. Each circumstance drove him back to God, the source of his contentment.
But here is the question: What is it about God that made Paul content? What did he know that helped him interpret his circumstances and be able to say, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content”? One of the keys for Paul was a healthy understanding and application of God’s providence.
Providence might be a new word for you, and if it is, I hope it quickly becomes a favorite. It’s an important word we Christians need to know and delight in. Often we define the hard words of our faith and then quickly replace them. In doing so, we risk losing something of our history and even core elements of our faith. At one time, this word was so prevalent in people’s minds that they named cities after it.
What does providence mean? In short, it refers to God’s work in which he upholds, governs, and sustains all things by his infinite power.
The main thing to remember about God’s providence is that he is not disconnected from or disinterested in what is happening in the world today. There is no such thing as chance, luck, or fate. Rather, God is upholding, governing, and ordering all things with his very hand. Nothing escapes God’s sovereign control. Whatever he pleases he does (Ps. 135:6), and whatever he does he pleases. He works all things according to the counsel of his own will (Eph. 1:11). The execution of this will is God’s providence.
Providence and Contentment
Let’s think about the doctrine of providence in reference to our understanding of contentment. Contentment is the inward, gracious, quiet spirit that joyfully rests in God’s providence. This plays out in Scripture in several ways. In the letter to the Hebrews we read, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Heb. 13:5). How does this text relate to God’s providence? When the Bible says be content with what you have, it basically is saying, “Be content with what God has given you.” In other words, rest in God’s providence. This becomes pivotal to our pursuit of contentment.
If we are going to recover the experience of Christian contentment, we must recover the doctrine of God’s providence. According to the writer of Hebrews, the two are inextricably linked. A heart that is content is a heart that rests in God’s providence. To put it another way, the inward work of grace in believers gives them eyes to see and interpret what is happening in the world around them. Because the heart has been tuned by grace, is being filled with divine love, and is learning contentment, it rests in God’s providence.
Are You Discontent?
If we are to learn contentment, we have to be able to spot discontentment. We could think in terms of three main categories of discontentment with God’s providence in our personal histories. Not surprisingly they involve things that are happening, have happened, and will happen. Here are some questions to ask yourself.
Am I grumbling about the present? If we are grumbling about something we’re going through right now, we are arguing with God. We are saying that we shouldn’t have to endure this. Our present experiences are like a magnet drawing out either our discontentment or our contentment. If we are grumbling, we can be sure we are not content. We are essentially saying that God is getting it wrong. Such discontentment questions God’s wisdom, goodness, and power.
Am I bitter about the past? Everyone has faced hard days. Some people’s pasts are harder than others, but all have felt the sting of sin and pain in our fallen world. Many people live under the cloud of their past hardships and become increasingly bitter. Over time they revisit and analyze the situations from the perspective of a victim, only to feed their bitterness. We cannot be content in the present when we are nursing bitterness about the past. We are basically saying that God failed us. This discontentment too questions God’s wisdom, goodness, and power.
Am I worrying about the future? What is going to happen tomorrow? How do I know it’s really going to be okay? Where will I work? Whom will I marry? We can ask hundreds of questions about the future, but the bottom line is that we don’t know. And we can’t know. Sadly, many people sit in bondage to worry about the future and lose the joy of contentment in the present. Jesus saw this as the trait of the unbeliever (Matt. 6:25–34) rather than the believer, who knows and trusts God. If we are worrying, we are as much as saying that God won’t get it right. This is yet another form of discontentment that questions God’s wisdom, goodness, and power.
Rest in the God of Providence and the Providence of God
How do we counsel others and ourselves in such states? We must remember the providence of God and the God of providence. That means remembering that God is upholding and governing all things. He is purposely involved in the details. So whatever happened, is happening, or will happen comes with divine sanction. What’s more, Christians in particular should be encouraged to know that God’s providence means he is working all things together for his glory and our good (Rom. 8:28). When I am discontent about the past, the present, or the future, I am bucking against God’s rule, questioning his wisdom, and doubting his love. If we are discontent, we must remember the comforting doctrine of God’s providence.
We must also remember the God of providence. God is a good God who is as wise as he is in control. All too often we interpret God’s character in light of our circumstances. When things are going well, we think that God is good and that he loves us. However, when things don’t go our way, we often feel like God is unfair and doesn’t want what is best for us. Restlessness ferments in our hearts, and before we know it, we are questioning his goodness.
Have you felt this temptation? Instead of interpreting God’s character in light of our circumstances, we must do the opposite and interpret our circumstances in light of God’s character. We must take the thread of our situation and run it through the needle of God’s character. This will assure us that even though our situation is difficult and not what we would have chosen, God is nevertheless in full control, absolutely good, and powerfully directing this experience for his glory and our good. There are no wasted hardships with God—everything has a purpose.
Finally, when considering God’s providence, we must remember the chief display of providence, the cross of Christ. The ultimate medicine for our souls is the cross. It is the Visine that removes the irritation from the eyes of our souls and focuses our sight clearly upon the truth. The cross dramatizes what we deserve. We do not deserve mercy, but we get it. God intervened in our perennial party of selfishness and nailed our sin to the cross (Col. 2:14). We can never clamor about what we deserve when we are standing in the shadow of the cross. The cross reminds us that Jesus got what we deserve and we get what Jesus deserved. It’s hard to complain when you remember that you deserve hell.
But the cross also assures us that God can be trusted. Isn’t this the central issue for us? Can you trust God? Well, stand again in the shadow of the cross and let the apostle interpret it for you and apply it to our life’s experiences: “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32).
If you can trust God to take care of the biggest issues—sin and death—then you can trust him to take care of you in the secondary matters—everything else.
Content taken from Chasing Contentment by Erik Raymond, ©2017. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, crossway.org.
 E.g., Providence, Rhode Island.
 The London Baptist Confession of Faith 5.2 is helpful along these lines: “Although in relation to the foreknowledge and decree of God, Who is the First Cause, all things come to pass immutably and infallibly; so that nothing happens to anyone by chance, or outside His providence, yet by His providence He orders events to occur according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.”