Reformed Perspectives Magazine, Volume 10, Number 39, September 21 to September 27 2008


By Guy R. Finnie

The injunction we read in Hebrews 13.5, ‘Be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee' suggests that there is a tendency towards an attitude of discontentment in the church's life. In every church, in every Christian, in every person there often appears evidence of a spirit of discontentment. Sooner or later, some word is spoken which shows that there is a desire for things to be other than as they are.

This is not surprising. Although God made us for perfection, we are not perfect. And the world which once was ‘very good' in God's sight is now ‘made subject to vanity, not willingly . . .' [Rom 8.20]. In other words, the whole framework of a fallen creation and of our environment is conducive to discontentment. Life itself bears the tensions of this fundamental disappointment. Furthermore, the Bible, which so marvellously reflects our human distress at every point, is a veritable gallery of discontentment.

But there are two sorts of discontentment. There is a spiritual discontentment and a carnal discontentment.

Carnal Discontentment

(a) The results of carnal discontentment. It is no exaggeration to speak of these results as, quite simply, hell on earth. ‘From whence come wars and fightings among you? come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members? Ye lust, and have not: ye kill, and desire to have, and cannot obtain: ye fight and war, yet ye have not . . .' [James 4.1-2]. By what other words could we describe all the misery of which James speaks here? Is this not hell on earth?

Judas Iscariot provides a vivid illustration of this. We see him hanging by the rope which his own frenzied fists had strung [Matt 27.5] and then we see him broken-open in his hideous precipitation into the abyss [Acts 1.18]. The same spirit is exemplified in secular literature. In Shakespeare's play Richard the Third, Richard (that ‘injured character' as John Wesley called him) is thrust into prominence in the first two lines. Speaking with bitter sarcasm, he says —

‘Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this son of York ...'
This is an exact description of carnal discontentment. It is an icy, freezing blast in the soul. The heart of the carnally discontented man is etiolated and comfortless, as is all his influence. Wherever he goes, his ever-increasing misery goes with him. It is hell on earth.

(b) The origin of carnal discontentment. It originates in self. In James 4.1-2 self is the assertive principle in this agony of wars, fightings and murders. It is ‘your lusts that war . . .'. Self gives birth to carnal discontentment. This is always the case; there is no exception.

But at this point Satan is so subtle, and we can be so self-deceived. When Mary anointed our Lord's feet with a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, Judas Iscariot openly protested: ‘Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?' On the face of it, Judas was making a valid objection. It sounded thoroughly laudable. But John pricked the bubble. ‘This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein' [John 12.3-6]. Behind the apparent concern, which, for all we know, Judas himself supposed to be quite genuine, lay the carnal discontentment of a greedy, grasping, self-centred man. Take that protest of his, with all its spoiling of a most moving and beautiful occasion, and measure it. Why, Judas himself is the measure of his protest: it is no larger than the man. It originated within himself.

Imagine what pompous arguments Diotrephes may have employed to manoeuvre himself into a position of power in the church. He probably said of the elders, ‘They mean well, but . . .'. He probably spoke of ‘making an effective witness', or of ‘presenting the contemporary relevance of the gospel', or of ‘getting alongside youth . . .', or some such. Whatever it was, it was ‘a sprat to catch a mackerel!' John said of him — ‘he loveth to have the pre-eminence among them' [3 John 9]. He was carnally discontented in any subordinate position. Behind all the unhappiness of which he was the instigator, lay his horrible self-centredness. The measure of this division, the conflict of loyalties, the hindered testimony, the gossip, and the grievous wounds was Diotrephes himself.

(c) The reason for carnal discontentment. It is that a man is discontented with himself. Carnal discontentment always reflects upon the man who displays it. Because he is not content within himself, he can find no contentment in any matter. This discontentment is as a hungry pack of wolves prowling through the forest, restlessly searching for satisfaction.

There is a vivid illustration of this principle in Proverbs 30.15: ‘The horseleach hath two daughters, crying, Give, give . . .' The leach, stuck in the throat of the beast, sucked up its blood, on and on. The Revised Version margin gives the alternative for it as ‘The vampire . . .'! This dramatic, chilling reference, is really a description of carnal discontentment. Judas Iscariot had the vampire in his heart: so had Demas, and Diotrephes, and Balaam, and Demetrius. ‘Hell and destruction are never full: so the eyes of man are never satisfied ...' [Prov 27.20]. There is a spiritual principle here: The carnally discontented man can never be satisfied.

The fundamental reason for this is hinted at in Hebrews 13.5, ‘Be content . . . for he hath said . . .'. The all-important word here is the conjunction ‘for'. The writer does not call his readers to contentment with ‘such things as ye have', and leave it there. He gives a reason why they should be content. He bases his injunction upon something our Lord has said: ‘for he hath said . . .'. He knew that his readers were open to this argument: it made sense to them. But to the carnally discontented man, it would make no sense at all. Nor, indeed, would any other basis for such an injunction have made sense. The dreadful fact is this: to the carnally discontented man, there is no argument for contentment. Such a man is not content within himself, and that is the end of the matter. The terrible consequences of this are abundantly plain. There is nothing for the carnally discontented heart. There is no ‘for' by which to lever such a life from its orbit of restless, unhappy longing. It is of no use to gratify each complaint: there are plenty more to come, and more and more, to all infinity.

It may be taken as a matter which is beyond dispute, that in some respect we are all less than content — the house, the job, the district, the family, the prospects, the church, and so on. But is it carnal discontentment? What results is it having? Are they very grievous results? And whence does it originate? Does it come from our vanity, our wounded pride, our feeling of self-importance? And why is it so vivid a feature of our lives? Is it because this discontentment is like a raging fire in our souls, burning and burning, but never saying ‘it is enough'? If so, then we need to run to Christ quickly. This is an evil power at work in us. He alone can rid us of it, and give us rest.

Spiritual Discontentment

As before, we can begin at the outside of the matter, and move inwards to its central truth.

(a) The results of spiritual discontentment. These results are — heaven on earth.

My first example of spiritual discontentment is God Himself. ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life' [John 3.16]. Observe the profound discontentment in God's heart, that sinful men should perish! Observe the wonderful measures for our salvation, which were prompted by that grieving, loving discontentment! God has no pleasure, as Ezekiel three times asserts [Ez 18.23, 32; 33.11] in ‘the death of the wicked'.

The apostle Paul exemplifies true spiritual discontentment. He said ‘I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some' [1 Cor 9.22]. We know the verse so well that we are sometimes blind to the malleable adaptability of the apostle, as he here describes the unceasing, compassionate longing of his heart, for men to be saved. Everywhere he carried this spiritual discontentment with him. It was like a debtor's burden [Rom 1.14]. Every man whom he saw was, as it were, his creditor! Could any less contented way of living be imagined? But he set up this explanation for all the madness, the extremism, the self-interest and exploitation, of which his detractors accused him ‘For the love of Christ constraineth us . . .' [2 Cor 5.14]. And it could be engraved in stone, of Paul, as it is engraved of M'Cheyne — ‘Walking close with God, an example of the believers, in word, in conversation, in charity, in spirit, in faith, in purity, he ceased not day and night, to labour and watch for souls, and was honoured by his Lord, to draw many wanderers out of darkness, into the path of life'. It is heaven on earth.

(b) The origin of spiritual discontentment. It comes from God, and as we move inwards to a better understanding of this matter, it becomes apparent that God alone is the measure of it.

Our Lord displayed a true spiritual discontentment. John tells of how he ‘made a scourge of small cords' [John 2.15] and with it hustled out of the temple sheep, oxen, doves, and money changers. It must have caused confusion — bleating, lowing, flapping; hurrying footfalls, the crack of the scourge, crashing desks, clattering coins, and Christ's voice imperiously calling, ‘Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise' [John 2.16]. Obviously Christ was not content. But his disciples captured the whole spirit and prophetic fulfilment of that incident, when they remembered from their Psalter [Ps 69.9], ‘The zeal of thine house hath eaten me up' [John 2.17]. It was godly zeal, a divine jealousy for the glory of his Father, which moved our Lord. It came from God.

Again, our Lord displayed a spiritual discontentment when he sighed, ‘But I have a baptism to be baptised with; and how am I straitened till it be accomplished!' [Luke 12.50]. He referred to his sufferings, his being ‘bruised' and ‘put to grief' [Isa 53.10]. He knew that this was the only way by which salvation could be procured, and he knew that it was the Father's will. His whole life was narrowed into one, agonizing course. In this sense our Lord was not content. He did not rebel against this ‘straitening' — he yearned for its fulfilment. Our Lord, ‘for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame . . .' [Heb 12.2]. This was a spiritual discontentment. It did not set God at defiance. At every point it moved in acquiescence with the Father. It came from him.

(c) The reason for spiritual discontentment. It is contentment with God. This may seem to be a contradiction, but it is not so. It is an invariable law of the Christian life; that the greater our contentment with God, so the greater our spiritual discontentment will be. God, being sufficient within himself, and perfect in all his attributes, was moved with pity for humanity in its wretchedness, and so devised the scheme of our salvation. This divine pity which prompted the giving of his Son for us, is an evidence of God's absolute contentment within himself.

Spiritual discontentment is clearly seen in the Christian's life. Think of the spiritual discontentment behind Paul's words, ‘I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus' [Phil 3.13-14]. The very atmosphere engendered by the words is a restless questing, a straining onward. But why? Paul had already explained his discontentment: ‘What things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord' [Phil 3.7-8]. You see, the apostle was so content with Christ, that he would always be discontented until he knew more of Christ!

A most poignant illustration of this spiritual discontentment is found in The Song of Songs 3.2, ‘I will rise now, and go about the city in the streets, and in the broad ways I will seek him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not'. It is precisely because the Lord ‘whom my soul loveth' is so unutterably satisfying, ‘the chiefest among ten thousand', that the restless search after him is initiated. The lover is discontented, because she is so content! This is the reason why the Christian may take Ephraim's words for his own, ‘What have I to do any more with idols? I have heard him, and observed him . . .' [Hosea 14.8].

This is not an argument for contentment, but for the right sort of discontentment. Paul suggests this, with his own words, ‘. . . godliness with contentment is great gain'. [1 Tim 6.6]. Contentment by itself is impossible. But with godliness it is possible, and both together are great gain. Yet, what is godliness? Surely, godliness is that reverential awe and love of God which the Christian experiences. It is the hunger for God which burns within him. And that is spiritual discontentment. When a man loves God like that, how can he be greatly agitated about the things which he possesses, whether few or many? To him, everything here is but part of ‘a city' which has no continuance [Heb 13.14]. He goes on pilgrimage towards the city which is to come, enraptured with the thought that there, he ‘shall see the King in his beauty' [Isa 33.17]. Every thought of that Lord but stirs within him this blessed discontentment. His heart within him cries, ‘Amen. Even so, come, Lord Jesus' [Rev 22.20].

We must therefore ask about our discontentment, is it spiritual discontentment? If so, let us pray that it will increase within us unto the perfect day. If we do not have it we must covet it. It is exceedingly beautiful. It is the most Christlike characteristic of all. And those who are possessed of it, though once they were possessed of carnal discontentment, now know that they have passed out of a Satanic blackness, into God's ‘marvellous light'.

This article is provided as a ministry of Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill). If you have a question about this article, please email our Theological Editor.

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