As I watch my three-year-old daughter’s distinct personality blossom, it is becoming clear to my wife and me that Charlotte is a “just-so” little girl. We laugh at the things she so easily notices out of place: the closet door left open, her bedtime giraffe tucked under the wrong arm, the cars not arranged in a straight line.
I also realize she gets that from her dad. I am blessed and cursed with an aesthetic drive to set everything in its quintessential place. That means I can’t “un-see” when things aren’t quite right. I always notice the possibilities for organizing natural chaos, enhancing visual clarity, and improving a process’s elegance.
I know God has use for people like me. (That said, I believe the world is a happier place because we are few in number.) This perspective helps me evaluate the tools and rhythms of our home to better fulfill our mission. It helps me increase the effectiveness of certain ministries within our church life, and it increases the efficiency and reduces the headache of a multi-disciplinary job description.
Perfectionism & Discontentment
But this particular species of perfectionism is my unique path to discontentment. The perfectionist who often says, “This could be better” (which is always true), can so easily say in his next breath, “This isn’t good enough” (which is the doorway to discontentment).
Dissatisfaction with current conditions can be a form of theological accusation. “Lord, the imperfections and limitations of my environment are bad for me. My life is harder than it should be. You have mis-crafted my surroundings.”
Defining Discontentment Biblically
Although Scripture doesn’t include the term discontentment, it uses other terms that convey the same meaning. Discontentment is called “covetousness” in Hebrews 13:5: “Let your [way of life] be without covetousness.” For me, this means I should not covet the “upgrade,” the “better version,” or the “sleeker system.” The passage does not say, “Make choices that are not covetous,” though that is true. It goes beyond that and says, “Live a lifestyle without covetousness in it.”
I Timothy 6:9 narrows the application of this challenge to money, but the principle is the same. “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition.”
Whoa, Paul! I just want a better garage. I just want the means to upgrade my wife’s kitchen. I just want more “cushion” in our budget. All of Proverbs’s admonitions to financial stewardship notwithstanding, “the love of money is [still] a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through [stabbed themselves] with many sorrows.”
Driving every sinful grasp for money is a discontented heart reaching for something to “fix what’s wrong” with your circumstances. God has called us to a lifestyle without that attitude.
How does this subtle attitude manifest itself in a dad? Here are a few questions to help us spot discontentment in relation to our household, whether our discontentment grows out of perfectionism or some other tendency gone awry. Keep in mind, the same outward choices (such as upsizing your house) can be driven by very different motivations of the heart. But answering these questions can help you diagnose the problem.
Can you enjoy a tour of someone else’s bigger or better house without comparing it to your own—whether aloud or in your mind?
Do you find yourself secretly frustrated when discussing finances with other dads who have more resources?
Do you say things like, “When will [Child] grow out of [developmental stage]!?” or “I can’t wait until [Child] is [certain ideal age].”
How often do you say aloud that you are thankful to God for something?
What drives your desire to upgrade your vacations, increase your income level, or improve your home? When you daydream about these things, where does your mind run?
Would your wife say you are satisfied with the you have? Or would she say, “He always wants a better one.”
How has discontentment affected your perspective about your family and household?
The Blasphemous Root of Discontentment
Why is discontentment a big deal (i.e., sin)? God’s response to the complaining children of Israel in Numbers 21:4–9 helps us calibrate our sense of discontentment’s severity. The Israelites had grown weary of travel, particularly of the one-option “menu”—itself the miraculous provision of God. They also questioned God’s purpose: “Why have you led us out here to die?” as if to say, “We have projected current conditions to their logical (lethal) outcome, and we have concluded that You are vindictive.” No admission that God could have reasons for their itinerary that they do not (and cannot) understand. No mention that He has sustained them miraculously since their Egyptian servitude. Just a blunt accusation.
No recognition of how much God has put in your family coffers, just the sulking fixation on how tight things are in your budget. No recollection of God’s perfect track-record of faithfulness to you, just the anxiety about how this pay cut will play out in three years. (Discontentment and worry are “cousin vices.”)
“There, there,” we might imagine God should say. “These Israelites are just tired. They don’t mean that. They’re just the complaining type, seeing the negative. They’ll shift their attitude in a year or two when their circumstances change.”
“Then the LORD sent poisonous snakes among the people, and they bit them so that many Israelites died.”
Discontentment is serious. You see, when the Israelites detested God’s manna and doubted His motives, they were denying His love. Such suspicion was the sin at the heart of Adam’s fall: that God’s abundance (“every tree of the Garden”) was still insufficient; that His restrictions (“the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”) were oppressive. As Eve took the fruit, she was trusting her doubts about the loving character of God.
That is why discontentment is such a big deal. But it’s worse than that.
As serious as God’s judgment was, He proved His heart for the people by lifting up the bronze serpent in their midst: a visual symbol of His willingness to forgive those who would but look in faith. Jesus said this serpent in the wilderness was a symbol of Himself, lifted up on the cross, “that whoever believes in Him might have eternal life” (John 3:14–15). Not only has God given us “life and breath” (Acts 17:25) and “all things richly to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17), but He has also responded to the spurning of that goodness by providing atonement and restored relationship through Jesus Christ.
The discontented child of God looks past God’s ultimate provision of the Son to say, “God still isn’t loving me well.” It’s blasphemy. So, brothers, let us add this trait to the “sin list” as an attitude in need of repentance, confession, and forgiveness.
A Discontented Household
Dad, your thoughts and words of discontentment can seep into the culture of your household. Dissatisfied husbands yield discontented wives. Discontented parents breed dissatisfied children. Here are a few sure-fire ways to cultivate a culture of discontentment in your home.
In prayer, only ask; never thank. If someone asked your children what prayer was, according to your household prayers, would they include anything about thanking? Or would it only be about asking? Of course, the “asking” prayer often indicates your rightful dependence on God’s power and provision. But without ever thanking Him in prayer, you can subtly teach your children that our life is full of “gaps,” and God is there to fill them for us. Just listen to yourself pray in the next little while. (In part 2 of this post, we will explore gratitude more in detail.)
Complain. Note the problems with your house. Point out the aspects of your children’s personalities you don’t enjoy (to your wife—or worse, to the kids themselves). Note all of the ways your job is uniquely difficult: your boss, your co-workers, your workplace environment. Complaining comes in many costumes. “I wish they would stop all the time.” “If only we had , then we could be .” Complaining helps remind everyone in your family what is still wrong with our life, and that breeds discontentment.
Compare and Covet. Compare your family’s situation (house, car, kids, income, ethnicity) to yours. This comparison can happen silently in your head, or overtly in the car on the way home from the Jones’s. Comparison lays the groundwork for coveting. The Tenth Commandment and the warning of Hebrews 13:5 are “group commands.” This means your family can covet things together. There can be a subtle difference here between making conversation and entering into covetousness.
For example, there is a way to say, “They have a nice backyard” (harmless words on the surface) which really means, “Our back yard is lame”—and is right on the verge of, “We want their backyard.” Unhealthy comparison can happen in both directions, too. Comparing up, with circumstances you aspire to reach, reminds you how far you still have to go. But comparing down, with circumstances you have exceeded, still places you on a continuum of “status progress” rather than the stasis of contentment. Be careful.
This has all been negative, to be sure. In part 2, we will talk about how to replace discontentment with contentment. But first we need to see the problem. How is your household culture doing in the area of discontentment? Dad, do you have a discontented heart?
Note: Read Part 2 here.