#18 Expectations and Contentment (Happiness vs. Joy) (shortened)

(For full version of this Bible study "lesson," click here.)

            Philippians 4:12:  “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” 

            1 Thessalonians 5:16-18:  “Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

            Contentment and Joy.  Aren’t these two things that we are always looking for?  Actually, what I should say is that we are usually looking for happiness when we should be looking for joy.  And we are not usually content with the way life is because we have too many expectations about what it should be.  Isn’t this more like it for most of us?

            So what is the difference between joy and happiness? 

            The way I see it, happiness is a feeling based on our circumstances.  If we get what we want, we are happy.  If things go our way, we are happy.  If life is good, we are happy.  But joy is a different animal altogether.  Joy is a state of mind that comes from living life firmly rooted in God. 

            Happiness is like having calm waters and lots of food, but joy is the ability to have a deep sense of stability and thankfulness and faith in God despite the stormy waves and famine.  Happiness can be bought at a cheap price, but joy is hard-earned. 

            Joy comes after the pain and the trials, after we struggle with letting go of our expectations of what we think will make us happy and learn to accept certain things as they are. 

            This is not easy to do.  We want things to be a certain way, and it’s hard to let go of those desires, dreams, and plans.  It’s hard to wait on God for answers, or to accept His “no.”  But a major part of humility is remembering that He is God and we are not.   

            I think that most discontentment comes from feeling like God owes us something that He isn’t giving us.  When in reality, we owe Him everything that we already have.  The secret to being content, I think, is to remember that whatever comes (or doesn’t come) our way is from His hands.  And our focus should be on how to glorify Him in those circumstances, instead of trying to run from them, change them, or fight our way out before it is time! 

            [Of course, we need to pray and let God know of our wants and desires, but we need to be able to genuinely say and mean, “Not my will, but Yours be done” with each request.  And that is not always easy to do.  And it often takes a lot of time and tears to get to that point and really mean it.  Jesus prayed and cried all night in the garden of Gethsemane before being able to really accept that God’s Will was that there was no other way but the cross.]

            An issue that I have struggled with for years is loneliness.  I have always felt like I was on the outside, looking in.  Like I never really fit in with almost everybody else.  And so I have always felt lonely.  And that bothered me for years.  I always felt like things were supposed to be different.  They weren’t what they should have been.  And I fought to make my life match the image in my head.

            And while it is true that relationships are not what they are supposed to be nowadays, I came to realize after years that it wasn’t the lack of relationships that really bothered me.  It was my expectations of how things “should be” that were making me miserable.  I hadn’t learned how to be content in the life I was living.  I hadn’t learned how to find joy in it, as it is.  I kept searching for something else, something that I felt was missing.  And the more I tried to find it, the more discouraged I got and the less I was able to enjoy the life I was living.

            It took me a lot of time to learn contentment in this area, to find joy in it.  I had to identify the expectations that I had, to examine the ways they were hurting my life, and to accept that God had me where He did for a reason.  I realized that I could keep fighting Him ... or I could "snuggle in" to my situation, to learn from it, find the unexpected blessings in it, learn to glorify God in it. 

            And once I shifted my outlook, I found myself being content in a way that I didn’t know was possible.  I found myself joyful, even though I didn’t have all that I wanted to make me happy.

            It’s a great blessing to get what we ask for, but sometimes it’s a greater, more eternal blessing to learn to be content without.  I can’t necessarily change my circumstances (trust me, I’ve tried), but I can change how I live in them.  And this was a huge key in helping me shift my focus from my despair to how I could glorify God anyway and be a blessing to others, even in the loneliness.  

            It also helps to remember that someday all things will be made right again.  Someday, relationships will be all that they are supposed to be.  And so I don’t have to fight to make everything the way it’s “supposed to be” now, as though death is the deadline to accomplish everything by. 

            It’s not that I’ll never have the life and relationships that I want; it’s just postponed for now.  And I think we can live with just about anything as long as we have hope that it won’t always be this way.  That someday, all things will be made beautiful and perfect again. 

            But waiting for God to make all things beautiful and perfect means learning to live with “ugly” and “imperfect” until then.     

            We shouldn’t limit God by our expectations and parameters, by our demands that He does the things we want, when and how we want.  Because then we blind ourselves to what He is really doing, to the blessings that He has given us now, to the answers that He gives to our prayers, and to how we can glorify Him in the life we have. 

            We fail to find Him in our current situation when all we do is strive for something else.

            But if we strive to find Him in all situations, to find the blessings of the moment, and to remember that He is a good, loving, sovereign Father, we will be able to find contentment and joy.  No matter what.  We might not even really be all that happy because life might still be hard and discouraging, but we can find joy if we look for it and if we keep our eyes on God and remember that He is all we really need.  Everything else is just extra.

Content or Contempt?

            How would you define “contempt”?  An outright hatred for someone?  Despising them?  Being deliberately malicious or looking down on others? 

            What if I told you that contempt toward God is not so much “despising Him” as it is “grumbling about our lives, failing to thank Him for His care, and refusing to trust Him with the future”?

            In Numbers 14, we read about how God viewed the grumbling that the Israelites did in the desert.  He had gotten them out of Egypt and was leading them to the Promised Land.  But in the meantime, things did not match up to the Israelite’s expectations.  They grumbled about the food, the water, the walking, the obstacles, the set-backs, etc.  They grumbled about everything, going in the opposite direction from contentment.  No thankfulness.  No learning to praise God in the midst of trials.  No learning to accept the hardships or trusting that God knew what He was doing.  No saying, “You are God and I am not.  Your Will be done.”  No trusting that He will work it all out in the end.

            Instead, they grumbled.

            And in Numbers 14:11, we read this: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will these people treat me with contempt?  How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them?”

            Grumbling about our unpleasant circumstances is not just “being honest” or “being understandably upset or concerned.”  It is contempt for Him because it is essentially showing doubt about Him and disapproval of His care for us.  It is passing judgment on His ability to be God in our lives.   

            The thing is, I think that there would have been a much different outcome if the Israelites had humbly sought God and prayed about their needs.  But instead of humbling themselves before God and coming to Him with their needs, they complained to others about their circumstances. 

            When we complain to others about what’s going on in our lives, it is grumbling.  It is contempt for God.  And it is the opposite of learning contentment. 

            Contentment doesn’t mean that we have to like our circumstances or to be happy about them.  Many of God’s “favorite” people in the Bible encountered very difficult circumstances.  Hard times don’t necessarily mean that God has abandoned you or that He is not pleased with you.  They are just a part of life in a fallen world, and they are often a part of great spiritual growth.

            But contentment is when we take our eyes off of our circumstances and put them on God.  It’s when we humble ourselves before Him, when we recognize the care and blessings He provides, when we admit that He has the right to be God and to allow what He does in our lives, and when we learn to live in a state of thankfulness despite our hard times. 

            Contentment comes from finding our joy in God rather than in our life.  It comes when we learn to live the best life we can, with the circumstances and trials we have. 

           And the thing is, we don’t have to “keep our chin up” when our hearts are broken, acting like everything is okay when it is not.  We can go to God with everything that is in our hearts, all the aches, hurts, fears, doubts, unfulfilled dreams, etc.   

            It’s one thing to complain to others (or to ourselves) about the things we don’t like in life.  That is contempt for God. 

            But “complaining” to God about our concerns, needs, and feelings . . . well, that is prayer.  (And I don’t mean telling Him all the ways He is failing to be a good God.  I mean sharing your honest thoughts and feelings with Him, even the painful and ugly ones.) 

            One is talking against Him, and the other is talking to Him.  One is shutting the door to Him, and the other is opening it.  One elevates us and our desires, and the other humbles us before Him.  One passes judgment on God’s ability to be God, and the other reminds us that He is God and we are not.  One leads to discontentment, and the other leads to contentment. 

            I have often wondered what might have happened if the Israelites simply talked to God about the things they were unhappy about, instead of talking to each other about what a “poor job” God was doing.

            I’m not saying that it’s always easy to trust God and to accept His ways.  In fact, it’s incredibly difficult for many of us.  (But it’s a whole lot better than going our own way, making messes that didn’t have to happen if we had just learned to trust and to rest in God in the first place.)  It takes time to learn to trust Him despite heartaches, setbacks, and trials.  It takes a lot of “dying to self.”  It means humbling ourselves, learning to focus on Him instead of on life, and learning to praise Him, even when we don’t feel like it. 

            It takes facing – and working through – doubts, fears, negative feelings, and negative thoughts, figuring out why trust is so hard for us and how our expectations are getting in the way of our relationship with God.  And this means learning that it’s okay to have doubts, fears, negative feelings, and negative thoughts . . . as long as we honestly, humbly bring them to God, instead of trying to put on a “good face” while grumbling in our hearts (or to others) against Him. 

            Why do we share our real feelings and thoughts with others but try to hide them from God?  Why do we try to polish ourselves up when approaching God?  He knows us better than we know ourselves, and yet we try to put on the “I’m fine” act with Him, while harboring bitterness or doubt against Him.   

            I think the best way to start learning to trust and be content is this: stop grumbling to others (or to ourselves) and start being transparent with the Lord about our concerns, doubts, fears, and feelings.  Complaining to others is contempt for God and it divides you and the Lord.  But “complaining” to God is prayer and it draws Him closer to your hurting heart.

            Psalm 34:17-18: “The righteous cry out, and the Lord hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles.  The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” 

            As we open our hearts to Him and share what’s really inside and invite Him in to help us, He will begin to soothe our hurts, refocus our priorities, help us see things the way He does, and show us what a good, loving God He is.  We will begin to learn how sufficient His grace is and to find our joy and peace in Him.  And we will find ourselves on the road to contentment!

The Importance of Thankfulness

            Luke 17:15-18:  “One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice.  He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him – and he was a Samaritan.  Jesus asked, ‘Were not all ten cleansed?  Where are the other nine?  Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?’”

            Ten men were healed.  Only one came back to thank Jesus. 

            Did the other nine say in their hearts, “Oh, I’m sure He knows that I am thankful.  I don’t have to go find Him and actually say it out loud.  Besides, I’m too busy enjoying the blessing, the healing.  Isn’t that thanks enough?”

            Were they so distracted by their joy of being healed that they simply forgot there was a Healer who made it possible?

            Did they feel a sense of entitlement to the healing, that God somehow owed it to them?  “It’s about time!”  And so they didn’t feel like they had to thank Him because they were just getting what they deserved all along? 

            Did they go away and suddenly get bitter when they realized how much time passed before they were healed?

            Were they so focused on all the things they were now able to do that they forgot how thankful they were to be healed?

            Nine out of ten did not make the effort to thank Jesus or feel they should have to, for whatever reason.  Is it that much different with us?  Really?

            We thank Him for a dramatic answer to a desperate prayer, but do we thank Him for every uneventful day that goes by when He prevented anything tragic from happening?

            We thank Him for the “extra” blessings, but are we truly, humbly thankful for “our daily bread” - the roof over our heads and the food on our plates?  Or do we feel that we are entitled to those blessings because we work hard and earn the money ourselves?  Do we take those simple, basic blessings for granted, when so many other people around the world would fall at Jesus’ feet in extreme gratitude to simply have one full meal every day?  Clean drinking water? 

            Do we feel entitled to “more” than the basic, everyday blessings, like God owes us something better?  Have we gotten bored with the “tired, old blessings” that He has given us, such as an adequate home or car, a menial job or role, all the toys and gadgets that we “had to have” that are now rotting in our garage or on our shelves, a perfectly good marriage and committed spouse? 

            Instead of cherishing what we have and considering them treasures and thanking Him for them, are we envying the blessings that someone else has?  Better home, better looks, more money, more success, more prestige, more friends, flashier job, more exciting opportunities, more attractive spouse?  Are we tossing aside the old blessings to run after newer, “better” blessings? 

            Now, it’s not necessarily wrong to buy or do things that make us happy.  What is wrong is when we are pursuing happiness because we haven’t learned to be content with God’s providence and to glorify Him with the life He gave us, when we are seeking fulfillment in anything outside of His plan for us, and when we think we need “more or better” before we can be joyful and thankful. 

            Always thinking we need “more” leads to discontentment.  But appreciating the gifts that God has already given us leads to contentment.

            Are we so focused on the gifts and on getting “more” that we fail to focus on the Giver?

            Or maybe we don’t even notice the blessings because we are filled with so much fear, pain, and heartache, and all we can think about are our concerns and needs and troubles. 

            When we focus on our problems, they become huge and God becomes tiny.  And the only way to get past this is to set our mind on God’s goodness and love and to pray our fears and concerns over to Him.  Big problems are for a big God to handle.  Little problems are for a big God to handle.  And our God is big enough and good enough and loving enough to handle all of it.  If we let Him.

            Oh, I have been there.  I’ve been through times when the trials were long and my pain was deep and my fears were so huge that I didn’t even notice the simple, hidden blessings that God put in my life daily.  And I didn’t trust Him enough to fully give Him my concerns.  I was too focused on all the things that were “wrong” and on trying to make it better.  I was like an Israelite in the desert, totally forgetting God’s power, care, and faithfulness, totally freaking out when there was no water to drink instead of praying, trusting, and thanking Him for being the big God that He is.

            And I’ve been through times when I considered all of the basic blessings as essentials that God “owes” us or that I earned somehow. 

            “Of course, God will give us such-and-such because that’s the way it is.”  I expected those blessings to be there.  Not in a way that showed that I trusted His providence and was thankful for it, but in a way that showed that I was entitled to it and took it for granted and expected more than just the basic. 

            There’s a fine line between thankfulness and entitlement, between faith and presumption.      

            Thankfulness shows that we know Who gives us what we have, that we have faith in Him and rely on His providence, that we are grateful for it and don’t take it for granted, that we are focused more on the Giver than the gifts, and that we desire to glorify and praise Him with however much or however little we have been given.

            Entitlement shows that we feel we have earned it or deserve it, that God is here to serve us and give us what we want, that we presume that He will give us “good things” without praying for it and without humbling our hearts in obedience, that we deserve more than just the basics, and that all of our stuff is for our enjoyment instead of for God’s glory. 

            Thankfulness and faith is God-glorifying and leads to contentment.  Entitlement and presumption is self-glorifying and leads to discontentment.  

            And unfortunately, it is too easy to convince ourselves that we are glorifying God with all of our stuff and that we are living in thankfulness when we are really glorifying ourselves and enjoying the gifts more than the Giver. 

            I would guess that we fail to thank God and to honor Him with whatever blessings He has given us nine times out of ten.  We fail to even notice nine blessings out of ten, because some of them are so basic and simple and ordinary.  We fail to thank Him nine times out of ten because we are so focused on the gifts we have or on the gifts that we don’t have and wish we did.  We fail to praise Him and trust Him and rely on Him nine times out of ten because of our many fears and doubts and concerns and wants.

            And if we fail to live in thankfulness . . . if we fail to focus on the Giver instead of the gifts . . . if we fail to remember the awesome power and faithfulness of our Father . . . and if we fail to fall at Jesus’ feet in daily submission, humility, and gratefulness, then we will not know the kind of contentment and peace and joy that we are meant to know and our lives will not bring God the kind of glory He deserves.

            The thing is, remembering God’s faithfulness and practicing thankfulness makes it easier to leave current fears and concerns in His hands. 

            As we saw earlier, one of the reasons the Israelites’ time in the desert was so hard and long is because they grumbled and they forgot who God is and what He can do.  Two things that are so easy to do when times are tough and fears loom large: grumbling and forgetting. 

            But the opposite of grumbling and forgetting is being thankful and praising God (even in the pain) and remembering all that He has done before. 

            Thankfulness is about learning to find God in everything, looking for the blessings in each day and for the good that has come (or can come) out of any situation.  It means remembering all of His goodness to us in the past and letting that carry us through the current hard times.  And sometimes, when we can’t see any obvious and exciting blessings, it’s just thanking God for the most basic gifts: His presence, our lives, a flower, the sunshine, or the rain.  Maybe it even means thanking Him for the problems that we have, because it could be so much worse.   

            We can get so down in the dumps sometimes - in those darkest nights of our lives - that all we see is the garbage and blackness around us.  But even if we can’t change the dump we are in, we can choose to look up at the stars.  Our minds can go back to the times that God has shown His power, goodness, faithfulness, and love before.  Like stars, those times can shine brightly against a dark sky.  But when we don’t remember what He has done for us in the past, we forget what He is capable of doing.  And then our current concerns or fears seem so big and ominous.

            I think one of the best practices to start – especially when times are tough – is to keep a running, written list of all the things that you are thankful for.  Past things.  Current things.  Exciting things.  Basic things.  Overlooked things.  Good things that came out of bad times.  And things about God’s character that you are thankful for.  When nothing else can sustain your hope and strength during the trials, this will (along with God’s Word).     

            Sometimes, the greatest act of humility is simply praising God when we are hurting.     

            Colossians 2: 6-7:  “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”

            I’m going to paraphrase Luke 16:10 here. 

            “Whoever is thankful when they have very little will also be thankful when they have much, and whoever is unthankful with very little will also be unthankful with much.” 

            If we can’t be thankful for the little things, most likely we will take the big things for granted, too.  But if we can notice and be thankful for the little things, our lives will be so much more rewarding and full, whether we have a little or a lot.   

            But regardless of if we get what we want or not, we are still commanded to praise Him.   

            Hebrews 13:15:  “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise - the fruit of lips that confess his name.”  

            Did you notice the phrase – “a sacrifice of praise.”  Sometimes, our praise of God is a sacrifice because it’s not what we want to do.  Maybe we are unhappy with the way He is doing things, unhappy because everyone else but us seems to get what they want.  But we still need to offer the sacrifice of praise because we “confess His name.”  We have decided that He is God and we are not. 

            As I said in earlier lessons, I think we often live like, “I have faith in You that You can do what I am asking You to do.” 

            But God might just be saying, “Yes, but will you still have faith in Me and worship Me if I don’t do what you’re asking Me to do?”  This is a much deeper, truer level of faith. 

            Of course, we should pray and set our requests and desires before God.  But we need to give Him the right to answer as He will.  And once we let go of expectations that we have and begin to see how God is blessing us Today and how we can glorify Him Today, we will be able to say with Paul that we have “learned the secret of being content in all things”.  And life will be sweeter. 

            It might be bittersweet.  But it will be sweeter because we will be able to find God everywhere.  And this is why I don’t really feel lonely anymore.  I am learning to find a little bit of God’s friendship while I tend to my vegetable and flower gardens, and in the chickadees at the bird feeder, and in the amazing colors and scents of the different seasons.  His goodness is everywhere. 

            Contentment starts right now – in the life we have, as it is – or else it never starts at all!

            Contrary to what everyone believes, this life is not about making sure we are happy.  It’s about glorifying God and building His Kingdom and enjoying a relationship with Him.  But do we only believe that He is a good, loving God when we get what we want, or can we trust Him and praise Him regardless? 

            “But how can I praise Him,” you ask, “when I don’t feel like it?” 

            Well, simply put, praising Him is not a function of our emotions.  It’s not something we do because we “feel like it.”  He doesn’t say, “Be happy!”  He says “Praise!” 

            And praise is a verb, not a feeling we have to drum up.  When you read passages about praise, you’ll see that it’s a command to our wills.  And sometimes, as it says, it is a sacrifice.  But it’s something that we need to do because of who God is and who we are, regardless of if we feel like it or not.

            Thankfulness (or more accurately, thanksgiving) is not just about feeling warm and cozy and happy because life is going well.  It’s not about feeling mushy and gooey toward God because He gave us something we really wanted.  It’s not even really about what we have. 

            It’s about who God is and how much He loves us.  It’s about praising Him – regardless of what is going on in our lives - because He is a good, loving, faithful Father who cares about what’s going on and who will make all things right in the end. 

            It’s honoring and glorifying Him in the good times and bad, with the little we have or with the lot, because we know that everything is by Him and for Him. 

            And it’s for our spiritual health and protection.  Because bitterness, worry, and fear attract demons.  But praising God puts up a hedge of protection around us as we immerse ourselves in the Lord. 

            And if there is anything that we can be thankful for, it’s that He is a great big God who loves us a great big bunch, so much so that He came and died for us so that we could live with Him.  Can you think of any gift greater than that? 

            Psalm 96:4, 8:  “For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise . . . Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name . . .”

            1 Timothy 6:6-10:  “But godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.  People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.  Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”


4.  What is the difference between happiness and joy?  Which should we be pursuing and how can we do that?  (What are some things that make you happy?  That bring you joy?  Is there a difference in these kinds of things?)

5.  Do you think that Christians are guilty of pursuing happiness over joy?  How?  What problems does this cause?  And what are the effects on our spiritual lives?

6.  Do you think our expectations get in the way of our joy?  How?  And what kinds of expectations do we tend to have about life and about God? 

7.  How do you define contentment?  Are you content?  Are most Christians, in your opinion? 

8.  “Most discontentment comes from feeling like God owes us something that He isn’t giving us.  When in reality, we owe Him everything that we already have.” 
            Do you think this is true?  What else causes discontentment?  And how can we break out of discontentment?

9.  I said that we limit God by our expectations and parameters.  Do you think this is true or not?  And how would you explain what this means?  What problems might it cause? 

11.  Can our expectations of how God should answer our prayers get in the way of noticing and accepting how He really does answer them?  Can you think of any examples?  Any from your own life?

12.  How can “our feelings” create problems in our spiritual lives?  In our everyday lives?  What would God’s response to this be? 

15.  Why might we have a hard time trusting God?  Have you ever faced this?

16.  How important is it to learn to praise God in the pain and the trials?  What effect does it have on us when we do this?  When we don’t do this?

21.  There are lots of things in life that are not what they should be.  When is it right to strive for more or for better?  Basically, when and in what situations is “contentment” an unhealthy thing?  (Examples from your own life?) 

22.  When and in what situations might it be better to be learn to be content with things as they are?  When does striving for “more” or for “better” actually harm us instead of helping us?  (Examples from your life?)

24.  Is there anything that you need to learn to be content with?  Why are you having a hard time with it? 

25.  What do you think the “secret to being content” is?   

26.  What are the ultimate truths and hopes that we can cling to that make it possible to bear with anything this life throws at us? 

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