Class VII: Discontentment
Everyone struggles with discontentment at one time or another, and it's particularly difficult when we are discontent with the church. Don Whitney writes that no one can hurt a believer as deeply as a group of other believers.
Can you recall the last time you were deeply disappointed by another church member? What about the last time you felt like a church let you down? Maybe you felt like an outsider months after you joined. Or maybe the congregation was unconcerned about a priority that mattered to you. Difficulties like these easily lead to feelings of resentment.
Discontentment will always be with us. At least in this life, we won't rid ourselves of it entirely. So this class isn't about how to avoid discontentment. It's about how to deal with discontentment when it comes.
Above all, we can take comfort in knowing that God gives us grace to work through discontentment, and he will use it to serve his glory and our good. How we respond to discontentment, therefore, can be either a great source of evil for the church or a great source of good. How then should we handle discontentment so that it spurs us onward to unity? That's what we'll consider today.
I. THE BITTER FRUIT OF DISCONTENTMENT
What is discontentment? It's a desire for something better than the present situation. Now, on the one hand, it's inevitable that people in a sinful world will be discontent.
This world is broken by sin and should be better. On the other hand, it's also inevitable that sinful people like us will often put our hope in circumstances rather than in God. That's why discontentment with the church can bear such bitter fruit.
Let's look at three ways in which discontentment, if not properly handled, can harm the church's witness:
1. Discontentment Can Lead to Complaining and Grumbling
Paul warns us in the book of Philippians to "Do everything without complaining or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation" (2:14-15).
One thing that will make our witness compelling to the world around us is this: we do not complain or grumble. (See also James 5:9).When we allow discontentment to result in complaining and grumbling, we damage our reputation as Christians and harm the witness of the church.
2. Discontentment Can Lead to Discord
When we are unhappy with something we are tempted to talk about it. We criticize. We rally support to get people to see things our way. Behavior like that, no matter the virtue of the original concern, quickly causes factions and dissension within the church, something Paul lists alongside idolatry, witchcraft, and fits of rage (Gal. 5:20). We must address discontentment carefully because it so often bears the fruit of discord.
3. Discontentment Distracts from What Really Matters
As individuals and as a church, our charge is to "make the most of every opportunity" (Colossians 4:5). When our passions and energy are focused on what makes us unhappy, it becomes difficult to work together for the expansion of God's kingdom. Discontentment consumes our own time and attention; it saps our energy; and it consumes the time and energy of our brothers and sisters, our elders and staff.
III. HOW TO HANDLE DISCONTENTMENT
Discontentment can bear bitter fruit in the life of the church. However, if it is handled well, discontentment can actually lead to a strengthening of the body. When we respond to discontentment in a godly way; when we submit to each other for the sake of Christ and do the hard work of love, we bring great glory to God. We show that our unity as a church doesn't stem from perfect agreement, or compatible personalities, but that it flows from shared hope and satisfaction in Christ.
How do we do that? As with any other area of the Christian life, the key isn't to memorize a list of things we can do to respond to discontentment. It's to understand how the message of the gospel transforms our response to discontentment. Here are four general guidelines for addressing discontentment.
1. Pray for God's Mercy
First and foremost, Scripture tells us that we are unable to do anything of value in our own strength—and that includes responding to discontentment. Remember Psalm 121:
I lift up my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
When we find ourselves discontent, start by praying and crying out for God's mercy. It's foolish to think that we are mature enough or strong enough to handle discontent by our own power. We are fallen human beings, and our minds can easily be deceived.
When something difficult happens to you at church and someone asks you about it, is your first reaction to say, "Thanks—but I'm okay. Really, I am." Oh really? Are you okay because you've relied on the strength of God to forgive and to love beyond your own ability? Or are you okay because you think you have what it takes to shoulder everything by yourself?
When you encounter discontentment, pray. You are entering into a struggle that you cannot win on your own. Pray that God would give you discernment and wisdom. Pray that he would show you if your discontentment is rooted in your own sinful desires, and then pray that God would change those desires. We as a church would honor God far more if we tried to fix things ourselves less often, and spent more time in desperate pleading for God to heal us.
2. Examine Your Desires
Second, we need to carefully examine our hearts and try to understand the desires at the root of our discontentment. Is there sin that you need to confess? Are there desires that should be satisfied in Christ, but that you are wrongly seeking to have satisfied in others?
James writes in chapter 4 of his letter,
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. (James 4:1-2)
James gets right to the connection between discontentment and circumstances. We feel discontent because we have put our hope in our circumstances rather than in God.
But circumstances change. God does not. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. Therefore we must examine our hearts' desires in light of God's word. Are you fighting or quarreling with other Christians? Then there's a good chance you have some ungodly desires that you need to address.
For example, perhaps you're unhappy because someone is better friends with a particular person than you are. What's at the root of that discontentment? Do you want that friendship because it would convey a special status that you covet? Are you jealous of a friendship that seems so close? Ask God to identify sin in your life, and then confess it as sin. Think hard about the root problem: What desires lay behind your feeling of discontentment? Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Are you putting your hope in the approval of men rather than in Christ's provision for you? The gospel will counter that desire.
- Are you impatient with the inefficiency of others? The gospel will remind you that you can only do things in Christ's strength, in his time, and for his ends.
- Do you feel you deserve better treatment than you've received? Think instead of what you truly deserve from God. Remember the gospel's call to lay down your life—and your rights—for the sake of Christ.
A good part of the discontentment we feel can be put to rest simply by examining our desires and repenting of sin.
3. Fill Your Heart With a Passion for God's Glory
Not only must we repent of sinful attitudes, we must replace them with godly ones. Here, again, the gospel transforms the situation. God has lavished his riches on us by forgiving us of our sins. In light of that, the reasons for our discontentment can suddenly seem quite small. When we're filled with a passion to see God's glory proclaimed, discontentment rooted in selfishness melts away.
So how do we cultivate that kind of passion, especially on those days when we're feeling discontent?
First, do good, even when you don't feel like it.
When you are unhappy with someone in the church, pray for that person. Pray that God would prosper them, and that he would help you to understand that person's worth as one of his children. Thank God for saving them.
Even more, express that thankfulness in concrete ways. Send the person an encouraging e-mail, or meet some need in his or her life. Choosing to love someone at an extremely practical level can be one of the best ways to soften your heart in the midst of discontent.
Now, you might be thinking: But if I am feeling negative things while I say encouraging things outside, isn't that hypocrisy? No, it's not. Disciplining yourself to work for the good of another, even when you don't feel like it, is not hypocrisy. It's war against sin. It is part of what it means to persevere in love.
Don't wait until your heart is perfectly right to do the right thing. When we fight against our ungodly affections with godly actions, the Holy Spirit can use that to convict and change our hearts.
Martin Luther is famous for having said, "If you're going to sin, sin boldly." He's often misunderstood there. What he meant was that Christians should not refrain from doing good works just because evil motives are mixed with good ones. Our motives are never going to be perfectly righteous, but that shouldn't stop us from doing what is right. Do the good work in spite of your sinful motives—"Sin boldly!" Luther said—and trust God to use even your imperfect good work to convict and transform your heart.
Second, count others more significant than yourself.
Consider what Paul says in Philippians 2:3: "Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves." We recite this verse pretty often, but do we really live it?
Why should you consider other Christians "more significant" than yourself? Because they are more capable or more godly? No. It's because they are Christ's possession. He has bought them with his blood, and they are precious in God's sight.
Much of our selfish discontentment begins because we have imagined that we are more important than the people around us. Considering others more significant than yourself is not only humbling, it's a great way to remind yourself of the unmerited grace God has shown you.
4. Be Careful with Your Words
How you choose to talk about your discontentment with others will determine whether that discontentment spreads or subsides. So what should you talk about and how should you talk about it?
First, do the things we've talked about here—pray, examine your desires, and fill your mind with thoughts of God's glory—before you speak with anyone. Any conversation you have should have as its goal either to confess sin or to constructively plan how you might engage the situation and encourage the church. If your conversation does not fall into one of those two categories, then it may well be complaining and grumbling.
Second, don't talk to another member simply to "vent" your frustrations. Talking about frustrations can be helpful, but only if the purpose is to confess sin, seek counsel, or plan a constructive response. Using a conversation merely to let off steam or seek affirmation in your discontentment only worsens the problem. The temptation to sin in anger can be incredibly strong, and it is something against which we must guard ourselves.
Third, don't talk about the sin of other Christians. In Matthew 18, Jesus lays out very clear steps for dealing with sin in the church, and the first one is to confront the person who has sinned. Unless you have confronted the person and he has refused to listen, talking with anyone else about that person's sin is gossip.
Fourth, don't lobby support for your position. The Bible refers to a person who does that as "divisive"—one who seeks to create factions in the church.
When you become discontent with the church, or with other Christians, you have a choice: You can either stoke anger in your heart, gossip, and contribute to strife and disunity in the church. Or you can pray, examine your desires, fill your heart with a passion for God's glory, guard your words, and participate in building a unified, God-glorifying church, even in the middle of a fallen world.
IV. SPECIFIC AREAS OF DISCONTENT
Discontentment can arise because of just about anything, but it seems to especially arise in several areas. What are the areas, and how do we respond?
1. The Church Isn't Meeting My Needs
One common reason for discontentment is a feeling that the church is not meeting one's felt needs.
Perhaps you've been a member of the church for several months, and yet you're still finding it difficult to make close friends. Maybe you feel dissatisfied because your particular gifts are not being recognized and used in the church.
Whatever the issue, we must remember that joy in the Christian life doesn't come by finding a careful balance between serving others and being served. No, that's not the picture that the Scriptures give us of the joyful Christian life. Christian joy comes as we give ourselves completely in service to Christ and his people. After all, the command is to "Love one another," not to "Be loved by one another." The language is active, not passive!
So what should you do if discontentment takes root because you feel like you're not being cared for? Pray, and then search your heart. Are these feelings flowing from selfish and ungodly desires? Are you more concerned about whether people are reaching out to you than you are about whether you're reaching out to others? Your desire to use your gifts—does that come from a desire to be personally satisfied, or from a genuine desire to benefit the church?
Then seek God's glory even in the midst of your discontentment. Remember that God's priority is for you to glorify him by loving others. Meet someone else's need, and you may find that your deepest need all along was not so much to be loved as to love.
2. I Don't Like That Person
Perhaps it's an issue of envy or rivalry: you resent the blessings God has lavished on a particular brother or sister. Or maybe it's just a basic feeling of discomfort: someone behaves in a way that's radically different from what you're accustomed to. How do you work through discontentedness in areas like this?
Again, it's a matter of thinking of those people in light of God's grace and glory. Learn to pray for people whom you dislike, and ask God to bless and mature them. Remember that those people, though broken and imperfect today, are being transformed into Christ's likeness with ever-increasing glory. Loving those whom we find uncomfortable is not easy, but it is hugely important, for it's through those kinds of relationships that God is most glorified.
3. I Disagree with the Leadership
A third category of situations in which we may struggle with discontentment is when we disagree with decisions of church leaders. We will devote the next class to understanding how we should express and resolve those disagreements biblically. The one comment I'll make now is that everything we've talked about today also applies to discontentment caused by disagreement with church leaders.
When you encounter this kind of disagreement, remember to pray for God's mercy, to examine your heart's desires, to fill your heart with a passion for God, and to be careful in how you speak to others about the disagreement.
In his first letter, Peter said, "Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8). There are few areas where Christians are more susceptible to stumble than in the area of discontentment. What begins as a mild critique or a moment of insecurity can wreak havoc in a church, as members pursue selfish agendas and sink more and more into unhappiness and discord.
In the end, we must remember to put our hope in God and not in our circumstances. At the root of discontentment is the idea that things would be better if some person or situation would simply change. Compared to the one who is Lord of those circumstances, and who has promised us surpassing joy in himself, those circumstances are a poor ground for our hope. Let's pray that, as a body, we would pursue the joy that is found in him alone.