Anyone who’s spent much time around young children will be familiar with the observation made here by the author G.K. Chesterton:
“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes every daisy alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown up, and our Father is younger than we.”
I’ve certainly been there! Caught, before I know it, in a seemingly endless cycle of “Do it again!” With a few years of parenting under my belt, I’ve come to expect this from young children, however I’d never really though of God in this way. But surely Chesterton is right; God seems to take great delight in things that we would often think of as monotonous. He seems to have “the eternal appetite of infancy.” Each day of creation is an unhurried celebration of the things he’s made, both big and small. And despite the intervening millennia, God’s appreciation and joy still burns unquenched today.
Interestingly, one of the noticeable trends of early lockdown was the way that people were rediscovering (or even discovering for the first time) the simple blessings that surrounded them. Forced to stay home and encouraged to walk, run, or cycle around the local area, I heard countless examples of people “exulting in monotony.”
“I never realised that this great park was here before!”
“We’ve really been enjoying taking a family walk around the block each day!”
“This is the first time we’ve ever properly chatted to our neighbours!”
“I’ve never appreciated how lovely the view is from my living room window, until now!”
Now, of course, this intriguing reaction was born out of unprecedented circumstances. But as things begin to return to some kind of normality, is there something here that we should try to hold onto?
All of life is a gift from God
A Christian approach to everyday life should involve recognising that all of life is a generous gift from God. James writes that, “every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17), while the psalmist reflects, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).
Perhaps some of your earliest memories of praying or singing to God express this central Christian conviction. Saying grace at mealtimes reminds us that we constantly depend on God for our daily bread. Many classic kids’ songs teach us to appreciate God’s constant goodness to us: “Count your blessing, name them one by one. Count your blessings, see what God has done…”
However, this is an aspect of our spirituality that can often be left in childhood. As Chesterton suggests, we grow up and all too easily lose the wonder of God’s daily goodness to us. As adults, we make plans, getting wrapped up in tomorrow rather than savouring today.
Of course, this isn’t to say that making plans is always bad. Far from it. There are real godly ambitions to pursue. But it can also be very easy to spend our time straining forward, dreaming of what we don’t have, unable to appreciate what God has graciously given us today. We can pin all our hopes on an elusive “if only.”
If only I got that job… If only he wanted to be more than just friends… If only we could afford to buy X/Y/Z…
…then I’d be happy.
I’d be satisfied.
Isn’t this just pseudo-psychology?!
But maybe it just sounds as though I’m encouraging a bit of positive thinking, or pseudo-psychology. How is what we’re talking about any different from just “being present,” or living in the moment?
Actually, this whole issue is deeply grounded in the story of the Bible. Earlier we thought about the childlike joy that God seems to find in the world he’s created. Every little detail is worth celebrating. But the first major shift in the biblical storyline pivots on Adam and Eve’s failure to see life as God does. Instead of receiving life as a good gift from a generous creator, they listen to whispering snake. He convinces them that God is holding some of the good stuff back. Instead of enjoying the world God had given them, they are consumed by the intoxicating prospect of something else. And this desire is the genesis of sin.
Celebration and contentment
Hedonism is a modern term that seems to fit Adam and Eve’s attitude in Genesis 3 pretty well. In his book, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, John Ortberg offers an antidote to this destructive way of thinking:
“True celebration is the inverse of hedonism. Hedonism is the demand for more and more pleasure for personal gratification. It always follows the law of diminishing returns, so that what produced joy in us yesterday no longer does today. Our capacity for joy diminishes. Celebration is not like that. When we celebrate, we exercise our ability to see and feel goodness in the simplest gifts of God. We are able to take delight today in something we wouldn’t have even noticed yesterday. Our capacity for joy increases.”
Have you ever met this kind of person? Just yesterday (towards the end of a very long Zoom meeting!) one of the church staff described an older member of Lansdowne in the most brilliant way: “he’s wonderfully contented.” Isn’t that what we all long for? Contentment.
If Ortberg is right (and I think he is), then our contentment is directly linked to our capacity for joy in the everyday. And this, in turn, is fed by the spiritual discipline of celebration. The more we thank God for his goodness to us, the more our joy increases, because we begin to see his goodness hiding in all the tiny corners of our day to day existence.
Given what I’ve said, you could draw the conclusion that this only really works for people with tidy, comfortable, pleasant lives. But, as I’ve observed Christians over the years, this isn’t the case. In fact, the person I just mentioned has been recently widowed and is facing serious health problems. But the joy of the Lord is his strength. He remains “wonderfully contented.”
There’s a mystery to all of this. Contentment, joy, and celebration are intimately connected, but for the Christian, contentment and pain can somehow be uncoupled from each other. Often, Christians going through the toughest trials exhibit the greatest joy. Of course, this joy springs up, not just from an appreciation of the small things, but also from an awareness of God’s greatest gift. Contemplating God’s work in Christ—past, present and future—Paul declares: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
Contentment makes all the difference
As we draw things to a close, it’s worth asking what difference contentment makes. Firstly, contented people are less susceptible to temptation. If the account of the fall reveals anything to us about the nature of sin, it warns of the danger of making an idol of what God hasn’t graciously given us. As I mentioned earlier, ambition can certainly be a good thing, but pinning our hopes on an “if only,” as the source of our satisfaction, is the starting point for so much sin. It has the potential to completely distort our view of God. No longer to do we see him as he is: a generous Father. Instead, we imagine him holding back his goodness; we try to take matters into our own hands; we redefine “good” on our own terms.
But contented people have a far greater capacity for joy. By God’s grace, they’re able to see his goodness in every aspect of life. They spend less time staining towards the next thing, and more time celebrating God’s goodness to them now.
This leads us pretty naturally onto another difference that contentment can make. Contentment lends credibility to the gospel we share. We live in a world full of desperately dissatisfied people. Our contemporary Western society has trained us in the art. We’ve even made a virtue of it. But dissatisfaction is exhausting. It promises so much, but it doesn’t deliver. In this world, just think how attractive a truly contented person is. People all around us are parched, and when they see that your thirst has been quenched, they’ll want to know where they can find this water of life.
So, as we begin to return to normality, please don’t lose the wonder that many of us glimpsed momentarily in early lockdown. Practice the disciple of celebration and grow your capacity for joy. Recognise God’s goodness to you in all the tiny corners of your life. Celebrate his greatest gift to you: Jesus Christ. And cultivate “the eternal appetite of infancy” as you seek a lasting godly contentment.
Miles Tradewell | Minister