The Healing Power of Contentment
by Richard A. Swenson, MD
Over 100 million Americans have chronic diseases, conditions that are often treatable but generally not curable. Diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, heart disease, headaches…I could go on, but it’s quite a long list and I don’t want us to get depressed about it. Oh, yes, depression—that’s another bad actor to throw into the mix.
These illnesses often lead to chronic pain and disability. We didn’t invite these trials into our lives, and we certainly don’t enjoy their setting up basecamp in our heads. What is the best way to achieve a measure of healing when healing is impossible?
How we approach this issue is one of the keys to our wellbeing. Can a person be “well” and still have chronic pain? Can a person live a fulfilling life and have major disabilities? Can a person even come to the point of thanking God for illness and suffering? The perhaps surprising biblical answer is yes. And, as crazy as it sounds, contentment is a large part of God’s provision for our “healing” in the midst of these very circumstances.
Let me introduce you to one of my modern heroes, Dr. Elaine Eng. A graduate of Princeton University and Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Elaine was in the middle of her OB/GYN residency when she developed problems with her vision. She made an appointment with an eye doctor, where the diagnosis didn’t take long: retinitis pigmentosa. She was going blind. A Christian for eight years, the first thing Dr. Eng did was thank the Lord. Then she resigned her residency program and went home.
“The Lord had already started working in my heart to somehow begin to cope with this diagnosis before I’d even heard of it,” Dr. Eng said. “I was in a residency with two children—a baby and a toddler. I was torn between my children and my job. When I heard the news, I was startled but then blessed to realize that this was part of the Lord’s answer to my dilemma. I resigned that day, thanked the Lord, went home, and had some of the greatest years being a full-time mother.
“This so-called ‘tragedy’ in my life was very much for the good. I had the chance to ‘see’ and care for my children during those precious young years. To play with them, sing songs, teach them, feed them, and do all those wonderful mothering things that many take for granted. And now that they are grown, I can see in my mind’s eye all those great images and memories. I enjoyed motherhood so much that I would not have changed my life in any way if given the chance.”
After her blindness was complete and her children a bit older, she returned to medicine by switching to psychiatry. Psychiatrists know all the stages of grief, but Dr. Eng says her personal experience was different from the textbooks. “At the moment of diagnosis and the four years following, I did not experience any of that and I have to say that is not normal, but it is Christian and divine. This is the only way, as a psychiatrist, I can explain it. The initial diagnosis was received by me as a good thing, and it did work out well in so many ways.”
Who talks like this? No one. Rather, only those rare joyous people sent the special gift of contentment from another world.
When we think deeply about it, discontent doesn’t heal anything. Pastor and author, J. R. Miller, addressed this a century ago. “Discontent never made a rough path smoother, a heavy burden lighter, a bitter cup less bitter, a dark way brighter, a sore sorrow less sore. It only makes matters worse. One who accepts with patience that which he cannot change—has learned one secret of victorious living.”
The common and often understandable reactions of frustration, irritability, and bitterness do not dull pain, they double it. But if we turn in God’s direction, His gift of contentment offers a measure of peace in the midst of pain.
Paul, chained to a Roman guard toward the end of his life, wrote, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.” None of us can control the conditions of our lives completely. Paul spoke directly to this, knowing that if contentment was to be of use to Christians, it must survive the difficulties of life. The list of Paul’s trials is a daunting one, but he discovered a “secret” fountain of sufficiency from God, whether his situation was good or dire.
Paul fully intends to take this experience out to the end—and to take us with him. In the extreme case, he asserts that adversity or prosperity no longer matter, for a quiet contentment of mind bears them both. Our peace in Christ is unbroken because we have a submission to the will of God. Whatever He allots we accept with gratitude and whatever is lacking receives the same gratitude.
God’s contentment is divorced from circumstances, devoid of comparisons, independent of health or wealth, and entails a complete spectrum from top to bottom. Its intention is to set us free and to give us peace and rest.
So here is our choice. We can live with discontentment, incurring the collateral damage of unhappiness, comparison, envy, strife, and yes, increased suffering. Or we can choose to live with biblical contentment, to accept adversity with peace, to “rest in the shadow of the Almighty,” to have faith in God’s plan for our lives, to believe God knows precisely what He is doing, to trust that He has considered every possibility and chosen the right course for us. God, as you know, is our friend, and, frankly, that ought to seal the deal right there.