“The Heart of Discontent”
Covenant Baptist Church, San Antonio
October 26, 2014
Kyndall Rae Rothaus
(To listen to the audio, click “play” button above. To download audio, click here.)
As you know, I have some contemplative leanings. I enjoy silence, solitude, and stillness. I resonate with Centering Prayer, mindful breathing, and wordless communication with God. I’m a little envious of Quakers and Buddhists.
But despite all that, it is often not very serene in the inner life of Kyndall. When Paul says he has learned the secret of being content in all things, I feel as if I don’t have a freaking clue what he’s talking about. I’ve been given no such secrets and consequently it is a raging mess inside of me most of the time. I am a swirling, turbulent river rapids with desires and questions and tensions all tumbling over one another. My soul rides this little raft, trying to stay upright, trying not to drown.
So I’m a little put out by how easy Paul makes contentment sound, as if he never gets stuck in traffic, never burns his dinner in the oven, never has to call the plumber. And maybe he doesn’t deal with the same aggravations as me, but then I remember . . . Paul is writing these words from prison. Turns out he doesn’t have an easier life than me, just, apparently, a happier one or at least a more contented one.
HOW DOES HE DO THAT?!
Even with all my sincere prayers, breathing exercises, bubble baths, and chocolate-eating, it is still almost impossible to find my contentment and hold onto it. I find moments of serenity but not more. Perhaps you can relate?
Here’s the thing though: When I look back over the course of my life, discontent has, at times, played a stunning role in my growth. It has been discontent that alerted me when things in my environment were harmful and damaging and I needed to go elsewhere. It has been discontent that has spurred me forward to find my voice, discontent that compelled me to stand up and speak, discontent that served as a catalyst for growth and brand new acts of courage.
When I think about the great champions of justice and equality, I cannot imagine, for example, that Martin Luther King Jr. was ever content a day in his life with the situation around him or that it was inner peace and serenity that motivated the woman suffragists to demand their right to vote. I cannot imagine it was contentment with the status quo that prompted God to set about redeeming the world.
So when we talk contentment, we must understand that we do not mean a passive and apathetic acceptance of what is. We must, instead, mean something more nuanced and more deeply real. We cannot mean numb. We cannot mean unfeeling or resigned.
Here is what I think about Paul’s statement. He says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” and I used to take that “I can” statement to mean “I can maintain contentment (through Christ who strengthens me).” But see, that is a very specific and narrow interpretation of what Paul can do, whereas what he actually says is that he can do all things, which is quite open and broad.
The word “do” is active. It implies action. If you ask me, there is no way being in jail naturally produced in Paul warm fuzzy feelings of contentment. This was a man strongly called to preach, to travel, to bear witness. Which means that to be locked up and away from his people must have disturbed him. So what did he do about that? Search deep inside and find his happy place? Sit for awhile in meditation? Pray for peace and contentment? Perhaps. Perhaps he did some of those things or all of those things; we don’t really know. What we do know about what he did was that he wrote some letters.
When Paul found himself incarcerated, he did not lay down and die from the despair. He did not give up. He did not beat his head against the wall and ask, “Why me?” He found a way to live out his vocation and his call, even from jail. In the face of lack, in the face of discontent, he did something active in service of his purpose. This is not to dismiss the practice of contemplation and prayer, of sitting still and waiting on God, of learning how to accept the life you’ve been given. But it is to say that uncovering a life of contentment requires a discernment process with your discontent. Is your discontent a side effect of unresolved greed in your heart or it is a God-given drive to desire a redeemed world? Does your discontent arise from a neediness to have everything go your way, to have plenty of stuff and success to fill the empty ache inside of you? Or does the discontent arise because you are meant to fulfill your potential, to take a leap of faith, or to serve others, but your fears have been holding you back, and the discontent is saying, “Hesitate no longer.” Sometimes we recover from discontent by breathing and praying through the angst, learning how to let go of what we want and surrender. Other times we recover from the discontent by listening close to why it is there, and taking deliberate action in service of a more healed world or a more healed self.
I am reminded of the serenity prayer: “God grant me the serenity ?to accept the things I cannot change; ?courage to change the things I can;?and wisdom to know the difference.”
I imagine Martin Luther King, Jr. did feel a type of contentment when he was doing the work he was being asked to do. Even though the progress was disappointing, the work itself was satisfying. As he once said, “Those who are not looking for happiness are the most likely to find it, because those who are searching forget that the surest way to be happy is to seek happiness for others.” But he also said, “We must always maintain a kind of divine discontent.”
There is a creative tension for the people of God between discontent and content; there is a deep listening required to find what it is the discontent is saying to our hearts. Are we seeking fulfillment through something that isn’t meant to be ours? Or is the discontent calling us to take a new direction, and we will never be content until we obey the path of courage? There is a fine line between the discontent that breeds despair and resignation and the discontent that births new life and new gumption.
I am reminded of a story Becca Stevens told when I was recently in Nashville learning more about her work with women coming out of the sex industry and restoring their lives. She told us there had been a women in their program who had been clean and off the streets for over a year when she got dragged back into court on old charges. Staff members at Magdalene House rose quickly to provide character witness testimonies before the judge in her defense. Even so, Ty was sentenced to several more years in jail, right after a long hard year of recovery and progress.
Years later, when Ty was released yet again, the women of Magdalene House picked her up. Becca was amazed at her good spirits after all those years of setback. “Ty, how are you not bitter?” she asked.
Ty replied, “This is the first time I’ve gone to prison and taken a whole community with me.” Even though she was incarcerated, the women of Magdalene House visited her, sent her letters, found ways to journey with her. Ty also said, “This is the first time I’ve gone to prison and known where I would go as soon as I got out.”
I am thinking that when Ty first got clean and began to reclaim her life, it had to have been discontent that got her to take those first steps to wholeness. But then, once she was in jail facing the discouragement of being back there again and was perhaps tempted to give up and revert to old ways, it was her commitment to keep up with the good work of her recovery that saved her from turning bitter.
There is a creative tension for the people of God between discontent and content; there is a deep listening required to find what it is the discontent is saying to our hearts. There is a fine line between the discontent that breeds despair and resignation and the discontent that births new life and new gumption. Most of us don’t know the extreme obstacle something like a prison sentence would pose to our hope, but we do know obstacles, and it is true for us too, as King once said that “we must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
Like Paul, Martin Luther King wrote letters from jail. In his letter from Birmingham Jail, he wrote:
“Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half-truths . . . so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood . . .
I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who . . . prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice . . . I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality.”
Contentment isn’t necessarily about maintaining Stoic detachment from the annoyances of life so that your feathers never appear ruffled. Contentment is more about continuing the good work no matter what befalls you. You can do all things through Christ who strengthens you, wherever you find yourself, in darkness or in light, in justice or injustice, in plenty or in want. You can keep doing the work you were called to do. Contentment comes not from the outcome of your actions, but from knowing you’ve remained faithful.
Near the end of his life, King said in a sermon, “Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now . . . Like any man, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Those words are from a speech he gave at Bishop Charles Mason Temple on April 3, 1968. The next day, April 4, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Though many of his dreams had yet to be actualized, if we take him at his word, Martin Luther King Jr. died a happy and contented man.
My friends, either your discontent can imprison to you, whereby your bitterness at your victimhood, or your grumpy dissatisfaction with not having enough compared to your neighbor keeps you small and cynical and pouty and inactive, forever addicted and chained to the illusion of cheap relief. Or, your discontent can lead you to a liberating life of dedicated service, whereby hope will define even your darkest days. Even if placed in a literal jail cell, the person of infinite hope would still have the strength to say, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” May we be the sort of people who, when our bodies our shackled, write letters, and when our voices are drowned out by injustice, keep a holy discontent alive in our hearts, that we might die happy and alive. Amen.
 Martin Luther King Jr., sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood, June 1965.