How to find true contentment?

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Since childhood, Liz Carter has lived with a disarming chronic illness. She would not however choose a different life. Her seemingly depressing situation took her to a place we all would like to be – a place of full surrender to and deep joy in God.

She wrote about her search and conclusions in her book “Catching Contentment. How to be holy satisfied”. In this interview she shares how she continues the journey every day, not always successfully but with contentment in her heart. And she shares a lot of practical experience relevant to all of us.

Where do you find contentment?

I said in the book that contentment is not found in our wholeness but in God’s holiness. Through the years I have learnt that it does not have anything to do with our circumstances or things that make us happy, but with who God is and what He is doing in us.

I often go back to apostle Paul’s words – being crucified with Christ is the best place to be for our souls. When I look inside myself for joy, I experience not only physical pain but also mental. In Jesus however, I am fully at rest.

Looking to Jesus and dying to ourselves is key – not looking inside ourselves, as the world around us tells us. But it is not easy to understand and internalise this. How do you make that switch?

It is a process and there is no formula to finding contentment – it is a decision we take in whatever pain we feel. Recent months, with shielding and repeated infections, have been very difficult for me so I fully understand this.

I find Psalms really helpful in gaining the right perspective. The psalmist asks God where He is and why does He feel so far away but despite that sense of separation, he stands on the truth he already knows. He praises God despite his current situation.

I do the same and it is a training of your mind that eventually gets you to that point. It is also about being kind to ourselves. I might not be able to praise God the way I would like on a particular day, because of pain and lack of strength, but I can turn on worship music on YouTube and offer my worship to God in that way. It has to be enough for those days.

In Psalm 42, the author says that he is in the deepest of the pits, yet he praises the Lord. He shares with the readers about the good days when he went to the temple with procession but now his soul is downcast and desolate. These words are so powerful because many of us can identify with the desolation.

But he later says – “yet, I’ll praise him”. The ‘yet’ is the most powerful word to me. So many times, I’ve had to claim those words for myself – grit my teeth and do it.

Liz Carter

You have come to these conclusions throughout years of searching. Can you tell us a bit more about your journey?

As a baby I caught pneumonia which started the process of scaring on my lungs which continues to this day. I then caught whopping cough. Frequent illnesses meant I missed a lot of school. It was degenerating.

At the time Christians were talking a lot about healing and wholeness. I heard that if only I had enough faith, God would heal me. He was not doing that though, so I thought I was lacking something. I heard it so many times in my early life that it became a norm.

I questioned myself and asked if I had done something to block God’s healing. As a result, I felt I had to fight for contentment. Unsurprisingly, I ended up feeling discontent and thought I disappointed God. I was also disappointed in Him.

I often go back to apostle Paul’s words – being crucified with Christ is the best place to be for our souls.

Liz Carter

But in your intimate moments with God, it was different.

Over the years, I came to realise that when I looked to God, spent time in His presence and worshipped Him, something special happened. I realised I was experiencing the real peace in those moments – because I was looking away from my own needs and pain.

It was much later, maybe about 10 years ago, that someone from New Wine asked if I could lead a seminar on contentment. I was shocked – I did not think I was the right person. I told them they needed someone who was ‘fixed’, someone who had it all together. But they said they had seen something in me that was different, and they did not want anyone else to deliver the seminar.   

Researching for the seminar set me off on a journey. For years, I had to work out what t meant to find my worth in God and not in what I did. On that journey I was set free from all those things that have been playing back in my mind. It was a real joy.

I pulled all those stuff about contentment from the Bible, especially from Philippians. It has changed my life because I suddenly saw so many people in the Bible who lived in peace despite being on the edges of pain. It showed me that contentment does not mean that everything is sorted in this life but that in the worst of difficulties we can access God’s supernatural peace.

In my search, I came across many people from whom I have learnt a lot, like Terry Waite. He lived in prison in solitary confinement in the darkness for 5 years. His story – of resilience in dire circumstances – is amazing. This kind of people has taught me that contentment is so much more than the stuff you get, and pain being taken away.

In a way, all of us live with some kind of pain – for some it might be pain of chronic illness but for others it might be a broken relationship or pain of everyday life. It is important to note that what you are talking about applies to everyone.

However, not everyone will look at the title of your book and be excited. Some people will think that it is not for them or that they had tried it before, and it did not work.   

I understand their experience because I have been sceptical myself. But on my journey I realised I needed to look away from myself to find the depth of contentment Paul wrote about. It is not easy to do when you are in pain but training your mind will change that.

It is human to feel sceptical about stuff, especially if someone has gone through a lot of pain. I would say to those sceptics that if they cried out to God and had not seen anything happen, they might be in a place where they think it did not work. I get it but I still think there are things you can do to address that.

Over Covid-19 pandemic there were times I did not feel content and I would just cry out to God. This is normal and very human. We need to do it and God can take it. To be honest and to be real before God and before others is big part of contentment.

Like what?

Different people respond to different writing so even if my book does not resonate with them, they can find something by digging in the scripture. In the letter to Philippians Paul writes not to be anxious about anything but pray with thanks for everything, look for peace beyond understanding.

In the book it all looks very ordered with chapters entitled: Captivated Contentment, Courageous Contentment and Contagious Contentment but life is not like that.

My book might look ordered and tidy but behind it is a process of several years. I did not sit down and wrote a book with snappy titles. I thought about different ways that contentment could be expressed, and it just so happens that I like alliterations.

Captivated contentment is about worship and being taken up by God so much that there is no space for anything else. That enticement and allurement takes us out of ourselves even if we are in pain. We cannot get this kind of contentment anywhere else, and it is simply incredible.

I am still learning to worship on God’s terms not mine – laying all down before Him, going with attitude of offering. That is where I find deeper joy – when it is not about me.

Courageous contentment is about the journey that I have been on with chronic illness. I have to find courage to do almost everything a person does in a normal life. In the process I have learnt that courage does not always come from within me. The world will tell us that if you only dig deep, you will find the courage in yourself – but you cannot always dig very deep. Sometimes you just have to fall at God’s feet and say that you have nothing to offer – that’s courage.

How about the other two – contagious and confident?

You can be contagious for bitterness – I have been, we all have. If you let the feeling of bitterness come out of you, it can be contagious but contentment is likewise. Paul’s words about focusing your mind on Jesus, on what is good, praiseworthy etc. – it’s like cognitive behavioural therapy.

Confident contentment is about being confident in faith. My faith has been tested by my illness, especially in early years, at secular university where I went to complete theology degree but also through everyday doubts. Faith needs to be challenged because it makes it more grounded and more confident.

This section was also about being confident in my future with God, not just here on earth but in eternity when all the tears will be wiped away and the grief will be lifted.

How was your faith and ‘theory of contentment’ tested over the last year by the coronavirus pandemic and the fact that you had to shield for over a year.

Shielding and ill health – one infection after another has left me worn out – last year has tested my contentment more than anything else before. I had to dig into it more than before. At time I did not feel content and I was just crying out to God. This is normal and very human. We need to do it and God can take it. To be honest and to be real before God and before others is big part of contentment.

Lately, I have been going back to Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

These are lovely words often used as a decoration, but they are often taken out of context. Without the context they can be damaging. People see these words and think about their difficult circumstances – feeling hurt, damaged, not prosperous, and wonder where their prosperity is.

When you look at this verse in the context, it has completely different meaning. Jeremiah wrote those words to exiles in Jerusalem who were taken away from their home country. This verse is preceded by a whole passage advising them to thrive where they were. Jeremiah tells them to plant their gardens, build houses, pray for their neighbours – to find peace where they were not where they could be.

Lately, I have been going back to those often. I have been often asking myself what it means to thrive where I am. Every time I realise that it is about looking out the window and seeing the sunshine and hear the birds singing, having a friend who will send an uplifting message, a husband who will make a cup of tea when I really need it.  

When I am in bed with pain in my lungs my mind might be going round in circles saying there is nothing that can make me thrive in that moment, but I know I can play a worship song – I do not have to engage with the song but listen to the words sang to me.

They are treasures found in the darkness. During shielding last year, I wrote a new book – “Treasure in Dark Places: Stories and poems of hope in the hurting”. It is all about pain and it was cathartic to write it when I felt lonely and helpless. God let me write down those feelings to sustain me through the hard time.

Photo courtesy of Liz Carter

What were some of the treasures you discovered?

They are small things. God does not communicate by writing over the sky or with loud booming voice but through glimpses. Glimpses of His glory – someone’s kindness, things in the moment. It is sometimes hard to describe those glimpses in words and they might appear in the deepest of pain. Whatever they are, you need to hold on tight to them.  

What practical things did you do during the pandemic to help yourself, to sustain the contentment – apart from crying to God.

In those difficult times you need to be kind to yourself – allow grief and not feel that you have to pull yourself out of it. Sometimes, I let myself sit in the pit, knowing that God does not say ‘pull your socks up and get out of it’ but He goes down to the pit with me.

So I have been kind to myself by admitting that certain things hurt. I have gone at a slower pace and took time with yourself and God.

I shared with trusted friends what I was going through. It is important to find your people to be there and listen. I was part of a shielding group for the whole year and separately part of a local prayer group. Both were very helpful.  

There is no formula to finding contentment – it is a decision we take in whatever pain we feel.

Liz Carter

What would you say to people who want the contentment you are talking about but are not sure how to begin the journey?

Realising your value and worth in God is the best place to start. You need to know who you are in Him to build upon that foundation. Next is digging into Scripture and reading what it says about who you are and who God is.

The Bible has so many characters, even Paul himself, that look weak in the eyes of the society but are strong in God and we can learn a lot from them. Paul was imprisoned, shipwrecked, in pain and persecuted. Gideon was always seen as the weakest – he did not have anything that a society would be proud of. The same with king David before he became a king – he was the weakest and youngest brother and all those people who partnered with God despite their weakness and who found their worth in looking to him.

You experienced bullying at school, you are living with painful chronic illness, yet I see in you an example for myself and others in how to connect with God and live life satisfied.

Paraphrasing Romans 5:3-5, suffering produces character and character produces hope. Bullying or living life with pain of any kind can produce resilience.

When we admit we have nothing to offer, God will make something out of it. For a reason Paul wrote that he could anything through Christ, not through his own strength.

Through various things in life God has led me closer to His heart. I do not think He has given me painful experiences on purpose – I do not think that’s how God works, but He brought something valuable out of them.  

It has not been fun living with illness causing a lot of pain and hospital visits, but I am not sure I would have it any other way in life. Even with a lot of pay, I am grateful.

Has this interview given you something to think about? Sparked an idea in your mind? Or encouraged you in your Christian walk?

Share your thoughts in comments.

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