This morning as we prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving this Thursday, I wanted to talk about the importance of contentment. And who better to teach us about contentment than Solomon, the man who had everything and learned that better things and better circumstances are not the secret to contentment. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon is writing as an old man. He’s looking back on his life, and he’s sharing from his mistakes. He’s mentoring us on how to live a life of lasting joy in a world where things don’t last. Solomon’s whole point in this book is not that life is meaningless; it’s that life is short. Life’s a vapor, and so the question is, how do we get a sense of lasting joy and contentment in a world where nothing lasts? That’s what he sets out to answer and that’s why today’s message is titled “A Feast Without End,” because what Solomon is going to teach us is how to experience a feast without end in a world where every feast ends.
(Read Ecclesiastes 5:18-20)
It is glaringly obvious from this passage that God wants you and me to enjoy life. It’s right here: The God of the Bible—the true God—wants you to eat and drink and find enjoyment, so you know what this means … guilt free seconds on Thursday! We’ve got the biblical warrant for it right here. But obviously, the main thing that God is driving at through the wisdom of Solomon here is the experience of contentment. Contentment is the real and lasting feast. In Proverbs 15:15, he says that a cheerful heart, or a contented heart, has a continual feast. Contentment is a feast without end. No matter where we are, who we are, or what we have, true Christianity is meant to be a feast of contentment in the soul, which means becoming a Christian is like pulling up to a feast.
But Solomon knows something. He knows that there’s nothing new under the sun and that so many people are living with discontentment. In every congregation that’s meeting today, in every home, in every bar, in every stadium, in every hospital and health club, there’s someone who thinks, If only I were like him or like her. If only I were stronger. If only I were taller, cuter, smarter, younger, healthier, or wealthier, then I would be happy. If only my parents were different, if only my kids were different, or my job were different, then I would be set; I would be satisfied. The very fact that we think this only goes to show that we need to reconsider our whole approach to contentment.
But what is contentment? Why does contentment really matter, and how do we get it? Those are the three aspects of contentment that I want to look at from this passage. We are going to look at the essence of contentment, the importance of contentment, and the experience of contentment.
The essence of contentment
Let’s start by defining our terms, and I realize that you may not think that it’s necessary to define this and explain this, but I think it is. Because I would say that the majority of people think of contentment as something entirely passive. They think of contentment almost like that feeling after you’ve gone back for seconds on Thanksgiving, where you’re just full and you may say, “Oh, no more. I’m content.” You see, that idea of contentment is very passive. It’s sort of sitting back and doing nothing, and because we have this false idea of contentment—that it’s a passive thing—this is why we find ourselves torn on what to do oftentimes.
A couple weeks ago, I was meeting with a younger gentleman who goes here, and he said to me, “I feel torn about something and I don’t know what to do.” He said, “I want to find another job and strive to serve Christ more and seek to improve my situation, but I also want to be content in life. And so I’m torn between self-improvement and self-contentment. Should I be satisfied with where I’m at or should I be striving for something more?” You see the difficulty? You see the tension? Because he thought of contentment as a passive thing, he was torn, he was divided, but I explained to him that contentment isn’t passive; it’s active. Look at verse 18: Solomon puts contentment right in the active voice. “Contentment is not just knowing there’s food and drink and work. … No, it’s eating, drinking and toiling. It’s taking what you have and making the most of it. It’s not a passive satisfaction; it’s an active one.”
G. K. Chesterton put it this way: “True contentment is a thing as active as agriculture. It is the power of getting out of any situation all that there is in it.” In other words, contentment is the joyful art of making the most of what you have. This is why in Philippians 4, when Paul is describing the secret of contentment, he doesn’t say, “I can sit back and do nothing through Christ who strengthens me.” No, he says, “I can do all things!” In other words, through the strength of Christ, I can maximize the moment. I can make the most of having a lot or having a little. See, it’s not passive; it’s active.
Here are a couple of distinctions that may help anyone who’s like this gentleman and struggling with this false tension between improvement and contentment:
You have to distinguish between desires and needs.
It’s not wrong for a spouse to want their marriage to improve. What’s wrong is thinking they need their marriage to improve in order to find joy. Or take another example: It’s not wrong for our church to want to be in a permanent facility and taking steps toward that end. What’s wrong is to feel like we need a permanent facility in order to do effective ministry. The language of discontentment is not “I wish I had”; it’s “if only I had.” So what we have to do is we have to give our desires to God in prayer and then make the most of what he’s given to us right now. So is that spouse making the most of the marriage that they do have? Are we making the most of this building that we do have? Contentment doesn’t mean you can’t have dreams and desires; it’s just that you don’t confuse those with what you presently need to biblically succeed.
You have to distinguish between the present and the future.
I could find myself in a very difficult situation that I want to take steps to make sure that doesn’t happen again in the future, but I’m in the present and so contentment is making the most of the now, but it doesn’t mean I can’t take steps to improve the later. When Solomon says in verse 19 to accept your lot, this is not a passive acceptance like, “Oh okay, well, I guess I have this.” No, it’s “Alright, I have this. Now how can I maximize it? How can I find joy in it?”
It’s exactly like the old hit TV show MacGyver. Many of you know I can’t talk about contentment without bringing this in. If you’ve seen the show, you remember that MacGyver always gets into situations where you think there’s absolutely no way that he has what he needs to escape, but every single time he proves us wrong. And he somehow makes a bomb out of a stereo and toothpaste. See what he is doing—he’s not sitting back and saying, “Oh well, I guess this is my lot.” No, his acceptance is taking what he has and making the most of it! That’s contentment. It’s seizing the day. It’s seizing the moment. It’s saying, “Alright, Lord, here’s where you’ve placed me. Here’s what I’ve got on my plate or here’s what I’ve got on my schedule, or here’s what you’ve called me to do. And I’m gonna Macgyver this day! I’m gonna get out of it all that there is in it.” Most people see a problem in every opportunity, but people who are content see an opportunity in every problem. They say, “Alright, here’s the issue. Here’s the difficulty. Now how I can see a way where I can make the most of it?” Someone said it this way: “The people who have the most in life are the people who make the most of what they have.” Are you doing that? Are you maximizing the good and the grace that is all around you, even the difficulties? What do you have that you’re not capitalizing on? Contentment is the joyful art of making the most of what you have. That’s the essence of contentment.
The importance of contentment
So, why is contentment such a big deal? From this particular passage, I see two big reasons why we should do everything we can to foster contentment.
This life is fleeting.
Life is so short. It’s a vapor, and there’s nothing we can do to change that. All we can do is decide how to use this time. That’s what this Book is about. That’s what he’s getting at toward the end of verse 18 when he says, “The few days of his life that God has given him.” He’s saying that it goes by so fast that when you’re nearing the end of it, it feels like it was just yesterday that you were a teenager. It feels like it was just yesterday when the kids were little or when you were riding your bike with your friends or playing on the playground. Solomon is trying to help us to avoid constantly living for tomorrow, this constant angst that I need something more that keeps us from enjoying all that we have now. Why is contentment so important? Because life is fleeting and most people spend all their time—wasting their time—wishing for a day that may never come. They miss out on all that they have right in front of them.
There was a Christian counselor who once sat down with his client who was very anxious and never happy, and the counselor took out a big white piece of paper and drew about a quarter-size black dot in the middle of the paper. He asked his counselee, “What do you see on the paper?” And he said, “Obviously, a black dot.” And the counselor said, “I think that’s your problem. There’s more white space on that paper than black, and yet all you can see is black.” It’s the same in your life—what’s the white space? What are the good things that are all around you that you’re missing because you’re so focused on the one or two things that aren’t going well?
Solomon is saying the same thing, that there’s so many people who go through this short life and almost all they focus on every single day is the black dot. Life is fleeting, my friend. Look at the white space and maximize that.
This life is my lot.
Twice in these verses he mentions your lot in life: end of verse 18, “For this is his lot.” Middle of verse 19: “to accept his lot.” This doesn’t mean we can’t improve our lot; what he is saying is that it’s no use wishing you were someone else and had someone else’s gifts, someone else’s talents, or someone else’s lot. That’s not going to happen. God made you the way he made you. So contentment, making the most of who you are and where God has placed you, is the only logical course of action. God’s not asking you to be someone you’re not. He’s asking you to make the most of the person he’s created you to be. To run the race that’s been marked out for you. Why is this so important? Because this life is fleeting, and this life is my lot, and contentment is the only logical response to this life I’ve been given.
So we’ve seen what contentment is—it’s the joyful art of making the most of what I have. And we’ve seen why contentment matters—because this life is fleeting and this life is my lot. Now let’s spend the rest of our time learning how we really get this and experience contentment in our lives.
The experience of contentment
It’s possible for you and it’s possible for me to find contentment but the first thing we need is to do is make sure that we connected to the source of all good and all true pleasure.
Connect to the source of life and everything good.
I want to go back to this whole concept of your lot in life for a minute. Think of your lot like a particular lot of land. Here’s a lot that’s been marked out just for you and no one else. The temptation is to peer over the fence and compare your lot with others and think, Well, if only I had their lot, then I’d be content. But what does he say in verse 19? “Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions”—so here’s someone who has the best lot you could ever ask for, the biggest estate on the island, the most exotic cars, all the bling and trophies you could ever want, but what else do they need? He says, “And power to enjoy them.” Wait, say what? Power to enjoy them. Why would you need power to enjoy them? Because acquiring things and really enjoying those things do not automatically go hand in hand. Because if you don’t know the God of all things, you’re going to make things your god. If you don’t know the source of all pleasure, then you’re going to make pleasure your god and it’s always going to come up empty, because you’re going to keep trying to get out of money, sex, clothes, friends, or trophies, something that they were never meant to give you and can never give you.
That’s why, I think it was John Calvin who said, “without the gospel all riches is poverty.” Or, again, listen to Chesterton. He said meaninglessness does not come from being weary of pain. It comes from being weary of pleasure. It comes from having either the basic things, verse 18, or the best of things, verse 19, but you don’t know the source of all things and so your heart has a crater of desire that only God can fulfill.
This is exactly what Adam and Eve discovered . I mean, here they are in the Garden of Eden—Eden means “delights.” They’re in a garden with a thousand trees of yes and only one true of no. As soon as they believed God wasn’t enough and what he had given them—their lot—wasn’t enough, what happened? Did their lives get better? Did that go well for them? No, they found themselves empty, alone, and fearful. And because of their sin, every single one of us is born thinking that good things, good experiences, or good circumstances is what we need to finally find contentment, but this desire for the good will only be satisfied when we turn to and connect to the source of all good. That source of all good is God, and he has demonstrated that he is what we need in the person of Jesus.
Remember the feeding of the 5,000? One of Jesus’ most famous miracles. But there was a miracle in that miracle that most people miss. It says that over 5,000 people ate until they were completely satisfied. They had second and third helpings until they were completely full, and there were exactly 12 basketfuls left over. Just enough for the disciples to eat so that there was nothing left over. Now think about that. Imagine you’re hosting Thanksgiving for just 50 people. How can you make enough food so that everyone eats to their hearts’ content and there’s no trace of leftovers? There’s always leftovers. But the only way you could do that is if somehow you knew the appetites of every single person in the room and how much they would eat that day. How could you know that? You couldn’t. Unless you were the God of their appetites. That was the point of the miracle. Jesus was demonstrating that “I am the source of all life and all good and I know what you ultimately need! I am what you ultimately need.” That’s why he said, “I am the bread of life. A relationship with me is what will fill you, because you’ll be filled with peace and filled with joy and love and forgiveness.” It’s nothing we can earn.
Solomon says here this contentment—this power and filling from God—is the gift of God. We receive it by faith when we hear that Jesus was there on the cross dying for our sins, and it’s like our eyes are opened to who God really is: the source of all life, goodness, and grace. We see that we’ve been turning our backs on the very hand that feeds us. See, it is by his wounds that we are healed. Not just healed of our sin but our suspicion that God isn’t good. And when that happens, when that faith comes in, we find ourselves finally at rest. As Saint Augustine so famously said, in his Confessions, “Oh God, our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” That’s how we experience contentment. We first need to turn to God and then trust in God, to go on trusting that he’s good, that he’s given us everything we need right now. All we need to do is make the most of it and draw upon it. And he gives us the strength to do that.
Rely upon the strength of Christ.
Remember Paul said he had discovered the secret, so it was a secret. It wasn’t obvious. It wasn’t in the open. It wasn’t visible, but it was available. It was there, it was real, and it was the strength of Christ. Remember he said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” The Christ who strengthened Paul is the same yesterday and forever. He’s the same Christ who can strengthen us. When we draw near to him in prayer or even in corporate worship like this, Jesus can give us a spiritual and mental strength to maximize the life he’s given us. And what will happen, as Solomon says in verse 20, is that he’ll keep us so busy squeezing all the joy and opportunities that are before us that we’ll wonder where all the time has gone. I love what Elizabeth Elliot once said: “The secret of contentment is Christ in me, not me in different circumstances.” We’ve got to rely upon the strength of Christ.
And so this morning we’ve seen that contentment is a feast without end, and we’ve seen the what of contentment, the why of contentment, and the how.
It’s possible for people to have the gift of eternal life but not experience the gift of contentment. We actually see that in 1 Timothy 6:6. Paul says that godliness with contentment is great gain. You see, a person can be godly but lacking contentment. So how do we walk out of here this morning with not just the gift of eternal life, not just with the gain of godliness, but with the great gain of godliness with contentment in our lives? We have to turn to the source of life and trust him and then rely upon the strength of Christ to make the most of this life. My friend, let’s make the most of this day. And don’t forget to go back for seconds on Thursday.
Jeremy A. McKeen is the Planting Pastor of Gospel City Fellowship in Portsmouth, New Hampshire..