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A Song of Contentment

If we know we are loved, refuse to compare, and accept God’s will, we will sing the song of contentment.


One of my favorite films of all time is Chariots of Fire. Chariots of Fire is based on the true story of two runners named Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell. On the surface, these two runners had a lot in common. They were both from Great Britain, they were both exceptional runners, they were both chosen to represent the British Isles in the 1924 Paris Olympic games, and they had both had their hearts set on winning a gold medal.

But inside, their interior life was a stark contrast. Harold Abrahams was this driven man. He felt compelled to make it to the finish line and win a gold medal out of this need, out of this anxiety to somehow validate his being on the planet. In fact, just before Harold Abrahams ran in the 100-meter race at the Olympics in Paris, he confided to one of his teammates, Aubrey, “I am forever in pursuit and I don’t even know what I’m chasing.” He said, “I have ten lonely seconds to justify my existence.”

So, Harold Abrahams feels like he needs to win the gold medal to justify his place on the planet. Eric Liddell, in contrast, says this to his younger sister, Jenny. In the movie, she really wants him to get to China as a missionary as quickly as possible, and Eric says something like this: “I know that God made me for China, but he also made me fast and when I run I feel his pleasure.” I’m obviously not from Scotland, but I admire the Scots and especially Eric Liddell. Eric said, “When I run I feel God’s pleasure. I feel his joy.” Eric was equally as passionate as Harold was about running, but he ran out of a place of contentment and gratitude.

So what happened at the 1924 Paris Olympic games? Well, one of the qualifying heats that Eric needed to run in to qualify for the 100-meters race was scheduled on a Sunday. In Eric’s day, followers of Christ believed that the Sabbath was to be honored on a Sunday. We have a different view for the most part today, but that’s what they believed then. So for Eric to run on a Sunday for the Olympics constituted a violation of his conscience so he withdrew.

Eric was disappointed because he did want to compete; he wanted to represent Great Britain. He wanted to win a gold medal, and he was the odds-on favorite to win in the 100 meters. He was the Usain Bolt of his day. He was disappointed, but he wasn’t crushed because the gold medal was not his treasure; God was his treasure. Him withdrawing opened the door for Harold Abrahams to win the gold medal in the 100 meters.

But then something happened later in the Olympics. One of Eric’s teammates approached him and said, “Look, I’ve run my race. I’ve won a medal. It’s just a silver medal, but I won’t run my race. I’ve got my medal. Why don’t you step in in my place in the 400?” I guess the Olympics were much more casual back then—simpler. Eric said, “Sure, I’d love to run,” and the 400 wasn’t Eric’s race but he said, “I really would love to run in the Olympics.”

So he gets into the blocks, the gun sounds, and Eric starts to take off. He has terrible form from a technical point of view. Like, his arms are flailing so he is slowing down because his aerodynamic form is not that efficient. He doesn’t have much art in his running, but he has all this heart and he crosses the finish line first. He wins the gold medal; he is utterly elated. If I recall correctly, he broke a world record.

So Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell both have the same goal, the gold medal, but they approach it very differently. Harold Abrahams feels this anxiety, this drivenness to win to validate his existence on the planet. Eric Liddell, on the other hand, runs from a place of real contentment and gratitude and joy.

We’re going to look at a Psalm of Contentment written by David. David, at one time, was a shepherd in Israel and later he became king. Listen to the words that he pens under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

(Read Ps. 131:1-3)

That phrase in verse 2a can also be translated, “But I have quieted my ambitions.” In Proverbs 6, God says, “Two things I hate, two things I detest are a proud heart and haughty eyes.” David, though he doesn’t embody these qualities perfectly, even from the time he was young, is this person who walks with humility before God and trusts God.

But the fact that David walks humbly before God and trusts God with his life doesn’t mean that David is passive. In one of the most famous stories in David’s life, when he was just an adolescent, Goliath, the archenemy of his people, this allegedly nine-foot giant, is breathing out murderous threats against David’s people. He is cursing the living God. David voluntarily steps forward when no one else will and says, “I will fight Goliath. I will take on this giant.” David, with a singular smooth stone that he picked up from the riverbed hurled from his sling, slays Goliath. David is not passive; he is a person of initiative and action. But he doesn’t let his initiative and action get out of hand either.

David doesn’t try to manipulate his future. When David was a young person, even before he took on Goliath, when he is this adolescent, the prophet Samuel comes to his home one day and anoints David with oil, which was a prophetic sign that David would one day be the king of Israel. But even when the then-king of Israel, Saul, was going crazy, insanely jealous over David’s popularity—which skyrocketed, of course, after he killed Goliath—even when Saul became so deranged that he was hurling spears to try to kill David. Even when King Saul was mobilizing his army to assassinate David even though David posed no real threat to King Saul, David never sought to retaliate. He didn’t try to kill King Saul when he had opportunities to do so. He simply trusted God, and he waited more than 10 years to become king first over Judah and then king over Israel.

He trusts God. And let me say this, in parentheses: I believe that David’s desire to be king was noble. He had a holy ambition to shepherd his people with skillful hands and integrity of heart as we read in Psalm 78. It’s possible to have a holy ambition, to have noble desires to do something significant. But it’s also possible—as we know from our experiences, as I know from my experience—to want to do something for more self-centered motivations, driven more by ego or by anxiety. Chris Wyman, the poet, has said, “All ambition has the reek of disease about it, the relentless smell of the self. So long as your ambition is to stamp your existence upon existence you are pursuing a ghost.” I think all of us here have struggled at one point between a holy, noble ambition and a desire to stamp existence upon our existence. A desire to validate ourselves in the eyes of ourselves or someone else.

So how do we move from a place where we are driven from a dark side, a need to validate our worth, to a place of greater contentment and gratitude and acting from that kind of space? According to the psalm, and according to what we can learn from the life of David, I’d say there are three movements to move to a song of contentment. They would include knowing that we are loved, refusing to compare ourselves to others, and then accepting God’s will.

Know You Are Loved

In the text, David says, “I am a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child I am content.” Now, the expression weaned here can refer to an infant that is slightly older than a nursing baby, who no longer needs to breastfeed. And as a result is eating other food and is in his or her mother’s presence and is content.

Another possible reading, according to the biblical scholars, is to interpret the expression weaned as a baby who has just finished breastfeeding, is full and is therefore content. A woman in our community was telling me what it was like to nurse her baby. Now, you may be wondering how we got onto that topic. We were discussing this psalm, so she brought up her relevant experience.

You know, when I was nursing my baby, as he was feeding, I could actually feel him getting heavier, slightly heavier as a result of feeding on my milk. As he fed, he became happier and sometimes even drunk happy, and when he had his fill, his head would droop and he would just fall asleep. It’s beautiful. So content, so at peace, so happy, so at rest. Even if there was chaos going on in the house or an ambulance was driving by with its siren on, if my baby was fed and content, my baby could sleep.

Here is what God is saying to us through David’s words. If we feel loved in the presence of our Maker, if we feel nursed by God, we will have this undercurrent of contentment and gratitude. Even when there is chaos going on in our lives.

Some of us have experienced considerable pain. I know what it is to go through a devastating romantic breakup years ago. My wife and I know what it’s like to lose a baby we were hoping to have. Some of you have experienced the disappointment of not getting into a school or not getting the job you wanted. Or maybe you’ve lost a loved one. When we go through this kind of loss, we are rattled. But if we know deep within us that we are loved by our Maker, cherished by God, nourished by Christ, even when we are going through painful times we can have this undercurrent of contentment and gratitude.

Calamity may strike close to home or in some distant part of the world, and we have questions and perhaps anger, and those are good to have. But when we know that we are loved by God and nourished by him, we can also say, “I don’t understand why this has happened and I have questions that won’t easily go away, but for this moment I can say with David, ‘I will not concern myself with this great matter. It’s too complex for me, too wonderful for me to understand. I will be like a weaned child with its mother. Like a weaned child, I will be content and trust God.’” Even through questions, difficulty, and pain, if we know we are loved by God and nourished by him, we can experience this undercurrent of contentment and gratitude.

On the other hand, if we don’t have the sense that we are loved by God, nourished by spiritual food, we will be driven by our anxieties, compelled by a need to stamp existence upon our existence.

Dr. Pierre Rentchnick did a fascinating study of 300 of the greatest names in history. By names, he didn’t mean greatest people because only God knows that, but greatest names in the sense of the best-known names. He studied people like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon, Golda Meir, Adolf Hitler, Fidel Castro. Here’s what he discovered. He was stunned because so many of these great names in history were orphans, and he wrote a book entitled Do Orphans Lead the World? Dr. Pierre Rentchnick concluded that if a young child experiences the deprivation of a mother’s love or lacks a father’s love, that child can grow up to be a person with an enormous inconsumable will to power.

I think we all know people or know of people who are extremely ambitious because they feel like they’ve been deprived of something in life. They feel this lack and therefore they have this excess and their achievements may be impressive, but we also feel sorry for them because they seem to be operating out of such a dark place. All of us would prefer to act not from a place of needing to stamp existence upon our existence, needing to validate our place on the planet, but to act out of a place of real contentment and gratitude.

Last Sunday, I spoke briefly about my 99-year-old tennis playing grandmother who recently had a stroke and died. She’s in a better place, but I was thinking this past week about how when I first visited my grandmother in Tokyo, Japan, when I was a young adult.

I was staying with her that summer and she took me to a high-end grocery store in Tokyo. As we walked in, my grandmother turned to me and said, “Whatever you want, I’ll buy for you.” I was experiencing some Canadian reserve politeness so I was holding back and she sensed that. So my grandmother doesn’t speak English, but I discovered that she does know three words. She looked at me and she said, “I am rich. I am rich.”

So I got the hint, and I was hungry, and I was even skinnier then than I am now. So whatever pleased my eye, I bought that afternoon and I felt very nourished. Not just as I ate the food later but by her love for me. As I was staying at her house that summer and we were walking around her neighborhood, if she saw someone that she knew, she would lock her arms with mine, rush over to that person, and say, “This is my grandson from Canada,” and she seemed so happy to be introducing me to her friends so proud. I felt really cherished by her.

Japan, as you may know, is not a very physically affectionate culture, not very demonstrative in terms of touch. But when I would go to her house—not every time but some of the time—she would extend her hands and want to give me a big hug when I saw her. So I felt that I didn’t have to do anything in the presence of my grandmother to be loved by her, just to breathe, just to show up.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been in the presence of someone that made you feel loved just for who you are, that no matter what you did, that person would love you as long as you had a heartbeat. Maybe you feel that way about a pet of yours. Or a couple of you have babies here tonight, maybe you feel that way about your baby. But that’s the way God feels about you, that no matter what you do or don’t do, no matter how productive you are or aren’t, God loves you because you’re breathing and he just loves you just because. When you realize how deeply you are loved by your Maker, that has a way of nourishing you and making you more content.

Refuse to Compare

The text doesn’t explicitly talk about comparisons, but we know from the famous story of David and Goliath that David is the only one in Israel who steps forward, who is willing to fight Goliath. He’s just a teenager. The king of Israel, Saul, is not willing to fight Goliath. None of the army generals, as skilled warriors as they are, as fierce as they are, are willing to go toe-to-toe with Goliath. It’s just David.

As he steps forward because he’s the only one whose overture is accepted, King Saul’s staff come around him and say, “David, it’s going to be very dangerous for you to take on Saul so we’re going to give you the best armor in the country, King Saul’s armor. It has integrated into it the most recent technology. Hopefully this protects you. We’ll be thinking of you and praying for you.” David tries it on and says, “Saul is a big guy. I’m not. It just doesn’t fit me. It’s just not right for me. I’m going to do this in a way that’s true to me.” So he says, “I’m going to go out with shorts and a T-shirt. I’m going to pick five smooth stones. I’m going to take my slingshot. This is me.”

Even as a young person, David is able to resist the pressure to try to be someone else and Saul for all his faults was a great warrior. David does not try to be Saul. He is content to be David himself. He doesn’t compare in a way that forces him to try to be someone that he is not. Comparison, as one of my friends says, is the thief of contentment and joy.

I went out to Harvard University to speak at one of their Christian fellowships. As I was being picked up in Boston by one of the Harvard graduates, a leader of a ministry called InterVarsity, we were heading toward the campus and I was feeling kind of intimidated. It wasn’t lost on me that I was about to speak at a school that would have never accepted me. So I’m talking and I’m saying, “Adrian, can you give me some advice as I prepare to talk to the Harvard students tonight?” He paused and he said, “Here’s the thing about Harvard students. We really struggle with feeling significant. We struggle with feeling special.” I’m like, “Really? I would have thought that if you were a Harvard student and you had that Harvard email, that @post.harvard.edu, that would be it, that your self-esteem needs for life would be met.” Adrian was like, “Oh, no, no, no. When you’re a student at Harvard, you don’t feel special at all because there’s always someone else on campus who you feel is a lot more talented than you are, a lot more special than you are. So we all struggle with these feelings of insignificance and insecurity.” Comparison is the thief of joy.

One of my favorite documentaries is a series of shows called 7-Up. It was a series that was begun back in 1964. An English television company called Grenada approached 20 seven-year-olds in England from all kinds of different social backgrounds. They did a documentary on these seven-year-olds. Then seven years later when these kids are 14 they do another documentary, then at age 21. It’s very fascinating to see their evolution over time in these seven-year increments.

The most recent installation of this documentary is called 56-Up. The participants are now 56-years-old. I saw this episode and this guy named John Brisby was being interviewed. John is a lawyer. He is an Oxford graduate. He is a very distinguished, successful person. He’s being interviewed about his career, and John says, “You know, I wanted to go into law and I have been working as a lawyer, as a barrister, but I’ve always wanted to go into politics, but I’m 56 years old and I’m just too old to do that.” Then John looked down and he said, “You know, two of my childhood friends from the time I was four years old are now ministers in the government.” Then he paused and he said, “I suppose that compared to them I am a failure.”

You know, when we compare ourselves to other people, whether it’s other students on campus or co-workers, there’s always going to be someone in some place that we perceive to be higher than ourselves. If we focus on comparisons, we will forever remain dissatisfied.

Part of the movement to contentment is to refuse to compare ourselves to others. I am prone to compare myself to others, so one of the passages of Scripture that has spoken to me most powerfully in these last several years that I have journaled a lot about and talked from time to time here about is John 21.

In John 21, Jesus is walking on the beach with his disciple and friend, Peter. He is telling Peter poetically that Peter is going to one day die a martyr’s death as an old man. Peter is understandably disturbed by that. He turns around, he notices that John, another one of Jesus’ students, is following them. He’s a little bit irritated by these words and irritated that John might be eavesdropping. He turns to John, looks at Jesus, and says, “Well, what about him, what’s going to happen to him?” Jesus says, “What is that to you? You follow me.” Whenever I am tempted to compare my lot, my trajectory, my curve to someone else’s, I sense Jesus saying to me, but “What is that to you? You follow me.” Those are words that I need to hear. When you compare your life to someone else’s, Jesus will say to you as well, “What is that to you? You follow me.”

Duke Ellington, the jazz musician, once said, “It’s better to be a No. 1 yourself than a No. 2 to somebody else.”

Accept the Will of God

David, as we saw earlier as an adolescent, had been anointed to serve as the future king of Israel when he was just a teenager. But David waited 10 years to become the king of first Judah and then Israel. Then later in life, David volunteers to build a cedar temple for the Lord. The house of worship at that time was just a glorified kind of tabernacle. David says to God, “God, I want to build you a more permanent house. I want to build you a house of cedar.” God says to David, “Your desire to build my house is noble, it’s a holy ambition, but it’s really my will that your son, not you, would build my house for me.” David accepts that word. He doesn’t resist it; he doesn’t begrudge it. He doesn’t try to manipulate circumstances so that he is the builder. Instead, he marshals his considerable money and material resources so that someone else—someone that God has chosen—would build his house for him.

John the Baptist is a beautiful example of someone who accepted the will of God. John the Baptist was the greatest prophet of his time. According to his cousin, Jesus, John the Baptist was the greatest person to have ever lived up until that moment in history, and as we know Jesus was not given to overstatement. That’s quite a thing to have said about someone. John is this celebrity figure; he is powerful; he is famous, influential. But when Jesus begins his public ministry, Jesus begins to attract more followers than John. John’s followers become anxious. They said, “John, your star is starting to fade. We need to do something. We need to take action to get your polling numbers up, up, up, up.” John responds, “No, I must decrease and he—Jesus—must increase.” John accepts the will of God.

You know, when I first came to Tenth Church about 17 years ago, on the one hand I was excited, but on the other hand I was daunted by the challenge that I thought was ahead of me. The church had cycled through 20 pastors in 20 years. It had gone from over 1,000 to a hundred and something. I had hopes for the church, but I found myself saying to others and writing to others in a prayer letter, “I don’t think God is calling us to be a large church or a famous church. I believe that God is simply calling us to be faithful. So, pray that we would be faithful to God’s call for us.”

August 6 was a significant day for me personally because it was the day when my first book was about to go live. As August 6 approached, people in the know said, “Ken, you must be excited about August 6 as your book is released.” I said, “I’m excited but to be honest, I’m also kind of anxious about this.” Here’s what I was honestly thinking: What if August 6 rolls around and no one buys the book, no one except my own mother. As August 6 approaches, I am praying every day a prayer of John Wesley called the covenant prayer and it goes like this:

Lord, I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, or put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
exalted for you or brought low for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to your pleasure and disposal.

I was praying that every day through August 6, to this day. I had no way of anticipating the astounding response to the book. I just had no way of anticipating that, but I continue to pray that prayer every day, several times a day. For the book, for our ministry here at Tenth, even for my family and my own life. There is a tendency to want to control things, to shape a destiny, but I want to let go and trust God and say, “I am not mine but thine. I’m yours. All that I have is yours. Put me to what you will.”

How do I stay focused on that? Because I can definitely vacillate. Well, it’s not by looking to John the Baptist, as great as he was, or even at King David, as amazing as he was. But it’s by looking at a great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandson of King David—Jesus Christ. Who according to Philippians 2:

Though being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used for his own selfish advantage. But rather, he made himself nothing. He took on the very form of a servant. He humbled himself and became obedient to death, even to death on a cross. Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


It’s as you and I look to Jesus Christ, receive his embrace, his cleansing, and know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are unimaginably loved and cherished by him. It’s as we refuse to compare our path to someone else’s and accept his good will for us. It’s then and then alone that we can sing from the deepest part of our being a song of contentment.

I pray that for you. I pray that you would so know the love and the friendship and the power of Jesus Christ, that from the very depth of who you are you would be able to sing a life song of contentment. May it be so for each of us in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Ken Shigematsu is pastor of Tenth Church in Vancouver, BC and the author of the award-winning, bestseller God in My Everything

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