Everyone has vices, and if I could name one that’s plagued me during college (of the many), it would be discontentment. Throughout various seasons it has waxed and waned, but when I look back on the last two-and-a-half years, I know it’s always been a struggle. I’ve long thought that parts of my life could be better, that unfulfilled desires could be filled now, and that any lack was the result of something being wrong with my circumstances.
Perhaps unhelpfully, I also tend to parse my life into two categories when I’m at school: vocation and relationships. 80% of student life can fall into one of these categories, broadly defined, and as a planner I typically have very clear notions of what is happening in those areas, where I want to go with them, and what needs to happen to get there. I find it horribly easy to dwell on the unfulfilled dreams attached to both realms of life– and to get mired in discontentment as a result.
This came to a head late in the Fall semester, after months of wrestling with re-entering the States from an amazing summer in Ethiopia. My time overseas was so much better than I thought it would be (and it’s not as if I had low expectations). I came back feeling like God had blessed my summer as an affirmation of my calling to missionary medicine. Once school started, I desperately wanted to make my passion for missions and my newfound love for Ethiopia a larger part of my identity. I spent most of the Fall missing the summer, trying to find ways to remain connected to those distant experiences, and mourning the fact that I still have ~11 years of training left before I could ever live overseas long-term. Discontentment plagued me.
Relationally, I think I always find it easy to be discontent in some way or another– not so much in friendship, but definitely when it comes to dating. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about singleness during college, and I do affirm that it is a beautiful, empowering, and sanctifying season of life. Singleness is the reason I can scoot out of the States for months at a time to live at missionary hospitals; it’s the reason I can focus on school and pour myself into college ministry. So much good comes of singleness. But for much of my time at Harvard, this appreciation for singleness has existed concurrent with a deep desire to eventually get married and have a family– a desire that has often manifested as a feeling of relational entitlement before God. Especially during times when there have been people on the horizon who fit my “paradigm” for the kind of person I’d like to date, I’ve often struggled with discontent and frustration if nothing panned out.
Over winter break, I found myself thinking quite frequently, “I wish life would start moving along.” I’ve prayed about this continual spirit of dissatisfaction a lot since coming back to school, and the one answer that God keeps giving me is the importance of patience founded on abiding trust in His goodness and sovereignty.
Most often, our desires themselves are not bad; they’re just aimed at the wrong objects. Dissatisfaction comes when we look to horizontal things to be our source of identity, stability, and happiness, since no horizontal target can ever deliver the satisfaction we desire. (Note, horizontal objects are themselves not bad or to be dismissed; often, they are necessary reflections of their all-satisfying Creator. See here for more on this.) I don’t think that contentment is synonymous to the total absence of desire. Rather, it is the ability to hold desires with patience– not merely enduring the present season of lack, but living in it fully.
Full life in the midst of unfulfilled desires can only come by knowing Jesus, and it is enabled by the Holy Spirit. While the fulfillment of good desires may remain in the future, Jesus is here, available, in the present. While we may wonder why our present circumstances are the way that they are, Jesus doesn’t wonder. He knows exactly why He’s placed us where we are, with the people we’re surrounded by, with the tasks He’s set before us to do.
In light of this, I’ve come to understand that patience involves the choice to cling to God’s goodness and sovereignty over my own ideas of what should be happening in my life. It’s a choice to believe that He really does know better than I, and that whatever He has given me for today is exactly what is best for me right now. I might think that vocational progress, a dating relationship, etc. would make life better, but the reality is, I don’t know what I don’t know. Perhaps an unfulfilled desire is actually God’s protection in disguise. Perhaps the slow movement of school is God sanctifying me of mindsets, habits, or attitudes that would harm my future work. Perhaps He just has plans that are so much better than I could even imagine based on what I see in front of me– and He’s going to let them unfold according to His perfect timing.
Therefore, patience requires letting go of control. It is premised on the admission that we cannot know everything about what is happening or what will happen in life. It requires humility, and humility is never fun to our prideful sensibilities. And yet, there is a great freedom of putting everything in God’s hands and letting Him have His way; it takes the weight off of our shoulders to make things happen perfectly, or to always be prepared, or to work tirelessly lest we disqualify ourselves from future dreams.
I’ve always loved Psalm 37, and never before has it felt more relevant:
Trust in the Lord and do good;Psalm 37:3-7a
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him and he will do this:
He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
your vindication like the noonday sun.
Be still before the Lord
and wait patiently for him…
In these simple verses, the Psalmist exhorts the hearer to enjoy where God has placed them because of their trust in the Lord. It’s God’s goodness, sovereignty, and power that make contentment possible, for as we give our desires to Him and delight in Him, we can have certainty that He will make life happen in the best way possible, at the right timing.
For me, patience is difficult, but I’ve found freedom in knowing that when I ask the Holy Spirit for an extra dose of it, He is faithful to provide. God does not demand that we find contentment in Him alone without giving us what we need to be full in Him. When we genuinely desire to honor God with our attitudes– and when we are seeking deeper trust in Him– He can and will provide the peace, patience, and contentment we need.
Where do you find it easy to dwell in discontentment? What unfulfilled desires are you holding that demand patience and humility? Give them into the hands of the Lord who is over all and in all; trust that He is good and will never give you less than the best, even if that looks different from what you might expect.