Contentment in the Wait
- 2005 25 May
In the twilight moments between deep slumber and eyes-wide-open wakefulness, the heart speaks. As we rise from the depths of unconscious suspension and break the surface of floating oblivion, our first thoughts reveal what occupies our emotions — fears, desires, cravings, judgments.
A few weeks ago on my birthday, my “breaking the surface” thoughts were full of regrets. I will never know what it’s like to bear children. That door is swinging shut now. What is such a normal experience for so many people will never be mine, I thought. It’s so weird to think marriage and motherhood may not be part of my life.
I wasn’t indulging in self-defeat. I was simply acknowledging a death to this desire. Then other thoughts came to the fore: I also don’t know what it’s like to live in a place where Christians are persecuted. Or to live through war or genocide in my hometown. These have been experiences that so far the Lord has also denied me — and I’m grateful for His will in those situations. It’s not always a bad thing to receive a “no” from our sovereign Lord.
Will God’s answer always be no to my prayers for marriage and even motherhood (in some form or another)? I don’t know. But unlike in years past, by God’s grace, I’m not upset about it. God has proven His faithfulness to me in so many ways over these past years that I cannot charge Him with being unfair to me. Because of this, He has also taught me a measure of contentment in the wait.
This is a lesson the Father gives to all His children — but it takes time to learn it.
The apostle Paul wrote that he had “learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11 NIV). I am grateful for one word in that incredible phrase — learned — because I tend to focus first on the “whatever the circumstances” part. If the venerable apostle had to learn to be content, I can expect no less.
What does contentment in varied circumstances look like? It is a gracious spirit that is steady and constant. A woman who has learned to be content “takes a licking and keeps on ticking,” to quote the old Timex ad. That slogan has its roots in nautical history. Prior to the development of a timepiece that could accurately keep time aboard a ship, sailors had no way to gauge longitude and navigation remained hazardous. They needed a timepiece that could withstand the changes in barometric pressure, humidity, and temperature, as well as the pitch and roll of the ship. The scientific challenge was so daunting that in 1714 Queen Anne signed an act offering a vast sum of 20,000 pounds to the one who could solve the problem of measuring longitude. One man, John Harrison, dedicated his life to the cause, and he was ultimately successful.
When we experience changes — the pressures of life, the heat of sin, the cold drafts of loneliness, the damp chill of disappointment, the pitch and roll of shifting circumstances — but we keep a steady pace, we are exhibiting contentment.
One woman who knew what it was like to wait on God was Hannah. In 1 Samuel 1:7 we read that Hannah endured both the shame of being childless and the provocation of her rival wife. “So it went on year by year,” the Bible says matter-of-factly. Even after she cried in prayer to the Lord and Eli the priest blessed her petition, she still had to wait. In verse 20, it says “in due time” Hannah conceived and bore a son. We don’t know exactly how long that was, but it still took some time.
In "The Art of Divine Contentment," Puritan author Thomas Watson notes one very important aspect of how Hannah handled her emotions during the wait: “When any burden is upon the spirit, prayer gives vent, it easeth the heart. Hannah's spirit was burdened; ‘I am’ says she, ‘a woman of a sorrowful spirit.’ Now having prayed, and wept, she went away, and was no more sad; only here is the difference between a holy complaint and a discontented complaint; in the one we complain to God, in the other we complain of God.”
Casting Our Cares
Are we not, then, to have cares or concerns? Of course we still have them. But contentment comes from knowing where we can take our concerns and who cares for our concerns. As it says in 1 Peter 5:6-7 (NIV): “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (emphasis added). What are we to do in the “due time”? We are to give our anxieties to God and wait patiently because we know He cares for us.
A content woman is not impatiently proud. Contentment calls for humility. We have to intentionally humble ourselves under God’s mighty hand when our circumstances don’t work out to our liking. Without a doubt, it is humbling to go year after year with a hope deferred! It’s very humbling to keep showing up at family events as the only single sibling, or to go to the wedding of a former boyfriend without a date. But we have to remember that, as Christian women, we’re not here to promote our personal success stories, anyway. We’re here as trophies of grace — broken clay jars carrying around incredibly valuable treasure. Even if the Lord should grant our petition for marriage and a family, our witness and purpose do not change. Only our circumstances change.
Finally, as single women, I think we can take special comfort from Paul’s words. He learned to be content in whatever the circumstances, and singleness was among them. When he wrote that he had learned contentment in all things, he was a single man, imprisoned in chains! I appreciate this description from an article about contentment in the Journal of Biblical Counseling:
One hesitates to include singleness in a list of Paul’s problems, since he did not view it as a problem. Nevertheless, undesired or unexpected singleness surely provided temptations for discontentment in Paul, and it has been a problem for many people since him.
Paul lacked the support, comfort, and companionship of a wife and family. As a single man he had no spouse with whom he could share his life and find consolation ….Yet, Paul learned contentment in every circumstance, including his single status. In fact, he even found this state preferable (1 Corinthians 7).
Again, the message of the gospel is clear: Whatever the cause of your single status — never married, widowed, or divorced — you who believe in Christ are all sons and daughters of God and heirs of His promises (Galatians 3:26-29). You can know God’s contentment. Even if your friends or church members don’t fully know or understand you, Jesus does. He can provide inner satisfaction.
As a younger woman, I was unaware that the passage of time would sometimes present a gift to those who were, as the Bible often states, “old and full of years.” (I’m not speaking here from personal experience … yet!) Contentment can be one of those gifts if we labor to emulate Paul’s example, and always remember that, whatever the cause of our single status, we who believe in Christ are all sons and daughters of god and heirs of His promises! Knowing this aspect of our relationship, it’s much easier to wait on a loving and good God.
Carolyn McCulley is the media specialist for Sovereign Grace Ministries and is a member of Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, MD. This column is adapted from her book, "Did I Kiss Marriage Goodbye? Trusting God with a Hope Deferred." (Used by permission of Crossway Books, a division of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187, www.gnpcb.org). The heart of the book is really found in the subtitle, on which this and other columns have been based. Carolyn welcomes your comments at email@example.com. Or visit her website at www.carolynmcculley.com for more articles and other materials.