Whatever else you're doing today, you're waiting—waiting for your future with God in glory. But how are you waiting? Paul says Christians "wait eagerly" for the new creation (Romans 8:23). We "groan inwardly" because we're not there yet. That means being excited but groaning, positive yet dissatisfied, optimistic while restless.
How does restlessness fit with contentment? Do they fit at all? They must—because one of the great Bible passages on restlessness comes just before Paul's testimony that he has learned contentment in all circumstances. Paul himself saw no contradiction between feeling restless for the future and content in the present . . . at the same time. Here's how he spoke of his future resurrection life:
I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me . . . one thing I do: forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)
What is going on here? How do these things fit together?
What Restlessness Is (and Isn't)
Restlessness is a passion for our future in the new creation. Restlessness is aligning our identities, thoughts, actions, and goals with that future. Restlessness is the attitude of not settling for now.
Forgetting what lies behind, Paul is "straining toward" what lies ahead. That phrase is drawn from the Greek athletic games. If you've ever watched a 100-meter sprint, you know the all-out effort and intense forward-focus Paul describes. When a great sprinter comes racing down the track, leaning to dip for the line, he's not thinking about how well he came out of the blocks, or what a great first ten meters he ran. Every fiber is focused forward. This is the way Paul lived.
The end of his race is the return of Jesus, final salvation, the resurrection of his body. That's what Paul strained forward to reach. He sometimes thought of his past (see 1 Corinthians 15:9), but he refused to rest on past accomplishments or wallow in past defeats. His future in the new creation defined and oriented his life. That's what he meant by saying he does "one thing." Of course he doesn't stop working, eating, reading, praying, preaching, laughing, and so on. "One thing" means the North Star orienting his present is his future. Paul undertook daily tasks with a view to accomplishing his aim of reaching the finish line.
In other words, Paul didn't settle for now. Paul lived in the present, but he didn't live for the present. He worked hard in the present, but he lived for the future.
This was the secret of Paul's contentment. Biblical restlessness does not undermine contentment: it undergirds contentment. Because Paul didn't settle for the present, because his eggs weren't in that basket, the present could not control him or determine his inner attitude or well-being. His circumstances neither destroyed nor propped up his contentment.
Living for Today or Tomorrow?
This way of life isn't just for Paul: "All of us . . . who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you" (Philippians 3:15). So what do we live for? Past, present, or future? What might God make clear to you—even as you read these words?
Most of us find it all too easy to live focused on the past. Perhaps we linger on past defeats (mistakes made, wrongs suffered, opportunities missed) and become bitter. Or perhaps we lean on past victories (degrees earned, relationships enjoyed, accomplishments achieved) and become boring.
Or we live for the present. If things are going well at work or home, we feel good about ourselves and happy with the world. If things are going poorly—the sink clogs again, the child throws a tantrum in public again, we fail to meet the sales quota again—we feel bad about ourselves and angry with the world. Either way, we're settling for now, letting it define us, for good or for bad.
This problem prompts us to ask ourselves some challenging questions.
Here's the first: "Have I settled for now at my job?" Are all my eggs (self-worth, happiness, feelings of success) in the "now" basket? When we forget the future, we may begin to compete in an unhealthy way with co-workers, forgetting that our worth isn't at stake in how well we succeed on the job. If work goes poorly, or if work goes away altogether due to a job loss, forgetters of the future will complain and eventually despair. Christian restlessness as we move through our workday changes the way we work. We're content even when work is frustrating, our boss unfair, and our co-workers annoying.
Here is the second challenging question: "Have I settled for now in parenting?" Do we despair that God hasn't given us the perfect kids we'd imagined parenting? Do we despair that God hasn't given us any children at all? If I'm honest, I have to admit that my parenting of my three young children is too often focused exclusively on the present, as I respond in the moment to my children's behavior (whether good or bad). If you plotted my happiness/contentment levels and my children's behavior on the same graph, they'd often correspond closely! It's difficult to keep the bigger picture of their eternal future (not just their present behavior) in view. But as a vision of biblical restlessness has gripped me, I've begun to pray differently for my children. In addition to praying for their daily needs and struggles, I now ask God to prepare them to live forever in the new creation. Everything else I do as a parent is to be oriented around that goal.
You will know what other challenging questions you must ask yourself. We are all different, with different characters and enjoying or enduring different circumstances. So the temptation to locate our contentment in an aspect of our life right now will look different for all of us; but it will be there. There may well be a question you need to ask yourself, where you complete this sentence: "Have I settled for now in . . . ?" The way you and I finish that sentence shows us the part of our life where we need to let our future begin to affect our present; where our place in the new creation should transform our view of our life right now.