“Why? Why? Why?” The seemingly endless questions of a three-year-old test our patience at times. But even in those moments we rejoice because those whys reveal a budding interest in how the world works. And asking why about the world isn’t just for kids—it’s for all people at every age, because curiosity about creation points to the Creator.
But whys aren’t always good, particularly when they’re focused backward rather than forward. That’s what the preacher in Ecclesiastes tells us:
Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. (Eccles. 7:10)
Looking back—it’s something we’re all tempted to do from time to time. We look back to something we once had—health, wealth, success, a relationship—that’s now lost to us, perhaps forever. But often our backward look isn’t so much to a major loss but to a time that worked just a little bit better than now.
Perhaps today we don’t enjoy the quality of friendships we knew before, or our marriage hasn’t brought the happily ever after we’d dreamed of. When life today is lacking, when long-held expectations don’t pan out the way we’d hoped, we’re tempted to look to the past, and if we look too long, we might be in danger of actually going back.
Wishing We Could Go Back
Focusing on what we had rather than on what we have is the mark of discontentment, and when discontentment becomes entrenched in our hearts, we find ourselves second-guessing: Maybe I shouldn’t have left. Maybe I should go back. We become consumed with regaining a time in our lives that “worked.”
Focusing longingly on what we had rather than on what we have is the mark of discontentment.
Of course, sometimes going back is the answer: we may need to move back home, take a demotion, or cut something from our schedule. We can seek counsel in God’s Word and from godly advisers to determine if this is the case. But more often than not, it isn’t. And regardless of why we made a change, we are where we are today by God’s providence. “The heart of man plans his way, but the Lord establishes his steps” (Prov. 16:9). Whether our current circumstances are the result of wise or foolish planning, finding our way back to happiness does not begin with packing our bags.
Wishing we could go back to a happier time often stems from our desires for things we lack—increased opportunities to serve the Lord, fulfilling work, a better quality of life, more intimate relationships. Put simply, we’re discontented, and that’s what compels us to seek that missing something or someone.
Searching for Something Better
But the truth is, there’s always something missing, and there always will be until we’re home in glory. If we don’t accept this reality, we’re likely to keep reaching to have it all—because, we reason, if we don’t have it all, we haven’t yet found where God wants us to be. So we leave one place—a home, a church, a relationship—for yet another in hope of something just a little bit better, more fulfilling, more tailored to who we’ve become at this point in our lives.
Contentment is impossible until we accept that God doesn’t direct our steps for the purpose of prospering our earthly circumstances. Everything God does in our lives has one overarching purpose: for us to glorify him and enjoy him forever.
Contentment is impossible until we accept that God doesn’t direct our steps for the purpose of prospering our earthly circumstances.
When we grasp this truth—from our head all the way to our heart—contentment becomes a lifestyle, something that characterizes us. What a joy to realize that contentment is found right where we are today!
Living Contentedly in the Moment
No matter what brought us to our current circumstances, no matter what’s been lost to the past, we can thank the Lord for his wise providence in leading us where we are now, even if we can’t see how his primary purpose is playing out just yet. We can pray, “Thank you, God, that I am in this place, this job, this marriage, because for reasons I cannot understand, it is working for my eternal good and will showcase your glory.”
So we can leave the past in the past. Contentment—the kind that enables us to enjoy today’s blessings and to go without those we lack—has very little to do with our circumstances and everything to do with our union with Christ. In him, we can let the past go. In him, we can live contentedly in the moment. And in him, we can look forward to a glorious future.