In his book The Art of Divine Contentment, Thomas Watson described 5 characteristics of a contented heart. I have found these to be both challenging and instructive in my own pursuit of contentment. I interact with his observations, updates some language and quote a fair bit below.
A contented spirit is a silent spirit
With reference to God, the one who is content is not complaining against God, he does not grumble and murmur. Watson observes, “When Samuel tells Eli that heavy message from God, that he would “judge his house, and that the iniquity of his family should not be purged away with sacrifice forever,” (1 Sa. 3. 13,14) doth Eli murmur or dispute? no, he hath not one word to say against God: “it is the Lord, let him do what seemeth him good.” On the other hand, Pharaoh, one who did not know God and therefore was discontent said, “who is the Lord?” why should I suffer all this? why should I be brought into this low condition? “who is the Lord?” Remember well the distinction between complaining to God and complaining about God. When we complain to God we are bringing our problems and vices and crying out to God for wisdom, grace, and help. When we are complaining about God we are attacking his character. This is ungodliness at its core. When Aaron’s sons were judged and killed he “held his peace.” (Lev. 10:3) He was silent. However, when Jonah was grumbling before God and so God asked him, “Do you do well to be angry?” (Jon. 4:4). You can see the difference here of contentment. Silence is a reflection of peaceful trust—even amid circumstances that are difficult to understand. While anger, grumbling and complaining represent inner turmoil and a lack of trust in God. How would other describe you? Are you more apt to speak out and give vent to your frustrations with others and God? Or are you inclined to hold your piece and see the Lord in the situation?
A contented spirit is a cheerful spirit
Contentment is more than patience (though it is not less). It involves a cheerfulness of the soul. “A contented Christian is more than passive; he doth not only bear the cross, but take up the cross.” This is why Paul can be sorrowful yet always rejoicing (2 Cor. 6:10). He can be content in his sufferings even when they are so difficult (2 Cor. 12:10). He doesn’t just say, “the will of the Lord be done” but he says “rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). Watson rightly quipped, God loves a cheerful giver but he also loves a cheerful liver. When we are content with our lot in Christ then we have the ground or cheerfulness within us. We carry our pardon sealed in our very hearts. Could you be accused of being cheerful, even amid difficulty?
A contented spirit is a thankful spirit
The Scripture reminds us to give thanks in everything (1 Thess. 5:18). When we are content we spy mercy in every condition and have our hearts laminated with thanksgiving. Anyone can thank God for prosperity but the contented person blesses him when afflicted (2 Cor. 6:10; Phil. 4:9-11). The discontented heart is ever complaining of their condition but the contented spirit is always thanking God for it. “A contented heart is a temple where the praises of God are sung forth, not a sepulcher wherein they are buried.” Though they are encountering a season of intense difficulty they may still—because contentment is a work of grace from the inside out—they may still have their hearts dilated in thankfulness. “There is always gratulatory music in a contented soul; the Spirit of grace works in the heart like new wine, which under the heaviest pressures of sorrow will have a vent open for thankfulness: this is to be content.” Are you characteristically thankful?
A contented spirit is not bound by circumstances
Because contentment works inside out it is shielded from the ever changing circumstances outside of us. Remember Paul himself said that his contentment was seen “in any and every circumstance” (Phil 4:12). Do you find yourself content when things are going well but struggling when the winds are contrary?
A contented spirit will not avoid trouble by means of sin
Resting in God’s providence does not mean that we stand still. Contentment does not mean complacency. However, when have something we to pursue but God has not made it available a contented spirit does not rush ahead anyway. A discontented spirit will not wait. If God does not open the door of his providence, “they will break it open and wind themselves out of affliction by sin; bringing their souls into trouble; this is far from holy contentment, this is unbelief broken into rebellion.” Contentment would rather wait upon God than sin against God. “A contented Christian is willing to wait God’s leisure, and will not stir till God open a door.” The spirit of contentment says, “I would rather stay in prison than purchase liberty by sinning against God.” Watson punctuates this point well, “A contented Christian will not remove, till as the Israelites he sees a pillar of cloud and fire going before him. “It is good that a man should both hope, and quietly wait for the salvation of the Lord. (La. 3. 26) It is good to stay God’s leisure and not to extricate ourselves out of trouble, till we see the star of God’s providence pointing out a way to us.