In the same way that we often confuse Shalom with a lack of fighting, we confuse true contentment with a simple lack of displeasure. We think getting rid of the problems of life is all there is. However the mere absence of fighting is not what the Biblical concept of Shalom is, and a lack of disappointment is not what the contentment is.
Shalom is often translated into English simply as “peace” – but biblical scholars have tried for years to convince us that’s not quite right. It’s not that ‘peace’ is wrong – it’s just incomplete. It’s like saying Michael Jordan was ‘a basketball player’ or Donald Trump is a ‘former casino owner’. Those statements are true, but there is a bit more to flesh out a more true understanding.
Shalom is a sense that all is right, between people, or between people and God.
We call a military presence used to limit or restrict conflict a ‘peace-keeping force.’ If keeping a state of peace is merely the use of force to keep armed groups from getting at each other, while the local population lives in fear – that is a long way from true Shalom. That’s a situation where there is a daily reminder that those soldiers are all that is stopping the war.
There must be more to peace than merely an absence of all-out armed conflict. We all know this, even those of us who have never lived in a place where armed conflict is a reality or at least a genuine risk. The Hebrew word Shalom is not just ‘not currently fighting.’ Cornelius Plantinga said “In the Bible, shalom means universal flourishing, wholeness, and delight–a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed … in other words, is the way things ought to be.”
If our sense of content is as far from its original meaning as our sense of shalom is, then we have been misunderstanding some significant teachings of the Bible. There’s a good chance many of us have misunderstood the whole idea of contentment and that’s what caused us to either beat ourselves up for not having it, tried to find some strange substitute version of it, or just completely given up on the whole idea.
We can’t find true shalom by merely stopping outright violence for that is merely the absence of fighting. While it’s a good start, and definitely a move in the right direction, it is not shalom. Erasing a debt is not the same as having money in the bank. Getting rid of a negative is not the same as gaining a positive. Shalom, and contentment, cannot simply be thought of as a lack of a type of problem, they are actually the presence of something else.
Merely not fighting with your spouse is not the same as enjoying a deep, rich, loving relationship. We cannot fall into the trap of thinking that true contentment is merely a lack of things that make us discontent. That is some kind of neutral place, but not real contentment. If being content were simply a lack of troubles, then we could find it when our life situations changed. If that is all contentment is, whenever we experience a season without major trouble, we would experience deep contentment. But we don’t.
When we experience a time where things are actually fine, we do not automatically enjoy a rich and flourishing sense of contentment. Because if we think contentment is merely the lack of problems, we know that whenever our situation changes, we’ll be back to the status quo: discontentment.
This is why a state of negotiated peace is not shalom. Convincing two fighting sides to stop hostilities, whether it’s two sides in a military conflict, or two children fighting over their shared bedroom, merely forcing them to a cease-fire is not enough. We all know that if (when) hostilities flare up again, we’ll be back to the same problems as before. It’s only if something more fundamental changes can we hope for lasting improvement. In the same way, merely trying to eliminate the things we think cause discontentment will not lead to a true, rich feeling of contentment.
Make a mental list of the things you think are causing discontentment. If they were all magically solved tomorrow – would you be content?What else would feel like it’s lacking?Make not of that gap – as that will help guide towards true contentment.Can you imagine having that sense of contentement – EVEN IF those problems were not taken away?
Father of true contentment.
Your desire for us is not a lack of problems – but true flourishing.
You have not promised to take away the pain, discomfort, disappointment of this life.
Yet you have good for us.
Give us a greater understanding of how we can find rest in you – while still engaging in the messiness of this world.
Show us your desire for contentment in you while we continue to struggle with the realities of this world give us the strength to show this world how your children find peace, rest, comfort, and contentment in you, and you alone.