Contentment through the Spirit

Contentment cannot be taught. If it were that simple and easy, we’d all have it all the time. Someone would just teach us the logic of it and it would stick.

“Don’t you see,” we’d tell our kids, “contentment makes the same sort of sense as 1+1= 2.” And then they’d nod their heads in agreement won over by our irrefutable logic.

Pretty sure that’s not effective. Why? Because I know me. And I know my daughter. And if the Scriptures are true, I know you and your kids too.

If I’m going to tamp down the whirring, yearning, and chasing of my discontentment this Christmas, if I’m going to help my daughter do the same, there is only one force with both the consistency and the power to deliver. His name? The Holy Spirit.

He alone will allow me to walk past the Apple store without a second thought. He alone will allow my three-year-old daughter to walk past racks of Christmas toys without throwing a tantrum or convince her she’s alright without that additional Christmas cookie. That’s just honest.

Keeping that in mind, here are a few quick thoughts on unleashing the Spirit:

  • Unleash the Spirit on yourself. In the Word, you’ll find this incredible, mind-blowing God who has met every one of your most basic and most profound needs in totally overwhelming ways. Did I gush enough to make my point? The reality is that if we parents are not convinced we have everything we could possibly want or need in Christ, how could we possibly hope to share that same news with our kids? My daughter can smell a rat a mile away.
  • Unleash the Spirit on your child(ren). See above. Just think, it’s December! What better picture is there than that mangy manger for teaching the love and promises of God?
  • Live gratitude. Even shout it! I do, and I heartily recommend it. When I see another stunning Carolina crescent moon, my whole house knows about it (and who put it there!). Sometimes at dinner, I’ll very intentionally ask my girls, “What are you thankful for today?” We do that at bedtime, too. At the tender age of three, she sometimes has a hard time getting past the zoo, but—hey—I don’t mind asking her, “Are you thankful for Jesus, too? Why?” (Quick aside: if you want to feel joy after a tough day, do what I suggest and just watch your daughter’s eyes light up with gospel glow as she tells you about the God she’s learning to know. I’m telling you, there’s nothing better!)
  • Ignore, squash, or redirect discontentment. Pray for wisdom on which of those triggers to pull in which circumstance and then pull it. Don’t be afraid to let the Spirit convict through you. Whatever you do, don’t ever indulge it. The human heart is a bottomless pit. One more thing will not satisfy. Only Jesus does.
  • Finally, build these rhythms into your family life intentionally, practically, and concretely all the time. The human heart doesn’t magically heal from discontentment after December 25 rolls by. Before we know it, 2016 will drop in on us, and once again in the new year we will find our hearts in need of Holy Spirit-provided contentment. I am also delighted, however, to tell you that once again in the New Year you’ll reliably find the Spirit for yourself and your children in the words and promises of God.

Fostering contentment in children

One of the most remarkable things about my husband and his family is their overwhelming sense of contentment in the Lord. Their content attitudes have been such a blessing and example to me.

My husband and his siblings were raised in an openly Christian family in communist East Germany. They had very little in the way of material possessions and opportunities. How could people raised in such an environment become such content adults? Over the years I have discovered that there are some things that his parents did to foster this contentment. Although my children are in a country overflowing with opportunities and lavish excess, the example of my in-laws still applies as I seek to encourage contentment in my children.

My attitude. Contentment is born of thankfulness. Content believers know that everything is a gift from our heavenly Father. I can look to God’s Word regularly. I will begin to know the character of God. This amazing God is on my side. My responses to difficult situations or material wants can be filled with God’s peace. I can turn all of my life’s challenges over to him and obediently await his leading.

My words. I can intentionally talk about gifts—spiritual and material—from God. I can take time to thank God aloud. I can lead my family as we thank God for one another and the special qualities that each family member has. I can memorize Bible verses. Knowing God’s Words will truly change my heart. I must talk often about the greatest gift ever given—that of the Savior.

My time. I can enjoy Advent and Christmas worship with my children. Though it can be a challenge with small kids, I can enjoy extra opportunities for praise and worship.

I can take time to enjoy family devotions each evening. Our family especially loves to sing “Away in the Manger” together each night before bed.

I can focus on the people parts of Christmas—get-togethers, games, baking—rather than the present parts. We spend some time preparing gifts for others but try to keep it minimal because I want this to be a small part of our celebration.

I can serve. There are so many ways that I enjoy serving, and my kids can sometimes serve as well.

My actions. I avoid having my kids make Christmas lists. I usually recycle toy catalogs before the kids see them. This keeps our “gimmes” at a minimum. It has never really been a part of our celebration, so my kids don’t miss it.

We don’t buy, buy, buy. This is not easy and sometimes I fail, but I want them to see that we are good stewards of our money.

So much of parenting is modeling. We can use our words, but in the end it is what our children see that makes the difference.

Modeling contentment

In preparing to write about contentment, I issued myself a challenge. How long could I go without expressing my discontentment in any way? Well, I think I made it about 10 minutes. Sadly, it’s not in our sinful nature to be content. Every day on this earth is a battle as we examine our possessions, home, looks, situation and find them lacking in some way. There will always be someone out there who is healthier, richer, prettier, more successful than we are. How can we cultivate a heart of contentment in our children—and ourselves—in that environment?

The Bible gives some marvelous examples of godly contentment. Take the apostle Paul, for one. The self-proclaimed “worst of sinners” endured some things in God’s name that would send most of us packing. He lived through shipwrecks. Floggings. Hunger. A snake bite. Prison. Throughout all those situations, he “learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11). He even gently reminded Timothy, “If we have food and clothing, we will be content with that” (1 Timothy 6:8).

Does my family have food? Yes. And we often waste it. Does my family have clothing? You bet. So much that we often puzzle over our options of what to wear.

So, at this time of year in particular, how do we as Christian parents teach our children to be content “whatever the circumstances”? It might sound simplistic, but I believe it is critical for us to model godly contentment in our homes by what we say—and do. There are many ways to do this, but here are a few ideas:

  • Guard our tongues in how we speak about our circumstances. I’m ashamed to admit how often I have expressed discontentment in front of my boys. Our kids are listening and picking up on our attitudes—good and bad. How comforting that we can confess our failings to God and be reassured of his forgiveness.
  • Seek out situations where we can help others and learn to value our blessings. How impactful as a family to volunteer in a mission setting or help our kids donate their gently-used possessions to those who need them more than they do. These teaching circumstances will have a greater impact than just saying, “We are very blessed.”
  • Set aside the first portion of our earnings or chore money to give sacrificially to our church out of gratitude for God’s blessings. We can model that as God has abundantly blessed us, we, in thankfulness, should use our blessings to help advance the work of his kingdom.
  • At the dinner table or in the car, ask, “What are you thankful for today?” Big blessings or small, they are all a gift from our loving Father, bestowed upon his undeserving children. How humbling.

As a parent, I constantly have to remind myself that by being discontent with what God has given me, I am in effect saying, “God, you don’t know what you’re doing.” I pray for the strength to model for my boys that although God doesn’t always give us what we want, in his perfect wisdom, he gives us exactly what we need.

How do we talk about divorce with our kids?

You’ve been friends for years. You and your passel of kids sit together at church potlucks; carpool to school; go camping; and share all the requisite happies and sads, from diapers and discipline to report cards and prom dates.

Then your friends make an unbelievable announcement: They’re getting divorced.

The ground shifts, and you have no words for awhile—until you and your spouse look at each other and say together: “What are we going to tell the kids?”

The answer depends on the ages of your children, but I think every kid needs to hear these three points in some age-appropriate form:

  • “The breaking of the marriage vow is a sin. God intends marriage to be for life.”
  • “We’re still friends with all of them. We still love them.”
  • “Don’t worry—your mom and I are not going to get divorced.”

That won’t be a one-time conversation. It will come up again and again, and you’ll continue to find the words your kids need to hear.

But some children will want more. They’ll want details. Do you tell them? If they’re young, no. More knowledge will only be a burden. These are adult issues. Kids don’t need to carry them.

But if they’re older and the story already is going public, then maybe it’s better they hear it from you. Keep it simple, and be ready to answer any questions they have as honestly as you can.

You might start like this: “Here’s what I know. This is heartbreaking, but Mary broke her marriage vow. She had an affair. Now John has filed for divorce. Mary has repented of her sin, but the divorce is still going forward. John and Mary are both still our friends, but, honestly, we don’t know what our friendship will look like now.”

It becomes more difficult when the reason for the divorce has not been made public. Maybe there’s an addiction or some abusive behavior that’s been hidden behind closed doors for years. Maybe the person filing for divorce is trying hard not to expose the sin of the spouse who broke the marriage vow. Then you might say something like this: “I’m not sure why they’re getting divorced. But we’re going to be kind to both of them, and we’re not going to gossip or speculate.”

In my experience, older children often feel a need to sort it out in their own heads—to find a black-and-white explanation they can be comfortable with. Maybe there is an obvious explanation: an affair, physical beatings, or an addiction to drugs or alcohol that’s led to emotional desertion.

But other times the matter is too nuanced for children to understand, especially if it involves emotional abuse or some kind of online addiction, which can lead to emotional desertion. Truthfully, these psychological tangles are too nuanced for most adults to fathom. Then you can just say, “I don’t understand what happened.” It’s honest.

Your kids may also wonder what to say to the children of the divorcing couple—their friends. What an excellent opportunity for you to massage your children’s hearts, nurturing their empathy and compassion.

  • Ask your kids to dig down and think about what they might like to say to their friends.
  • Urge them to take their cues from the friends. If the friends want to talk, listen. If they want to go swimming and forget about it awhile, go with them.
  • Tell them what you think their friends might ask about: whether they’re partly to blame (no!), whether they could somehow have prevented the divorce (no!), whether they’ll lose their parents’ time or love (no, no, no!).
  • Remind your kids that they and their friends are allowed to feel all the feelings: sadness, anger, confusion, worry, relief, happiness. Feelings aren’t wrong, and kids especially need to express them, not keep them in.

When divorce arises in your circle and your kids are looking at you with wide eyes, you know you’re on. You want to clearly express God’s will and also show compassion. You want to be truthful but not encumber your kids with too much information. You want to express your own sorrow but not scare them.

Mostly you want to hug them and reassure them that although this event is rocking their world, some things will never shift: Their mom and dad will always be there for them, and God their heavenly Father loves them more than they know.

Building a strong, God-pleasing marriage

When the issue of divorce arises in another family, a child or teenager may wonder if they should be concerned about their own parents getting a divorce. This can present an opportunity for parents to talk with their children and adolescents in age-appropriate ways about steps that Dad and Mom are taking to strengthen their marriage in an effort to avoid divorce.

This can be a great time to talk about—and demonstrate—the importance of:

  • Nurturing a marriage with things like date nights, cards, flowers, hugs and kisses on the cheek, plus kind acts. Your children will observe your actions, which can help to calm any anxiety on their part. You will be providing a beneficial template for their own future marriages.
  • Communicating well, which starts with actively listening to the other spouse’s message without prejudging it, then using appropriate eye contact, body language, and tone of voice to respond in a respect-ful manner. These actions will reassure your children of your love and care for their other parent and give them a great example to follow in their lives.
  • Resolving conflicts positively using strategies like fair fighting, compromise, negotiation, and maybe even sacrifice. Teach children that conflict is part of life and part of marriage and that it can be managed well to enhance relationships.
  • Apologizing and making amends if mistakes are made. How powerful for a young person to see a parent take responsibility and repent for a sinful choice, followed by forgiveness and reconciliation. This is an opportunity for children to see the forgiveness we learn from Jesus in action.
  • Celebrating anniversaries, as these are a blessing from God. Give thanks to him for the gift of marriage by marking anniversaries with some fun tradition or meaningful gift.
  • Worshiping together. We are surrounded by temptations to turn away from God’s design for marriage. Regularly hearing of God’s love in Christ and receiving Holy Communion gives us the strength to live Christian lives.
  • Teaching children and teens about God’s design for marriage. Emphasize that Dad is to be the loving head of the household and Mom is to be his respectful supporter. Talk about how Christians should be equally yoked with a Christian spouse. Reinforce that God’s plan is for marriage to be between one man and one woman.

For teens, parents may also want to broach the topic of sexual fidelity, noting that this too is a gift from God designed to enhance the intimacy between husband and wife. Use this opportunity to reinforce that sex outside of marriage is not part of God’s good plans for us and such sin only leads to heartache.

This may also be a time to reevaluate your marriage. How well are you doing the things listed above? What might you change or improve to strengthen your marriage? What might you want to request of your spouse?

Let’s teach our kids about having strong, God-pleasing marriages through our words and actions grounded in his holy Word. Remember that one of the greatest gifts a parent can give to a child is to love the other parent as God loves them.

Sheryl Cowling is a licensed clinical social worker who is also board certified as a professional Christian counselor and expert in traumatic stress. She provides counseling services at Christian Family Counseling, a ministry of WLCFS—Christian Family Solutions.