Updated: Mar 18, 2020
Psalm 16 and genuine contentment
This Psalm is a song about how the chase for contentment can begin to come to an end.
There is a new book out by Erik Raymond called Chasing Contentment. I can’t recommend the book yet because I haven’t read it (it’s on my summer list and I have appreciated other things he has written) but I love the title. I think it describes what so many of us experience. We are chasing after anything and everything in hopes of finding contentment.
In John 4 the Samaritan woman at the well seems to be chasing contentment in relationships as Jesus notes she has been married 5 times and is working on her 6th. Jesus brilliantly illustrates the wanderings of her heart by likening it to the need to get water every day. Every day she walked back to that same well and it never fully satisfied. But Jesus offers something else. Living water that whoever drinks of “will never be thirsty again” (John 4:14).
Like the woman at the well many of us chase contentment in relationships. But the chase takes on various other forms too. Some of us switch jobs every couple of years, some of us switch hobbies, some of us switch houses or cars or hair colors or diet plans. Churches do it by looking for a new pastor every few years and pastors do it by looking for new churches every few years (a friend of mine calls our denomination’s job search site “Church Porn” for pastors – the allure of an air brushed church without any of the mess of real relationships). The grass is always greener.
Psalm 16 is a song about how the chase can begin to come to an end.
The LORD holds our lot
It begins with a declaration of confidence in a cry for help: “Preserve me, O God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.”
Think about that for a second. In you I take refuge. I have no good apart from you.
What would it look like to truly believe that we have no good apart from the Lord? How would that effect your level of anxiety about things that do not satisfy?
The Psalmist then describes what he means by having no good apart from the Lord.
“The sorrows of those who run after another god shall multiply” (verse 4).
I’m not sure if Raymond’s book mentions Psalm 16 or this verse but it seems like a perfect connection to “chasing” contentment. We are running after other gods and the result is decreased satisfaction, sorrow; the very opposite of what we hoped we would find. “If only” becomes the opening lines of every inner dialogue. If only I had that job. If only the congregation was a little bit bigger. If only I had a wife.
Tim Keller suggests examining your day dreams if you want to know the things in which you are truly putting your hope for satisfaction. For the longest time my day dreams consisted of hitting the winning shot in the state high school basketball tournament. Then they moved on to attending a prestigious college. Then to being published and a famous speaker before I turned thirty. I guess I’ve always been a bit full of myself? Meanwhile I was always fairly miserable in the present.
Running after contentment means we actually miss the very real life we are currently living for some imagined “someday.” Someday when the kids get out of diapers, or when they can dress themselves for school, or when they can drive themselves to practice or when they are finally out of the house – then I’ll be content. You can fill in the blank for what your “someday” day-dreams tend to look like. If your like most people they probably include relationships, comfort, success, recognition and free-time all at higher levels than you are currently experiencing.
“The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot.” (vs. 5)
The Psalmist speaks with such confidence because he knows the Lord holds his lot. A lot, by definition, is what we typically think of as chance. It is drawing straws, rolling dice, flipping a coin. We will sometimes hear someone say, “I guess that is my lot in life.” Usually with a tone of dejection. But in the real world that is governed by a good and sovereign Lord there is no such thing as mere fate. The Lord holds his lot. His lot in life is held by the Maker and Redeemer of the world and so is yours.
To wallow in self-pity, which is ultimately what happens when we are running after the ever allusive contentment is nothing short of declaring that when it comes to our lives God doesn’t know what He is doing. It’s forgetting that He holds our lot. Your lot in life is in God’s hands.
This theme runs through the entire Bible. But it is never thought of as simplistic, passive determinism. Instead it is the basis for confidence to look at every moment of life as flooded with God-given purpose. David Powlison describes it well:
“Human life is absolutely significant; every fleeting thought, every choice, and every experience matter. This God calls you to faith, obedience, and responsibility. Because his purposes will not be thwarted, you can leap to the call, learning to be courageous, optimistic, persevering in love through troubles. His purposes sustain you through it all. His rule establishes the significance of our choices. Any other view would be absurd – human life counts, God’s will controls. His will of control (Ephesians 1:11) is to be trusted as the frame of reference behind every experience; his will of command (Eph. 5:17, 6:6) is to be obeyed with all our heart.