The dictionary defines contentment as “the quality or state of being contented,” and contented is defined as “feeling or showing satisfaction with one’s possessions, status, or situation.”1 One of the key ingredients of contentment is accepting the hand dealt to us in life, our place in this world, the people in our circle, and the resources we have. Frankly, if my level of contentment could be monitored on a meter that measures satisfaction and acceptance, I know there are days when neither attitude would even register. Instead, my dissatisfaction would be off the charts.
Paul’s example of dealing with adversity over more than three decades of his life as a Christ-follower encourages me, because throughout his writings Paul describes the inner peace we can learn to cultivate, regardless of circumstances. Even while imprisoned – again – by the Romans, he wrote:
Actually, I don’t have a sense of needing anything personally. I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.2
From a place of complete confidence in the God who transcends all human experiences, Paul urged the early Christians to be “content with what you have; for He Himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you.’”3
As parents of a lifer, Gene and I find ourselves wondering (and sometimes worrying!) about how prisoners, including our son, will be cared for as our country continues to experience a deep financial crisis that has negatively affected the lives of almost everybody in our society. As there is less and less money for the upkeep of prisons, the salaries of prison employees, the health care and meal quality of inmates, and the education of the incarcerated, how will the United States take care of nearly two-and-a-half-million inmates in our country?
Another thought that steals my contentment as a mom is wondering what will happen to our son after Gene and I get old and die. That may seem like a morbid thought, but the reality is in your face when you have a child with a life sentence. Younger family members will one day be responsible for making sure there is enough money in Jason’s account to cover his basic needs. J.P. once wrote to us about some of the added indignities inmates experience when they don’t have anyone looking out for them on the outside.
When prisoners have no family member who deposits money in their inmate account, they wear footwear provided by the Department of Corrections – little slip-on shoes called “bo-bos” (pronounced with long o’s) that are three sizes too small or three sizes too big. When a man’s shoes are too big, he looks like a little child wearing his father’s shoes – just shuffling along so they don’t fall off. When the footwear is too small, the inmates’ feet are cramped into little slippers that only cover their toes, with their heels hanging out over the backs of the shoes. Often, when a hole is worn through the sole of a bo-bo, a large piece of cloth tape is applied instead of having the shoe replaced.
The trousers we wear are often patched or extended with six or more inches of material to make them longer. Towels are sewn together from two, or sometimes three, pieces of old towels.
These little things take away part of our dignity – and if we let these common practices get to us, it produces discontent.
Any contentment I experience can go right through the window when I start dwelling on my concerns about who will provide and care deeply about my son for the rest of his life. I don’t have a chance for peace of mind unless I truly believe that my God – my son’s God – will never desert him. I must continually practice following more of Paul’s excellent advice:
Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life.4
The challenges my son is experiencing as a guilty man imprisoned for committing murder don’t compare to the extreme challenges Paul faced as a Christian unjustly persecuted in Roman society. But Jason, like Paul, is learning that contentment is not just a feeling, and it’s not dependent on his circumstances. Ironically, my incarcerated son is teaching me the true meaning of contentment.
I know there are days when Jason is tempted to give in to anger, bitterness and jealousy. I have those temptations, too. But I’m encouraged as I see him trying to internalize this truth from the New Testament: “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.”5 When I choose to live one day at a time instead of trying to make it through my son’s entire life sentence, I’m surprised by contentment.
Adapted from Between a Rock and a Grace Place: Divine Surprises in the Tight Spots of Life by Carol Kent, © 2010 Carol Kent, Zondervan.
1 Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, eleventh edition
2 Philippians 4:11-13
3 Hebrews 13:5 NASB
4 Philippians 4:6-7
5 Matthew 6:34