Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. The abundance of favorite once-a-year foods, the cozy gathering of close-knit aunts and uncles and cousins seldom seen, and the whole day set aside for feasting with family—all this fills my heart to bursting with thankfulness and joy.
As special as this day is to me, I am not always good at living with a thankful heart the rest of the year. Even though I know how to give thanks for little things, still, I often fall miserably into the pit of discontentment, over and over. Deeper and deeper I slide, if I am not careful.
The Deception of Discontentment
Maybe you find yourself in places similar to where I have often fallen:
- My small house is cluttered and very “lived in.” I gaze longingly at the beautifully painted, perfectly organized and decorated homes in Better Homes and Gardens-type magazines.Try as I might, I know I’ll never be able to achieve the look I ache for. What is wrong with me that I can’t ever make my house look like that? My house is too small, my husband and children are too messy, I’m too busy…. If only…. Soon I’m hating my house, angry with my husband, and even disliking myself—none of which are helpful.
- My husband’s “different” value upon tidiness than I hold threatens to overwhelm me with dissatisfaction. I find myself reminiscing longingly about my tidy attic apartment —and the simplicity of singlehood—when I could keep my house exactly how I wanted it.
- Some women are always beautiful. Stylish clothes, well put-together outfits, hair always perfect. Compared to them, I always feel frumpy, even in my favorite clothes. I’m boring, rarely doing anything with my hair beyond a ponytail. When I do let my hair down, it soon looks fly-away and gets in my way. Even if I knew what to do differently, how would I even find the time? I fret. Inferiority seeps in.
- The people surrounding me seem to move in tight social circles of other women and families who spend a lot of time together. I feel left out. I have good friends, but many far away, or too busy to see often. Loneliness sets in, in spite of all the people who love me.
- Other women don’t know how easy they have it. They plan a family and have their babies accordingly. Or they don’t plan, and end up with an abundance of happy surprises. I couldn’t even have one child born of my husband’s and my DNA. Any child we get to raise, no matter how loved and wanted, never feels totally ours. Insecurity threatens.
- Some women seem to have it all together. They work full-time jobs, raise well-behaved children, and live in beautiful homes, and still have time to do projects, volunteer, or go out with friends. Why can’t I ever get anything done even though I am a full-time homemaker?
- My sister calmly and patiently juggles four young children, runs a small business, and still manages to decorate her home beautifully and throw lavish dinner parties. How does she do it? My cousin raises a menagerie of farm animals and maintains a gorgeous 18th-century farmhouse, all while caring for 3 small children. Why can’t I manage half of what they do? With comparison, self-dissatisfaction and unhappiness creep in.
- My husband and daughter bake a boxed cake mix for my birthday and spread it with pre-packaged icing. What I really wanted was a made-from-scratch cake, and I despise store-bought icing. I never get to have the kind of cake I want for my own birthday… Oh, wait, I’ll ruin my own birthday if I continue with these self-pitying thoughts. (Ok, “despise” was too strong a word.)
If I allow myself to continue down these paths of self-pity, I will always be miserable. I thank God for helping me to see beyond these petty feelings and choose joy again (as I’ll discuss later).
Seriously, if I had everything I wanted (everything that brings discontentment for not having) would I truly have joy? Or would I just be the entitled child and find something else to focus my discontent on?
The Irony of Joy
As I see it, both attitudes—discontentment and thanksgiving—arise out of a longing for joy. The difference is how we seek joy and where we expect to find it. Discontentment creeps in when we believe that happiness is found in fulfilled expectations and having all our desires granted. We feel entitled to that happiness. Thanksgiving, instead, is possible when we have gratitude in our hearts rather than a sense of entitlement. Thanksgiving arises in our choosing to seek joy above our circumstances.
The irony is, discontentment arises when we are disgruntled that our circumstances do not give us the happiness we want. We’re already unhappy, so we wallow in that discontentment until we feel even worse!
Discontentment brings more unhappiness than the circumstances which spawned it in the first place.
We may rebel against “giving thanks in all things,” because we stubbornly insist on justifying our cause for unhappiness. Truly, the only way to be happy when our wishes go unfulfilled (which they most definitely will) is to give thanks in all things.
The reality we too often forget is this: when the battle lines are drawn up in our hearts between discontentment and thanksgiving, the choice is ours. Regardless of our circumstances, we have the power to choose joy or misery.
The Reality of Thanksgiving
Earlier, I detailed some ugly thought patterns of discontent that I have struggled with. If, instead of focusing on what I don’t have, I choose to give thanks, I would see these blessings:
- We have a warm house filled with a loving family—and that makes us rich!
- Who am I kidding? Twelve years ago, I became angry with God for not being “able” to find a suitable husband for me! Now I am happily married to a man who is good and kind and considerate. My husband even devoted an entire day recently to help me declutter and reorganize our bedroom!
- I have clothes, I have nice clothes, and my style is unique. More importantly, the two who matter most—God and my husband—both consider me beautiful!
- I have many who love me. My friends may not be close at hand, or my friends close by may be busy, but I am blessed with friends in many places. And if I am lonely, I can initiate contact.
- Our adopted and foster children have brought untold joy into our lives. Our losses of biological children have deepened our understanding of grief and opened our eyes to the suffering of others.
- I have long wanted to be a homemaker. Our family is financially stable enough—and my husband is willing—for me to stay home with our children!
- I do get some projects done, and those accomplishments bring great joy. True, I can’t do what other women accomplish, but as my sister pointed out, she and others can’t imagine doing what I do! We are each uniquely gifted to handle our unique callings.
- My husband and daughter made that cake for me with love, and I didn’t have to lift a finger!
The Dangers of Discontentment
Granted, a certain level of discontent can prompt honest evaluations and needed changes in our lives. This article is focusing instead on the unhealthy, self-pitying forms of discontentment.
Pondering my own struggles, I have been convicted by the ugly underbelly of discontentment:
- Is self-focused
- Arises from comparison
- Paints an unrealistic picture of those we compare ourselves to or what we aspire to
- Focuses on lack instead of abundance
- Forgets (or disregards) God’s good gifts
- Says God’s provisions are not enough (or not good enough)
- Reveals lack of trust in God
- Encourages a victim mentality instead of motivating positive change
- Ignores our power to choose or change
- Increases blame and breaks down relationships
- Sucks us into self-pity, misery, anger, and even depression
- Steals joy
- Leads to bitterness.
Whew! When I look at my discontentment like this, I want to stay as far away from it as possible!
Choosing Joy: Steps for Battling Discontentment
Discontentment has stolen my joy far too often in recent years. I don’t want discontentment to become a stronghold in my life and ruin my testimony of God’s goodness.
Here are some suggestions for battling discontentment and choosing joy that have been helpful to me. These steps are not linear, but may be simultaneous or cyclical, or depend upon the situation.
- Recognize unhealthy thought patterns
- Identify the core felt need not being met
- Evaluate reasonableness of felt need (Do I have power to change this situation or not? Are my expectations fair and reasonable, or unfair and selfish?)
- Repent of thoughts and actions not honoring to God
- Offer issue to God or make plans to change
- Communicate to others and work to create plan to resolve underlying problem
- If unhealthy discontentment surfaces repeatedly, ask God for help to take every thought captive (I found this blog post by Sunshyne Gray helpful)
- Read things that inspire a heart of gratitude (this post by Ann Voskamp encouraged me)
- Memorize or meditate on scriptures about contentment, joy, or thanksgiving to transfer focus away from what we are lacking
- Give thanks for what IS good and right and beautiful!
Scriptures That Help Me Overcome Discontentment and Choose Joy
But godliness with contentment is great gain.1 Timothy 6:6
Discontentment focuses on my lack. Contentment is great gain.
I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether whether living in plenty or in want.Philippians 4:12
All my unfulfilled longings pale in comparison to going hungry. And Paul could be content even then.
You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.Psalm 16:11
Spiritual blessings are independent of what I have on earth. Do I value God’s presence more than earthly possessions or comforts?
Praise the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.Psalm 103:2-5
Forget not. He has given me so much.
Rejoice in the Lord always.Philippians 4:4
Always. Not just when things are going my way.
Unchecked discontentment robs us of joy, causing a host of emotional, relational, and spiritual problems. Recognizing unhealthy thought patterns, entrusting our circumstances to God, asking him to control our thought lives, and choosing an attitude of thanksgiving will bring joy.
May God help us develop hearts of gratitude so that we honor Him. May we experience that fulness of joy He came to give, not just on Thanksgiving Day, but also in January, June, and September, and every day we are given!