Keys to Christian Contentment | Psalm 131
Brian Hedges | March 29, 2020
Turn in your Bibles to Psalm 131. As you’re turning there, so that you can follow along as we dig into the text this morning, let me tell you about an experience I had a couple of years ago.
Stephen and I had a little trip (this was kind of related to his school), a trip down to Orlando, a couple of years ago, where we went to Disneyworld. When we were at Disneyworld, we were riding all the different rides. I’ve never been much of a rollercoaster kind of guy, but he wanted to go on all the big rides. There was one ride, in particular, called “The Tower of Terror.” It’s essentially a ride where you get into this large elevator, you go up—I don’t know, maybe eight or ten stories—and then you go out, and then everybody in the elevator is just in a free fall for multiple stories. Then it catches you and it picks you back up and you go up a few stories, and you go back down again in free fall again. You do this over and over and over again.
I want to tell you, I’m not a screamer, but I screamed on this ride. I remember just sitting there clenching my chair, saying to myself, “Make it stop, make it stop, make it stop.”
I think some of us maybe feel that way with life sometimes, and maybe we feel that way with the world right now. We feel like we’re in free fall, we wonder what’s happening to our world, to our society, and we’re just saying to ourselves, or maybe we’re saying to God, we’re saying in prayer, “Make it stop, make it stop, make it stop.” There’s never been a time where the church needs deeper confidence in God and a kind of composure and contentment that can only be found through faith in him.
This morning I want us to look at a psalm that is all about this composure, this contentment, Psalm 131. This is part of our ongoing series, now, on the Psalms. I’m calling this series “Psalms for Times of Trouble,” or psalms for troubled times. So far we’ve looked at Psalm 46, about how we should not fear, because God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in time of trouble. Last week we looked together at Psalm 42 and how we deal with stress and distress and feelings of discouragement by preaching to ourselves to hope in God and to remember that God is our rock and he is our salvation.
This morning I want us to look at Psalm 131. I owe many of my thoughts this morning to a man named David Powlison, who was a wonderful writer and Christian counselor, who just passed away of cancer maybe a year or so ago. He wrote a wonderful little essay, a chapter in a book, on Psalm 131. I remember it helped me years ago when I read it for the first time; I re-read it this week and found it very fruitful for my own thinking, and I think it will be helpful for you.
David Powlison tells us that in this psalm we’re doing something like "holy eavesdropping." He says, “In this psalm you have intimate access to the inner life of someone who has learned composure and invites you to do the same.”
This is a short psalm (it’s only three verses), but a very powerful psalm, a potent psalm, a psalm that’s sort of like strong medicine for our souls and for our hearts. I think as we look at it together, we will learn that there are some keys to the experience of contentment and of composure in our lives. Let me read the psalm, Psalm 131. It says,
“O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.”
This is God’s word. That’s the psalm, a short three verses.
But in those three verses, I think we see four keys to Christian contentment or composure. I just want you to see these with me, four insights about how contentment in our hearts can be a reality.
1. Contentment Begins with Humility
Here’s number one. I want you to see, first of all, that contentment begins with humility. Look at verse 1. “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.”
Let’s not rush through this too quickly. Just start with the first two words, “O Lord.” Who is the Lord that this psalmist is talking to? Well, he’s talking to the sovereign Lord of heaven and earth, he’s talking to the Creator, to the Maker of all things. “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,” as we say in the Apostles’ Creed. He’s talking to that God. He’s talking to the God who is our lawgiver, the God who is the ruler, the sovereign disposer of the events in human history. He is talking to the Lord who is the judge of all the world.
Not only that, he’s talking to the Lord who is the covenant Lord of Israel, the God who does not wipe out sinful rebels, the God who enters into a relationship of mercy and of lovingkindness with us. He’s talking to a God who’s marked by grace and by love and by compassion. He’s talking to a God who is faithful to all of his promises, the very things that we’ve sung about this morning about our God. That’s the God that he’s talking to.
This is not the deist God. This is not the God who just wound the world up like a clock and then leaves it to run by itself. He’s not talking about that kind of God. That’s not the God of the Bible. He’s talking to a God who intimately involved in the affairs of human beings. He’s talking to the God who rules the world, and he begins by just saying, ‘O Lord.”
The very first step in experiencing contentment and composure in our own lives is to bring ourselves to submission, humble submission, before this Lord. Contentment begins with the fundamental acknowledgement of the reality of God.
I think all of us are in danger of what many theologians and Christian teachers and preachers over the years have called “practical atheism.” It’s not that we are theoretically atheist. I mean, the fact is, we believe in God, we subscribe to the creed, we believe the Bible. As Christians, we believe that there is a God. We’re not actually atheists in our theology, but sometimes we act as if we are atheists. We believe in God on paper, but we don’t act as if God is real in our day-to-day living. We read and we think and we feel, we emote, and we process news and headlines as if there were no God instead of as if there is a God. Therefore we fret and we worry.
The words “O Lord” are words of reality, they are words of submission, they are an acknowledgement that there is a God, that he does reign, that he is in control; and, more than that, they are the acknowledgement that there is a God, and it’s not me. He is God, and I am not. I don’t have control, and therefore my posture before this God is one (or should be one) of humility.
That’s the humility that you see in this verse. Notice, again, what the psalmist says. He says, “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.”
David Powlison says that “the state of anxiety, irritation, despondency, or ambition makes sense from within the logic of a proud heart.” But he says, “If you’re not proud, then quietness and composure make sense.” Then get this: “Your biggest problem is your proud self-will. That’s the noise machine inside of you.”
Do you have a noise machine inside of you? Do you have something in your heart that’s just constantly cranking out the noise of fretful anxiety and worry? How do we deal with that? Well, we only deal with that when we begin to understand and really embrace the truth that he is God and I am not. “O Lord.”
I’ll tell you one of the ways that I’ve personally seen the need to apply this is just the way I process the information that’s coming at us all the time. You know, in the first week or ten days of the coronavirus, with COVID-19, I was spending a lot of time, as I know many of us were, reading the headlines—not just reading the headlines, but reading articles, reading things from the different news sources, reading both from the conservative side and the more liberal side, reading from scientists and people that are looking at the statistics, and the medical professionals—looking at all these things, and I was constantly in my mind trying to assess, “What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen next?” and forming my opinions. “Well, I think it’s going to be like this. I think it’s going to be like this.”
Then, when I looked at this psalm and these words, “O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me,” it was kind of a humbling moment where I just needed to realize, “You know what? I’m not a civic authority, I’m not a medical professional, I’m not a scientist. There’s a lot that I just don’t understand.”
But those things, those decisions—I mean, these decisions that are being made for our world right now are outside the scope of my control, and therefore what I need to do is humbly take my place, attend to my little plot of influence, my little field of influence. I need to love my family, I need to love my neighbors, I need to shepherd our church, I need to shepherd my own heart, my own soul, I need to trust God, I need to submit to the authorities that are over me, I need to be safe; I need to do all these things, but it’s really not up to me. I have no control over the outcomes.
Listen: you don’t either. You don’t have control over the outcomes, other than submitting to authority and especially submitting to the Lord.
Just that recognition of our very limited sphere of influence, but then also that God has control over all these things, recognizing that and embracing that can lead us to quietness, it can lead us to contentment, it can lead us to a sense of composure in our hearts, because we humble ourselves before the Lord, who is in control.
This contentment begins with humility. That’s the first key.
2. Contentment Is a Learned Skill
Here’s the second: contentment is a learned skill. Again, I want you to see this in the psalm. Look at verse 2. The psalmist says, “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” Just notice here the subject of the verbs. Who is doing the calming and the quieting? It’s the psalmist himself. He says, “I have calmed and quieted my soul.”
Again, to quote David Powlison, “This composure is learned, and it is learned in relationship. Such purposeful quiet is achieved, not spontaneous. It is conscious, alert, and chosen, a form of self-mastery by the grace of God.” It’s a learned skill. It’s something that we have to do. We have to do something with our hearts. We have to calm and quiet our hearts before the Lord.
Now, notice here, this is not indifference. He’s not completely indifferent to everything that’s going on around him. He has to calm and quiet his heart. This is not escapism. But it is humble, trustful, peaceful composure and contentment.
As I was working on this, I remembered something that happened many years ago, now, when our daughter Susannah was just a baby. We were on a trip to Texas, visiting my family, and almost everybody got sick on this trip. I remember that there was one night she was staying in our bedroom, and she was sick with a stomach bug, and she was up over and over again throughout the night. She was vomiting and just not doing well; she was only maybe 18 or 20 months old at the time.
We would compose her. We would tell her, “It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be alright,” and we’d put her back down to bed. She was up almost all night, but by the end of the night, she was composing herself, she was calming herself. Here’s little 18- or 20-month-old Susannah, and she was saying to herself, “It’s okay. It’s going to be alright. It’s okay. It’s going to be alright.” She was actually self-soothing. She was repeating the things that her mom had been telling her throughout the night.
That’s something of what we have to learn to do. We have to learn to compose ourselves, we have to learn to quiet ourselves, so that we are like this little child.
I think one of the best biblical illustrations of this is the apostle Paul. You remember how Paul, in the book of Philippians, the letter to the Philippians, he writes as someone who is in prison. He’s in prison; he doesn’t know whether he’s going to live or die. In fact, he says, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” He’s actually eager to depart and to be with Christ, but he knows that he may need to continue, if it’s the Lord’s will, continue in prison, continue in his ministry, for the sake of the church. But he’s fully reconciled either way. “To live is Christ, to die is gain.”
He writes this letter to the Philippians church, urging them to be unified, urging them to love one another and humbly serve one another. When you get into chapter 4, he begins to tell us about his own contentment in the Lord. In fact, he’s appealing to the Philippians to give, but he says, “I’m not asking you to give for my own sake, because I can be content in any circumstance.” Listen to what he says in Philippians 4:11 and following.
He says, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatsoever I am to be content.” Did you get that? “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” Then he fills this out in verse 12. He says, “I know how to be brought low and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Paul says, “I’ve learned the secret!” What’s the secret, Paul? What’s the secret to contentment?
It’s really interesting here that Paul is using language that is similar to the language of the Stoics. Stoicism was a school in Greek philosophy, and the Stoics really emphasized detachment from the world and indifference and control of one’s emotions, so that you’re not affected by either pleasure on one hand or pain on the other, but you had complete self-mastery over your heart. Paul is using language that the Stoics would have resonated with, that they would have understood.
Commentator Gordon Fee says this. He says, “Paul’s explanation looks like a meteor fallen from the Stoic sky into this epistle. The word translated ‘content’ expresses the ultimate goal of Stoicism: to live above need and abundance in such a way as to be self-sufficient.” But then Fee goes on to show that Paul transforms this language, because the source of Paul’s contentment and satisfaction is not self-sufficiency, it’s rather his sufficiency in Christ.
You see that in verse 13. He says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Christ is the secret of his contentment. The reason that Paul is unruffled by circumstances, the reason that Paul can write in prison and can be completely content, whether he has plenty or whether he’s in need, whether he lives or whether he dies, is because he has found Christ to be the source of his contentment.
I wonder if we could say that. Perhaps the things that we’re facing right now in our world are challenging us on the level of contentment. Let’s say that you haven’t even been affected health wise by COVID-19, and most of us have not. But still we’ve been affected in other ways. We’ve having to stay home more. Can’t go out to eat with your family. You can’t go to places that you once went to. You can’t do the things, especially things that involve other people, social kind of activities. It may be that you’re feeling some withdrawal from those things.
Now, it’s right that we should grieve those losses, but it would not be right to grieve those losses to the point that we lose our contentment in the Lord. We need Christian contentment. We need to learn the secret of contentment. We learn that only through going through this process, going through these times, where we have to pull away and sometimes circumstances push us to pull away from certain things we’ve depended on, and we depend instead on the Lord. This contentment is a learned skill.
3. Contentment is Pictured as a Weaned Child
It begins with humility, it’s a learned skill, and then here’s the third thing to notice. This contentment is pictured as a weaned child. This is the metaphor. This is the operating word picture in this passage. Again, look at verse 2. The psalmist says, “But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.”
“To gain composure,” Powlison says, “is to go through a weaning process. Something that once meant everything to me now means nothing.”
What does a weaning process involve? When a mother weans her child, what does it involve? It involves gradually pulling the child back from something that it loves, right? The child wants its mother’s milk, and it involves gradually transition the child from dependance on its mother’s milk to the ability to eat and to digest and learn to like ordinary table food, the food that adults will eat.
There’s a time where the child will be very discontent with that process, because they’re being weaned from it. They’re being pulled away from something that they want, so the child’s going to throw tantrums or maybe throw fits or is going to cry because it’s not getting what it wants. It has to learn to want something that’s actually better for its long-term health.
Isn’t it true that all of us have to go through this in our own lives at times? There are times when we have to be weaned from something. It may be that we even have to be weaned from things that are basically good and innocent in and of themselves, but we depend on them too much.
You know, the Puritans really understood this, and they talk about this a lot in their writings. John Owen, in Volume 5 of his works, talks about what he calls “weanedness” from the world, being weaned from the world. He viewed this as an essential component of deep repentance. He said, “The edge of our affections and desires must be taken off from these things,” that is, the things of the world, not necessarily bad things, but even things like ordinary wealth and relationships and family and society and work and our over-dependence on these things. He says the edge of our affections has to be taken off from these things.
Owen says that this happens as we do three things: as we, first of all, remember the uncertainty of these things, and as we see that these things ultimately cannot satisfy our souls.
Secondly, as we seek greater conformity to the likeness of Christ. You remember how Paul, in Galatians 6:14, says, “Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” What does it mean to be crucified to the world? What does it mean to be dead to the world? Well, it means that the edge of our appetites and our affections have been taken off for the things of the world. It means that there’s a certain degree of holy detachment. We’re not overly dependent.
The third thing that Owen says we need is to fix our minds and our affections on eternal things, on the better things, on the things which really endure. The things of this world are passing away, but there are eternal realities. There are things that can never be taken away from you, there are things that can never perish. There are realities for us to hold onto.
I love the way John Newton put it in one of those old hymns. He said,
“Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
All its boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasure
None but Zion’s children know.”
Which do you depend on most? Do you depend on the fading pleasures of the world or the solid joys and the lasting treasures that none but Zion’s children know? Have you been weaned from the world? That’s part of what we have to learn in order to live in this kind of contentment and composure. It’s that we’re detached enough from things that if the Lord in his providence removes them from us we can continue to be joyful in him. It doesn’t mean we never grieve the loss. I’m not talking about total indifference here, but we’re talking about a holy detachment that comes from God’s grace in our hearts.
4. Contentment is Full of Hope
Here’s the fourth thing: contentment is full of hope. This contentment begins with humility, it’s a learned skill, it is compared to a weaned child, pictured as a weaned child, and it is full of hope. Look at verse 3. The psalmist says, “O Israel, hope in the Lord, from this time forth and forevermore!”
Powlison points out three things in that text. He says, first of all, just notice that you’re called by name. The Lord says in his word here, the psalmist speaking, the Lord speaking through him, “O Israel, hope in the Lord…” Of course, Israel is the name for the children of Israel, the nation of Israel. It’s the covenant name given to Jacob, who was the father of the 12 tribes of Israel. That’s the name, the name Israel, that gets used of the church in the New Testament. Paul talks about the church as the “Israel of God” in the book of Galatians.
We could extend this in New Testament terms and just remember this basic principle, that when the Lord speaks to us and when he invites us and urges us to trust in him, he calls us by our name. Who are you, Christian? You are beloved. You are a child of God, a son or a daughter of God. You are adopted into the family. You are a saint. You’re set apart in Jesus Christ. You’re a member of the body united to Christ. You are the temple of God indwelled by the Holy Spirit. You have an inheritance, you’re a child and an heir of God, a joint heir of Christ, which means that all that Christ will receive in inheritance from the Father in the new heavens and the new earth, that’s your inheritance, and you will receive it.
The proof of it is that you’ve already received the Holy Spirit, who is the down payment on your inheritance, until the day of redemption. You are the recipient of so much, and the Lord speaks to us, he looks to us, and he calls us by name, and he says, “Oh Israel, oh child, oh son, oh daughter, oh set-apart one, oh Christian! Hope in the Lord.”
He calls us by name, and then secondly, we are called to hope in the Lord. He is the object of our hope. We talked about this last week, didn’t we, from Psalm 42. The Lord is the object of our hope! Do you remember what the psalmist says? He says, “God is my salvation; I will hope in him. God is my rock. God is my exceeding joy.” He is the object of our hope. He’s the one in which we hope.
Especially in light of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, the one who died for our sins and rose from the dead and ascended to the right hand of God and is coming again, he is the object of our hope. We hope in his return; we look for that day when he will come and he will make all things new, when he will remove from this world the scourge of every disease; when death and dying and sorrow and tears will be no more, every tear wiped away from our eyes, all things made new. We hope in that, we look to that, and we know that day is coming. We know it’s coming sooner than we can anticipate, and we wait for that day with eager longing.
That’s the third thing Powlison says. We are called to hope now and forever. We are called to such hopes now and forever. Notice the end of the verse. “O Israel, hope in the Lord, from this time forth and forevermore!” Now and always. In other words, you never stop hoping. You hope in the Lord, you keep hoping in the Lord, you set him before you so that you are not moved, you trust in him, you hope in him, you remember his promises and you cling to them; and as you do that, it calms your soul, quiets your heart, so that you can live in this composure and in this contentment.
Brothers and sisters, one of the most liberating things that I’ve learned in my life as a Christian—and, in fact, a lesson that I seem to continually have to learn again and again and again. I haven’t mastered this by a long shot, but I’ve learned it in certain seasons and I learn it again and again. It’s simply this, that Jesus is enough to make me happy. He’s enough to give rest to my soul. Nothing else really does, but he does.
I’ll never forget, years ago, when I was much younger, that the words of a hymn kind of hit me between the eyes. It was a hymn I grew up singing, and almost nobody sings this one anymore, but it’s another one of John Newton’s hymns. I’d grown up singing these words, and one day it just kind of hit me what these words were saying, and it was kind of a breakthrough moment for me.
I want to just share these words with you and then explain what Newton is saying, because I think it’s such a powerful picture of the contentment that we can have in Christ. This is what he said. He said,
“Content with beholding his face,
My all to his pleasure resigned.
No changes of season of place
Will make any change in my mind.
While blest with a sense of his love,
A palace a toy would appear,
And prisons would palaces prove
If Jesus would dwell with me there.”
Do you get the picture? He’s saying, “If I have Jesus, if I have a sense of his love, no circumstantial changes will affect me.” “No changes of season or place / Will make any change in my mind.” He says, “If I have Jesus, I could have a palace, and it’s just a toy, it’s just a trifling thing. I could have all this world’s wealth, and it’s just a trifling thing if I have Jesus. But I could also be in a prison, and if I’m in a prison and I have Jesus, it’s a palace to me.”
“While blest with a sense of his love,
A palace a toy would appear,
And prisons would palaces prove
If Jesus would dwell with me there.”
Listen, Christian. If you’re struggling right now with discontentment, with anxiety, lack of composure, a noise machine going off in your soul; if you’re just white-knuckling it right now, saying, “Make it stop, make it stop, make it stop,” what you need is to calm and quiet your soul by hoping in the Lord and by remembering that if you have the love of Jesus, if you have a sense of his love, if you have the manifest presence of Christ in your heart and in your life, you don’t have to be affected by circumstances.
You can be content. You can be composed. You can be calm. You can be at peace. You can be at rest. You can trust in him through this. I pray that that would be all of our experiences as we look to the Lord during this season. Let’s pray together.
Our gracious God, we acknowledge together this morning that this psalm often does not describe the way we live or the way we feel. So often we are not like that weaned child. We’re not calm and we’re not quiet, we’re not content, we’re not composed; instead, we’re noisy inside, we’re fretful, we’re worried, we’re anxious, we’re discontent. Perhaps it’s because we have too high of an opinion of ourselves and we haven’t really been humbled. Maybe it’s because we have not really stopped and just reckoned with this most fundamental reality of our existence, that you are God, and we are not.
The sense of control in our lives is an illusion. We don’t have control. But the good news is that you do have control, and because of your love for us, because of Christ’s death for us, because of your promises, you have pledged yourself to work all things together for our good. You control these things and you use them to do good for your people.
So Father, I pray that you would help us to trust your promises, to trust your goodness, to submit our hearts to you. I pray especially this morning that for every person who hears your word, that we would not just hear, but that we would sense the love of Christ, that in our very hearts we would know something of your presence in a powerful, palpable way that calms our hearts, that quiets our souls. Help us to be able to say that you’re enough and that Christ is enough, and we pray that you would help us by your Spirit. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.