I’m not really sure what a gruntle is, but I’m assuming I never had one—best I can tell, I was born disgruntled. When something isn’t exactly right, my defective personality tries to insist that everything is wrong. I seem to have no natural ability to be simply disappointed—instead, I take the first south turn toward discontentment. “Unacceptable!” seems to be my default response. Ugh.

What about you—are you at all like me? Or, when things start going wrong, do you remain calm and at rest? If you suddenly had no place to live, or nothing to eat—would you still say, “All is well,” even then? If so, you should have let me know—I would have gladly let you write this for me, and I’d have been, well, very content not to!

Honestly, though, it’s a stretch to find any humor in this. Discontentment grieves our hearts and makes them heavy. Displeased and unsatisfied, downcast and unhappy—there are no smiles here. And since no one, anywhere, seems to be living a life free from trouble, it might seem there’s always good reason to complain.

But, with or without good reason, complaining remains infectious, tedious, and generally fruitless. Even when complaining leads to “something being done,” the process is still joyless. One side complains endlessly, while the other side just wants the complaining to stop. We might even discover that complaining is a way for us to “win,” and that it “works.” We start by being dissatisfied, then unflinchingly insist on getting our own way—but such victories are won only at a cost of human misery. The more winners, the more losers.

Worse still, in any of us, discontent can easily snowball. Some (possibly quite minor) trouble can grow into The Problem. We become so frustrated that we can’t stop thinking about it. We no longer see the true size of the problem, so we easily believe it is too enormous to solve. Everything is wrong!

What a sticky business. So, is there some secret to help us here? Let’s take a breath, and have a look:

“I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with little, and how to live in prosperity; I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. In any and every circumstance, I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” -Paul

There’s great encouragement here—do you see it? Contentment is something we can learn. Paul, it seems, did not start with this contentment. Like me, I suspect his mind shouted, “Unacceptable!” at every grievous thing. But he came eventually to say: being hungry is acceptable, suffering need is acceptable, getting along with little is acceptable. But, how did this contentment come about—what was this secret? Paul tells us:

“I can do all things through Him.” -Paul

Paul had learned how to do the things he couldn’t do—through God. Accepting the unacceptable, loving the unlovable, tolerating the intolerable, fixing the unfixable—through God’s strengthening, these things became possible. But how was Paul able to learn this—how does God teach such things to any of us? In this case, it’s pretty clear God used Paul’s circumstances. God gave Paul times of lack and times of plenty, and, over time, Paul discerned a pattern—that the circumstances were never really relevant, only God was. When Paul lacked everything, God lacked nothing. So, through God, Paul could do whatever was needed, whether the circumstances appeared favorable or not.

God had worked His contentment into the heart of Paul. And, in this, Paul saw a general principle—that this is what God does for all Christians:

“God is at work in you, both to desire and to work for His good pleasure.” -Paul

The desire to please God is worked into us by God. Our ability and willingness to do His good pleasure likewise originate in Him. The secret, in all of this, is God. We have no need to look for contentment in ourselves—we will not find it. Real contentment will be worked into us only by God. And the same is true of peace, mercy, and humility—true of all that is good and pleasing to Him. These things, He works—in you.

But, consider this—if Paul had ignored his lesson, would Paul have learned anything? Did God force contentment into Paul’s heart? Not at all. Here’s a little more context to what Paul said above:

“Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to desire and to work for His good pleasure.” -Paul

God is definitely at work in us, but these things will need to be worked out in practice. Day by day, in ways large and small, God crafts our circumstances so that they will work into us the good things He desires. Our part is to nurture this implanted seed, desire its growth, and try to work it out—out into the real world where it might do someone some good, out into the real (and painful!) world of the sick and the prisoners, the widows and the orphans, the blind and the lame, the forlorn and the lost. There is no lack of work to do.

It is very sure that God does not work these good things into us just so that we can enjoy them internally. He wants them to come out. And the wording makes it clear: this will be work to us. This work will be serious and significant—“fear and trembling” may be in order. Remember, this is no small fact: God is at work in you. This is nothing to be careless about!

So, if you’re like me and contentment is not one of your natural strengths, be persistent. Watch your circumstances to see where God might be working—and, always, keep seeking The Secret.