“You just need to be content” — a response to Desiring God

Recently Desiring God published an article telling us that discontent is Satan’s trap against every woman (link). In the style of Screwtape Letters,  author Rebekah Wilson Merkle offers “advice” from one demon to another. Here is a sampling:

Keep them looking at their husband’s failings (“he just doesn’t seem to even care about my needs”) and not their own heart.

If it happens that you can’t keep them from the book [the Bible] completely . . . keep all their thoughts focused on how their husband isn’t living up to the instructions the book contains.

You want to encourage friendships that will feed and pet the discontent, rather than uproot it. Even prayer groups and mentorships are fabulous places for this to happen. . . .

I wrote a response explaining how telling readers to be “content” in every relationship—even when “he doesn’t seem to even care about my needs”—can serve to keep a woman and her children in a highly abusive situation. Implying that mentors and prayer group friends shouldn’t listen to a woman tell about a troubled marriage because she’s being “discontent” will do the same. (I also communicated with someone at Desiring God about it.) But then a survivor of abuse from a patriarchal family wrote a response of her own and sent it to me. Since I believe her response is superior to mine and she graciously gave permission to quote it, I’m publishing it now. Here it is.

When I lived at home with my parents, I used to write articles about contentment and joy. I saw that they were closely connected in the Scripture, and I desired to live out those characteristics of a Christian’s life. My father would often tell me that he was grateful for my contented, joyful spirit. He would proofread much of my writing and he agreed that I could say such things because they were true of my life.

The years passed, and I began questioning the negative patterns, sinful behaviors, wrong attitudes, and hurtful actions of my parents toward others.

Suddenly I was accused of being discontent. My questions were never answered; the responsibility to “have the right attitude” was put on my shoulders. I was told that if I continued to raise questions about serious issues in my family, I was being discontent and unsubmissive. The accusation of discontent was constant. So I began to study the sin of discontent in God’s Word with an open heart to determine if the charge against me was true.

My study led me to understand that true contentment means to be at rest, characterized by peace and deep-rooted joy with the purposes of God. It is a satisfaction that God knows the needs of His children.

To be content is to be controlled by the power of the Holy Spirit in each circumstance, trial, or hardship.

But contentment does not mean resignation to or agreement with evil practices. Contentment does not mean complacency or willful ignorance.

The conclusion I reached was that I was not discontent with God’s  provision in my life. I always had everything I needed, and I was not pining away wanting things I did not have. I did not complain about wanting more than what I was given. I was actually quite content and grateful to the Lord for His provision in my life.

My response to my parents was, “I have searched and studied the Scriptures, and I have asked God to show me my heart. I have asked Him to reveal truth.” I shared my heart with my parents: what I had discovered in God’s Word, my own satisfaction with what God had given to me, how I did not yearn after more things or complain about circumstances. I was transparent about my heart’s attitude.

However, after careful study of God’s Word, I did recognize that there was something I should be “discontent” about. Sin. No Christian should ever be satisfied, accepting, or tolerant of the habitual sinning of others, especially if those sins are harming people.

I shared with my parents that I was “discontent” with the sin in my family. Carefully and specifically, I  stated the areas of direct disobedience to the Word of God that was occurring in the family. It wasn’t about a frustration with petty offenses or annoyances (such as dirty socks on the floor). The sins that I confronted were pornography, slander, vitriolic anger, malicious speech, control and manipulation, hypocrisy, and idolatry.

Over the years, I’ve heard much teaching on the sin of discontent, and it often focuses mainly on letting go of petty grievances. But that falls into the category of forbearance, not contentment.

In recent years, I’ve also noticed that those who are being severely abused and who question that abuse are charged with learning to be more content. “Suck it up and trust God with your trial. You need to learn contentment.”

This is an unloving response to those who are in harm’s way, trapped, afraid, and desperate for life and freedom. 

Content woman, from “Resistance,” a mini-drama set in WW2

With material like Rebekah Wilson Merkle’s article from trusted sources such as Desiring God, not only will abusers have more fodder to accuse their victims of “discontent,” but these accusations will come even from well-meaning people in the church who haven’t taken the time to study and find out what contentment really is, and with what circumstances we should never be “content.” 

I urge Desiring God to distinguish

  • the Christian principle of “contentment with necessary provisions” (see for example 1 Timothy 6:8) and the forbearance that Christians are to practice with human foibles, from
  • a complacent acquiescence that refrains from acknowledging and confronting obvious sin.

No such distinction was made in their article. The implication instead was that any negative word about a woman’s relationship was an evidence of her “discontent.”

I urge Desiring God to extend the hand to women who may sound “discontent” but who are in fact struggling to come to terms with reality, facing off with wickedness they may have previously been unwilling or unable to admit. 

This, after all, is not “discontent.” This is integrity. And for the church, it’s one more opportunity for compassion.


11 thoughts on ““You just need to be content” — a response to Desiring God

  1. This is so good, kudos to the brave sister who wrote this! Many familiar issues of my own family life as well – adressing habitual sins and manipulative patterns is called ‘bitter’ and ‘angry’, whereas the perpetrators are given a free pass, in the name of ‘love’.
    Contentment also does not mean we should not cry out to God for our (yet) unmet needs. So many in the Bible did, with good results.. Hanna was in fact pining away and greatly distressed for her childless condition, while her well-meaning husband tried to hush-hush her with a ‘sensible’ male response… ‘You have me, why do you need a child for?’
    Or, the blind Bartimeus, who became the public embarrassment, and was told to shut up. Jesus never told him to be ‘content’ in his blindness! He granted him his sight, and I am sure He hears many of us, who are still facing lack, loneliness, rejection, and injustice.
    It’s OK to be grateful for what we have, and still cry out for other unmet needs and areas of deep longing.

    • Those are good examples, NGI. When I wrote my original (unpublished) response, I looked at every Scripture that talked about contentment and saw that there are obvous parameters–Paul especially talked about being content with his circumstances as he pressed forward in doing the work of the Lord. But there are clearly times—even in relationships–that the status quo should be challenged.

  2. I like her point that so much of the teaching on the sin of discontent focuses on petty grievances. It’s also a recurring characteristic that when a wife says, “My husband…” the automatic response is, “Hey, hey, take a look at your OWN heart!”

    I too dealt with this suppressing teaching as a daughter, not a wife. The frustrating thing is that my household wasn’t nearly so sin-ridden. We had problems that could have been resolved by a trained listener and some good communication. Teachings like this blocked any kind of real resolution.

    I love how she took to God’s word to search out the allegations against her “sinful discontent,” and came up vindicated. I wish I’d been that brave.

    • I don’t think as a teenager or early twenty-something it would have even crossed my mind to do this. But you know me, for going back to the Scriptures to test out what people are teaching! That was why I appreciated her response so much.

  3. Isn’t Desiring God a publication put out by John Piper Ministries?
    I ask, because his teaching/preaching is one of the people, who, in “A Cry For Justice” Ministries recommends NOT to read. Apparently, John Piper is a permanence view of marriage, teacher/preacher. I saw this particular article was not written by John Piper, but by another staff member, a woman.
    I ask, because, when a Christian woman, tells other Christian women to “just be content” it can lead to hopelessness to the woman in the abuse. It’s amazing how many Christian women have such a judgemental attitude to women whose marriages fail, due to abuse. It’s so sad…

    • The article was written by Rebekah Wilson Merkle, daughter of Doug Wilson of Moscow, Idaho. She’s not on staff at DG, but is a regular contributor.

      Desiring God as a ministry has a tremendous amount of influence on the church of Jesus Christ, and I want to continue to make appeals rather than cut myself off from them completely. There are so many Christians who receive teachings such as these without thinking through the ramifications. I continue to hope that if they only thought them through with open-heartedness . . . their hearts would change.

  4. As a former abuse victim, as soon as I started reading Desiring God’s view of discontent, I began to get that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.

    So, thank you, thank you, thank you for so beautifully distinguishing between self-centered discontent and the appropriateness of identifying sin. This exposé is sheer perfection.

  5. Regarding discontented wives, sometimes when there is no evil in the situation a wife can be discontent because she feels her husband isn’t measuring up to the role that conservative Christianity has — overtly or implicitly — assigned to him. He’s not being a good enough leader. He is not great at conducting family Bible studies. Perhaps, God forbid, he is not manly enough!

    In my case, looking back over the years of my married life, I see how the emphasis on the husband being the leader of the home (spiritually and otherwise), and the imperative that the wife submit to his leadership, had a negative effect on our relationship, subtle though it was. I looked to my husband for answers and help to a degree that I now think was constraining and unhelpful for him, and I can remember times of disappointment or perplexity when he failed to measure up to the role of a godly husband as defined by our church leaders and by popular Christian books.

    (continued in next comment…)

  6. Mercifully, some years into our marriage I realized the fallacy of this and came to a greater appreciation of the person that God had made my husband to be… a kind, quiet introvert, more comfortable In acts of practical service than in sermonizing, competitive sports or “leading” (the strengths of our pastors, to whom he was sometimes unfavorably compared).

    I now celebrate who he is, with the gifts and talents that God gave him, and he does the same for me. Undoubtedly, neither one of us measures up to the complementarian “ideals” as put forth by TGC and Desiring God, but we are happy and content with who we are.

I welcome your thoughts