Life Lessons

Contentment as a Skill

I always thought I would one day find myself more content.

In my mind there was never a specific context, age, or season of life, when I reach this euphoric state. It’s something I would just come into. Like spring after winter.

Over the last year we’ve doubled down on managing our finances as we prepare to buy our first home. There is nothing like tightening the belt to make you consider what is truly essential.

Through the process I’ve realized my addiction to spending. For me, spending surfaces as a broken attempt to experience joy. As if joy were something I could buy. It may satisfy for a moment, but it returns telling me I need and deserve more.

A passing moment of joy can be found in a purchase. But neither does it truly satisfy or last.

Lasting joy comes through choosing contentment in my present condition.

Ultimately, my joy is rooted in my faith in Jesus. A deep sense of unmovable peace. Reflecting on my debt of sin being forgiven is a sure way to bring joy.

I have begun to think of joy as a skill that can be learned, cultivated. Not a fleeting emotion that is reserved for select moments of life. I can actually choose joy throughout my day. So I’ve been practicing.

There is a element of inconvenience related to having only one car for our family. How is it that being a two-car-family became the standard?

Is it my desire to never be inconvenienced? Or is it just more practical to have two cars?

Can I learn to be content with what we have and see those limitations as a blessing?

This verse has been top of mind through this internal wrestle.

The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.
— Psalm 16:5–6

This is a prayer of contentment if I’ve ever heard one. Oh Lord, help.

Making my own coffee instead of purchasing a cup from a local shop can also be a joyful experience. As I write, I’m currently sitting in the shade at a rose garden here in Kansas City on a particularly cool summer afternoon.

My options for writing was, a) go to a local coffee shop, spend money, and sit in the air conditioning and write. Or b) make my own coffee, go for a little drive, and adventure outdoors to find a spot to sit and write in nature. A small difference in decision, a large difference in the type of experience I’ve chosen.

Can I be content to not need the stimulation of a coffee shop experience? Can I instead find contentment in sitting outdoors taking in the sights and smells of my environment? Do I need internet? No. Is coffee the prerequisite for writing? No. Do I need air conditioning? On this particular afternoon, no.

Contentment spills over in to all of areas of life. Can I be content to drive the car we have? Which, doesn’t have a payment, drives well enough, but may not have all the bells and whistles I prefer.

Can I be content not to eat out? The inconvenience of preparing my own food vs. paying to instantly be satisfied.

There are plenty of opportunities in my day to work the muscle of contentment. But I have noticed I must choose to engage contentment. When I feel the desire for more rise, can I recognize it, and ask myself why?

Why do I want a new car? Is it because the one I have is not suitable? Does it not do the job I require adequately? Is it limiting my family? Is the limitation costing me in such a way that is causing me to comprise my values?

Why do I desire the latest tech device? Is my current phone no longer adequate? Does it no longer fulfill the function I require? Does it not perform the tasks I need?

Asking why has been a helpful first step in identifying areas I feel a lack of contentment. And in seeking to understand my motivation for things in general.

Gratitude instead of Contempt

When I view contentment as a choice or a skill, I’m suddenly faced with a split in the road. Where as I usually experience the choice of contentment in a negative form.

I feel a general dissatisfaction toward an object in my life. This kettle isn’t good enough, this car stinks, I need a new computer, I wish we had X, and on and on the list goes. Is it there some truth to that internal dialog? Maybe. Or, do I have a case of shiny object syndrome and have grown tired of looking at the same hot water kettle every morning? The car works fine, it is just that I’m over driving a Prius. The computer does every task I require adequately, it’s just a few years old.

Contentment is learning how to choose gratitude over contempt.

It’s to say like David in Psalm 16, the boundary lines have fallen in pleasant places. To be grateful for the limitations I’ve come up against in life. To thank God for the endless blessings in my life.

I would venture, 99% of the things I feel contempt over are unique to my privilege of living in America. It would be difficult to explain to someone from a war-torn nation my need for two cars instead of one. Or my dislike of my crab-grass lawn. I have much to be grateful for.

Because I won’t magically show up one day down the road generally content with everything in life. I want to learn contentment now, so that I don’t live under the illusion that one day I will be. In the small, un-anointed small of everyday life, I can choose contentment.

Embracing Process

It would seem that I have an aversion to doing hard things.

And when I say hard, I mean, harder than unlocking my phone. Or, anything that can’t be done from the comfort of my couch. I mean, what’s harder than the flicking motion of mindlessly scrolling through other peoples lives? Pretty hard stuff right there.

I hope the sarcasm is leaking through. But truly, I’ve gone soft.

A life of communion with God. Hard. Building a thriving relationship with my wife. Hard. Exercising patience with my toddler. Not easy.

I’ve been turning a working theory in my mind, it fits with almost every area of life I can think of.

Why is it the best things in life require the most effort?

Want to eat healthy? Prepare to increase your grocery budget, meal plan for days, food prep for days, and if you use the microwave all nutritional value goes out the window.

Want a significant, satisfying, and deep relationship with your spouse? It only comes through understanding one another’s heart, exercising humility, and choosing to serve before your own desires are met. It’s not going to happen accidentally and it sure isn’t going to be easy.

In general, we want the end result with none of the work. We want to achieve our goals without submitting to a process.

But here’s the thing, every time we avoid process and take the easy road, it becomes that much harder to make the change. The easy road leads to nothing. You get nothing at the end of it and you are left dissatisfied.

I’m not saying that we should all become organic farmers and only drink milk from the goats we raised. I am saying that we could all stand to engage process in our daily lives.

What do I mean by that?

Process in Goals

Process is actually a safety net. It’s hard to envision what the end result is because you haven’t actually taken the first step. As Ryan Holiday says in his book The Obstacle is the Way,

“The process is about finishing. Finishing games. Finishing workouts. Finishing film sessions. Finishing drives. Finishing reps. Finishing plays. Finishing blocks. Finishing the smallest task you have right in front of you and finishing it well.”

It’s about taking the first step, and then the next, and the one after that.

If you need help painting a picture of process, just imagine a mess. That’s what process usually feels like. It doesn’t feel glamorous. It just feels like a mess. And yet, if you string together a series of messes, something starts to emerge.

Moving toward your goals looks like taking the first step despite your imperfections. Of course you are not where you want to be, that is why you have a goal. And that is also why you have to be ok with where you are right now. Process is a good thing.

Process as a Teacher

Not only does embracing process help move us toward our goals, it also provides an opportunity to learn invaluable character traits. That I would argue, cannot be learned outside of process.

I’m an avid runner, do you know the way you train for a marathon? You guessed it. By running. A lot. More than you probably care to know.

No matter how many times I’ve been through the training process for a race, if I take a 3 or 4 month break from running, I have to start over. To train for the same race I may have run the year prior, I need to show up 4-5 times a week, for 12 weeks, before I’m ready to race.

My training process is not just keeping my physical body in shape. It’s teaching me consistency (finishing the workouts, putting in the time), self-control (the days I want to run faster than I should), self-discipline (the days I’d rather sit on the couch and eat ice cream than run), perseverance (when dealing with nagging injuries or a variable schedule), and to not take myself too seriously. Just get out there and run for goodness sake Isaac, forget about all the pace mumbo jumbo.

This translates to many areas of life. For most of us (none navy seals) our natural default is not to do the hard things in life. We want the easy way. The convenient way.

“Don’t make me practice long hours for years on end, I want to be a seasoned artist now.”

“I shouldn’t have to sacrifice to build a thriving marriage, it should just happen automatically.”

When we engage process, it provides us a context to produce lasting qualities. Related to our natural/physical qualities as well as our inner development.

And conversely, when we avoid process, we miss opportunities to develop our natural/physical qualities as well as our inner character.

Doing hard things in moderation contributes to your long term success.

This has endless opportunities for application.

  • The mom stuck at home with two kids that hasn’t had a break all day. Choosing to engage the messy, un-instagramable, mundane nature of motherhood and allow it to shape her.
  • The employee that feels overlooked, undervalued, and underpaid. Engaging your job with excellence and allowing it to fuel your drive for success.
  • The process of changing your diet to fuel a more sustainable, healthy lifestyle. Start small, and embrace the process of slowly replacing default food habits with healthier ones.
  • The commute that you loathe taking everyday. Find a way to make the most of it. There are a thousand things you could use that time for.

I’m in this camp too. Engaging in process is hard and it rarely feels good. But it’s the showing up again, and again, and again, and again, that transformation begins to take root.

…any movement toward freedom and life, any movement toward God or others, will be opposed. Marriage, friendship, beauty, rest—the thief wants it all.
— John Eldredge

If it’s of significant worth, it’s going to be opposed. It’s a battle to pursue things of lasting meaning or change.

But choosing to engage right where it feels hardest is actually where the most fruit will come.

Process in Trials

This verse used to bother me a great deal. You read it and think, “What is that even supposed to mean?"

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. — James 1:2–4

Process may come in the form of trials. Recovering from addiction. Walking with loved ones through cancer treatment. Pursuing a season of emotional and spiritual healing. The car breaks down. These can all be an invitation to transformation amidst the challenge of doing the hard thing.

As my trials in life have escalated from running out of ramen in college, being brave enough to ask my then girlfriend to marry me, and eventually to walking with my family as my mom battled for her life with leukemia. Facing challenges in life have provided a whole new opportunity to engage my world.

It would seem that in trials there is a unique opportunity to hear the voice of God and learn about His character and nature. But you only become “perfect and complete, lacking in nothing…” if you choose to engage with it.

…we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. — Romans 5:3–5

I’m not sure I’ve yet graduated to a level of rejoicing in suffering or counting it all joy, but I want to move in that direction. Doing the hard things of life, is hard. There’s no way around it. But if I can plant the seed deep within that engaging in the process of the hard things is ultimately moving me toward the things that I ultimately aspire too, then maybe I can begin to learn how to rejoice in the process.

No Regrets

Regret is a powerful motivator.

I’m not one to constantly analyze my life and wonder, “What regrets do I have?” And truth be told, I don’t have many.

But a question that has repeatedly come to mind the last few months is this…

Thirty years from now, what do I not want to have regret over?

To be more specific, what three or four things do I not want to have regret over? This helps frame the question a bit more. I’m sure there will be things I look back on in 30 years that will cause me to shrug my shoulders or wince slightly. But what are the three or four things that I could not bear to regret?

Or to state it positively, here are the four things I want most 30 years from now.

  1. Wholehearted friendship with God
  2. Thriving relationship with my wife
  3. Friendship with my kids
  4. Enough physical fitness to do the things I enjoy

While there could be one or two more things added to this list, truth be told, I would cut number four if it came down to it. If I only get one through three, these would be non-negotiable.

To be the person I was created to be, I need my whole heart. And that only comes through friendship with my heavenly Father. Which, directly impacts the way that I love my wife and children.


I could not bear disappointing the love of my life. Not to say that there won’t be trials in marriage. What I mean is, I could not bear to fail her emotionally. To fail to be her lover and closest friend. To be a friend that fights for the things that are near to her heart. To adventure with her and enjoy life together.

To be a father that invites his children to adventure and wholeness. To invest in their hopes, dreams, and desires. I want to see my kids flourish in life. My children will be kids once and adults the rest of their life. I want to enjoy decades of friendship with them as adults.

We can try to avoid the reality of trade-offs, but we can’t escape them.
— Greg McKeown

You should know I’m operating under the assumption that trade-offs are real.

Trade-offs are like newtons third law at work in our life. For everything that we say yes to, there is a trade-off affect that we are unaware of.

Everyone knows it’s impossible to be awesome at everything. You can’t be a concert pianist, world-class painter, inter-web developer, NBA player, amazing husband, read 40 books a year, be an awesome father, have tons of friends that you keep up with, balance a law career, have a thriving heart, and juggle your side-hustle writing project. You could do two, maybe three, of those well. And that’s pretty much it.

The point is, we (I), have a finite capacity. We can only do so much. This is trade-offs at work in our life. Social feeds present an insta-baked reality that our life can and should be awesome all the time. And that we should be able to do all the things.

If this is true, and there are things that I could not stand to have regret over in 30 years, then it leads me to this first troubling question.

Who am I not willing to disappoint?

Returning to the fact that we cannot escape the reality of trade-offs. Or to quote David Allen, “You can do anything, but you can’t do everything.”

I’m not willing to disappoint myself. This starts with my need for connection with God. I’ve been given a new heart that is made for adventure and partnership with Him. To grow in friendship takes intentionality, like anything else, it will not happen haphazardly.

I’m not willing to disappoint my wife. She is the love of my life and deserves my best. Not to conceal my emotions, hide my desires, or suppress my passions, but to share them with her whole-heartedly. She gets me first.

I’m not willing to disappoint my kids. To be a distracted, overly busy, worn out father, that’s unable to be present. As much as it is in my power, I will fight to give them my best. My words, my affection, my strength, my protection.

If these things are to be true of me, it leads to another question.

Who am I willing to disappoint?

There will be no shortage of opportunities in my life, and since I now have clarity about whom I will not disappoint, I am left with a conundrum. Who will it be that I say no to, again and again?

If I am choosing to give my family my best, extended family gets second best. Friends come next, leaving new acquaintances and strangers pretty much the bottom of the barrel. As much as possible I will give myself to serve others, but there is a pecking order.

The trouble with this? I hate disappointing people! But do I hate it more than the regret I may feel if I trade away what I hold most dear? To be generally applauded by many but to have missed the mark with my family. No, I think not.

So I endeavor to have no regrets thirty years from now. At least, in these few things that I hold most dear.