Life + Culture

Grumbling in Paradise: How to Break Through Discontent

Grumbling in Paradise

June 14, 2010, sticks out like a redwood tree in the orchard of my memory. For the previous two years, I had wandered through a spiritual wasteland of discontentment, doubt, and morbid introspection.

But on this summer day, God breathed a wind over my parched and cracked heart. I had just spent the afternoon reading a chapter in John Piper’s The Pleasures of God about God’s joy in his creation. As I walked out of the dim-lit, air-conditioned coffee shop into the bracing warmth of a summer afternoon, the words became real: God’s pleasure rang out in birds chirping, leaves whispering, dust motes soaring, cattails swaying. Earth and sky resounded in a chorus of praise to the God of glory, and for the first time in a long time, I heard the music.

Joy swelled my lungs and broke out in spontaneous laughter. My inward gaze exploded outward to find a universe of marvels. My discontentment fled the scene like a thief at daybreak. I discovered, in other words, a lost weapon in the fight for happiness and contentment: wonder.

Grumbling in Paradise

Wonder is that wide-eyed awareness of creation that leaves us hushed, self-forgetful, and brimming with gratitude. Where wonder reigns, contentment flourishes; where wonder is dethroned, discontentment takes root. Exhibit A: the garden of Eden.

Here’s the scene. Adam and Eve live in a garden of delights, where God has “made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” and has said, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden” except for one (Genesis 2:9, 16). The first couple bathes in a wonderland of spiritual bliss, marital intimacy, and created splendor.

But then a liar slithers in and opens his mouth. And in a matter of a few sentences, Adam and Eve’s world shrinks from a pleasure-packed universe to a cramped backyard. The Maker of the galaxies walks in the garden. Birds and beasts chant his praise. A world of raptures awaits discovery. Adam and Eve grumble.

So too with us. Every morning, the sun enters his sky pulpit to preach God’s glory (Psalm 19:1) — and we complain about the weather. Every evening, God scatters the stars like jewels across an inky cloth (Psalm 147:4) — and we murmur over the dishes. Every moment, the eternal melody between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit plays in surround sound through creature speakers (Psalm 104:24, 31) — and we sigh because of the traffic.

We have become what Augustine dubbed incurvatus in se — curved in on ourselves. Our eyes used to drink in God and all his gifts; now we’re too busy looking inward to notice either. We are Adam and Eve’s children, stumbling through a world of wonders with grumbling on our tongues.

Laugh at the Serpent

If the fall darkened our hearts to the brilliance of God’s world, the new birth turns the lights on again. When God saves a sinner — curved in on himself, blind to creation’s splendor — he opens his eyes to see divine beauty, first in “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:4), and then everywhere else as well.

Under the happy influence of the Holy Spirit, we begin to recognize with the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God” — in big things like Everests and Atlantics, and in small things like squirrels and cups of tea. We gladly learn to confess that God “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). Instead of muttering over all that God has withheld, we grow to marvel over the bounty he has given. And wonder fattens our contentment like leaven in the lump.

In a marvelous reversal of Eden, the Spirit of God teaches Christians how to laugh at the serpent. When the deceiver hisses, “Your God is stingy — he’s a withholder,” the wonder-eyed saint answers back, “Ha! My God? Stingy? You’ve got to be kidding me. He did not even spare his own Son for me (Romans 8:32), and he’s crowded the world with tokens of his love. Open your eyes! What a pleasure simply to be alive in my Father’s world.”

Terrible Excitement

Consider, for example, how G.K. Chesterton responded to widespread grumbling against monogamy in his day:

I could never mix in the common murmur of that rising generation against monogamy, because no restriction on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself. . . . Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once. It was incommensurate with the terrible excitement of which one was talking. It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility to sex, but a curious insensibility to it. A man is a fool who complains that he cannot enter Eden by five gates at once. (Orthodoxy, 55)

A man who lusts for extramarital pleasures hasn’t truly seen his wife, much less the wonder of intimacy with her. We can extend the principle: gluttons haven’t truly tasted the wonder of food; if they had, they would lay down their forks with trembling. Likewise, the covetous haven’t truly felt the pleasure of God surging through a snowstorm; otherwise, they’d laugh at how much their cups are already overflowing.

Sharpen Your Born-Again Senses

Of course, no one can cook up this sort of wonder with a simple recipe. But we can establish patterns of mind and heart that sharpen our born-again senses, and pray that the God of all wonder would make them fruitful.

First, we can meditate on the glory of Christ. Creation’s wonders are not stand-alone performances; they are scenes in the drama that the triune God is telling. We will not grasp their spectacular meaning, then, unless we remember that “all things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16). Fill your mind with the loveliness of Christ, and you will begin to see his reflection in all that is worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8).

Second, we can read authors who have eyes to see. Alongside writers who take you deeper into Scripture, read at least some writers who take you deeper into your backyard to show you all you’ve missed. For me, this means spending regular time with authors like George Herbert, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and N.D. Wilson.

Third, we can get outside. Memorize one of the psalms about creation (Psalms 8, 19, 104), and then carry on the song yourself. Perhaps join Clyde Kilby in the first of his ten resolutions for mental health: “At least once every day I shall look steadily up at the sky and remember that I, a consciousness with a conscience, am on a planet traveling in space with wonderfully mysterious things above and about me.”

Finally, we can give thanks. “Give thanks always and for everything,” Paul tells us (Ephesians 5:20). “Everything” includes the forgiveness of sins as well as flannel bed sheets, the hope of heaven as well as second helpings. As you pray, give at least some time to thanking God for his created gifts and how they speak to you of him. Thank him that he provides you so richly with everything to enjoy.

And then, when the serpent whispers discontentment in your ear, go ahead and laugh.

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