Discontent in a Good Place

by Glenn Conjurske

Some years ago I heard a recorded sermon on the prodigal son by Bob Jones the first, who was one of the great evangelists of modern times. He remarked that the prodigal’s character was bad ere ever he left the father’s house, the proof of his bad character being in the fact that he was discontented in a good place. Such discontent is common among men, and it is the proof indeed of a wrong state of heart. A proud heart, the lusts of the flesh, and the temptations of the devil are at the bottom of that discontent.

One of the most common places in which we see that discontent is in young people under the parental roof. As it was with the prodigal son, so it is with thousands of others. They are in a good place—-probably a much better place than any they could carve out for themselves—-yet discontented there. As the father said to the elder brother, so he could truly have said to the prodigal, “Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.” Ever with a father who loved him, and watched over him, and advised him, and provided for him—-yet discontented there. That discontent was of the flesh. He doubtless had no quarrel with the good things the father provided for him, but he wanted something he could not have under the parental roof. He wanted freedom from his father’s authority. He wanted the liberty to do as he pleased. This is very often the reason for discontent in a good place, and this is not only of the flesh, but of the devil. Pride and lust are the root of it. Pride, in thinking that he knows better what is good for him than his father does, who is twice his age, and the lust of something which he cannot have under the wise and loving care of his father.

The devil destroyed Eve by making her discontented in a good place. This he did by occupying her heart with the thing which she was deprived of in her place, and making her to feel that it was necessary to her happiness. That being done, her soul was naturally filled with discontent, though she was in the very paradise of God. The gratitude, which ought to have welled up in her soul for all of the good which was freely given to her, died away. She was no more occupied with those good things. She was deprived of something—-something which she thought essential to her welfare—-and therefore dissatisfied with the good place she was in. That dissatisfaction was of course in reality dissatisfaction with God. Her faith—-her belief in the goodness of God—-had withered away under the foul suggestions of the fiend. She was a fallen creature—-fallen in her heart—-ere ever she put forth her hand to take the forbidden fruit, as the prodigal son was fallen in his heart ere ever he left his father’s house.

If Eve’s faith had not failed, with what ease she might have resisted the devil’s insinuations. She might then have said, “Get thee behind me, foul fiend. My God has already proved his goodness to me by all of the delights of this paradise which he has given to me. I believe that he loves me. I believe that he is good to me. If this forbidden tree were in fact good for me, he would have given me that also, as he has freely given me every other tree in the garden. Nay, if the forbidden fruit is good for me, then he will give it to me, in his own time. For that I will wait. He doubtless has good reasons for withholding it from me now, but he will not do so for ever.” But alas, her faith failed, and with her faith failed her gratitude. She no more appreciated the good place she was in. In spite of all the good which was poured out upon her in such profusion, yet a general discontent filled her soul, leaving it wide open for the temptations of the devil. Would that discontented souls could perceive the dangers of their state!

But understand, though Eve was in a good place, her place was not yet perfect. There is no perfect bliss short of the bliss of heaven. Though in an earthly paradise, yet Eve was in fact deprived of something. She was deprived of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now we can hardly suppose that it was God’s intention permanently to deprive men of the knowledge of good and evil. This he would no doubt teach them, but in his own time and way—-a better way, of course, than that by which they learned it. God’s ways are always better, but they usually take longer. Faith, filled with a sense of the goodness of God, and the ultimate blessing therefore of those who serve him, waits.

For good and wise reasons which we need not here rehearse, God often does deliberately put his people into places which leave much to be desired. The carnal see only what they are deprived of, and put forth their hand to take it, as Eve took the forbidden fruit. The hyperspiritual, on the other hand, profess that the place which God has given to them is perfect, and therefore become passive before God, and seek nothing more—-but this is as much a failure of faith as that discontented impatience which will take all to itself with or without the will of God. Faith ceases not to desire what God has yet withheld, and to actively seek it—-but to seek it from his hand, and meanwhile to “rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him.” (Ps. 37:7). Faith says, “Now therefore give me this mountain” (Josh. 14:12)—-yet Caleb had waited forty and five years for it already. God says, “rest in the Lord, and wait patiently for him.” The devil says, “Put forth your hand and take it now.” The prodigal might have had “the portion of goods that falleth to me” in due time, but he was not willing to wait. He must have it now, before the proper time.

There is in fact a discontent which is perfectly consistent with faith and gratitude. But that discontent is submissive, pliant, and patient. And beyond all these, it is full of gratitude for the good already possessed. It appreciates the good place it has, while at the same time feeling that it leaves yet much to be desired, for there is no place under the sun—-no church, no family, no situation under the sun—-which is perfect. Though in a good place, and fully appreciating it, faith yet has desires, and it may be very strong and compelling desires. Faith is determined to right what is wrong, and to receive all that God has to give. It makes its requests known unto God, and it may be with strong crying and tears—-yet “with thanksgiving” (Phil. 4:6), and yet with the patient submission which says, “Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done.” There is no sin in the discontent which seeks to remedy that which is wrong or deficient, while it abides with thankful heart in the good place which God has given.

The discontent which is sinful is of a different sort. It is primarily occupied with that which is denied or lacking, as Eve was with the forbidden fruit. This preoccupation with the defects of a good place, a good father, a good church, a good shepherd, or a good position, breeds a general discontent which is characterized by a restless impatience and a peevish ingratitude. This it was that made the prodigal discontented in the father’s house, and Eve dissatisfied in the very paradise of God. This it is that has made many young people discontented under the parental roof. This it is that has made many souls dissatisfied under the ministry of a man of God. This it is that has moved them to leave the green pastures which they had in a good church, and seek out another, which often proves to be dry and barren. Such discontented souls not only preoccupy themselves with what is wrong, but usually magnify every little defect, and imagine a great deal of wrong which does not exist—-their own spirit being the primary thing which is really at fault—-while at the same time minimizing or overlooking a great deal of real and substantial good.

But in the good providence of God such discontented souls usually become a scourge to themselves. They quite commonly leave a good place for a bad one, as the prodigal son did. “Many a one,” says an old Italian proverb, “leaves the roast, who afterwards longs for the smoke of it.” There is a God in heaven, who watches over the peevish and restless ingratitude of such souls, and gives them the desire of their hearts, and sends leanness into their souls (Ps. 106:15). When the prodigal son left the father’s house, with money in his pockets, smiles on his face, a spring in his step, and grand ideas in his head, he little dreamed that one day, humbled and broken, he would have to drag his weary feet back over every inch of the same path which he was now treading with so light a heart. But so it must be, for there is a righteous God in heaven.

Yet sometimes by chance such discontented souls happen to leave a good place for a better. But what avails it? Those who cannot be contented in a good place can no more be contented in a better one. Their discontent flows from a wrong state of heart, and as an old proverb says, “A discontented man knows not where to sit easy.” His discontent proceeds from his heart, not from his circumstances. He cannot be contented anywhere. Put such a soul into lush green pastures, and yet the grass will be greener on the other side of the fence. He would be dissatisfied in Paradise, as Eve was.

Churches, therefore, make a great mistake when they receive such discontented souls into their bosom. If they leave one church to join another, humbled for their own past failures, with proper love for those they are leaving behind, and with gratitude for all that they have received there, but yet compelled by Scripture and conscience to adhere to truer principles, all may be well. Simple faithfulness sometimes requires such of men, and I have nothing to say against it. But there is a proper spirit in which this is to be done. If they are filled with a general discontent, judging the church they have left instead of judging themselves, they will prove a scourge to the church which receives them. The general discontent of their hearts will manifest itself there as it did where they were before, though all will be rosy for a time, as it was with the prodigal in the far country. Thus I have known a man who left one church to join another, complaining of the low standards and the bad doctrine of the church he was leaving, and praising the church he went to join, and yet in a few months’ time he was just as discontented with the new one, and left it to go back to the old one. Unless his heart is changed by self-judgement, as the prodigal’s was, he will no doubt be dissatisfied still. Others I have known who proceed from church to church, always dissatisfied, always judging “the church” or its leadership instead of themselves (though they are part of the church), and always murmuring and spreading discontent. Such discontent is not the holy fruit of faith, but the unholy fruit of pride.

Yet there is a very good hope for such discontented souls. That hope is in repentance and self-judgement, and it often happens that the lean place in which they find themselves, after they have left the fat one, causes them to come to themselves as the prodigal did, and judge themselves, and return to the place of fatness, scourged and humbled and grateful. The story of the prodigal son has a very happy ending, and the prodigal in the lean place presents a very striking and beautiful contrast to the same prodigal when he was in the fat place. When he was in the good place—-tenderly cared for and abundantly provided for—-he was filled with an unholy discontent with his place and his surroundings, judging the worthy father who thus cared for him, chafing under the household rules, fretting for his want of liberty, and restless to be gone. But when he was in the bad place—-destitute of all things, and no man giving unto him—-he was filled with a holy discontent, judging himself instead of his surroundings and his associates (though they were unworthy), and purposing in humble faith to arise and be gone.

Now if the reader of these lines is one of those discontented souls—-whether still fretting and restless in a fat place, or strayed away already to a lean one—-may God grant him to see himself in the sketches which I have drawn above, and to judge himself as the prodigal did in the far country, and return indeed to the place of marrow and fatness, and do so with the humble and grateful heart which is necessary to appreciate and enjoy it.

Glenn Conjurske