The Word: Taking cheerful views

“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in need.” Philippians 4:11-13

“Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich (1818) is a painting in the collection of the Hamburger Kunsthalle in Hamburg, Germany. (Public Domain)

One of the divinest secrets of a happy life is the art of extracting comfort and sweetness from every circumstance. We must develop the habit of looking on the bright side. Those who take cheerful views find happiness everywhere; and yet how rare is the habit.

There are those who take to gloom as a bat to darkness or a vulture to carrion. They appear to be conscientious grumblers, as if it were their duty to extract some essence of misery from every circumstance. Instead of being content in the state in which they are, they have learned to be discontented, no matter how happy their lot.

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But there are rare people who always take cheerful views of life. They look on the bright side. They find some joy and beauty everywhere. In the most disagreeable person, they discover some kindly trait or bud of promise. In the most disheartening circumstances, they find something for which to be thankful.

Some people are born with sunny dispositions while others seem naturally disposed to gloom. Physical ailments can, no doubt, lead to discontent in many lives. Like the apostle Paul, we can train ourselves to take cheerful views of life, and to extract contentment and enjoyment from any circumstances.

“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again — Rejoice!” Philippians 4:4. This is clearly a most important part of Christian culture. Joyfulness is everywhere commended as a Christian duty. Discontent is a most detestable fault. We have no right to project the gloom of our discontent onto others.

What are some of the elements of this divine philosophy of living?

One is a patient submission to the ills and hardships of life, which are unavoidable. No person’s lot is perfect. No mortal has ever found a set of circumstances without some unpleasant feature. Sometimes it is in our power to modify the discomforts. Much of it needs only a little energetic activity on our part, to remove it. We are fools if we live amid ills and hardships which a reasonable industry would change to comforts, or even pleasures.

But if there are unavoidable ills or burdens — which we cannot by any energy of our own remove or lighten — they must be submitted to without murmuring. What cannot be cured must be endured. But the very phrasing tells of an unyielding heart. There is submission to the inevitable — but no reconciliation to it.

We would also get far along toward contentment, if we ceased to waste time dreaming over unattainable earthly good. Only a few people can be rich or great; the mass must always remain in ordinary circumstances. Suppose that everyone was a millionaire; who could be found to do the work that must be done? Or suppose that all were great poets. Who would write the prose?

Our discontent also arises from our envy of those who have what we have not. If we could know the secret history of the life that we envy for its splendor and prosperity, perhaps we would not exchange for it our lowlier life, with its plain circumstances. Contentment is not so apt to dwell in palaces or on thrones as in the homes of the humble.

Why should I hide my one talent in the earth because it is not ten? Why should I make my life a failure in the place allotted to me, while I sit down and dream over unattainable things? Why should I miss my one golden opportunity — however small — while I envy some other one?

Another way to train ourselves to cheerful views of life is to refuse to be frightened at shadows or to see trouble where there is none. Many things that in the dim distance look like shapes of peril, when we draw near to them melt into harmless shadows or even change into forms of friendliness.

No one can live without meeting discomforts, disappointments and hardships. No wisdom, no industry of ours can eliminate from our experience, all that is disagreeable or painful. But shall we allow the one discordant note in the grand symphony to mar for us all the noble music?

The faith of the Christian knows there is good in everything. There are reasons why no perfect happiness can be found in this world. Our Father makes our nest rough to drive us to a better one prepared for us by Him.

“We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God; to those who are called according to His purpose.” Romans 8:28.

There is another purely Christian element in a culture of contentment: the more the heart becomes engaged with God the less it is disturbed by the roughness and hardships of earth.

Thus, we may train ourselves away from all gloomy and despondent habits and experiences, toward cheerfulness and hope. The lesson, well learned, will repay our greatest efforts. It will bring some new pleasure to every moment. It will make us sunny-hearted Christians — pleasing God, and blessing the world.

J. R. Miller (1840-1912) was a pastor and former editorial superintendent of the Presbyterian Board of Publication from 1880 to 1911. His works are now in the public domain.