The Key to Contentment
How is it that our perceived contentment can fluctuate so dramatically? The new clothes we used to love now seem hopelessly out of date. We appreciated that pay-raise until we acclimated to new spending habits. We thought we had a fine home until we visited that friend’s house that makes ours feel like a closet. Our happiness seems precariously dependent on how others treat us.
Have we misunderstood contentment, thinking that it means getting the things we think will make us happy? In pursuit of false contentment, might we actually treat God like a sort of genie—like Jeremiah’s contemporaries who practiced religion so that they could have plenty of food, be well-off, and see no trouble (Jer. 44:17)?
How can we, like Paul, learn to be content in any situation (Phil. 4:11)?
What Is Contentment?
In wrapping up his letter to the Philippian church Paul comments on a matter of finance. After a drought in income (v. 10) he received a gift from the Philippian church (v. 18) to help alleviate his affliction (v. 14). He found it a perfect occasion to teach on the discipline of contentment. While Paul was thankful for the gift his satisfaction didn’t depend on it. Paul was already full though he appeared to be empty. He was rich though he had little money.
Remember, Paul was imprisoned in Rome where he was responsible for securing his basic necessities while incarcerated. Thankfully, Paul had a right perspective: “And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content” (1 Tim. 6:8). Paul was satisfied if his body was kept from starvation and exposure to the elements. His conduct was without covetousness. He was content with such things as he had (Heb. 13:5).
By contrast discontent results from trying to sooth our souls with that which cannot satisfy. In our fallenness we still think like our first parents who, despite living in paradise, fostered a nagging feeling that God was keeping from them something that might clinch their satisfaction. In their reach for more they lost their pleasure in God. Contentment is not dependent on circumstances, on the accumulation of stuff, the attainment of status, or the acceptance of society. People in ideal circumstances can have restless hearts.
How Can I Practice Contentment?
Contentment is the learned virtue of satisfaction in one’s situation, not in the situation that could be. There is a Christian way to be poor and a Christian way to be rich. So how do we get there wherever we are?
By Rejecting False Paths to Contentment
- Contentment doesn’t come through accumulation, accolades, or accomplishments. Trust King Solomon. He found that after pursuing and achieving every pleasure his heart desired “all was vanity and grasping for the wind” (Eccl. 2:10–11). And trust your own experiences. When has that craving for just a little more ever been satisfied when you gained a little more?
- Contentment doesn’t come by playing mental mind games. Paul did not find contentment by imagining an alternate reality where everything was great. He’s honest with the Philippians: “You shared in my distress” (v. 14). His sandals were wearing out and his clothes were growing threadbare. His prison diet was probably severely lacking. To learn to be full does not mean to pretend to be full. Life is hard. It isn’t godlier to pretend that your family is always happy, that aging is easy, or that your job scratches all our itches.
- Contentment doesn’t come by simply recognizing that other people have less and would love to have what we have. Wealth disparity is real. But that fact can’t cure our covetous hearts.
- Contentment doesn’t come by adopting a complacent attitude. Complacency is an ignorant self-satisfaction in which we dismiss any need to grow, change, or pursue goals. You are not necessarily content just because you have stopped seeking excellence. Though Paul’s happiness didn’t depend on his achievement (Acts 16:6–10) he was a planner (Acts 19:21) and a climber. He would never say, “Be content by refusing to hope and work for better things.”
By Learning From Others
Learn from those who are doing it well. Paul explains his piety not to brag but to illustrate doctrine, in this case the doctrine of contentment. We need examples of people who know how to suffer well; who know how to be like Jesus in their poverty and sadness, and in their wealth and joy. Who is doing that well? Follow them (Phil. 3:17). We also need to be this kind of an example. Do your children or friends see in you a man or a woman who cries out to the Lord in times of distress, but who refuses to despair or complain?
By Becoming Satisfied with God
Paul encapsulates contentment like this: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (v. 13). This beautiful verse doesn’t mean that Christians can do anything they want because they know Jesus. Paul’s point is, “I can live well in any situation because Christ is my strength.” Paul was convinced that Christ’s grace was sufficient for him, that God’s strength is perfected in human weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). Christ’s power uniquely rests upon those who trust him in their infirmities (v. 9). When believers are weak, then they are strong (v. 10). Contentment includes strategy but is first of all a deep satisfaction with Christ. When we become envious because we drive a beat-up car, or live in a small house, or have crooked teeth, or have disappointing friendships, let’s trust that having Jesus is better than all the things we think we want. He has done something for us that no one would do; trade his life for the life of a God-hating, hell-bent sinner.
On the last day we will stand before God’s blazing face. What will matter most then, and thereafter, is not our possessions or our résumé but God’s promise that by faith we have him. That promise can also teach us to be holistically content. If you are full now, you might one day be empty. If you are happy now, you will one day be sad. But through all the ups and downs of life we can be content, because Jesus is enough.
William Boekestein is pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan.
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