Contentment. That buzz word everyone knows, but fewer know how to define. The dictionary definition of contentment is “a state of happiness and satisfaction.” But even those terms are elusive and relative. If our goal is to be happy, can we ever truly be content?
We’re constantly bombarded with the world’s ideas of contentment: We’re always in search of something better in our consumer-driven society—a better job, more money, a bigger house, a nicer car. And when we get those things, we still want more, because the grass is always greener somewhere else. Social media perpetuates that myth and often convinces us that our friends all have more than we do. Not surprisingly, our relationships also fall prey to this way of thinking—“You don’t agree with me? Then I’ll find a friend who does.” Oh, and online dating? “You look pretty cool, but what if someone better comes along? What if someone better swipes right?” We’re always looking for the next thing.
The problem is, that mindset will always leave us feeling unsatisfied and discontent. If bigger and better according to the world’s standards is what we’re after, there will always be something “bigger” and “better.” Discontentment creeps into every area of our lives. When we’re always wanting, others can become stumbling blocks to getting what we want, their successes become reminders of our failures, and we can even look at our friends as our competitors (and ourselves as victims). Gradually, we may start to emotionally distance ourselves from those around us and become more and more self-centered. Discontentment will inevitably strain our relationships, rob us of peace and joy, and eventually lead to sin. It will almost always compromise our witness.
Maybe you’re sitting here thinking, “I don’t do that” or “I know people like that, but it’s not me.” Think about the following sentence: “I’ll be content when ______.” Fill in the blank with whatever comes to your mind. Now imagine that it never happens—can you still be content?
I don’t know about you, but I often find that discontentment creeps in very subtly, and unless I’m intentional about countering it, it will grow before I realize it’s even there. And while the busyness of our culture can often mask or allow us to avoid our discontent, nobody is immune to its consequences.
So now that we know how the world views contentment, let’s look at how God views it. How can we truly be content, regardless of our circumstances? How do we find the balance between contentment and complacency? Let’s look at what a man sitting falsely accused in a Roman prison had to say about it:
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:10-13)
For a bit of context, Philippians is a letter of thanksgiving and encouragement from Paul to the Church at Philippi. Paul was anything but complacent! He went from being a fierce persecutor of Christians to being their biggest defender. He constantly put himself in dangerous and uncomfortable situations to tell others about Christ the Messiah. As he wrote the letter, he was awaiting the verdict for a crime he didn’t commit. That in and of itself is amazing. Paul had every reason by most people’s standards to be angry and disillusioned with life, but instead, he used this time to show gratitude and to encourage others. There are so many examples throughout history of people who were under intense persecution and suffering who still rejoiced and gave thanks to God. If it can be done in the harshest of conditions, we know it’s possible.
As we look at this passage, we can learn a lot about what biblical contentment is (and is not):
1.) It’s God-focused, not self-focused.
Ironically, the Greek word for content in this passage means “self-sufficient,” but we know Paul wasn’t talking about his own sufficiency here. In verse 13, he says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Paul lived in Christ’s strength and his contentment came from Christ’s sufficiency, not his own.
Contentment is first a matter of the heart and requires us to be focused on God, rather than ourselves. If this is true, everything else will flow out of that perspective. “God is good all the time. All the time, God is good.” This is a truth that never changes. Contentment requires vertical vision to see all things in light of that truth. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having goals and pursuing those goals, but are we controlled by them? Are we consumed with finding the perfect job? Or the perfect church? How about the perfect spouse? Do we feel like we can’t be happy or content without them? Contentment frees us from the endless chase. It trusts in God’s provision and promise to supply all of our needs. 2 Peter 1:3 tells us that God has given us everything we need for life and godliness. This doesn’t mean we gloss over the hard things. It means we walk in them, but STILL trust God. In fact, discontentment often leads to settling for less than God’s best, because we’re not willing to wait for His perfect timing. And why would we want that?
2.) It’s being thankful for what we do have.
The first verse says that Paul rejoiced at the generosity and love of the Philippians! Instead of focusing on what he didn’t have and his physical discomfort and emotional stress, Paul focused on the blessings he did have. His thankfulness and gratitude enabled him to look beyond his circumstances to the work God was doing. Notice that Paul acknowledged that he had been in want and hungry. He wasn’t blind to his predicament, but he chose to find the things he could be thankful for, and he praised God for them. He turned his hardship into an opportunity for worship. How do you practice thankfulness in your daily life?
3.) It’s learned.
In verse 11, Paul says he “learned to be content in all circumstances.” Contentment does not come naturally for us. Instead, it’s something we have to cultivate, because when left to our own thoughts and the influences of our culture, discontentment will inevitably win. Contentment doesn’t require us to be apathetic—it means being honest with ourselves, feeling all of the emotions, but then choosing to shift our perspective. When we are consumed with negative thoughts, we must take those thoughts captive, give them to God, and replace them with the right ones. How do we think right thoughts? Right thoughts are not false hopes and empty clichés we tell ourselves so we feel better, because what we hope for may never actually materialize. What it does mean is that we fill our mind and hearts with the truth, rather than the lies the enemy feeds us. We actively combat those lies. This means we are abiding in Christ and walking in the Spirit, which can only happen if we are spending time in the Word and in prayer, humbly submitting to His will for our lives. If we spend our time consuming all that our culture puts out, then we will start to look and think like our culture.
4.) It’s possible in ALL circumstances.
Contentment is not the same as happiness, and it doesn’t mean we have everything we want. If you’ve ever visited a third-world country, you know it’s possible to be joyful and content with very little in the way of material wealth. Contentment is not dependent on what you possess, and it doesn’t mean you don’t have unmet desires. It means you trust God to meet those desires.
Paul had learned to be content in abundance and in need. He was not focused on his circumstances, but on what Christ was doing in and through Him. It wasn’t about what he had, or where he was, but Whose he was. Paul didn’t have to like his circumstances, because he trusted God’s sovereignty in them and relied on Christ’s strength to get through them and not his own. Because contentment is not dependent on our circumstances, it’s long-lasting. There’s freedom in realizing that we can’t always control our circumstances, so we might as well trust the One Who knows all things.
5.) It’s living in the present, but looking to the future.
We can’t be content if we’re hung up on the past or consumed with the future. Playing the “what could have been” or the “what might be” game will only distract us and put our focus on what we don’t have and ourselves. We need to learn from the past, but then we need to move forward. And if we’re so obsessed with what the future holds, we will miss out on what’s right in front of us. God has blessings for us every day.
This certainly doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make plans for the future. It doesn’t mean we sit around doing nothing, because hey, I need to be content wherever God has me. And since He’s promised to supply my needs, I don’t need to work or be wise with my money. Contentment means we are living fully today, but trusting God with our future and living with an eternal perspective. We can live fully today in whatever circumstances we’re in, because we know that God is sovereign, He loves us, and He promises to provide for us.