READ : Philippians 4:11-13
So, are you satisfied with the way your life is going? Would you like to learn how you could be?
If I could offer you a fool-proof secret for contentment, would you be interested?
Do you ever feel restless, dissatisfied with your life? Well, who doesn’t? But how do you try to handle those feelings when they come? Some people turn to food. Some turn to drink. Some go on a binge. Some go shopping. Some change jobs, others change spouses. Some go into depression, others go on a vacation. A tasty treat or a new coat or a change of scenery may make us content for a little while, but, unfortunately, that never lasts.
“I HAVE EVERYTHING I NEED”
I’d like to show you a better way to deal with our restlessness and dissatisfaction. The man we know as the Apostle Paul wrote about contentment in a brief, cheerful letter addressed to a group of his friends who lived in the ancient city of Philippi. That’s not so amazing; what’s surprising about this is that Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians while he was imprisoned in Rome awaiting trial for his life.
He had been accused of anti-government actions – false charges, as it happened – but still his very life was at stake. He would be closely guarded until the emperor was ready to hear his case and pass judgment, either to set Paul free or condemn him to death. The specific occasion of his writing was to thank these Christian brothers and sisters for some gifts of money which they had sent to help with his living expenses.
“. . . it was good of you to share in my troubles . . . you sent me help when I needed it . . . . again and again. I’m not looking for a gift. . . . I have everything I need . . .”
But still he was grateful, and his letter is full of good cheer – and good advice – especially here in the closing chapter, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil 4:4). “Don’t worry about anything. Instead, tell God about everything. Ask and pray. Give thanks to him. Then God’s peace will watch over your hearts and your minds because you belong to Christ Jesus” (vv. 6-7).
It’s important to remember that this is not an armchair theologian speaking, dispensing smooth platitudes from the comfort of a nicely furnished study. This is a man who doesn’t know where next month’s rent and food will come from, or whether he will be alive to eat it.
“. . . there was never yet philosopher
that could endure the toothache patiently.”
(Shakespeare, V.i.35, Much Ado About Nothing)
Well, that’s not Paul. He is not an empty talker whose theories can’t stand up to the hard knocks of real life. Paul doesn’t write about joy and comfort, peace and contentment from a beachfront villa on the Riviera. He’s talking about them from a prison cell, with a death sentence hanging over his head. This is deeply real. As Christians, we don’t rejoice because we’re always happy. We’re not; no one is. We rejoice because of what Christ has done, is doing, and will do for us. We are content, not because everything is always great in our lives (it’s not), but because we belong to the Lord, because we’re his and find our deepest satisfaction in him, and nothing can shake that. Don’t get me wrong. Paul says to us, “Don’t worry about anything” because he knows there is plenty to worry about in life. But the deeper reality is that knowing God can put all our fears and disquiet to rest.
LIFE’S GREATEST LESSON
Listen to the apostle once more:
Actually, I don’t have a sense of needing anything personally. I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.
(Philippians 4:11-13, The Message, Eugene Peterson)
Would you like to live like that, a life of inner peace and joy? It might not be as difficult as you think. All you have to do is learn one basic lesson, and follow a few simple rules. Let’s start with the lesson.
We don’t have to be chronically dissatisfied with life. We can learn life’s greatest lesson: the secret of contentment. What exactly is contentment? It’s being satisfied about who you are and what you have. The opposite of contentment is . . . envy . . . fretfulness . . . dissatisfaction . . . grumbling . . . greed. Contentment means learning to live within limits, recognizing that though the reality of your life may fall short of the fantasy life of your dreams, you nevertheless accept it as good, as God’s gift.
The very first thing to recognize about being content is that this is an acquired attitude. If Paul is right, contentment isn’t a matter of your natural temperament or disposition. “I have learned to be content,” he says. In other words, contentment is not something you’re born with, so that you either have it or you don’t. Being content isn’t an inherited part of some people’s genetic make-up, like intelligence or athletic ability. It is an exercise. It is something to be learned and practiced. Nothing is more important than to realize that.
Another thing to understand is that contentment bears very little relationship to how much you actually have. In John Bunyan’s classic book The Pilgrim’s Progress a group of Christians comes across a little shepherd boy in a place called the Valley of Humiliation. He’s dressed in very poor clothing, but he looks happy and cheerful. As the boy sits alone he sings:
He that is down, needs fear no fall,
He that is low, no pride:
He that is humble, ever shall
Have God to be his guide.
I am content with what I have,
Little be it, or much:
And, Lord, contentment still I crave,
Because thou savest such.
“Do you hear him?” asks the pilgrims’ guide. “I will dare to say that this boy lives a merrier life, and wears more of that herb called hearts-ease in his bosom, than he that is clad in silk and velvet.”
Hearts-ease: with it, the simplest life is sweet; without it even the richest of luxuries fail to please. (Just ask any movie star or princess.) Contentment doesn’t depend upon how much money you have. One of the curiosities of life is that it is often the rich who are most discontented. Remember King Ahab in the Bible, sulking in his bedroom like a little boy because he couldn’t have his neighbor Naboth’s vineyard for a garden? Most of us share the fantasy that if we just had a little more – another thousand dollars, or ten thousand, or ten million – then all our problems would be solved and we would be happy. But it isn’t so. Contentment isn’t something that comes automatically when you have all the money and goods you think you want or need, because there’s always something more to want. No, contentment is a discipline to learn, a habit of mind and spirit and heart. Right now we need to acquire it, not later, when we imagine we will have accumulated enough.
One other thing about contentment. Learning to be content doesn’t mean we have to pretend that some of the things we lack are not good or desirable. You don’t grow the beautiful fruit of contentment by cultivating an attitude of contempt for any of God’s good gifts. George MacDonald was one of the great Christian writers of the last century. He was a pastor, briefly, but proved unsuited to the ministry, and lost his only job after a few years. He and his large family were forced to depend for the rest of his life on the uncertain income brought in by his writing. So his life was precarious and hard, and when MacDonald speaks of contentment he isn’t talking from a position of privilege.
Let me, if I may, be ever welcomed to my room in winter by a glowing hearth, in summer by a vase of flowers; if I may not, let me think how nice they would be, and bury myself in my work. I do not think that the road to contentment lies in despising what we have not got. Let us acknowledge all good, all delight that the world holds, and be content without it.
Now the rules for contentment. They’re not my rules, by the way. I am far too poor a scholar in the school of contentment to be teaching any lessons on my own. I have too much to learn yet myself. These are five practical rules which were suggested by a 19th-century Christian named Edward Pusey:
- Don’t complain about anything, even the weather. Maybe you find yourself, as I sometimes do, showing a tendency to grumble. It seems we’re rarely satisfied with our things as they are. Paul could say: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (v. 11). Too often we turn that on its head. We say, “I have learned to complain whatever the circumstances.” We’re like the people of Israel in the Sinai desert. Remember how they were always grumbling about how bad things were, and finding fault with what God had given them? They kept saying they wished they could go back to “the good old days” in Egypt. (Of course, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt – those days hadn’t been very good at all – but when you’re really determined to complain, things like truth or reality rarely get in your way!) Complaining and contentment are simply incompatible. They are mutually exclusive; you can enjoy one or the other – and make no mistake, many people do enjoy complaining – but not both. For Christians to complain really calls into question our belief in God’s providence, which is mature faith’s conviction that the little things in life, as well as the big things, come to us not by chance but from God’s fatherly hand.
- Don’t picture yourself in any circumstance in which you are not. I suppose we all play with our imagination from time to time. “What if I had this? What if I could do that? What if I lived there? What if I looked like her?” Just don’t take your fantasy life too seriously, or make it a habit. Live in the real world where God has placed you, as the person God made you and intended you to be. Don’t inhabit a dream world.
- Don’t compare your life with anyone else’s. God gave you gifts, he loves you for yourself, he values you as you are, and he expects you to serve him as yourself, not as somebody else. So learn to accept who you are.
- Don’t dwell upon the past. The past is over and can’t be changed. You can’t live backwards, you can only live forwards. If there is something in the past that you deeply regret, or some great grief or hurt, you may not be able to forget it or bury it completely. But you don’t have to keep on living there. You may not be able to change the past. You may not even be able to change what the past has done to you. But you can live in the present of God’s healing grace.
- And finally, the fifth rule: Don’t worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow belongs to God, not us. And God has promised to be with us always. You can take him at his word. He never breaks it.
I’ve been talking about the secret of contentment, about how to find contentment by practicing some simple disciplines of faith and trust in God. Like Paul, I want to say that I have discovered this secret in my own life, and I want to tell you that it does work. Not that I practice it perfectly- far from it. Sometimes I lose the secret altogether when I allow myself to be caught up in the world’s way of thinking again. But then I’m reminded how to be content once more.
Maybe you already know the ultimate secret of contentment. Here it is again, in case you missed it: “Christ gives me strength to face anything” (v. 13, cev).
Now, if you know that secret, don’t try to keep it. Pass it on!