The Secret of Contentment

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Philippians 4:11-13

If someone offered you a fool-proof secret for contentment, would you be interested? If so, you’ll want to hear what the apostle Paul says in Philippians chapter 4.

Do you ever feel restless or 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 kind of contentment never lasts.

“I Have Everything I Need”

There’s 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. What’s more, Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians while he was imprisoned in Rome awaiting trial for his life. 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 Paul 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 . . .

(4:14-18, nirv)

But still Paul was grateful, and his letter is full of good cheer – and good advice – especially here in the closing chapter. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice,” writes the apostle (Phil. 4:4). “Do not be anxious about anything, but . . . . let your requests be made know to God. And the peace of God will guard your hearts and minds in 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. No, this writer is a man who doesn’t know where next month’s rent and food will come from, or even whether he will be alive to eat it. Said Shakespeare,

. . . there was never yet philosopher
That could endure the toothache patiently.

(Much Ado About Nothing, V.i.35)

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 writes about joy and comfort, peace and contentment 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 the work God has done, is doing, and will bring to completion for us and in us. We are content, not because everything is always great in our lives (it isn’t), but because we belong to the Lord, because we find our deepest satisfaction in him, and nothing can shake that. 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 worries and anxieties to rest.

Life’s Greatest Lesson

Listen to the great apostle once more, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases what he writes:

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 a life 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 then follow a few simple rules. Let me start with the lesson. The lesson is how to be content. And what exactly is contentment? It’s accepting 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 a learned attitude. It’s something you have to acquire. 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, it’s 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’s something to be learned and practiced.

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 rags, but he looks happy and cheerful. As the boy sits alone he sings:

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 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 satisfy. One of the curiosities of life is that it is often the very rich who are most discontented. 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 you want, because there’s always something more to want. No, contentment is a discipline to learn, a habit of the heart. Right now we need to acquire it, not later, when we imagine we will have enough.

One other thing about contentment. Learning to be content doesn’t mean we have to pretend that some of the things we lack aren’t 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, the 19th-century Christian writer, lived a hard and precarious life. When he spoke of contentment he wasn’t speaking from a position of privilege. This is what he said:

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.

The Rules

There’s the lesson. Now the rules. Here are five practical rules for contentment, suggested originally by the Christian writer Edward Pusey:

1.) Don’t complain about anything, even the weather. 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.” Complaining and contentment are mutually exclusive; you can enjoy one or the other, but not both.

2.) Don’t picture yourself in any circumstance in which you are not. We all play imaginary games 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 that?” Just don’t take your fantasy life too seriously. Live in the place where God has placed you, as the person God made you and intends you to be. Don’t inhabit a dream world.

3.) 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 the person that you are.

4.) 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 hurt you have experienced, the past will stay with you. But you don’t have to live 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.

5.) And finally, the fifth rule: Don’t worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow belongs to God. 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. With Paul, I’d like to say that I have learned to be content in all circumstances, but honestly, I still struggle with contentment. But here is the ultimate secret of a happy life: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (v. 13).

If you know that secret, don’t try to keep it. Pass it on.