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 want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength (Philippians 4:11-13).
The Apostle Paul knew something that most of us have missed. He knew how to be content in any circumstance. That is a bold claim. When I think about the life of Paul, such a claim is amazing! After only a few years of work in God’s service, he was falsely arrested and sent to a Roman prison. There he sat, well aware that the various churches he planted needed his immediate attention and leadership, and yet content.
Notice he said, “I have learned the secret.” The word learned implies a process. As Paul grew in his spiritual life, he discovered the truth about contentment. He referred to it as a “secret” because the truth he discovered is a truth that eludes so many believers. It is a truth we search for in our own way and yet miss.
Paul learned the secret of being content in and through circumstances. It wasn’t the secret of changing or getting God to change his circumstances. Real contentment does not hinge on circumstances. It goes beyond that.
Paul’s discussion of contentment closes with a verse that many of us are familiar with: “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.” Unfortunately, for many of us, no one explained the context of this popular verse. Paul was referring to his ability to be content in every circumstance. To paraphrase, “I can endure any circumstance without losing my peace and joy because of the strength I gain through my relationship with Jesus.”
What is the secret of contentment? From what Paul says, it has to do with our willingness to accept three powerful truths.
First, real contentment hinges on what’s happening inside us, not around us. We are all tempted to believe the lie that our contentment (or happiness) hinges on our ability to control what is going on around us. We spend a great deal of energy and time trying to control our environment and the people in it. But real contentment has to do with what is going on inside us, not around us.
Think about it this way. When we become discontented the first two things we lose are our peace and joy. But the Bible teaches peace and joy are the fruits of the Spirit. Their source is the Holy Spirit; He is producing them in us. If we can lose our peace and joy when our circumstances turn bad the peace and joy we were experiencing were not fruits of the Spirit; they were fruits of good circumstance.
As long as our contentment can be destroyed by a change in our environment, we can never be content in any circumstance. Such is the fragile nature of externally oriented contentment. For Paul, what was happening around him didn’t overwhelm what was happening in him. His contentment was internal from start to finish.
To experience contentment, we must first begin by refusing to blame our circumstances (or the people who make up our circumstances) for our lack of contentment. As long as we blame what’s going on around us, we will never understand what is happening in us. When circumstances rob us of our peace and joy, we must take responsibility. We must acknowledge that we are looking to what we cannot control to provide us with our contentment. Only then can we begin to look in the right direction for our contentment.
Second, contentment is need, not want, oriented. God will meet all our needs; He is going to take good care of us. Much of our discontentment stems from not getting what we want. God has not promised to meet all of our wants according to His riches in glory. As long as our peace and joy hinge on getting what we want, we are on an emotional roller coaster.
God is a perfect heavenly Father. He knows what we need. He knows what we don’t need. He knows what we want. He knows what we can handle. He is committed to doing what’s best for us.
The secret of contentment, then, includes distinguishing between what we need and what we want. It means rejoicing over the promise of God to meet our needs. We can stop and thank God for meeting our needs without allowing our emotions to attach themselves to our wants.
Third, contentment is a matter of trust. If we really trust God – if we really believe He loves us and has our best interests in mind – when things fall apart around us, they don’t have to fall apart inside of us. Contentment is trusting God even when things seem out of control.
Paul’s unshakable faith in God allowed him to say, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” He trusted God completely. When things fell apart around him, he kept trusting. Consequently, he was content.
Discontentment, on the other hand, is really a lack of faith in God’s love and concern for us. To express discontent is to suggest God has lost control or He doesn’t care. Discontentment always causes three things to happen.
First, discontentment erodes relationships. Discontentment usually translates into a burning desire to change the people around us. If others would act the way we think they should act, we would be fine, right? But as soon as we try to change others to suit our particular taste, mood, or style, we are no longer able to love them. Love is replaced by manipulation. Manipulation is to a relationship what fire is to paper. While the only person you and I are responsible for changing is ourselves, a discontented person usually expresses discontentment by attempting to change others.
Second, discontentment clouds the decision-making process and makes it almost impossible to wait. Discontented people want change – and they want it now! Consequently, their decision-making abilities are skewed. The emotions that accompany discontentment are so strong that they often override reason.
People in marketing and sales understand this all too well. Part of any effective advertising campaign or sales pitch is to make potential customers discontented with their existing product. The feelings that accompany discontentment are enough to make people buy things they don’t need or can’t afford. Discontentment clouds the ability to make wise decisions. Discontented people tend to make foolish decisions.
Have you ever noticed how bad your car looks when you drive it onto a new car lot? Have you ever become self-conscious about your clothes when shopping for new clothes? Have you ever noticed how small your house feels after visiting in a larger and newer home? These feelings get us in trouble if we do not keep them in proper perspective.
Third, discontentment distorts our view of God. Discontented people attempt to control God. Worship, prayer, Bible study, and church attendance become a means to an end – getting God to change whatever they think needs changing. Even faith is reduced to another tool to use to move God in their direction. Discontented people reduce the heavenly Father to the status of an automatic teller machine. Christianity becomes a lifelong attempt to find the right code to get from God what they want. Discontented believers will never know God for who He is. Their discontentment distorts the picture.
Like many, I struggle with contentment. How much is enough? Should I be satisfied with what I have or seek more? Is ambition bad? What kind of goals should I make? The answers are not simple, but I believe Scripture provides the balance we need to cultivate godly contentment. Jesus said to pray for our “daily bread” – sufficient provision for our daily needs.
The key to contentment is learning you can do everything God wants you to do through His strength. You can establish objectives that are in God’s plan. Ambition is all right as long as you primary aim is to glorify Christ. You cannot do everything, but He will help you to do what He has planned for your life. You can be content knowing that He enables you to deal with all the fluctuations of life as you depend on Him. Contentment is something you learn by adhering to the basics – cultivating a growing relationship with Jesus Christ, living daily, and knowing that Christ strengthens you for every challenge.
* Read more in my book: Back to the Basics: A Guide for Christian Living.