A Call to Contentment
During a recent three-week trip to Nigeria, I found myself in the state of flying, in the state of riding in a car, and in the state of sitting in church. I experienced a variety of states with regard to sleeping conditions: I slept while traveling in a car, when flying on board a plane, and in beds—a number of beds, some firm and some soft. The beds had pillows, including a feather pillow that was comfortable and a foam pillow in one hotel which was not so comfortable! So, in the course of those three weeks, I experienced a variety of states or conditions.
In Philippians 4:11 we read of Paul the Apostle’s attitude toward the various states he had experienced. He wrote, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” Paul was not referring to states in a geographic sense. He was speaking of circumstances—of conditions in which he had found himself since he answered the call of God while on the road to Damascus.
Answering God’s call does not guarantee a state of ease; we have no promise of that.
As Paul penned these words, he was in a state of imprisonment. Answering God’s call does not guarantee a state of ease; we have no promise of that. In 2 Corinthians 11 there is a description of the conditions Paul had found himself in over the years since his conversion. Five times he had received thirty-nine stripes. Three times he had been beaten with rods. Once he was stoned and left for dead. Paul had been in three shipwrecks—he had spent a night and a day treading water in the sea. Verses 26-27 continue the list of circumstances he had endured: “In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.” In spite of those conditions of extreme discomfort, Paul had learned that in whatever state he found himself, “therewith to be content.” He had learned that whatever God sent his way was good enough for him. In that knowledge, he could have the peace God promises, conditions notwithstanding.
Contentment is related to thankfulness
Contentment is closely related to a spirit of thankfulness. Think about it: Can a person be both discontent and thankful at the same time? It does not seem possible. The reason Paul could be content was because he was grateful to God, and that is true of us as well. None of us live in ideal conditions all the time. Despite the circumstances we find ourselves in, though, we can learn from Paul the blessings that come when we keep a spirit of gratitude.
The background of this letter to the Philippians was one of the times when Paul’s actions revealed his contentment in spite of adverse circumstances. Paul had seen a vision of a man from Macedonia pleading “Come over and help us,” and had answered the Macedonian call, immediately traveling to Philippi with Silas. There he found converts by the river where they customarily went to pray. A soothsaying woman was converted, but those who profited by that woman found their means of gain was lost. As a result, Paul and Silas were brought before the magistrates, beaten, and cast into prison. However, at midnight they sang praises to God! They were content and thankful in the dark dungeon to the extent that they could sing in spite of the stripes on their backs.
God sent an earthquake, and the foundations of the prison were shaken. All the doors opened, and the bands restraining the prisoners were loosed. However, rather than escaping, the prisoners stayed where they were. The jailer was amazed when he saw the open prison doors but all the prisoners still there, and fell at the feet of Paul and Silas asking what he must do to be saved. As a result of the spirit of gratitude and contentment of those two men, not only was the jailer saved but so were those of his household.
Those at Philippi knew what Paul had endured; they had provided for his needs. In Philippians 4:10 we read, “But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at the last your care of me hath flourished again; wherein ye were also careful, but ye lacked opportunity.” The people there had helped him once, but for whatever reason, there had been a period of time in which they could not help him. Though Paul was grateful that they had helped him once more, he had learned that even without help, “In whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.”
Contentment negates complaining
Paul did not need to go around advertising that he was happy, thankful, and satisfied with whatever God allowed in his life; that fact was self-evident. The Philippians knew by his actions and his spirit that Paul was content. He had no complaints. Contentment and complaining do not coexist! A negative attitude and a grateful spirit are the antithesis of each other.
It is interesting to note that the original Greek word translated “contentment” is translated elsewhere in the King James version of the Bible as “satisfied” or “sufficient.” For example, in 2 Corinthians 12:9, Paul recounted that in a time of trial, God had assured him, “My grace is sufficient for thee.” Sufficiency is elusive in this life, but what God offers is satisfying. And that satisfaction is not a temporary condition; it is a perspective that will see us through whatever state we find ourselves in.
Paul related in Philippians 4:12, “I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.” It pays to be content with what we have, rather than to lament what we lack. It takes God to instill that spirit! We may need to be reminded from time to time about the importance of contentment, but when we go to God with a genuine spirit of thankfulness, we find that contentment follows.
Contentment makes conditions irrelevant
No one has perfect conditions all of the time; everyone faces challenges in life. Paul had good times of fellowship and saw souls converted; those were times of rejoicing. However, Paul and Silas still sang the praises of God when they were in the prison with their backs hurting from the beating they had received. And there were still challenges ahead of them to endure! Nonetheless, neither the trial of the moment nor an awareness that more trials likely were ahead could rob them of a spirit of thankfulness and contentment.
True contentment is not found in achievements, attainments, or possessions. It is found in God!
Sometimes people think, If I could just change my circumstances—if I could just live in a different house . . . if I could change my neighborhood . . . if I could get a different job—then I would be thankful and content. That is not how it works! Even when a goal is reached or an achievement attained, that momentary feeling of fulfillment does not endure. Soon, another goal will take its place. Something else will seem to be necessary for happiness. The fact is, true contentment is not found in achievements, attainments, or possessions. It is found in God!
In Proverbs 15:15 we read, “All the days of the afflicted are evil: but he that is of a merry heart hath a continual feast.” Notice that this verse does not say, “He that has a continual feast has a merry heart.” We must not concentrate on the conditions around us but on the condition of our hearts. If our hearts are at peace with God, the conditions about us will be irrelevant.
Paul wrote to the believers at Philippi, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” “All things” includes practicing contentment! In whatever condition we find ourselves and whatever challenges we face, we can do all things by the grace of God—through the strength that God imparts.
Contentment protects our joy and peace
Back in the 1600s, a Puritan preacher by the name of Jeremiah Burroughs wrote a piece that showed the folly of discontentment. He said, “Discontent is like a worm that eats the meat out of the nut.” In other words, it takes the good part and leaves only the shell. That illustration struck home to me because when I was growing up, we had a hazelnut orchard with four hundred trees. After the nuts fell to the ground, we harvested them, filling buckets with nuts that were eventually dried and sold. We learned early on that when you cracked a nut to eat, it paid to examine it before putting it into your mouth. Occasionally a nut was wormy—not many of them, but enough that we found it was a distasteful experience if you did not look before you chewed. If your hazelnuts are devoured by worms it is of no consequence, but if your joy is eaten away by a negative attitude, that is a problem. Discontentment will “eat the meat out of the nut,” stealing your sense of satisfaction and well-being.
Contentment trusts God for the future
There is a great contrast between discontentment and contentment. Discontentment laments the past, is not satisfied with the present, and worries about the future. On the other hand, contentment knows we cannot change the past, is satisfied with the present, and is at peace knowing that God will chart the course for the future. It takes God to put that in a heart, and it takes a surrendered heart to go to God and ask him to put it in there. Only He can make us peaceful, hopeful, happy, and content.
Today, as we approach God, let us come with thankful hearts. As we evaluate our current circumstances, whether they are good or bad, let us have hearts filled with gratitude. The possibility of true contentment exists. It is not manufactured; it is not pretense; it is real. And it is not necessary for us to change anything in life to achieve it. Whatever state we find ourselves in, we can be content!