Contentment: A Learned Skill
Every weekday morning, two of our little granddaughters show up at our front door, ready for some grandma/granddaughter homeschooling time. As we work together on reading fluency, “learn” has become far more than a sight word to be mastered. It is the main purpose of our time together.
Perhaps that daily focus on learning is why Paul’s assertion in Philippians 4 caught my attention recently. The Apostle stated in verse 11, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” Since the older granddaughter and I have been working on verb tenses, the thought came to me that Paul’s past tense usage here indicated a completed act. The conclusion was obvious: contentment does not come automatically nor is it a divine bestowment. Rather, it is a learned skill and a state to acquire through effort.
That first insight hooked me. I wanted to delve deeper into the topic of contentment. What is contentment as used in Scripture? Could it really be learned? If so, how? I knew Paul had learned contentment through long, hard experience, but is that the only way to achieve it? And what are the results of a contented existence?
The meaning of contentment
I began my research by attempting to answer this question: What exactly does it mean to be content? An online dictionary defined contentment as “a state of satisfaction with one’s possessions, status, or situation.” Our English word is derived from the Latin word contentus, which means “satisfied.”
Looking up the Biblical usage, I discovered that the original Greek word is autarkes. Its literal meaning is “self-complacent” or “self-sufficient”; we might use the word “independent.” Ancient Greek philosophers, particularly the Stoics, commonly used this term. To them, contentment meant self-sufficiency through indifference to pleasure, pain, and all external good or evil. However, self-sufficiency was not the basis for Paul’s contentment. A cross reference brought me to 2 Corinthians 9:8, in which the Apostle told believers at Corinth that “God is able to make all grace abound toward you; that ye, always having all sufficiency in all things, may abound to every good work.” He clearly viewed “sufficiency”—another word for contentment—as a product of God’s grace. In contrast to the Greek Stoics, though, Paul’s contentment was not based on self-reliance or outward circumstances but on the indwelling Christ. He had learned that Christ’s power and provision were sufficient for every circumstance.
As I dug deeper, I found that the Bible says a great deal about being content. Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 6:6, “Godliness with contentment is great gain,” and then added in verse 8, “And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.” The writer of Hebrews exhorted, “Let your conversation [manner of living] be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have: for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (Hebrews 13:5). Through these verses and others, I noted that the Bible not only identifies contentment as a virtue, but also presents it as a command. We are to be content with whatever we have. We are to be content with food and clothing. We are to be content with our wages. We are to be content because we believe that our omnipotent God will never leave us or forsake us.
Synonyms for the word content include gratified, satisfied, happy, pleased, comfortable, and at ease. Those words could also describe the characteristics of a contented person. And what a contrast a contented individual is to so many in our society today! Contentment, by the world’s standards, seems forever out of reach. People are not happy with their leaders, their spouses, or their jobs. Their house is too small, their car is too old, and the battery on their smartphone runs down too quickly. Their predominant focus seems to be getting more—more accomplishments, more stuff, more value in the eyes of others. “Enough” is out there, somewhere, but not achieved yet—an accurate definition of what it means to be discontent!
A personal example of learning
Contentment doesn’t come naturally—at least, it didn’t for me! According to my parents, I was a somewhat demanding toddler. Even before I could talk, I would indicate by pointing and fussing that I wanted something, and my mom and dad would offer one object after another in an attempt to make me content. When they finally figured out what I wanted and placed it in front of me, they would say, “There!” So it was no surprise to them when “there” was one of my first understandable words!
Many decades later, pondering Paul’s confident assertion, “I have learned, . . .” led me to contemplate some skills I have learned over the years since toddlerhood. A humorous example came to mind: my Aunt Ester teaching me to knit. When I was still a preteen, she patiently taught me how to hold the needles, cast on stitches, and then make the basic stitches of knit and purl. She taught me not just once or twice, but probably at least three or four times! I would conquer the technique, ambitiously knit a few dozen rows, and then lay aside my project and completely forget the “how to.” After a few months passed, I would get inspired to knit again and would find I needed to go back to Aunt Ester for another teaching session.
Several decades later, knitters in our church began a “Caps for India” project, making caps for children in the Himalayas who needed warm headgear. I was a mom myself by then, but I wanted to participate, so that meant getting serious about conquering the skill of knitting. It took some time and practice, but I finally was able to produce a decent-looking knitted cap and had the fun of completing quite a number of them before the project concluded. By that time, I felt I could truly say, “I have learned”!
As I pondered the steps I took to master the art of knitting, I realized that two factors were the keys to my eventual success: observation and practice. I observed my aunt’s technique, and I practiced the steps she modeled until each movement became automatic and I no longer had to think about every move. I wondered: Could those same two steps apply to learning contentment?
Learning by observation
Observing contented individuals seemed like a good place to start. As I considered people in my acquaintance who clearly have learned how to be content in every circumstance of life, multiple examples immediately came to mind.
I thought of an older lady in our church congregation who, like many others, was very isolated during early months of the COVID pandemic. Since she lives in a senior facility, she was not allowed to go out, visit her family, or attend church. For some period of time, her meals were brought to the door of her room and left there; the staff delivery person would ring her bell and leave, so she ate alone. Yet whenever I called her, she had only blessings to report. She appreciated the care given her, the calls and cards from friends and family, and most especially, the church services that she was able to watch online. She never had a “poor me” attitude and she never voiced a single complaint. What a beautiful example of contentment!
One of my friends whose husband recently passed away is another example of contentment in spite of challenging circumstances. Her children are grown, so now she lives alone for the first time since she married nearly fifty years ago. She explained that while she loves the “mountain top” experiences with the Lord where it is easy to praise Him, she is also grateful for the valleys because that is where she finds He is the closest. My sister, who recently lost her spouse very suddenly, reports a similar experience. God helped her understand that He was opening a new door for her, and she has accepted that assurance with peace and gratitude to Him. Though these two women are going through a transition in life when grief and loneliness could overwhelm them, they thank God for His day-by-day presence and His faithfulness in their lives. They too are examples of contentment.
I could cite many more. Clearly, the Psalmist’s advice is valid: “Mark [or observe] the perfect man, and behold the upright: for the end of that man is peace” (Psalm 37:37). There is much to be learned by studying the lives of people who are truly content.
Learning by repetition
Just as I learned knitting by repeating the steps time after time, I found the Bible gives steps we can take that will help us achieve the goal of being content in every circumstance. These include (but are not necessarily limited to) the following six actions we can all take.
Spend time in prayer. Paul advised the Philippian brethren, “Be careful [anxious] for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God” (Philippians 4:6). How can contentment and worry co-exist? When we make a conscious decision to bring our concerns and needs to God, we are promised that “the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” Prayer encourages us to rest on God’s promises despite what may be going on in our lives.
Think about the good. Paul went on to explain another spiritual practice: “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Philippians 4:8). When we fill our minds with positive thoughts, there will be no room for ones that distress, destabilize, or create discontent.
Practice gratitude. Contentment and gratitude are inseparable! Grateful people focus on the blessings in their lives, not on what they lack. Recently I read about a woman who faced multiple challenges and, as a result, felt dissatisfaction creeping into her thoughts. To counteract that, she determined to write down one reason for gratitude each day. At the outset of her experiment, she wondered if she would run out of things to write, but in just a few weeks she made a wonderful discovery. By consciously identifying reasons for gratitude, she became more and more grateful! The fact is, it is all too easy to overlook small moments of joy in our days. Things like a sunny morning, the chance to cuddle a new baby, or the fact that someone else cleaned the stove, are worthy of thanks! While writing down reasons for gratitude may not be our personal method for remembering, contentment will grow as we practice strategies to help us take notice of the little blessings in life.
Reject a fearful spirit. One of the tools Satan uses against many of us is the question, “What if?” Believers do face real-life concerns such as the possibility of illness, disability, unemployment, economic challenges, and so on. However, when worry and fear are allowed free reign, contentment is impossible. It is a good plan to banish the words “what if” from our minds. If those words try to inject themselves into our thoughts, we can substitute a reminder that God is in control of every aspect of our lives. He will never fail us!
Focus on others. In Philippians 2:4, Paul counseled, “Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” We live in a society where a “victim mentality” is prevalent, and many people demand special tolerance, favor, acceptance, or recompense. However, a self-centered focus is sure to result in dissatisfaction and a lack of contentment. Conversely, an unselfish attitude of heart and a concern for others is key to maintaining our joy in the Lord.
Ponder eternity. In 2 Corinthians 4:17-18 we read, “For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal.” The more that eternal realities grip our hearts and occupy our thoughts, the less the visible, temporal things of this world will have any power to cause discontent.
The results of contentment
Perhaps the results of taking these steps on a regular basis can be summed up in Paul’s words found in Philippians 4:9. “Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.” I cannot think of any greater blessing than having the God of peace with us. How can discontentment survive when we have the assurance of His presence today and the promise of eternity with Him in the days to come?
As we observe others who are living contented lives and put into practice the steps that will help us learn contentment, each of us can arrive at a place where we will be able to say with Paul of old, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” Let’s make that our goal.