Nelson Rockefeller was once asked, “How much money does it take to make a person happy?” He reportedly answered, “Just a little bit more.” This frank response gives us an insight into the human soul. We are tempted to think that we’d be happy with just a little bit more—though at times we are also tempted to admit that in reality happiness will require a LOT MORE!
Human beings always seem to want what they cannot have. This is true with jobs, houses, talents, and very often with spouses. The job we have never seems good enough, and the ideal job always seems just out of reach. Our houses are never big enough or never in just the right location, but we can’t quite get the one we want. We recognize many of the talents that we have, but we have a nagging envy of the other guy’s abilities. Our divorce rate indicates that we are always looking for something more in marriage.
This problem is made worse by the fact that we think that if we had the right job, house, talent, or spouse, we’d be happy and content. But because these things are just out of reach, so is contentment—or so the common wisdom goes. The search for happiness based on our circumstances in life creates a restlessness and discontent in our souls.
Now listen to someone who did not think that life was about a constant search for something different or for more of what this life offers:
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:10-13)
That’s the apostle Paul. He testifies that he has learned to be content in any and every circumstance. His is not a constant search for the right circumstances that will bring him happiness. He is content wherever he is.
Paul wrote Philippians from prison. He had been struggling with the question of whether his imprisonment would end in release or in death (1:19-26). He knows of others who are stirring up trouble for him while he is in chains (1:15-17). Yet, in spite of his circumstances, he has joy, and he exhorts the Philippians to rejoice. That’s contentment! The passage quoted above from his letter to the Philippians teaches us three things about the nature of Christian contentment.
1. You can be content. Contentment is attainable. We know it is attainable because in this passage Paul has attained contentment. We might be tempted to think, “Well, Paul was an apostle; he was on a higher spiritual plane than I am. He may have attained contentment, but I can’t.”
But Paul did not attain contentment because he was a spiritual superstar. He says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” The same God who strengthens Paul also strengthens all who believe in Christ.
Philippians 4:13 is sometimes taken out of context and used in ways it was not intended to be used. Some take it to mean that there is nothing a Christian cannot do, because God is strengthening him or her. It almost becomes a motivational, self-help verse, in which people grit their teeth and say, “I can do this because God is strengthening me.”
But it is important to recognize that when Paul says “all things,” he doesn’t mean that God gives you the ability to do whatever you want, even good things that you desire to do. Instead Paul is referring to God’s empowering His people to acquire an important Christian virtue, namely, being content wherever God leads them. While growth in holiness does require effort and struggle on our part, ultimately we grow because of the power of God at work through his Holy Spirit within us.
The good news is that in the midst of your current struggles contentment can be yours. As you wrestle with a chronic health problem, a difficult job, or troubled relationships at home, you can have contentment as God gives you grace.
2. Contentment must be learned. Twice in Philippians 4:11-13, Paul specifically says that he has “learned” to be content. In the Greek, Paul uses two different verbs to express the idea of learning. The first verb is a common word in the New Testament for learning something. The second verb, which appears in verse 12, is a little more unusual and occurs only here in the New Testament (though Greek writers outside the New Testament use it).
Paul’s use of this second verb indicates that contentment does not come naturally. Not only must contentment be learned, but learning contentment is contrary to our normal (and sinful) ways of thinking. We cannot pursue Christian contentment the way the world pursues contentment, or even in the ways that we would be naturally inclined to pursue contentment.
For example, the world says that to be content you need to get out of a bad situation. The Bible says that we are to find contentment in the midst of even the most difficult circumstances. The world says that contentment comes by getting what you want in this world. The Bible teaches that true contentment comes by being satisfied with God and longing for heaven. In this sense the truly contented Christian is always discontented in this life as he longs to be filled with God.
3. You will not be truly content until you learn to be content in every situation that you face in life. Paul is content in every possible situation that he faces in life—in every circumstance, in great abundance, and in great need. In the same way, we have not truly learned contentment when we are content in some circumstances but not in others. Real Christian contentment entails being content in every situation in life.
Paul says, first, that he is content in plenty and in abundance. We may think that it is easy to be content when we are not in situations of hardship. But that’s not true! Times of abundance and ease, though a great blessing, are oftentimes when we become spiritually complacent. We easily forget God and pursue the things of the world, which in themselves never satisfy but only leave us longing for more. We need to guard against an ungodly discontent when life is going well and God blesses us with material abundance and health.
But we also need to learn contentment in times of need. The contented Christian recognizes both the inevitability and the importance of afflictions. Paul knows hardship all too well. Remember, he is a prisoner as he writes this letter. Consider what he says to the Corinthians:
As servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger … We are treated as imposters, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything. (2 Corinthians 6:4-5, 8-10)
Can we truly say that when sorrowful, we still rejoice; that when poor, we are content to make many rich; that even when having nothings, we still possess all things?
Afflictions will come. This is true for all who live in a fallen world. But it is especially true for Christians who face the additional difficulties that come with being followers of Christ—persecution, self-denial, etc. Christ calls His people to suffer. Recognizing the inevitability of hardship helps us face it with a certain degree of contentment.
Contentment glorifies God
Paul’s letter to the Philippians exudes Christian contentment. It permeates the entire letter. Sixteen times in this letter Paul uses the noun joy or the verb rejoice. Joy refers to a state of gladness that typically occurs in Scripture with the recognition that God is in control no matter where we find ourselves. Joy is not a mere surface or momentary happiness. It goes deeper than that. Because it recognizes and delights in God’s sovereign power and providential goodness, the joyful heart is the contented heart. And the contented heart brings glory to God.
May we achieve contentment, being satisfied in God, so that He might be glorified.
William Barcley is the pastor of Sovereign Grace Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. He and his wife, Kristy, have six children.