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Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Secret of Contentment

Are you discontented?  Is there some kind of tension in your life right now that if it were only resolved you would be able to be happy?  It is a good and godly thing to desire contentment, but the problem is that we frequently misunderstand where it comes from.
Most people assume that contentment is tied to circumstances.  The reason I am not content right now is because I don’t have enough money or my boss is a tyrant or my spouse is hurting me or I’m plagued with health problems.  And so if my discontentment is due to my circumstances then the way to contentment must be through changing my circumstances.  So I try to acquire more or I find a different job or I leave my spouse or get healthy.  But the uncanny, unavoidable result is that discontentment finds me in those new circumstances, too.
So how do we find contentment?  A good place to look is in the example and writings of the apostle Paul.  If you and I think we have cornered the market on bad circumstances, we need to reacquaint ourselves with his story.  In 2 Cor 11, he shared his experiences of great labors, many imprisonments, countless beatings and brushes with death:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one.
Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea;
on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers;
in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.
And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Cor 11:24-29a)
We could read that passage and use it to console ourselves by thinking, “at least I don’t have it as bad as Paul did!”  But that is not the appropriate way to handle discontentment and it is not the reason I want to draw your attention to this passage.  This passage is helpful in that it helps us to see the depth of meaning in Phil 4:11-13, where Paul claims to have learned the secret of contentment.  If Paul, who so consistently encountered such horrible circumstances, was able to learn the secret of contentment, then certainly we can learn it, too.  Here is his claim regarding the secret of contentment:
…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. (Phil 4:11b-13)
Most of us are well familiar with v13 – I can do all things through him who strengthens me – but I would dare to say that most of us do not know the context from which it comes.  Some people believe that Phil 4:13 is a reach-for-the-stars, be-all-you-can-be, anything-is-possible-if-you-just-believe kind of verse, as if even an NBA career is not out of the question for me as long as I have Jesus.  But this verse was never intended to encourage me to have ridiculous dreams.  Rather, the context indicates that it was intended to communicate the secret of contentment.
Paul learned through his many trials that the secret to contentment in all circumstances comes through looking to Jesus.  …I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content… I can do all things through him who strengthens me.  Whether in safety or danger, abundance or need, Paul found contentment knowing that Christ was with him, strengthening him through it all.
Traces of this attitude are found throughout his letter to the Philippians.  For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain (1:21).  Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ…(3:8).  I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (3:14).  The reason Paul is content is because he wants Christ more than anything and he has Christ no matter what his circumstances are.
The truth is that discontentment comes from looking for contentment in something other than Jesus, whether that is more material comforts, a better work situation, an adoring spouse, or better health.  There is nothing wrong with desiring those things, but when they become ultimate things, discontentment will soon follow.  The psalmist writes in Psalm 16 that the only good worth finding is in the Lord:  You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you… You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psa 16:2,11).  If this is true, it is no wonder that we find ourselves discontented when we are pursuing something other than Him.  For this reason, discontentment is a good sign that we are not pursuing Him as we should. 
When we find ourselves in a place of discontentment, we should repent of whatever pursuit has taken our eyes off of Him and once again look to Him for our everything.  We should return to the Word, return to prayer, and return to fellowship with His body, the church.  We should trust Him for the strength to endure whatever unpleasant circumstances we are experiencing, knowing that we have no good apart from Him. 
Contentment is not merely is unavoidable if Christ is our highest good.  If we pursue Christ the way Paul did, we too will be able to say, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”
Posted by Greg Birdwell

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