The Apostle Paul had a lot to say about many things, and depending on my mood and circumstances, I am encouraged or annoyed by this. “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” “All things work together for good for those who love Him and who are called according to His purpose.” “In everything give thanks.” “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.”
This last statement came to my mind again this week, because it’s something that I certainly haven’t learned yet. When life is going smoothly, my family is reasonably happy and my jeans fit, then sure, I’m content. If, on the other hand, I face sickness, the roof starts leaking, the car breaks down, and family life has more than its share of squabbles and hurts, well, then, contentment is not the word that describes my attitude.
Contentment is a tough thing to learn, and our society makes it even tougher. There are whole industries whose seeming goal is to stir up envy, restlessness, and discontent. When a new phone comes out who wants to be content with their old one? New fashions appear, and suddenly last year’s shirt and shoes aren’t supposed to be good enough. The latest trucks, hunting gear, kitchen appliances…the paths to discontentment are endless.
Sometimes the snare is more subtle, and not about material things. “Their children behave so much better than ours do.” “His wife actually cooks.” “All my siblings are able to take yearly vacations…why can’t we manage that?” “Her husband built a patio.” “They don’t struggle with illness.” “His job is much better than mine.” “This house is too old/small/rundown.” In each situation the lie is the same: “If only this would change, then I’d be content and happy.”
In the meantime, we are robbed of our joy. Envy and discontent sap joy and peace with great efficiency. When I let my mind run along these lines, it colors everything, even the parts of my life that I was content with moments earlier. I don’t know about you, but I want to develop the discipline of contentment. What are some ways to make this happen?
In the verse I mentioned earlier, Paul addresses contentment. “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 every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” (Philippians 4:12). Alas, he does not specifically say what the secret is in so many words. Some further study is in order.
Paul was not writing these words from a comfortable palace overlooking the Mediterranean, surrounded by loving family members, soft chairs, and plenty of well cooked food. In fact, he was in prison in Rome. This may have been in a typical jail, or house arrest, but either way, he was not free. Prior to this he had survived beatings, more prison time, shipwreck, friends’ desertions, and general upheaval. In addition, he constantly battled his “thorn in the flesh.” If anyone had a right to be discontented with his circumstances, it was Paul. And yet, here he is, claiming contentment.
I think an important key to this contentment is scattered throughout Philippians. Look at the way he opens the chapter: “I thank my God every time I remember you.” (Philippians 1:3). A little later, he is encouraging people “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phillippians 4:6,7). Paul had learned an essential precursor to contentment, which is thankfulness and gratitude.
When I start to thank God for my blessings, it opens the doorway to the possibility of contentment. Yes, sometimes this seems forced, but if I persevere, there is almost always something to be thankful for, and the more I thank God, the more things He gently brings to my mind. Is my house small? Yes, but it is warm, dry, and reasonably clean today. Is our job perfect? No, but we have employment that pays the bills, and a vehicle to get to work. Is someone sick today? Perhaps, but thank God that He has placed caring friends and family in our lives and that we have access to health care. Our lists grow.
Remembering past blessings can be another way to change perspective. For example, last week I was dismayed to see a strand or two of gray hair. Discontentment beckoned. At that moment, I remembered back to the year when I had chemotherapy, and the trauma of losing all my hair. At that time, I told myself, “I will never complain about my hair again. Any day with hair is a good hair day.” Did I still have a gray hair? Yes. But I am alive and well to see it. I had to choose to be content.
Sometimes it also helps to temporarily avoid a situation that is causing contentment to seep away. I love looking at pictures of houses, and am always thinking about ways to decorate and improve our own property. But there was a time, a few years ago, when I had to stop looking at all those pretty home decorating magazines. Instead of inspiring me, they were making me feel grumpy and envious. Now, there’s nothing wrong with those magazines in themselves, but they were not helpful for me at the time, so I took a break. Pinterest can have the same effect.
Of course, many times we can’t get away from a situation or person, especially if they are a colleague, fellow student, friend, or relative. Again, deliberately cultivating gratitude can help. Someone once suggested that if you are envious of another person, try giving them a compliment. In a fascinating way, going against the grain like this actually starts to break the power of envy, and once again opens the door to contentment.
Are any of these things easy? No, they are not. Paul knew this too. Immediately after the verses in Philippians about learning the secret of contentment, he discloses the other key: “ I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” This is a familiar and widely quoted verse, with good reason. We can indeed do all things through Christ. It’s interesting, though, that this truth is written here, as an explanation for Paul’s contentment. I think it’s an acknowledgement that being content seldom comes naturally to any of us. Envy is part of the human condition. Paul too, no doubt, struggled many times. His secret? Thankfulness, and relying on God’s strength to learn to be content. This path is open to all of us. Thank God.