It’s something I think we would all agree is lacking in the world today, especially in first-world countries, who, ironically, have so much.
Often, we equate being content with happiness. We chase happiness hoping to find contentment. How do I know we aren’t just looking for happiness, as everyone says? Because happiness is fleeting. And we know that. We experience moments of happiness, but we aren’t satisfied. We’re looking for a happiness that stays with us. We’re looking for satisfaction in the form of contentment.
Even if we are content in respect to our basic needs and material wants, we often struggle to be content with our current situation. We’re constantly wishing things would move a little faster, or smoother–wishing they would just go the way we want. And when they don’t…we are discontent.
What exactly is contentment? The Holman Bible Dictionary defines it as “internal satisfaction which does not demand changes in external circumstances.” Contentment is an attitude, a state of the heart. It involves being satisfied–not demanding changes in external circumstances, but rather trusting and accepting God’s directing in your life.
Paul writes about contentment in Philippians, from his position chained 18 inches away from a guard, under house arrest. Wow. Talk about a guy who knew the true meaning of contentment. Paul understood that even though his external circumstances were less than thrilling, God had a plan and a purpose for them. In Philippians 1:12-14, Paul explains how his chains have actually served to further the gospel: the guards he has been chained to day and night have witnessed his contentment and peace and hope and gentleness. The gospel has spread throughout the palace as a result. Even the other Christians in churches Paul ministered to have become emboldened to speak the gospel.
Later on in his letter, Paul explains that he had learned to be content. This is an important concept to note. We aren’t born content, and we don’t suddenly become content later on in our lives. We don’t reach some point of attainment. It’s something you have to learn. And how do you learn to be content? Through life’s trials and hardships. In the ups and downs. In the times you have, and the times you have not (Philippians 4:10). You won’t “get it right” every time. It takes practice to develop an attitude and heart of contentment.
But what about happiness? Remember at the beginning when I said we chase happiness to find contentment? Well, you might ask, how could Paul be happy in these circumstances, even if he knew they were having some positive results? Here’s the thing: Contentment isn’t actually about being happy with your circumstances. It’s about being focused on the God who doesn’t change.
My youth pastor gave a wonderful illustration of this. In a fun house he visited, one of the illusion rooms was set up to look like the entire room was doing barrel rolls, with only a small walkway through. If you let yourself look at the walls, you were constantly feeling the urge to duck and turn and stumble (and possibly lose your lunch). But the key to getting out was to fix your eyes on the light of the doorway, and walk straight ahead.
Friend, when all the world is spinning about you, fix your eyes on the God who doesn’t change. James 1:17 refers to God as the Father of lights, “with whom is no variableness, nor shadow of turning.” He is the Creator of the sun, moon, and stars…but He does not change as they do. He is the Author of the seasons…but He does not shift as they do.
Can I ask you something? Are you content with the plans God has for you? Not just His plans for the future, but your future. Not just His plans for your future, but for your present. Are you content with where He has you right now–with the circumstances He has you in today? Are you content with the things He is teaching you?
To be honest with you, lately I have not been content with my todays. I’ve gotten caught up in stress and frustration, and have asked God why it’s so hard for me to stay focused and make it through school and life in general. I’ve been discontent with the interruptions to my day and the facets of my life that prevent me from making things go the way I prefer. Sometimes, I even look at others’ lives and wish this aspect or that aspect of my life was more like theirs. I tend to wish my life was easier.
But God didn’t call me to live an easy life. He’s not interested in making my life smooth and painless. He’s interested in making me like Jesus.
We often quote Romans 8:28…but we forget verse 29.
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. – Romans 8:28-29
What was God’s predestined plan for us? What was the purpose for which we were called? That we “be conformed to the image of his Son.” The circumstances in our lives are there to teach us to be content.
Instead of fighting my circumstances the whole way, and complaining about them to anyone who will listen, I need to recognize that this is God’s plan for me. I must believe that He is using this for my good. And trusting Him allows me to be content, no matter what the circumstances may be.
I want to point out one last thing. Philippians 4:13 is another verse we often quote out of context. You know the one. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” The context is contentment. It is given as Paul’s secret of being content.
We can’t do this on our own. But the good news is, God never asked us to.
Trust Him. Really trust His plan. And you will find yourself able to be content, no matter the situations you find yourself in.