I am an intensely independent person. I take pride in being able to solve my problems and the problems of others. As you might imagine, a common theme in my life is learning to trust God more than myself.
It’s easy to claim to be trusting God when things are going your way. However, the best indicator of your actual trust in God is seen in the way you respond to turmoil in your life, particularly when you’re unable to solve a troubling situation on your own.
Scripture calls us to trust God through both the peaks and valleys of our lives. Paul refers to this as contentment. As I was digging deeper into what it means to be content, I reread Philippians 4:11-12:
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.
Paul knows that the Philippians – and us, too – have the sinful problem of valuing created things more than God. We find our identity and purpose in the world, in our status, and in our possessions, rather than in God. We can become obsessed with chasing these things.
But that’s not the aspect of this passage I want to focus on today. I’m more concerned with how we achieve contentment.
The truth is, contentment does not come naturally. Paul learned it.
This means contentment is a virtue we must develop, a discipline we should all be striving for. The idea of contentment being something we work at combats the other extreme at the opposite end of the spectrum from obsession – complacency. How do we find balance between complacency and obsession?
Speaking to this question, Hugh Whelchel writes,
But if we pursue excellence as God’s servants, how are we supposed to be “content in any and every situation? Is it possible to achieve that balance between making our jobs into idols and becoming lazy?
Then Whelchel prescribes,
Paul’s secret is that he is always striving to do what God has called him to do. At the end of the day, he has done everything he could to be faithful to God’s call on his life…. There is no complacency in Paul’s contentment, and neither should there be in ours.
This gets at a prescription, but how do we know when we’ve achieved contentment over complacency?
Erik Raymond answers this question pretty well in a recent article for the Gospel Coalition. In summing up Thomas Watson’s classic book The Art of Divine Contentment, Raymond outlines five characteristics of a contented spirit. Hopefully these points will provoke your own thinking about contentment as you wrestle with your station in life and work.
A Contented Spirit Is a Silent Spirit
“With reference to God, the one who is content is not complaining against God, he does not grumble and murmur…. Remember well the distinction between complaining to God and complaining about God. When we complain to God we are bringing our problems and vices and crying out to God for wisdom, grace, and help. When we are complaining about God we are attacking his character…. Silence is a reflection of peaceful trust – even amid circumstances that are difficult to understand. While anger, grumbling and complaining represent inner turmoil and a lack of trust in God.”
A Contented Spirit Is a Cheerful Spirit
“Contentment is more than patience (though it is not less). It involves a cheerfulness of the soul…. Could you be accused of being cheerful, even amid difficulty?”
A Contented Spirit Is a Thankful Spirit
“Anyone can thank God for prosperity but the contented person blesses him when afflicted (2 Cor. 6:10; Phil. 4:9-11). The discontented heart is ever complaining of their condition but the contented spirit is always thanking God for it.”
A Contented Spirit Is Not Bound by Circumstances
“Because contentment works from the inside out it is shielded from the ever changing circumstances outside of us. Remember Paul himself said that his contentment was seen ‘in any and every circumstance’ (Phil. 4:12).”
A Contented Spirit Will Not Avoid Trouble by Means of Sin
“Resting in God’s providence does not mean that we stand still. Contentment does not mean complacency. However, when we have something we [sic] to pursue, but God has not made it available, a contented spirit does not rush ahead anyway. A discontented spirit will not wait. If God does not open the door of his providence, ‘they will break it open and wind themselves out of affliction by sin; bringing their souls into trouble; this is far from holy contentment, this is unbelief broken into rebellion.’ Contentment would rather wait upon God than sin against God.”
In the New Testament, the Greek word for contentment (autarkeia) translates to “a perfect condition of life.” Contentment is not promised to come easy to us, but what a wonderful description of the result that’s in store for us.