June 1, 2007

On Being Content

a state of mind in which one's desires are confined to his lot whatever it may be (1 Tim. 6:6; 2 Cor. 9:8). It is opposed to envy (James 3:16), avarice (Heb. 13:5), ambition (Prov. 13:10), anxiety (Matt. 6:25, 34), and repining (1 Cor. 10:10). It arises from the inward disposition, and is the offspring of humility, and of an intelligent consideration of the rectitude and benignity of divine providence (Ps. 96:1, 2; 145), the greatness of the divine promises (2 Pet. 1:4), and our own unworthiness (Gen. 32:10); as well as from the view the gospel opens up to us of rest and peace hereafter (Rom. 5:2). ~Easton's 1897 Bible Dictionary

I have been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be content, to be happy in life, regardless of one's circumstances. It is a difficult concept to grasp given the daily dose of tragedy we see around us (and then repeated ad nauseum on television). It is hard to wonder how the Apostle Paul was able to say that he was content, even when he was beaten and thrown into prison, cast out and living in want. He remarked that after much time of trials and temptations, he was finally able to say that he was "content" no matter the circumstance. Whether in plenty or in want, he was happy. He knew the personal Lord and experienced the "peace that passes all understanding." He knew his place and the direction of his life. He knew his beginning and his end and found peace in the midst of the daily drudgery.

"I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:11-13).

I am in awe of him and I think that I will never learn how to be a peace, to have ease of mind, to be satisfied with my lot in life.

As I reflect on my own inadequacies, I do wonder when will I learn this wonderful thing. I believe God's word and I know what the Bible does promises us in regard to peace and contentment. I know that I can experience peace, joy, love, contentment...all these things now just as certainly as I will one day on the other side. I think, "Oh Lord, how discontented I am." I have everything to be happy about, everything to enjoy, I have blessings abundant, but yet I am still discontented in my heart.

Donald Whitney wrote the following in his book entitled, "Spiritual Disciplines for Christian Life:"

Contentment is a great simplifier. It helps focus body and soul on the proper priorities. It calms the restless desire for more. It satisfies the heart with the present provision of God. It deflates pride, drains the drive of selfish ambition, and relaxes the grip of anxiety. Contentment decreases our dependence upon things and circumstances, and increases a restful dependence upon Christ.

The apostle Paul spoke of developing contentment in his own experience when he said, "I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:11-13).

Notice that Paul speaks of contentment as something to be learned. One way that we, like Paul, can learn contentment is to recognize the true value of things. To do this, we can learn when we are "full" and we "abound" in material things why the abundance of them cannot content us. Unlike our souls, touchable things will not last. What's more, God never designed tangible and temporal things to satisfy the intangible and eternal part of us. Material things cannot make us right with God, nor provide any benefit extending into our eternity. How can we find contentment in things so temporary and inconsequential?

At the opposite extreme, recognizing the true value of things also teaches contentment when, like Paul, we are "hungry" and "suffer need." This is no superficial, untested contentment Paul experienced. His suffering and needs were real and prolonged, yet he was genuinely content. He could even be content when forced to go hungry. And don't confuse such contentment with apathy or laziness, for elsewhere the apostle reminds his readers how he worked whenever possible to meet his own physical needs (1 Thessalonians 2:9; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-8). What Paul models and advocates is a circumstance-conquering contentment that does not depend on how much there is to eat, spend, wear, count, collect, or touch.

When a person can be content "everywhere and in all things," whether full or hungry, abounding or suffering need, he knows a source of contentment beyond anything the world can provide or understand. True contentment in all places and circumstances is found only, as Paul put it, "through Christ who strengthens me." Only Jesus could have given Paul the contentment to sing at midnight in a filthy, rat-infested prison, with his feet in stocks and his back mercilessly and illegally bloodied (see Acts 16:25). Christ, and Christ alone, can strengthen our souls to be content in any and all situations. But this contentment doesn't come unawares. We must be willing to learn it, and to learn it through Christ.

Today I have decided to put my contentment to the test and to see if I can really live out what I believe. I believe the Lord is willing to help me learn how to be at ease, but He is not going to paint "peace be on you" and leave it at that. No mere white washing will work. I must learn this the way I learn everything else in life. I must walk through it and experience it fully. Today, I am afflicted and sorely tried and tested. My contentment must come from Him and Him alone. I cannot find rest or peace or freedom in anything or anyone, save the Lord Jesus himself.

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