Looking ahead to 2020, my greatest desire was to strive toward contentment in all things. Though positive, I recently found that my desire was misplaced. This is in light of discovering the biblical truth that contentment cannot be found apart from Jesus. To take a lesson from Scottish theologian Dr Sinclair Ferguson, if we seek contentment then we will never find it. This is because we do not find contentment in the pursuit contentment itself. Rather, it is found in Christ who brings us unspeakable joy and satisfaction.
Contentment is not our natural tendency
An appropriate starting point is this: contentment is not the natural tendency of man. In our natural, unregenerate, fallen state, we do not seek after God (Romans 3:11). We must firstly be born again by water and the Spirit of the Living God (John 3:1-8). Upon this occurrence, God gives us a new heart, a new nature that gradually desires God more and more by the work of His Spirit. This is promised in the prophecy concerning the New Covenant in Ezekiel 36:24-28.
Once justified (declared righteous before God by the blood of Jesus), we are sanctified (made positionally holy, set apart unto God.) Sanctification is the progressive work of God in our lives that makes us more and more free from sin and like Christ in our actual lives (see 2 Corinthians 3:18 and 2 Peter 3:18). With this being a progressive work, the flesh, and the Spirit constantly at war within us, affirming contentment is not our natural tendency.
Consequently, we may become swept up in what ethicists and social commentators call ‘Affluenza’. This is the notion that as affluence and consumerism in the Western world becomes exacerbated, so does the desire to want more. Tim Challies writes:
‘Many of us have discovered that as our wealth and our possessions multiply, so too does our discontentment… There is an inverse relationship between how much we have and how much we are convinced we need to be content.’ Tim Challies
This was illustrated in Genesis 3. Although God supplied Adam and Eve with all they needed (Genesis 1:29-30), they were mistaken in believing that they required more to be satisfied. They had great abundance, yet still felt empty. This points toward the truth which Saint Aurelius Augustine of Hippo asserted in his classical work ‘Confessions’:
‘Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.’ St. Augustine of Hippo
Our hearts are made for God. The human heart longs to worship someone/something; God, money, self, etc. Ignorance of this reality and seeking the utmost satisfaction outside of God denies one the possibility of becoming fully content.
This goes to the heart of the gospel: ‘the God who made us has come to redeem us and remake us, being our access route to our contentment, pleasure and satisfaction for which we were created.’ Dr Sinclair Ferguson
Contentment must be cultivated
In Philippians 4:11, Paul writes ‘I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.’ (NIV). The gravity of this statement can only be understood in the context of his ministry. Paul penned his letter to the Philippian church while imprisoned in Rome. He was held captive for relentlessly sharing the gospel much to the rage of the Jews and the Roman authorities. Paul’s life spoke volumes of the chastening experienced as contentment is cultivated.
At Corinth, there was an emergence of false teachers who were rapidly gaining popularity. Paul details his credentials which set him apart from these ‘super-apostles’, this being: countless imprisonments and beatings to the point of near-death. Innumerable floggings, shipwrecks, dangers of all kinds, not to mention the pressures of overseeing and disciplining the churches he founded. (2 Corinthians 11:23-28).
Saul of Tarsus was a prolific persecutor of Christians and a wealthy Jew. This starkly contrasted his latter days where he was sustained by God’s provision and the gracious donations from the churches he founded (Philippians 4:10). Paul had experienced life at both ends of the spectrum. Having known what it meant to be both in need and having plenty, he had learned the secret to contentment (Philippians 4:12). Contentment is not circumstantial. He was a faithful steward with whatever he had, learning to submit in the will and good pleasure of God.
Contentment is cultivated by the spirit of rejoicing
In Acts 5, the apostles were arrested in response to the attention they drew to themselves as they shared the gospel and performed many signs and wonders. Upon their release, they were ordered to cease from speaking in the name of Jesus (see Acts 5:17-40). Verse 41 reads:
‘The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering for the Name.’ Acts 5:41
The Jewish council flogged the apostles and warned them to never speak of the name of Jesus again, yet they rejoiced in their suffering, taking joy in what they viewed the highest honour of all. The key here is that they rejoiced in the LORD. Our rejoicing is not in the circumstance nor our own ability, but in God.
‘You train yourself to be joyful, by trusting in the provision of the Lord and staying in the place of obedience.’ John MacArthur
In the Pauline epistles, the apostle encourages the churches to do exactly this. In 1 Thessalonians 5, Paul exhorted God’s people to rejoice, ceaselessly pray and give thanks in all circumstances.’ (v.16-18a). This was not written at a time of great celebration. Timothy had reported to Paul on the unexpected deaths which plagued the church. Nevertheless, Paul told the church to delight in God’s good pleasure; to live in peace with one another (v.12-15) and rejoice always because ‘this is God’s will for you in Christ.’ (1 Thessalonians 5:18b). See also Philippians 4:4-8.
Contentment is taking satisfaction in the loving-kindness of God
In Psalm 36, David speaks of the contrasts between wicked man and righteous God, thanking Him for his goodness toward His people. Psalm 36:7-9 reads:
‘How precious is Your lovingkindness, O God!
Therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of Your wings.
They are abundantly satisfied with the fullness of Your house,
And You give them drink from the river of Your pleasures.
For with You is the fountain of life;
In Your light we see light.’ Psalm 36:7-9
God’s ‘loving-kindness’ encompasses his grace, mercy and love. David saw the merciful God as a place of rest and refuge for His people. The Psalmist makes known that God cares for and protects those who trust in Him as a gracious and honourable host would for anyone in his house. The fullness of God’s house is enough to satisfy anyone, offering a virtual ‘river of…pleasures’ in Him. Here is a picture of contentment which is echoed in Psalm 23. With God as his Shepherd, the Psalmist had everything he required (Psalm 23:1).
So how did Paul learn to be content whatever the circumstances? The key is Philippians 4:13: ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ (NKJV) (Philippians 4:13).
The fullness of God’s loving-kindness is in Christ Jesus. Therefore, it is in He alone that we receive the capability to cultivate contentment and it is in He alone that contentment is found.