As I write, it’s early December. In view is our beautifully decorated Christmas tree, stockings hanging from the mantle above the fireplace, kids snuggling with mom on the couch, and my first run at a new playlist for our annual Christmas Eve brunch playing on the iPod. Could it get any better?
Of course it could! This is America, right? It can always be better.
Therein lies a fundamental problem with the human heart. We are almost never satisfied. Though we all long for it, contentment seems to rest just outside our grasp.
The apostle Paul wrote about contentment in his correspondence with the Philippian church.
“I don’t say this out of need, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know both how to have a little, and I know how to have a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content—whether well-fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13).
I don’t know if you caught it, but Paul made an astounding claim in these verses. He said he learned the “secret” to contentment. And Paul didn’t just write fine Christian poetry or Hallmark cards. Paul wrote this letter, which is all about joy and contentment, while in prison! A dirty, dark, cold, damp, lonely, first-century prison. When a guy in that situation writes about being content in his circumstances, we would do well to listen up.
Of note in this passage are a couple of things. First, Paul said that contentment is a secret. What is a secret? First, a secret is that which is not immediately obvious. Second, a secret is something we want to know. So, Paul said essentially, we all want contentment, but it’s not something we easily understand or experience.
Now this begs the question: Why is it so hard to be content? I think part of the problem is that most of us don’t think of contentment as a secret. While few of us would say we are content, almost all of us think we know what would get us closer to contentment. “If I just had the right job,” or “A little more money would do the trick,” or “A different e-reader would make life so much easier.” And yet, even when we get these things, we rarely stay satisfied for long. Paul indicated that there must be something more.
After meditating on Paul’s words as well as my own experience, God has consistently shown me three things that help me get closer to spiritual maturity and contentment.
1. Learn the value of what you have.
My kids love cupcakes. More accurately, my kids love icing. In fact, they generally don’t even eat the cake, opting instead to scrape off the icing with their teeth and leave the “thing that holds the icing” for the trash. They love icing. But if all they ever ate was the icing—icing for breakfast, icing for lunch, an afternoon snack of icing, icing for dinner, and maybe a nightcap of icing—they wouldn’t be very healthy kids.
The lesson here is that we have to see that our possessions are just icing on the cake. Our stuff isn’t everything and can’t provide ultimate satisfaction. Stuff was never designed to be everything to us. Only God can fill that role. If we look to stuff to lead us to contentment we will never get there.
2. Learn to see the wanting for what it is.
Our country recently celebrated Thanksgiving. On that Thursday, we shared how grateful we are for the things and people God has placed in our lives. Then on Friday—”Black Friday”—we rushed to the stores to grab up all the things we don’t have at “never-before-seen” low prices. In a matter of hours we went from feeling satisfied to fighting the pangs of want.
If your ambition in life is to satisfy your wants instead of resting in what God has given you in Christ, then you will never experience true contentment.
3. Learn that Jesus really is enough.
Paul closed the passage in verse 13 by stating that he is able to face anything because Christ is the source of his strength. Paul said loud and clear, Jesus really is enough. But how can we be so sure?
First, Jesus provides for us the thing we could never provide for ourselves. In His sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection, Jesus provided us the right to stand before God. This is no small accomplishment for our benefit.
Secondly, Jesus provides protection for us against the temptation to look for contentment in our stuff. When we trust that Christ’s goodness is enough to make us right with God, then when the enemy dangles before us the trinkets of this world, we can look him in the eye and say, “You have no place here. Christ died so that I can live with or without mere stuff.”
Paul learned that contentment is found not in the absence of wants and needs, but in the active and abiding presence of the Lord. The riches that are ours in Christ Jesus—peace with God, a clean conscience, a purpose in life, a beautiful picture of our future—are more than enough to satisfy us.