Contentment is not something we tend to give much thought unless we feel it in spades or are struggling to maintain it. When the world seems absolutely perfect all around you, it’s easy to sit back, sigh, and think on how content you are. When you feel you’ve lost everything and nothing is going your way, it’s all too simple to hang your head in despair and feel the weight of discontentment. Our awareness of contentment and how much of it we have exists in extremes.
I believe the reason for this is that we have unwittingly come to completely misunderstand what contentment stems from. Consider this, when we measure our contentment (especially if we manage to do it outside of the two extremes), we most often use what we have as our form of measurement. More of what we want or need equals more contentment. Less of what we want or need equals discontentment.
I’ve seen many Christians (myself included) struggle viciously with the concept of simply being content to the point of feeling like a failure. I should be content. We tell ourselves. I know God’s got this. I should be content, but I’m still just as miserable as before. Why can’t I just be content? The reason we can’t be clearly and truly content is because we have mixed it all up and believe contentment and comfort to be synonymous.
Contentment is not the same thing as comfort.
Paul, one of the most prolific biblical writers penned his work in the form of letters to the early church. One such letter we have in the book of Philippians. Paul speaks to many issues and topics within the church of Philippi, encouraging them to hold fast, challenging them where they are going astray, and instructing them how to resolve their differences. As the letter concludes, he turns to addressing the church’s concern for him, writing:
“How I praise the Lord that you are concerned about me again. I know you have always been concerned for me, but you didn’t have the chance to help me. Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have.” (Philippians 4:10-11)
This is not a flippant, spur-of-the-moment reflection on contentment. Paul wrote his letter to the Philippians while he was in prison. Prison isn’t an appealing thought by any means, but I can assure you that prison in the age of the Romans was particularly vile. I can hardly imagine the darkness, smells, fear, hunger, and uncertainty that surrounded him as he told his fellow believers that he knew how to be content. Here’s Paul, in a terrifying and vile place, and he’s just written that he’s content. What’s more, I believe him. Because there is no place quite like the end of yourself and your capabilities to teach you the true definition of a thing or two. Paul was truly content because he understood what contentment really is.
Contentment is not an expression of comfort. It’s not the result of having what you want or even what you need. It’s not everything being just how you like it. It’s not having enough. It’s certainly easier to be content under those circumstances, but it’s not impossible to be content when you have nothing either. Contentment is very often a result of comfort, but comfort is not a requirement for contentment. So what does contentment actually look like if it doesn’t look like comfort?
Contentment looks like hard work.
Contentment is actually an ongoing, time-consuming, active endeavor. It’s not a one-and-done attempt. You have to come back to it both constantly and consistently to keep it running. It’s registering that you don’t have certain things you either want or need and accepting that as the place you are right now. It’s learning to trust that God will provide where needed and understanding that you will be alright without the rest. It’s holding the line peacefully instead of swinging back and forth between opposite extremes. You don’t need to disavow a desire to be content. You only need to hold it with an open hand and maintain your faith however that desire is answered, whenever it is answered.
None of this is easy. None of this is remotely comfortable. The hard work of contentment is time-consuming and tiring, but you will be all the better for it.
And a note on hard work. In today’s world, we are constantly bombarded with the effortless life. Effortless is the target to hit. If you’re making it in life, everything about you seems together, polished, easy to maintain. The image is almost of a life that runs itself, leaving the person in it free to play and pursue whatever they want. The unfortunate result of this imagery (and it is deeply unfortunate) is that we come to believe if our life is filled with never-ending hard work and struggle we are somehow not making it.
Hard work does not mean you’re failing. In fact, more often it means just the opposite.
Your exhausting ongoing work to be content no matter your circumstances is a very God-honoring and worthwhile endeavor. It’s worth continuing even if it doesn’t look how you might have hoped. It’s worth continuing even if you feel too tired to keep it up. Because you were never working on it alone to begin with. In that same passage in Philippians, Paul rounds out his thought on contentment by saying:
“I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13)
With Christ in you, you are operating from the same level of capability as Paul was in prison. You are able to meet the hard work. You are able to be content despite all the odds and misfortune. You are up to this task.
Let’s find some joy,