A Cure for the Discontented
What defines and gives meaning to your life? What is the basis for joy in your life? How you view the God of the Bible, yourself, and the world around you will impact every aspect of your life. One area that is particularly affected by the answers to the questions above is your level of contentment. We may attempt to measure our level of contentment by assessing our satisfaction with our current situation and circumstances. The most common example, especially for Americans, would be our economic circumstances. Our vocation, level of income, amount of material things, size of house, array of toys, etc. are many times seen as the measuring stick for our contentment. We can also determine our level of contentment by our status in different areas of life. Our place in society, role as an employee, or even our relationships with others can cause us to be discontented. Maybe you are single and long to be married, or you are in a marriage that is not what you dreamed it would be. Even one's church situation can contribute to this feeling of discontentment. One modern writer says it this way, “Contentment means to be happy with what you have, who you are, and where you are.” In the technology-saturated culture we live in today, this problem has been multiplied by the sharing of “ideal” lives portrayed on social media platforms. People rarely share the unfiltered truth of their lives online, but instead put only the best foot forward. This leads many to envy, but their envy is based on an ideal that is not even real.
Comparing our lives to what we perceive as the better lives of others can quickly lead to the sin of discontentment. There are many problems with viewing contentment in this way, as we will see when we look at the Biblical view of what it means to be content. The way the world views this topic is very different from the Biblical concept of contentment. Paul wrote in Philippians 4:11-13: “Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” Paul has been building a foundational principle throughout the book of Philippians that results in this very practical application of that foundational principle to the subject of contentment. Before making these connections, let’s first look at our text in Philippians 4:11-13.
A Biblical View of Contentment
The first thing we should notice is that Paul says that contentment doesn’t come naturally, but instead is something that he has learned. He says in verse 11 that he has learned, and in verse 12 that he was instructed. In between those two statements he gives us a summary of those lessons. However, the lesson Paul is laying out for us cannot be truly embraced apart from a work of grace in the life of the student. Contentment is a grace that we continue to grow in through experience and a deepening of our faith in God. There is a clear connection between the knowledge that Paul describes in this text, and faith. The working of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer, as he experiences both abounding and need, will grow this grace of contentment. As our faith matures, we begin to embrace the assurance and trust in Christ we see in the apostle Paul as he says in verse 13, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” We must learn not only to be abased, be hungry and suffer need, but also to abound and be full!
We often think of contentment only being a problem when our circumstances are negative, and we want or need something that we do not possess. However, there are many rich, popular and important men and women in the world who are not content. Paul says he had to learn contentment in all circumstances, and be instructed both to be full and to be hungry. These lessons do not take place on the neutral ground of a quiet classroom. We are taught by the Spirit of God through experience forged in the midst of battle in a fallen world. That world views our satisfaction in Christ as weakness and our faith as foolishness. The Holy Spirit must strengthen us and teach us to be content in every circumstance of life.
Second, we observe that the grace of contentment is not determined by our circumstances. Abounding or abased, full or hungry, in “whatsoever state I am,” Paul says he has learned to be content. The world apart from the grace of God does not understand contentment in this way. The world’s view of contentment is based on external circumstances and the present situation. In this view, contentment is possible because life is going our way at the moment. We have the money and things we need, have a good job, love our spouse and family, and enjoy a good church situation. The problem with this understanding is that it is based on circumstances and external factors that will certainly ebb and flow throughout our lives. Contrary to the opinions of some popular preachers today, following Christ doesn’t guarantee that your days of trials and tribulations are past. Paul is writing these words from prison, and yet he can write, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” As the words of the old hymn say, “God has not promised skies always blue, flower strewn pathways all our lives through; God has not promised sun without rain, peace without sorrow, joy without pain.”
The Biblical view of contentment brings a steadiness to the child of God because it is anchored in the eternal, not the uncertain circumstances of this life. Paul’s present circumstance, sitting in a prison cell, would not warrant strong feelings of contentment from the world’s perspective. This view of contentment doesn’t mean I am forbidden from trying to better myself, my circumstances, or current situation. It also should never be over-simplified to tell those struggling with contentment in their life to simply “have more faith.” Sometimes, a child of God may experience a difficult struggle with daily assurance in these areas. However, Paul is teaching us in this text that Christian contentment is based on something more than our circumstances and our current lot in life. How can we be content if it is not determined by our circumstances?
Third, Paul shows us that instead of our circumstances determining our contentment, it is faith in Christ that determines our ability to be content in any circumstance. Paul begins laying this foundation in Philippians 1:20-21. “According to my earnest expectation and my hope, that in nothing I shall be ashamed, but that with all boldness, as always, so now also Christ shall be magnified in my body, whether it be by life, or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Regardless of his circumstance, even to the point of life and death, Paul says Christ shall be magnified in his body. Then in Philippians 3:7-8 we read, “But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ.” Paul lists many things that would, from a worldly perspective, bring contentment, then says all of those things are nothing and should be discarded to win Christ!
If we were to consider Philippians chapter 3 as the balance sheet for Paul’s life, he takes what would be considered all his profit and reckons it as loss. The only entry on the profit side of the page is Christ. Now in our text he is applying this concept directly to his personal contentment. When we see Christ through faith, and value him above all else, our circumstances no longer determine our contentment! Discontentment is just the result of allowing temporal things and concerns to blur our view of the true treasure, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The human heart cannot be satisfied with what this world has to offer, because it will always want more. However, for the believer, we find in Christ all our hearts could ever desire. He alone is worthy to bring a contentment that shines through even the darkest night of earthly circumstances. Our challenge is to refocus our eyes from the circumstances of the moment to the God who declares the end from the beginning.
Practically Growing in Contentment
How can we guard against discontentment, and what are some practical steps we can take to learn contentment? While there is certainly no guaranteed formula for a contented life, there are some very practical suggestions from the Scriptures that will help us to continue learning to be content. The cure for the discontented centers on returning our focus to the Lord and away from our own perceived problems and desires. These four practical helps are all centered on God Himself, and will help to lead our hearts and minds toward contentment in the Lord. They are: rejoice in the Lord; count your blessings; filter your thinking; prayer.
Our first reminder is to rejoice in the Lord. Just above our text in Philippians 4 Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord alway, and again I say, rejoice.” It is easy to forget due to the busyness of life and tyranny of the urgent, to take time to remember our joy in the Lord. Worship can lead our minds back into right thinking and away from the very things causing our discontentment. Spend time alone and with others beholding the beauty of the Lord in worship.
Second, it is also important for us to count our blessings and give thanks. Contentment and thanksgiving are closely related. The discontented heart is saying that what I have is not enough or not what I desire. We need to take time to remember all that God has done for us, and thank Him for it. Psalm 103:2 says, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits.” In Psalm 107:1 we read, “O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.” Counting our blessings and giving thanks to God will refocus our minds to right thinking about our current reality and also remind us of His goodness.
Third, filtering our thinking through the precepts and principles of Scripture will help us guard against discontentment. Many times our feelings of discontentment are rooted in worldly thinking and humanistic philosophy. We can guard against this by reaffirming what we know to be true as believers in the word of God. Knowing what the Bible says about God, about yourself, and about the world in which we live can change our perspective and bring true contentment.
Fourth, prayer is also an important weapon for every believer battling discontentment. Talk to God and unload the desires of your heart before Him. Acknowledge your discontentment, and ask the Lord to remove the things you desire that are not in line with His will and purpose for you. There will likely be times when even the idea of mentioning something before the Lord in prayer will be enough to change our minds about its importance in our life! Also, pray for the knowledge of God’s will for your life. Ask Him to guide you as you seek His will. Paul prayed this for the believers in Colosse. In Colossians 1:9 Paul prays, “For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding.” Paul prays that they will be filled with the knowledge of His will. Discontentment arises when our will has pulled away from the will of God for our life. The answer to this problem is for our will to be pulled back into line with the will of God. We must pray as Jesus did in Gethsemane. “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39). When we are filled with the knowledge of the will of God for us, it will bring peace and contentment that the unbelieving world can never understand.
I want to close with a quote from an old hymn that gives perspective to our lives here in this world, and the wonderful reality of salvation and an eternity spent in the presence of the Lord. “O what are all my sufferings here if Lord thou count me meet, with that enraptured host appear and worship at thy feet.” May our lives be defined by faith in Christ, and our joy based in knowing Him. A Christ-centered life is the cure for the discontented and produces a steadfast joy that endures through all the circumstances of life.
Andy Carter is an elder at Providence Primitive Baptist Church, Falkner, MS.