I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. (
Last year’s preaching through the book of Acts and this summer’s travels through Turkey and Greece have given me a heightened appreciation for the Apostle Paul. In particular, I am awed and challenged by his magnificent statement written toward the end of his life from a prison cell in Rome.
So many Christians are not contented. They look longingly to the past. They look yearningly toward the future. They are unhappy in the now. Are you one of them? I know people who are constantly trying to anticipate what will happen to them in the future. In the process, they miss out on life’s great possibilities of the present; they become dissatisfied.
Walter Kerr, in his book titled The Decline of Pleasure, analyzed the discontentment of our age. He pierced through the superficiality of much we do. He noted that the very things that we do that should be pleasurable for us are void of joy. Why? Because they are being used as a means to an end. We do not treat them as enjoyable in and of themselves. He wrote, “We are all of us compelled to read for profit, party for contacts, lunch for contracts, bowl for unity, drive for mileage, gamble for charity, go out for the evening for the greater glory of municipality, and stay home for the weekend to rebuild the house.”
I, myself, at times have fallen subject to this mentality. I remember some years ago when one of my young colleagues, then minister of youth, had the temerity to say, “John, why don’t you just stop and enjoy life. Everything you do is utilitarian. You run for conditioning and to maintain your weight. You read so as to have more sermon material. You even play golf for the associations and contacts they provide for ministry. Why don’t you just relax a bit and enjoy all these things without having some other ulterior end in mind?”
I’ve had to work on this. Perhaps you do, too.
What a rat race life can become. Sadly enough, many of us Christians are caught up in this same restlessness. We, too, become discontented.
This is not the way life has to be. If your Christian faith is functional, you can be a contented person right here and now. You don’t have to live in yesterday. You don’t have to restlessly look forward to the future. You will never be more alive than you are right now! Let’s take advantage of the moment.
Are you really trying to get ahead of God or are you prepared to live life to the fullest in the now? What we’re really talking about is contentment.
Let me share with you four biblical assertions about contentment and conclude by addressing you with a penetrating question.
Assertion one: Contentment is a kind of internal God/self-sufficiency.
Contentment is not based on the outward circumstances of life. Take the Apostle Paul. He is a good example. He was financially insolvent. He had just received a gift from the church at Philippi. He writes back expressing his appreciation for their money. He puts it in these words, “I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it” (Phil. 4:10). Then he pauses, thinks a moment, and continues writing his letter. This time he shares words of caution. He writes: “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (
As much as he appreciated his material possessions, he wanted to make it clear that he was financially “riding loose in the saddle.” He is saying that there is a contentment which goes beyond financial security. There is an internal quality, a serenity which you and I can have. It goes beyond outward circumstances. One can be up or down in finances, romance, health, friendships, and still have the stabilizing influence of a contented outlook, an internal sufficiency.
External security is not for a moment synonymous with contentment. Dr. Richard C Halverson was one of my dear friends. He was pastor of the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. while at the same time working with men and women in government. In his last years, he served so graciously as the chaplain of the United States Senate. Dick Halverson was also known for his weekly devotional letter for businessmen titled Perspective.
In one issue of Perspective, he wrote precisely what I’m trying to get across. He noted that outward circumstances cannot bring the peace for which we yearn. He illustrated this by the case of the “lifer,” a man or woman in prison serving a life term for a very serious crime such as murder. This person has security. Every day his food is provided. He’s given clothing. He has a roof over his head. He has protection from the fluctuations of life which threaten the average person. You and I don’t have these same securities. We have to work for our living. The prisoner is free from these pressures. You and I are not free. We have to find food, clothing, housing. We have to come up with money, earned the hard way, to pay for our life’s essentials.
Let me ask you a question. Wouldn’t it be nice to go to jail and not have to worry about getting a square meal? You don’t have to pay rent when you are in prison. The prisoner has a guaranteed future with minimum risk. No, you wouldn’t trade your lifestyle for his, would you?
Contentment is not a state of life in which you are propped up by artificial protections. It is not a security which assures that you will not be buffeted by ups and downs. Contentment is that inner sense of self-sufficiency which says, “No matter what comes along, I have the capacity to meet it head-on. Whether it be joy or sorrow, sickness or health, plenty or want, I will continue on. I have all the resources I need. I will carry on with an internal fullness of life.”
Assertion two: Contentment is something which is learned.
It does not happen overnight. Paul says, “…for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (
One translation of these words from the Greek would be, “I have found the secret of life.” Another could say, “I have been initiated through the experience of life to know how to be content.”
This is Paul, the veteran, speaking. This man has been around. He says, “I can bear any extreme. I can get good out of the ups and downs of life. When I have a hungry stomach, I learn what it feels like to be without food. Through this, there comes a new discipline of body and mind. When I have a full stomach, I realize how much I have for which to be thankful. Every circumstance has its lesson to teach. When I look back over life, I see that somehow I have been brought through this all. I have learned much. I have much for which to be grateful.”
If you are living a life which is not content, you need to learn greater lessons in the schoolhouse of faith. Look to the past. Has God ever let you down? Has He, really let you down? You’ve had your difficult times. You’ve had your heartbreaks. You’re still living with some of them. Has He ever really left you wanting? Has God neglected you when the chips were down? Survey the history of your Christian commitment. I think you’ll be amazed to see that somehow, at every point of crisis, God has stood by you. As you put your trust in Him, you’ve sensed His power. He’s not neglected you. He’s brought you through. He’s brought you through, not somehow but triumphantly!
God never promises you an easy life. Jesus said that in this world you and I will have trouble. Perhaps right now your life is being torn apart by problems so enormous you don’t know how to handle them. On the basis of His past performance, you can have the confidence of His presence now. He knows what He’s doing. Yours can be a contentment of life, right now, as you have learned from His past gracious dealings with you.
By now you’re probably saying, “Well, you’re talking about a fatalistic approach to life.”
Assertion three: Contentment is not fatalism!
Contentment is not only a state of mind over matter. There is that element of thought conditioning — positive thinking — which produces an affirmative lifestyle. Some people have derived quite a bit of contentment through their own efforts. They are living a placid life brought about by their own self-sufficient resources.
The Apostle Paul knew these people. They were called the Stoics. A Stoic was a person who believed that contentment did not consist of the possession of many things. Instead, contentment came from wanting little. If you minimize your desires you can increase your contentment. “If you want to make a man happy, add not to his possessions but take away from his desire.” Socrates was once asked who was the wealthiest man in the world. He answered, “He who is content with least, for self-sufficiency is nature’s wealth.”
The Stoic believed that the only way to contentment was through abolishing all personal desire until you came to a stage of life in which nothing or no one was essential. The Stoic proposed to eliminate all emotion until he came to a point where he did not care what happened either to himself or to anyone else. If he went on long enough, if he tried hard enough, he could even watch his nearest and dearest suffer and die, saying, “I don’t care.” His aim was to abolish every feeling, every emotion of the human heart.
This was particularly accomplished by a deliberate act of the will which saw everything which happened as the will of God. This is fatalism. The Stoic believed, literally, that nothing could happen to him or anyone else which was not the will of God. However painful it might be, however disastrous it might seem, it was God’s will. Therefore, it was useless to struggle against it. A man must will himself and steel himself to the acceptance of everything.
Tom Wolfe, in his best selling novel of this past year titled A Man in Full, gives a most eloquent, contemporary description of a Stoic, a person for whom almost everything in life was unfair and went wrong. But this person was able to live with it with a degree of acceptance. He did it by simply not expecting anything more from life than he was given. And he sucked it up and accepted the bad along with the good. The Stoic does live a calm existence. He or she is able to face just about anything that comes their way. Some Presbyterians are inclined toward this lifestyle. They are so convinced of the predestination of God that they assume that He wills everything that happens.
I don’t believe that. I don’t believe the Bible teaches that. The Bible teaches that God is sovereign. The Bible teaches that God can do anything He chooses. He can even create you free to do His will or to disobey Him. Therefore, you and I can rebel against Him. We can go our own way. We can bring horrendous suffering upon ourselves and others. In His sovereignty, He allows us to rebel.
Fatalism is not the essence of real contentment. This fatalism will only make a desert out of your soul. God has planted in you not only the capacity to sit back and accept everything that comes along. He’s given you a healthy discontent. The capacity to fight back when difficulties come is a gift He’s given to you. You are given by Him the ability to protect those you love the most, to build a healthy, constructive life. Contentment is not just passive, stoic fatalism!
Assertion four: True contentment is founded on a relationship with God in the person of Jesus Christ.
The fatalism of the Stoic differs from the contentment of a Christian. Contentment is a divine gift instead of a human achievement. Contentment is God’s sufficiency instead of self-sufficiency. Paul wrote, “for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” He doesn’t leave it, though, in those stoic terms. He goes on to say, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” The KJV puts it even more succinctly: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”
There is a source of strength outside yourself which breeds your sufficiency. Both the Christian and the nonbeliever will have their ups and downs. The godless life has weakness at its heart. You and Christ together are always a majority!
True contentment is the capacity to live in the present while engaged in a warfare about that with which you should be discontented. God wants you to live a realistic life in the here and the now. This life is to be based on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This, in essence, is risky living. Jesus calls you to expendability.
Management consultant Peter Drucker describes four kinds of risks. One kind of risk is the risk you simply must take. You have no other option. A second kind of risk is one you can afford to take. You calculated the cost, and it’s worth it. A third kind of risk is a risk you cannot afford to take. The results would be too disastrous. And fourth is a risk you cannot afford not to take.
Lloyd Ogilvie describes Paul in terms of this fourth category. His biography could be entitled “Risky Christianity.” Paul was willing to risk his safety sacrifice his comfort, for the sake of Jesus Christ. No cost was too great to hold him back from his evangelistic efforts. He was a man in Christ. Paul saw the risk of Christian living as being one he could not afford not to take. He had to do it!
In the process, Paul uncovered an exciting principle: you and I are not really free persons until we are willing to lose everything. There is no true contentment until you have been set free from the bondage of your possessions, your status, your reputation, your goals. Jesus Christ became of no reputation for you. In the process, He was free to purchase your salvation. Now He sets you free to high-risk living, which doesn’t depend on artificial props.
Paul talked about suffering loss. He learned how to handle needs. Then, on the other hand, he swung right back, knowing how to live with more than enough. That’s another risk. Sometimes success is harder to handle than is difficulty. That’s what’s hard about being wealthy. Or famous. Or popular. Or extremely handsome or beautiful. Those commodities can go to your head. You are always fearful of losing them. That’s what destroys contentment. In fact, I think you’ll find that more people are discontent who have a lot, more than those who have little. The discontentment emerges from fear — the fear of losing what you have.
Some of us Christians are just plain restless. We spend much of our lives looking back to days which we remember as being more pleasant than the present. I think if we actually went back to them we would be dissatisfied. Some of us also live continually anticipating the future. We would give anything for the future to come. We are busy trying to get ahead of God. When discontented with the present and anxious about the future, remember your life is in Christ. He strengthens you. He unfolds His plan for your life, independent of your immediate circumstances.
So here comes the big question. I put it to you at the beginning. I put it to you once again in conclusion: Are you really trying to get ahead of God? Are you trying to settle plans for the future you can’t settle now? Plans for a marriage? Plans for a career? Plans for economic success? Plans for unlimited health? Plans for retirement? Trust God. That’s what the Christian faith is all about.
One of the most godly men I ever met was Dr. V. Raymond Edman, who was the president of Wheaton College during my university days. I’ll never forget the four occasions when he addressed our student body in chapel with this illustration. He gave this message once a year. He said, “Many of you college men and women are restless. You’re filled with anxiety about the future. You’re trying to make your decisions about next semester. Or next summer. Or next year. This anxiety about the future is only destroying your present.”
I listened hard. That’s the way I was. I was always planning the future and/or fretting about the future.
Edman went on to say, “God has given you a job. That job is to be carried out in the present, not the future. Nothing you ever do will be done in the future. It will always be done in the present.”
Then he pulled out of his pocket a rectangular object, usually a card or an envelope. He said, “See this card? It has four sides to it. Remember how you started this semester full of enthusiasm? You had a job to do. You started at the lefthand side of this card with that fresh, new year ahead of you Now you’re a quarter or half along. You’re bored. Your initial enthusiasm has worn off. You’re tired of reading books and writing papers. It’s more fun to fantasize about the future. You sit in the library daydreaming about what you’re going to do next summer. You’re busy asking God for His guidance for the future. You’re trying to round the corner at the right side of the card to see what God has in store for next summer or next year. My young friends, you can’t round the corner until you get to it. The life of faith is living life to the fullest in the present, believing that when you come to the end of the course that God has set out for you, He will turn the card, opening up the new task which awaits you in the future.”
Are you discontent, trying to get ahead of God? Are you dissatisfied with life in the present tense? Live your life now, in faith! Don’t allow yourself to get ahead of God. Contentment is not being stuck in the past. Contentment is not getting ahead of God. Contentment is a life of trust, in the present, in which the Holy Spirit enables you and me to say, “For I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”
I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. (