On Contentment

I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 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.

— Philippians 4:10-12

  1. Contentment can be ours in poverty or abundance (4:12). Contentment is a state of being, not necessarily the result of our needs being met. Those with need learn trust and patience; those with wealth learn humility and dependence. Paul knows how to live in prosperity or poverty and this knowing (οἶδα) is experiential knowing, not merely cognitive knowledge.
  2. Paul’s joy results from finding contentment with all things, not necessarily from the gift sent. When asked who the wealthiest person was, Socrates replied, “The one who is content with the least.”
  3. Contentment is a safeguard against both the arrogance that often comes from having plenty and the false piety that can be attached to poverty.
  4. Contentment is the very thing that eludes us when we seek it from within material gain (Deut. 8:11ff; Ecc. 4:8). Yet we’re admonished to thank God whenever He meets our needs (“Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God,” Pr. 30:8-9).
  5. The greatest gain and sure path to joy is serving God in determined contentment whatever one’s material lot in life (1 Tim. 6:6-9). Indeed, a genuinely happy person is one whose contentment rests solely in a relationship with the Lord (cf., Josh. 36:11; Pr. 19:23; Heb. 13:5).
  6. This kind of contentment comes over time and results from a pattern of life that is focused “not on what is seen, but on what is unseen” (2 Cor. 4:18).
  7. This kind of contentment frees us from slavery to external circumstances. Paul voluntarily chose poverty and hard work (1 Cor. 4:10-14; 2 Cor. 6:10), no payment for his pastoral services (2 Cor. 11:7), and a life of abuse and suffering (2 Cor. 11:23-30). Yet in all of this, Paul learned contentment!

3 thoughts on “On Contentment”

  1. Nice post Paul. Do you have any thoughts on the relationship between contentment and ambition? I’ve thought about it a couple of times but never as serious as I would like.

  2. Good question, Louis. Allow me a moment of reflection and some rambling. First, I would see ambition as a means to something beyond itself and not an end in itself, whereas contentment is an end and not a means (per #1 above). We could never be content with ambition, but we could be ambitious for contentment. As teleological beings designed for purpose and driven toward goals and achievements, we could never find satisfaction in ambition alone but are ambitious for some thing[one]. Augustine comes to mind here “The soul is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.”

    Second, wherever our desires, longings, ambitions, motivations lead they ultimately are satisfied in and by our Maker for whom and toward whom our whole existence is intended. “He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God only” (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory). If I am ambitious for anything in this life, then it should be for Him and for his glory. Everything else is a mere means to that end. So, whether reading, writing, working, playing, laughing, crying, living or dying, I ambitiously seek God’s glory in all things and in that I can and will find contentment.

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