Contented in the Lord
One of my favorite images of contentment in Scripture is from Psalm 1 and Jeremiah 17. Both passages paint the picture of a tree planted by a stream. When the heat and drought come, this tree has nothing to fear because it has the refreshment of the stream. No matter what happens, it bears fruit, and its leaves do not wither. Psalm 1 tells us that this is the picture of a person who delights in God’s Word, meditating on it day and night. Jeremiah 17 tells us this is a person who trusts in the Lord.
If we want to be contented people who are always bearing fruit, our trust will be in the Lord and our delight in his Word. The definition I like to use for biblical contentment is this:
Biblical contentment is an inward trust in God’s sovereignty and goodness that produces the fruit of joy and peace and thanksgiving in the life of a believer, regardless of outward circumstances.
Contentment Beyond Circumstances
Our contentment isn’t rooted in our circumstances but in the unchanging nature of our God. As we know him more, we trust him more. Contentment is a settled spirit, quiet confidence that God is always at work for good. Paul was an example of this type of contentment. He wrote to his beloved Philippians from inside a Roman jail. His outer circumstances were bleak, but he was filled with inner joy and peace. He told them his secret:
“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11–13)
We’ll consider three hopeful truths from this passage as we consider contentment.
Contentment is available in Christ
You may hear this from Paul and think to yourself, “Well, of course he can face these trials and still be content; he’s a super apostle! I mean, he wrote most of the New Testament. I’m just an ordinary person. I could never be content like that.” However, Paul’s contentment wasn’t rooted in his own identity; it was rooted in Christ’s.
Paul wasn’t just a naturally contented, laid-back sort of guy. His contentment came from a source outside of himself. Just like the tree planted by the stream continually bears fruit, Paul was planted in Christ, and this—not his natural disposition or even his apostleship—fueled his contentment.
Here’s the good news: you and I have the exact same resource available to us. Christ is in us, empowering us to endure all circumstances and still bear fruit. He gives us strength when our strength is gone.
Contentment Is independent of circumstances
Paul told the Philippians that his contentment was independent of both plenty and want. We naturally tend to think of it being difficult to be content when we’re in need. However, both plenty and want can make us discontented.
You may be facing circumstances today that make life seem unbearable. You may feel that you can’t endure one more day.
I think Paul would understand with compassion and kindness. He knew suffering. He was beaten, whipped, shipwrecked, and hungry, and faced danger from people and circumstances at every turn (2 Corinthians 11:24–28). Only Christ can fuel our contentment in difficult circumstances. He promises strength for today. Don’t look to tomorrow. He is able to provide all you need.
Contentment in the Good Times
While most of us can quickly understand why it’s difficult to be content when life is hard, it’s also helpful to consider the difficulty of contentment in times of plenty. As many of us know, there are struggles with getting what we hoped for:
- We may have gotten married after years of waiting but find the blessing of marriage and family its own struggle. In the fullness of family life, we can struggle to be content.
- We may have longed for financial security and finally feel secure but now face the burden of responsibility to manage well what we’ve been given and worked so hard to gain. In the fullness of wealth, we can struggle to be content.
- We may have longed for success and finally achieved it but now face the reality of people wanting our advice and influence. In the fullness of success there are added burdens that can make contentment difficult.
Just as sunshine is warm and brings life but can also cause a sunburn and drought, having plenty is no solution for discontentment. In our fullness we often forget our need of Christ and fail to seek him. As Thomas à Kempis aptly states, “You cannot find complete satisfaction in any temporal gift, because you were not created to find your delight in them. Even if you possessed all the good things God has created, you could not feel happy and glad; all your gladness and happiness rest in the God who created those things.” 1
Neither plenty nor want defines Paul’s contentment. He was content because he had access to the strength of Christ. To use our earlier imagery: Christ was the stream from which Paul drew his strength. It’s from this stream we must continually drink if we ever want to be full.
1 Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, 136.
Contentment Is learned
When my son was born, he didn’t come quietly into the world. He came out screaming. He didn’t have to be taught that the world isn’t right; he seemed to know it intuitively. However, it took him six weeks to learn how to smile. By nature, we are discontented creatures. I find it so encouraging that Paul tells us that he learned contentment. It didn’t come to him as soon as he became a Christian. As he walked through various circumstances in life, he learned to depend on Christ.
When was the last time you learned something new? As we get older, we tend to stick with what we know and forget that learning is hard work and usually involves a lot of failure. If you’ve ever listened to someone learn a new instrument, you know what I mean. You can’t expect to play all the notes perfectly the first time you pick up an instrument. It takes years of practice—years of off-note, rather screechy performances—before someone can play with ease and beauty.
You may think you are the slowest student ever in the school of contentment (although, I’m pretty sure I have you beat). That’s okay—learning takes time. I used to tell my math students that when they reached that point of frustration—the moment when they most wanted to throw their pencil in the air and quit altogether—that was the very point at which they were learning something new. But it’s hard. Learning stretches us beyond what we think we’re capable of doing.
Contentment in Every Season
Your circumstances today are your schoolroom for contentment. You may not like the course load you’ve been given, but there are reasons for the lesson. God has a purpose for whatever you’re facing today. As J. I. Packer said:
Perhaps He means to strengthen us in patience, good humour, compassion, humility or meekness. . . . Perhaps He has new lessons in self-denial and self-distrust to teach us. Perhaps he wishes to break us of complacency or undetected forms of pride and conceit. Perhaps His purpose is simply to draw us closer to Himself. . . . Or perhaps God is preparing us for forms of service of which at present we have no inkling. 2
Whether you are in need or in plenty today, trust in God. Delight in his Word; meditate on it day and night. He will strengthen and supply all you need. Your work is to abide in him.