Is Contentment a Lost Art?

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StoneWallIf you drive through rural New England towns you will notice an abundance of stone walls. These walls served as property markers hundreds of years ago; and, because they were well built, many remain to this day. However, while the walls remain, the art of building a stone wall has nearly faded away. The craftsmen, who, in a previous age were plentiful are now dwindling to a small number.

A few years ago my dad (who lives in New England) wanted to have a wall built on his property that reflected some of the old world craftsmanship. As he inquired as to who could do it, he found that the list was remarkably small. He got his guy, but, he was booked for months. When he finally came he was like a guy from another age. His tools, work ethic, and even the way he spoke about the wall seemed to be from another time. He represented some of the lost art of mason work.

I wonder if you have experienced something like this when you read Christian biographies or theological works from previous generations. I know I have found myself convicted and a bit taken back by my own shallowness when considering their devotion and depth. One such area is the topic of contentment. When I read The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, by Jeremiah Burroughs, or The Art of Divine Contentment, by Thomas Watson, I feel like I am hearing from men from another world.

Is Contentment a Lost Art?

Is contentment a lost art in the church today? Is it simply a product of “old-world” Christianity? Are there only a few left that practice it? And, if so, is this ok with God?

In short: it is not ok with God and it should not be ok with us.

We read of a command to be content in Hebrews 13:5, “Be content with what you have…” and we read of Paul’s demonstration of contentment in Philippians 4.

“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.” (Philippians 4:11-12)

What is contentment? Well, borrowing from a few writers, I would define it the following way: Contentment is the inward, quiet spirit that joyfully submits to God’s providence.

Contentment Works Inside Out

Everyone is searching for contentment but few actually find it. It seems as elusive as it is desired. In these verses Paul speaks shocking words to our 21st Century Western ears. He is content in any and every circumstance. Whether in high tide or low tide, storm or peace, the boat of his soul is joyfully resting above the water. He says that in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I have learned the secret of being content.

Do you know why these verses are so profound? They are directly opposed to how we are conditioned and trained to go after contentment. Be honest, when you think about being happy, satisfied, or content, what do you often think about? You think about changing your circumstances. If I could only have a little more money, or this car, or this new job, or this new house, or if I could only get married, be healed of this ailment, or whatever. We go to work on things outside of us to make us happy inside. We think that we can achieve contentment by changing our circumstances. But this is not the way the Bible presents it.

Instead of changing our circumstances God changes our hearts so that we can be content in the midst of changing circumstances.

Look again at Paul’s words:

“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.” (Philippians 4:11-12)

In any and every circumstances. These changing circumstances are just more opportunities for Paul to express his contentment.

Contentment is About Changing our Hearts not Primarily our Circumstances

Contentment then does not depend on outward circumstances but rather upon an inward disposition. We can be brought low or we could abound; humbled to the dust like Job exalted to a place of honor like Esther. Contentment is worked from the inside out.

This fact that is all too often missed: contentment is achieved not be changing our circumstances but by changing our desires. It is not about adding to what you have but subtracting what you want to be in line with what you already have.

This makes sense when you say it and think about it for a minute. Contentment is about syncing up your desires and your circumstances.

We have all been guilty of wishing that our circumstances were better, but how many of us have complained that our hearts were not better? (Burroughs said this well)

The secret to contentment is not in a change of circumstances but a change of heart. As Christians, we have had a change of heart; and this why and how we can both be commanded to be content and Paul can model contentment. Far from being something from the old-world of Christianity, contentment is to be modeled today by all who follow Christ.

(I plan to write a few more posts on this topic in the days ahead as we are studying it in our church on Sunday morning.)

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