The Apostle Paul, while in prison writing to the church in Philippi, said he had learned to be content in “whatever circumstances I find myself (Phil. 4:11).” Moments later, he added that he’d “learned the secret of being content—whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need” (v. 12).
Paul doesn’t speak of contentment as a gift he received from God without effort. Neither does he describe himself as “content,” as if this virtue just appeared unexpectedly. Twice he says it is something he learned. He re-educated himself in some way. He developed a sense of contentment over time.
The School of Contentment
The Art of Divine Contentment, a little book from one of my favorite Puritans, Thomas Watson, contrasts contentment with sins that come naturally to us. We don’t have to learn how to be disgruntled, grumpy, or unthankful. “But the art of divine contentment,” he writes, “is not achieved without holy industry.” Then he quotes Paul’s comment in Philippians 4: “I have learned.”
We could all use a little help from Christians who, like Paul, have learned to be content in various circumstances. If you’re struggling to find fulfillment and satisfaction in your life right now and need to be “enrolled” in the school of contentment, consider some insight that might help.
A Settled Temper of the Heart
Let’s begin with one of the signs of discontent according to Watson—murmuring. He writes:
Murmuring is no better than mutiny in the heart; it is a riling up against God. When the sea is rough and unquiet, it calls forth nothing but foam; when the heart is discontented, it calls forth the foam of anger, impatience, and sometimes little better than blasphemy. Murmuring is nothing else but the foam that boils off from a discontented heart.
In contrast to murmuring, which comes and goes based on complaints we may express as our circumstances change, contentment is constant. “It is a settled temper of the heart,” Watson writes.
Settled In Suffering
But how can we maintain that “settled temper of the heart” when we experience grief and loss? What if suffering strikes? What if trials rob us of things we hold dear?
God may take away your estate, Watson says, but not your portion. Watson describes this truth as a sacred paradox. Whatever things we may acquire on our journey—honor, wealth, prestige, relationships—are merely accessories, not essentials. The Lord is my portion, says the psalmist. Watson illustrates:
Suppose one were worth a million of money, and he should chance to lose a pin off his sleeve, this is no part of his estate, nor can we say he is undone: the loss of sublunary comforts is not so much to a Christian’s portion, as the loss of a pin is to a million. When a man buys a piece of cloth, he has an inch or two given into the measure: now, though he lose his inch of cloth, yet he is not undone: for still the whole piece remains; our outward estate is not so much in regard of the portion, as an inch of cloth is to the whole piece; why then should a Christian be discontented, when the title to his spiritual treasure remains? A thief may take away all the money that I have about me, but not my land; still a Christian has a title to the land of promise.
Watson does not deny the grief we may feel when something beloved is taken away from us. (His book on suffering is a model of pastoral care for those in pain.) His vision of the Christian life does not succumb to Stoicism or fall for fatalism. Neither should his counsel be used to justify complacency in the pursuit of justice or the betterment of one’s circumstances.
Watson’s illustration reminds us of the greatness of the eternal treasure we’ve been promised. Our problem is we reflect too little on the treasure of God Himself.
Sounding a similar note, C. S. Lewis wrote: “He who has God and everything else has no more than he who has God alone.” In other words, the more you realize the treasure you have in God Himself, the more you understand that nothing greater can be added or taken away.
Delighting in God’s Wisdom
Andy Davis in The Power of Christian Contentment describes the daily aggravations and annoyances we all face. Contentment isn’t about embracing those aggravations, he writes. Neither is it finding delight in pain and suffering, but “finding delight in God’s wise plan for my life and humbly allowing Him to direct me in it.” Davis writes:
Christian contentment is a mindset produced by the sovereign grace of God in Christ, characterized by sweetness (not bitterness or sourness), genuineness from the heart (not acting or hypocrisy), and quietness (not murmuring or contentiousness).
Learning the art of contentment corresponds to growth in the Christian faith. Contentment leads us to trust that our Father has our best interests at heart and that His wisdom so far exceeds our puny understanding that we refuse to nurture a grumbling spirit.
Rightly understood, contentment is not opposed to professional ambition, lament over suffering, or the drive to change one’s circumstances. Paul’s ambition was to reach Spain, he lamented personal loss in multiple letters, and surely he would have preferred to be loosed from his chains. Yet while in prison he displayed a quiet trust in God’s good plan for his life. He set forth that “settled temper” that Watson wrote about.
So perhaps this description of contentment from Watson should be the goal of every believer who desires to grow in this grace:
A true Christian grows in strength: he grows still more rooted and settled. The more the tree grows, the more it spreads its root in the earth; a Christian who has a plant of the heavenly Jerusalem, the longer he grows, the more he incorporates into Christ, and sucks spiritual juice and sap from him. He is strong to do duties, to bear burdens, resist temptations.
Amen. May it be said of us!
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