COLUMNS

Volume 46 - Issue 1

The Neglected Virtue of Contentment

By Brian J. Tabb

 

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. (Phil 4:11–13)

Contentment is not a virtue prized in contemporary society. In fact, the numerous marketing images that we see each day aim to make us discontent with our present situation and to increase our desire for material goods that hold out the promise of making us happy.1 The ongoing public health crisis and deep political and social divisions of the past year have only compounded our fears, frustrations, and feelings of unhappiness. Months of mandated “social distancing,” online schooling, restaurant closures, and restrictions on travel and gatherings have accelerated what some have called a “loneliness pandemic.”2 Screen time has soared during the pandemic, as have anxiety, alcoholism, and suicide rates. Many are stuck at home streaming Netflix and scrolling Facebook while longing to share a meal with true friends and return to some semblance of “normal.” However, people were anxious and lonely long before the present crisis, and it’s likely that most will continue to be unhappy as COVID-19 infections wane and restrictions are relaxed in the coming months. In short, contentment remains in short supply.

What is contentment? Dictionaries define contentment as “a state of happiness and satisfaction.”3 This definition offers a starting point but prompts various follow up questions: What does it mean to be happy or satisfied? How do we achieve such contentment? Is contentment even possible in troubled times like these? This brief article offers a summons to Christian contentment amid crisis and controversy. Let’s examine the nature and necessity of true contentment, with help from ancient philosophers, the apostle Paul, and an English Puritan.

1. What Is Contentment?

Ancient philosophers frequently discussed contentment or self-sufficiency (αὐτάρκεια). Aristotle calls happiness “the most desirable of all good things,” since “happiness does not lack anything, but is self-sufficient [αὐτάρκης].”4 He explains, “No supremely happy man can ever become miserable,” since he “will always act in the noblest manner that the circumstances allow.”5 Epicurus writes that self-sufficiency or independence (αὐτάρκεια) is “a great good, not so as in all cases to use little, but so as to be contented with little if we have not much.”6 Of course, people prefer good health to sickness, riches to poverty, freedom from pain to excruciating torture, and feasting to fasting, but the Stoics stress that circumstances are fickle and unrelated to one’s true happiness and enduring contentment. Seneca reasons, “Each one of us is able to make his own happiness.”7 The truly happy person “is content [contentus] with his present lot, no matter what it is, and is reconciled to his circumstances.”8 Yet Seneca laments that human beings are “all untrustworthy, discontented, ambitious,”9 and he calls readers to be “content with virtue” rather than tethering one’s happiness to constantly changing circumstances.10

Contentment is a recurring theme in the NT. The book of Hebrews urges readers, “Be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Heb 13:5). Paul insists, “Godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Tim 6:6–8). The apostle contrasts this godly contentment with the greedy craving for riches, which leads to ruin (6:9–10).

Paul’s most extended discussion of contentment comes in the final chapter of his letter to the Philippians:

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content [ἐγὼ γὰρ ἔμαθον ἐν οἷς εἰμι αὐτάρκης εἶναι]. 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. (Phil 4:10–13)

“Whatever situation” is no pious abstraction. Remember that Paul penned these reflections from a dark, dingy prison (Phil 1:7, 12–14). Prisoners in the ancient world often lacked basic necessities like bedding, clothing, and medical care.11 They were also often shunned by friends due to the social stigma of incarceration.12 Not only was Paul incarcerated multiple times, but he was also beaten with rods and flogged, stoned and left for dead, and shipwrecked three times (2 Cor 11:23–27). He was opposed and maligned in one city after another, taking heat from Jews and Gentiles alike. He endured sleepless nights and often lacked shelter and supper. Paul doesn’t need to remind his readers that he and Silas were falsely accused, attacked by a mob, beaten with rods, and locked up in the inner prison without due process when they first came to Philippi (Acts 16:19–24). Despite this laundry list of toils and trials, Paul does not descend into bitterness, complaining, or self-pity. Even though he is separated from his friends, criticized by his foes, and stuck in a lousy cell, Paul remembers that the Lord will never disappoint him and will surely deliver him (1:19–20; 3:20). Thus, he stresses that he is content even in “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities” (2 Cor 12:10). The imprisoned apostle rejoices in Christ, resolves to work for other Christians’ progress and joy in the faith, and expresses his contentment in Christ, come what may (Phil 1:18, 25; 4:11–12).

2. The “Rare Jewel” of Christian Contentment

The English Puritan Richard Burroughs wrote a book-length meditation on contentment inspired by Philippians 4:11. The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment was first published in 1648, two years after Burroughs’ premature death at age 47. Burroughs has been called “a prince of preachers,”13 and he reflected a rare blend of “a fervent zeal for purity of doctrine and worship, and a peaceable spirit, which longed and labored for Christian unity.”14

Burroughs describes Christian contentment as “that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition” (p. 19). Contentment is rightly knowing and inwardly submitting one’s heart to God’s wise providence, according to Burroughs (pp. 20, 111).15 It is opposed to “distracting, heart-consuming cares” and “sinking discouragements” (p. 23). We do not submit to God reluctantly but willingly, “taking pleasure in God’s disposal” (p. 31). This means that we not only submit to God’s sovereign hand but also “take pleasure in God’s wisdom” (p. 36). The apostle says that it is good to pray for “a peaceful and quiet life” (1 Tim 2:1), but true contentment involves a quiet heart whether our lives are calm or chaotic. Such inner tranquility is not the result of one’s natural temperament or a well-trained mind but comes “from principles beyond the strength of reason” (p. 31).

Contentment “in every condition” means that even in “sad and sinking times” we have the mysterious mixture of “gracious joy and gracious sorrow” (pp. 17, 41–42; cf. 2 Cor 6:10). Burroughs asks, “Where was there ever a man more afflicted than Paul was?” (p. 35). Yet the apostle astonishingly asserts, “I have all and abound” (Phil 4:18 NKJV).

Paul would agree with the philosophers that favorable circumstances like good health and material abundance cannot make us happy or content. But the apostle does not deny or downplay the real difficulties that he faces. He would prefer a comfortable guest room to an unpleasant prison cell. He would prefer freedom to confinement and would rather break bread with friends than sit alone with the ache of hunger. He hopes to travel to see the Philippian believers yet resolves to honor Christ with his bruised body, “whether by life or by death” (1:20, 26). But Paul does not simply make the best of it or resign himself to his substandard conditions. Rather, he can say, “I have all and abound” because he knows the sweet sufficiency of Christ.

The apostle shares his secret to true contentment in sad and sinking circumstances in Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” It is knowing and experiencing the nearness, abundance, and power of Christ that brings Paul contentment in troubled times. The philosophers call people to show their own self-sufficiency and superior reason when enduring suffering, but the apostle claims that Christ’s power is perfected in his own weakness (2 Cor 12:9). Christian contentment is not self-sufficiency but Christ-sufficiency in any and every situation.

3. A Call for Contentment

So how might pastors and theological students heed this call for true contentment even in sad and sinking times? What does contentment look like when you receive unfair criticism online or from fellow church members? Is contentment possible when COVID cancels your graduation service or your vacation to Disneyland? What if you have to bury your baby boy,16 if you receive a dreaded diagnosis from the doctor, or if your Facebook friends look so happy while your day-to-day life is just plain hard? The year 2020 was especially difficult for pastors for many reasons including COVID-related constraints on church gatherings, racial tensions, political divisions, and financial shortfalls. Many church leaders are weary and discouraged in the face of these pressures that have lingered into 2021. Meanwhile, seminarians and theological students have endured major disruptions to in-person classes and ministry internships and now face uncertain prospects for employment as many churches and ministries cut budgets and suspended hiring.

You might think, “If only I had ___, I’d be content,” or “If only ___ were different, I’d be happy.” But the ancient philosophers remind us that we do not find contentment in material abundance or desirable circumstances. The apostle affirms this truth but goes much further. Paul’s secret to contentment is recognizing and relishing the sweetness, sufficiency, and strength of Christ even in the most unsavory situations. In fact, it is precisely when we are sick, struggling, scared, slandered, or sad that we may recognize our true need for Jesus, experience his life-giving power at work in our weakness, and expectantly anticipate the coming day of Christ. So in whatever challenges we face in life and ministry, let’s heed Paul’s summons to be content in knowing the sweet, soul-satisfying sufficiency of Christ.


[1] Marsha L. Richins, “Social Comparison, Advertising, and Consumer Discontent,” American Behavioral Scientist 38 (1995): 593–607; Nicole Torres, “Advertising Makes Us Unhappy,” Harvard Business Review (January–February 2020): https://hbr.org/2020/01/advertising-makes-us-unhappy.

[2] Jacob Sweet, “The Loneliness Pandemic,” Harvard Magazine, January–February 2021, https://harvardmagazine.com/2021/01/feature-the-loneliness-pandemic.

[3] Oxford American Desk Dictionary and Thesaurus, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 163.

[4] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics 1.7; 10.6, trans H. Rackham, LCL 73 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1934). See also Aristotle, Rhetoric 1e.3: “Let us then define happiness as well-being combined with virtue, or independence of life [αὐτάρκεια]” (trans. J. H. Freese, LCL 193 [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926]).

[5] Nichomachean Ethics 1.10, trans. Rackham.

[6] Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 10.130 (Epicurus), ed. R. D. Hicks, LCL 185 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1925).

[7] Seneca, To Helvia on Consolation 5.1, trans. John W. Basore, LCL 254 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932); cf. Brian J. Tabb, Suffering in Ancient Worldview: Luke, Seneca, and 4 Maccabees in Dialogue, LNTS 569 (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017), 56–57.

[8] Seneca, On the Happy Life 6.2, trans. John W. Basore, LCL 254 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1932).

[9] On Anger 3.4, trans. John W. Basore, LCL 214 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1928).

[10] Firmness 5.4, trans. John W. Basore, LCL 214 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1928).

[11] Brian Rapske, The Book of Acts and Paul in Roman Custody, BAFCS 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 196–225.

[12] Rapske, The Book of Acts and Paul in Roman Custody, 293. Cf. 2 Timothy 1:15–16; Seneca, Moral Epistles 9.8–9.

[13] Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2006), 119, citing Thomas Watson.

[14] Michael Boland, “Biographical Introduction,” in Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, reprint ed. (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1964), 11. In the remainder of this article, I cite this edition of Burroughs’s work with in-text page references.

[15] John Piper defines God’s providence as his “purposeful sovereignty” in Providence (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 18.

[16] Adam Pohlman, “11 Days with My Dear Son,” The Gospel Coalition, 12 February 2021, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/11-days-dear-son/.

Brian J. Tabb

Brian Tabb is academic dean and associate professor of biblical studies at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, an elder of Bethlehem Baptist Church, and general editor of Themelios.

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