Learning the Secret of Being Content

How the apostle Paul learned to be content in every situation

After more than a year of the pandemic many of us feel tired — and for good reason. Many have experienced physical illness, bereavement, unemployment, mental health difficulties or isolation.

Those of us lucky enough to keep our jobs or business are working longer hours and/or juggling homeschooling.

If ever there was a time to listen to the Bible’s teaching on contentment it’s now:

Paul doesn’t say contentment came naturally, he had to learn to be content. This gives us hope we can too.

Unsatisfied and yet satisfied

In one sense, the Christian is the least satisfied person of all. Christ has enlarged our hearts so that nothing on earth could now fulfil us.

But, with Christ we can find true contentment with very little else in this life.

To subtract or add?

Our society teaches us the way to contentment is through addition. Companies can earn billions of dollars in monitoring our online activity.

Are we longing for a new job, car, house or relationship? Big data, with increasing accuracy, can identify this and offer a product or service to fill that gap.

But our desires do not stay fixed. Satisfaction doesn’t increase with our income because we often upgrade our expectations.

How do we meet our wants, if they are always shifting up with our incomes or changing with time?

Chasing the next pay rise or next relationship won’t work. We’re better off trying to subtract our desires to fit our circumstances.

Suffering: Remove or change our attitude?

We think if only we can remove our suffering, then we will be happy. But as Paul found, it is possible to be content in any circumstances.

A mystery of contentment is learning that God has a purpose for our suffering. Even if we do not know the specific reason for every act of suffering.

His purpose is to mould my character. Though suffering is painful, He is using it to set me free.

Charles Dickens illustrated this in Great Expectations through the beautiful, yet proud, Estella.

At the end of the book, she meets her childhood friend Pip. Most men desired Estella, but for Pip, she was his lifelong love.

Miss Haversham, her adopted mother, trained Estella to use her beauty to manipulate and punish men. She taught her to be cold and hard. Rejecting Pip, Estella entered into a brutal and abusive marriage with his rival.

The pain and suffering had been unbearable. But she had finally been set free:

Our calling or our wants?

Christians often long to do ‘great things for God’. But the circumstances of life can frustrate us. We may lack the gifts, time or opportunity to serve God with the fruitfulness we desire.

But we do not find contentment in how much we achieve for God but in our faithfulness to His calling.

The poet John Milton became blind at age 44. He had great ambitions to serve God but this disability limited him.

But as Milton learned, we need not prove anything. We find contentment resting in God’s calling.

Change our hearts or our circumstances?

Sometimes our circumstances can become unhealthy. We might be in an abusive relationship or in a job that doesn’t fit our skills or personality. The wise response is to get out.

But often our dissatisfaction has less to do with our circumstances.

Our desires sometimes turn dark; they wage war against ourselves and others. We need to question our desires, rather than become enslaved by them.

Are the demands we are making reasonable? Am I comparing my life with others, rather than seeking to walk the path God has called me to?

When facing challenging life circumstances, it can be tempting like Peter to compare with others:

Making comparisons with others will either fill us with pride (if we do better) or resentment (if we do worse). Either way, we will never truly know the challenges others face. Our task is to follow Jesus where he is leading us.

Adapted from Jeremiah Burroughs’ 17th Century classic “The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment.”

I’m interested in the application of psychology to theology and Christian living.