Christian Contentment

Tom was recently declared a bankrupt because a high-risk stock-market investment, he made several months ago, went awry. Tom had known this risk when he started, but he took his chance. Jane is an executive in a renown advertising company. She had laboured her way up the corporate ladder by shear hard work, but in the process she neglected her family and her husband divorced her. Dick is not married, what he earned as a store assistant is sufficient for him to live comfortably, but he decides to work as a driving instructor out of his office hours and the whole of each Sunday. In addition, he is also studying for a degree part-time. Eventually, Dick broke down because of exhaustion. Harry is despondent because he alone, of all his classmates at school, does not have a girlfriend. He began to indulge in fantasies and pornography. Pam was recently diagnosed with cancer of the liver and was told by her doctor that she does not have many months more to live. She was so depressed that she attempted suicide.

If I tell you that these five persons all profess to be Christians, I am sure that, if you yourself profess to be a Christian, you will say that there must be something wrong with each one of them. But if I ask you to pinpoint what is that something that is wrong, you will likely give me a variety of answers ranging from greed to lust to hopelessness; and it will be unlikely that you will identify totally with anyone of them. It may surprise you, therefore, if I tell you that the fundamental problem with each one of them is the same, and that you too are likely to have the same problem to one degree or another. What is this problem? May I suggest that it is a lack of a particular virtue, namely, contentment. The want of contentment is the fundamental problem in most believers, which manifests itself in a variety of noticeable ways. Contentment is so vital for a Christian that it is placed next to godliness by Paul. He says, "Godliness with contentment is great gain" (1 Tim 6:6).

What is "Contentment"?

The Webster Dictionary defines it simply as "the state or quality of being satisfied and not displeased." But what is "Christian contentment"? William Hendriksen captures the sense of the word when he translated the Greek (autarkeia) as "soul-sufficiency." But the Puritan divine, Jeremiah Burroughs, explains it best: "Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition." Two ideas stand out clearly in this definition. First, it speaks of contentment as flowing from the heart and soul, rather than from external circumstances or stimuli. Thus if you feel happy because you have a full stomach, it is not really contentment for it is a temporary satisfaction produced by food. In the same way if you have been generally unhappy with your job, but suddenly gets a pay rise and you feel happy, it is also no real contentment for it is externally induced and you will soon want more. Christian contentment is quite independent of circumstances. It is a disposition of the heart and the soul, and generally lasting. Secondly, Christian contentment must be seen in relation to the sovereign God whom the believer loves.

The unbeliever’s fatalistic creed, "Don’t worry, be happy," simply does not speak of contentment. It speaks of plain irresponsibility or fatalism depending on how you look at it. But a Christian who is content, in the true sense of the word, submits to the will of God in whatever circumstance, whether he perceives it to be good or bad. He knows that God’s hand is in every circumstance, and he knows that all things work together for good to them that love God. Thus a Christian who has been retrenched, through no fault of his own (i.e., if he has been obedient to Colossians 3:22–25, etc.), does not descend into the valley of depression. Rather he rejoices in his trial (Jas 1:2; Phil 4:4) and he asks God for wisdom to know how his soul may best benefit from the testing (Jas 1:5).

Contentment is Achievable

Someone may object: "All these sound so ideal, but can a real Christian achieve that in reality?" My answer is, emphatically, yes! A real Christian can no doubt be content, else the Scripture is irrelevant to anyone. In fact, contentment can be learnt or cultivated. One of the most remarkable statement made by the Apostle Paul on the subject of contentment is found in Philippians 4:11, "Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content." But how can contentment be learned? I suggest that, in the case of a Christian, it may be learned by discovering the causes of discontentment and then dealing with them. This is so because contentment ought really to be a fundamental virtue of every believer since we ought to be "dead with Christ" (Rom 6:8; Col 2:20; 3:3). Thus a lack of contentment speaks of remaining corruption, which may be remedied with the help of the Holy Spirit as we discover its causes in our soul. What are the causes of discontentment? Paul hints at three reasons in the succeeding context of 1 Timothy 6:6.

Firstly, discontentment arises from a failure to distinguish between the temporary and the permanent. Paul says, "For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out" (v. 7). This is common sense. When we were born into this world we had nothing. In the same way, when we die we will not be able to bring anything with us. The patriarch Job puts it graphically: "Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither" (Job 1:21a). What is the remedy for this symptom? None better than that of our Lord’s: "Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal" (Matt 6:19–20). So then, if you would learn to be content, learn to distinguish between what is temporal and what is eternal, and always give much more priority to what is eternal. Bear in mind that this has to do not only with our material possessions, but our time and how we live. Let us live like pilgrims heading to that Celestial City (cf. Heb 11:14–16, 26).

Secondly, discontentment is also caused by our failure to distinguish between needs and luxuries. Paul says, "And having food and raiment let us be therewith content" (1 Tim 6:8). It is true that the definition of needs has changed over time. What is needed today was luxury in the past. But the argument is still relevant to us today. Few of us can honestly say that we do not have more than we need for our basic necessities. So, in the light of the Apostle’s teaching, it would mean that we should not be yearning for more than what we already have. To help cultivate a sense of the difference between needs and luxuries, the first question that you should always ask, when acquiring something, is: "Is it really necessary that I should have this?" and not "Do I have the means to purchase it?" So, if you are planning to get a car, first ask, "Do I really need it?" and then only after you determine that you really need it, then ask, "Can I afford it?" Do not give in to the temptation to get what is not really needful but luxurious. Naturally, it is crucially important to refrain if you will get into a big debt to purchase what you want. When you are struggling with this aspect of working on contentment, may I urge you to consider our LORD Himself, for "the foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head" (Matt 8:20). Each time you pray the Lord’s prayer: "Give us this day our daily bread," remember how our Lord lived for our sake.

The third cause of discontentment is plainly covetousness. Paul warns, "For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows" (1 Tim 6:10). Wanting to be rich may not be a sin in itself. Some may want to be rich for noble reasons of supporting a large family or because of a desire to contribute more to the work of the ministry. But there is just a very fine line between wanting to be rich and coveting. One may be a legitimate aspiration, the other is no less than greed. We are not warned against noble aspirations, but we are warned against greed and covetousness, and the painful result of it. Those who covet err from the faith. We are commanded in the 10th commandment, "Thou shalt not covet." And in case we think that this is the last and so the least of the commandments, the Apostle Paul warns us that covetousness is in fact idolatry (Col 3:5). If we covet something, we would desire it so much that we would put in our whole heart to try to get it and we would fill our minds with it all the time. How could we then love the LORD with all our heart and soul and might? Would we not then be committing idolatry, since we have essentially replaced God with what we covet? In this regard, bear in mind that covetousness is not only to do with material wealth. In its broadest manifestation, all discontentment is covetousness, for when we are discontented with our present circumstance, we covet what providence and blessings God has chosen to withhold from us. With this broader definition, what is the remedy for this ailment? Let me suggest a three-course remedy.

Remedies Against Discontentment

The first course,—take when you are pleased with your present circumstances but tempted to become selfish and self-reliant,—isChrist. Remember that you are but a steward of Christ: all you have really belongs to Him. Like the widow with her two mites, aim to bear fruit and please Christ with what time and resources He has placed in your charge. Aim to hear Him say at the last, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord" (Matt 25:21).

The second course,—take when you are tempted to murmur because of your present circumstances,—is also Christ. Remember the words of Christ as He concludes His great sermon on contentment: "But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof" (Matt 6:33–34). Ask the Lord how you are to walk that you may seek Him in your present circumstances (cf. 1 Cor 7:17, 20–22). Have you lost your job? Heed the words of Paul: "Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God" (Phil 4:6). And while waiting for the Lord’s supply, will you not maximise your time by reading those books you should have read in the Sabbaths squandered away. Has the security of your job been yanked off your feet by a corporate announcement? Think nothing of it. Continue to serve as unto the LORD, and not to men (Eph 6:7); and whatever you are tasked to do, do it heartily, as to the LORD, and not unto men (Col 3:23). Do not be overwhelmed by the future. It is in God’s sovereign hand.

The third course,—take when you are tempted to despair because the woes that have come upon you is more than you can bear,—is againChrist. Is your present circumstance too hard? Is it full of suffering and frustrations? Dear reader, again do not forget that contentment comes from within. Never let external circumstance dictate your heart. Consider the great mercies of Christ to you, and those afflictions you face will seem minor to you. It was Luther who said, "The sea of God’s mercies should swallow up all our particular afflictions." Jeremiah Burrough gives a very good illustration: If you throw a pail of water on the floor of your house, it will make a great show—there will be a sorrowful mess, but if you throw it into the sea, there will be no sign of it at all. Meditate, therefore, on Christ and fill your heart and mind with the mercies of God (Phil 4:8); and cast your anxieties upon Him because He cares for you (1 Pet 5:7). Realise that you can "do all things through Christ which strengtheneth" you (Phil 4:13).

Can you honestly say that you are content? Take heed, lest you murmur if the Lord should deprive you as He did Job. Are you struggling with contentment? Remember that you can learn contentment and you have a responsibility to do so. All who are in Christ ought to be content because discontentment is a result of worldly-mindedness; and worldly-mindedness is inimical to those who are not of this world (Jn 15:19).