The Secret of Contentment

Philippians 4:10-13 (ESV) - [10] 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. [11] Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. [12] 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. [13] I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Not Painfully, But Constantly

    The American author John Steinbeck, in a book called Sweet Thursday, describes the emotional state of one of his characters, and at the same time he gives us a profoundly insightful glimpse into the inner workings of the human heart: “Now discontent nibbled at him—not painfully, but constantly. Where does discontent start? You are warm enough, but you shiver. You are fed, yet hunger gnaws you. You have been loved, but your yearning wanders in new fields.” [1]

    I think all of us know what he’s describing. We’ve experienced it before. You cognitively know there’s no reason for discontent, but it’s there anyway, nibbling and gnawing, not painfully but constantly—so constantly that you sometimes forget it’s there the same way you forget a bad smell when you've been in a room long enough. But in the middle of this examination of discontent, Steinbeck asks the key question: Where does it start?

    Now most of us would reflexively answer that discontentment is a product of some external deficiency. It starts with not having enough of something: money, relationships, time, power, control, acceptance, comfort, anything.

    But that’s a really naive answer. If discontent really started with external deficiency, then the people with the most would be the most content, and we all know that’s not the case. In fact, all you have to do is take a good hard look at your own life: Has getting more ever cured your discontent?

    If you’re anything like me, you spend most of your life like a kid waiting for Christmas. “When I finally get that one thing, everything’s going to change.” And as soon as you open the package—as soon as you get what you set your heart on—the disappointment you thought would disappear actually grows.

    Getting more doesn’t cure discontent because discontent isn’t primarily a material deficiency. Like Steinbeck said, you’re warm enough but you shiver. Discontent isn’t fundamentally a material deficiency; it’s a spiritual one. It’s a spiritual hunger that never gets satisfied, no matter how much you consume, attain, or possess. And it starts with a heart that needs and yearns and longs for satisfaction and fullness, but is looking for it in all the wrong places—in things that don’t actually have the power to make you whole.

    So the discontent keeps on lingering—not painfully, but constantly—until it grows up into something that is really painful.

    But in Philippians 4:10-13, the Apostle Paul says, “I’ve found the secret.” “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret” of contentment. I’ve learned the secret of how to go through life with a contented heart.

    Now we might expect him to give us a technique. In our culture, everybody’s selling a technique for contentment, some simple behavior or thought process that’ll make all the difference.

    Think positive thoughts. Or spend 10 minutes a day concentrating on what’s going right in your life. Or let your discontent drive you to truly fulfill your dreams. That’s how you’ll find contentment.

    But according to Paul, the secret of contentment isn’t a technique. It’s a person. It’s a person who fills your spiritual hunger with himself in a way that nothing else ever could.

    If you’re going to know the beauty of contentment, you’ve got to know this person. If you’re going to know the beauty of contentment, you’ve got to know Jesus in all his promise-keeping, soul-satisfying glory.

    And understand, this is for Christians and non-Christians alike. If you’re spiritually curious but have never given any real attention to Jesus, you need to be honest with yourself and recognize that the ways you’re searching for contentment only deepen the emptiness, and you can’t break that cycle on your own.

    And if you’re a Christian who can say “I know Jesus already,” don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve figured this all out. You need to be honest about the ways you continue to seek contentment in all sorts of other things, and you need to see that knowing Jesus isn’t a one-time acquaintance. It’s a lifetime of pressing further into his promises and his character so that the deep desires of your heart are transformed and met in him.

The Danger of Discontent

    In modern American life, we by and large consider discontent to be normal. Discontent is just part of what it feels like to live in the modern world. There’s a pervasive dissatisfaction with life—a sense that there’s more to life, but an inability to find it.

    And the forces of consumerism in our culture use that emptiness and feed it with every new product that’ll finally be the key to unlocking real happiness. Our consumerism is a product of this dissatisfaction (we buy to fill the void), but consumerism is also an engine that keeps our dissatisfaction alive (it teaches and forms us to stay discontent and to keep on grabbing for more).

    Far from being abnormal or alarming, discontent is almost viewed as a virtue. It’s a badge of honor, a sign of high expectations, a proud declaration to the world that you deserve more than you’ve gotten. So whoever airs out their discontent most publicly gets held in esteem. He who complains the loudest wins.

    Discontent may be normal, but that doesn’t make it safe. Heart disease is normal for modern people too, but it’ll still kill you. And here’s the thing: discontent is heart disease. It’s a spiritual disorder that begins in the heart and spreads in destructive ways throughout every part of life.

    Of course, discontent will destroy your personal peace. That’s the effect that’s easiest to spot. The spiritual hunger underneath our discontent—the need to always get more that never quite gets met—makes us miserable. It saps away our joy and kills our ability to live in and savor the present because we’re always anxiously living for the future.

    But the destruction runs deeper and spreads farther. How?

Discontent and Stability

    Discontent will destroy your stability. When times are bad and you’re suffering—when the thing you’re depending on for contentment gets ripped away from you—you’ll only know how to respond in damaging ways. You’ll despair over your loss; you’ll get angry at the world; you’ll get self-absorbed in your pain. And you’ll strive in pursuit of some fleeting sense of contentment even more obsessively than you did before. A discontented heart is totally unstable in hardship.

    But listen to what Paul says: “In any and every circumstance, I’ve learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” Do you see what he’s saying there? He’s saying that hunger and need—suffering and hardship—aren’t the only obstacles that could destroy him. Plenty and abundance are obstacles that he’s had to learn to face as well.

    And that’s because, if your heart is chronically discontent—if it’s searching for life in the wrong places—success and gain will hurt you just as much (if not more) than failure and loss. You won’t be able to handle the bad times, but you won’t be able to handle the good times either.

    Why? Because the moment you get your hands on that treasured prize, you’ll become proud. You’ll think you’re actually self-sufficient. You’ll become intolerably judgmental of others. And when that temporary buzz finally starts to wear off, the need for more will still be there, and it’ll take your anxiety, your emptiness, and your striving to an even more intense level.

    If you’re heart is discontent because it’s set on the wrong things, then both failure and success, both suffering and abundance, will change you in ugly and undesirable ways, and you won’t have the stability to face either situation well.

Discontent and Relationships

    Discontent will destroy your relationships with others, too. If your heart is a black hole of desire, then the people who’re closest to you will inevitably get sucked into the gravitational pull of your neediness.

    You’ll become a taker—a consumer of people—who uses relationships as a means to the end of personal fulfillment. You won’t be able to enjoy people for who they are or love them in self-denial because you’ll always be leveraging your relationships to get the thing you’re chasing—to get closer to the contentment that eludes you.

    And if someone in your life should happen to experience blessing and joy—if they end up experiencing the wealth or beauty or work success or romantic relationship or social approval that you’ve tried to build your life on—you will stew in bitterness toward them. Other people’s blessings will just be ammunition for your hatred. Your discontented heart won’t allow you to celebrate their joys. It’ll lead you to covet them in ways that wish them harm (and potentially even actively work for their harm).

Discontent and the Glory of God

    But most significantly, discontent defames God. Just consider what a lack of contentment says about God. That kind of life says:

  •     “God isn’t good because he hasn’t cared for me properly.”
  •     “God isn’t wise because he hasn’t provided for my needs.”
  •     “God isn’t loving because he’s left me stranded, empty, and alone.”
  •     “God isn’t sufficient because his presence, his promises, and his blessings aren’t enough to satisfy. I need something else truly be happy and whole.”

    And ultimately, it says that God isn’t really God. You see, the thing that controls your contentment, that’s your god. That’s the thing that you’re really putting your hope in and chasing after and worshiping. That’s the thing you’re really loving and bowing down to. At the core of discontent, there’s always a substitute god that we actually believe is more desirable, satisfying, and glorious than the God of the Bible. So if you want to know what you’re worshiping—whether you’re religious or not—all you have to do is ask a simple question: What do I believe would actually make me content?

    And this discontent lies underneath every other kind of sin. Let’s just run through a few of the 10 commandments.

    Why do we break the seventh commandment in sexual unfaithfulness? Because we’re not content with God’s gifts to us in our singleness or our marriage, so we seek fulfillment in sexual consumerism.

    Why do we break the eighth commandment and steal? Because we’re not content with what God’s granted us and are driven to take from others.

    Why do we break the ninth commandment and lie? Because we’re not content with what the truth will bring us, and we can get more money, approval, or power by bending it.

    Why do we break the fourth commandment and refuse to rest? Because we’re not content with God, and we throw ourselves into the never ending work we believe will give us the acclaim, the accomplishments, or the comfort that will fill up that hole.

    Discontent makes us personally miserable, sure. But it goes way farther than that. If left unchecked, discontent will fuel all sorts of dangerous patterns in your life that will destroy your stability, your relationships, and your enjoyment of and obedience to God. So if we’re going to walk with God and experience satisfaction—and those two things are intimately connected to each other—we have to know the secret of contentment.

The Secret of Contentment

    There are a few typical ways we try to solve our contentment problems.

Counterfeit Contentments

    Often, we believe that the secret of contentment is changing our circumstances:

  •     “If only I had more money…”
  •     “If only I lost 10 pounds…”
  •     “If only I had a more fulfilling job…”
  •     “If only I had a spouse…”
  •     “Or a different spouse…”

    “…then I could finally be content. Then I could finally be satisfied.”

    But that totally misses the point. Like Steinbeck showed us, our discontent doesn't start with material deficiency. It starts in a heart that’s searching for peace, fullness, healing, and joy in things that can’t possibly give it.

    So simply changing your circumstances won’t actually deal with the root of your discontent. At best it’ll offer you a counterfeit contentment. It’ll give you the temporary exhilaration of change, but it won’t give you long-lasting satisfaction. Why? Because your hungry heart will just keep starving for more.

    On the other hand, we sometimes believe that the secret of contentment is deadening our desires. This is the stoic option. “If I harden myself and stop desiring things and become emotionally invulnerable, then I’ll never have to deal with the ache of disappointment.”

    But that’s a counterfeit contentment, too. It settles for the mere absence of pain when real contentment is actually a fullness of joy, not just a lack of unmet desires. And if you try to harden yourself to cure your discontent, all you’ll end up doing is becoming a shell of a person who’s protected yourself from pain, but has given up the possibility of loving others and enjoying life in the process.

    Neither of those approaches will bring real contentment. So what’s the real secret?

The Real Secret

    Paul tells us. He’s writing from a prison cell, thanking the Philippians for their love and financial support. But even in his gratitude, he doesn’t want them to get the impression that he was somehow in a state of spiritual desperation. He had needs that they graciously met, yes. But even in the midst of that need, he was content.

    Listen to what he says: “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.” And here’s the secret: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” The secret of Paul’s contentment is a person, the person of Jesus Christ.

    Now a lot of people will quote verse 13 (“I can do all things through him who strengthens me”) as a sort of self-empowerment motto. It’s basically become the Christian version of “You can do anything you set your mind to,” only it’s “You can do anything you set your mind to because Jesus will help you.”

    But all you have to do is read that verse in connection with the rest of these verses to see that Paul’s not saying, “Jesus will help make my dreams come true.” He’s saying, “I can do all things—I can face plenty and hunger, abundance and need, any and every circumstance—with spiritual peace because I know the Jesus who fills me up and satisfies me and gives me the strength to receive all of life’s ups and downs with contentment.”

    You see, the defining message of Christianity is that, in Jesus, God gave you himself so that you could be joyfully contented with him for all eternity. All of us have sought our contentment in other things. We’ve de-Godded God and set up substitutes that we thought would bless us with satisfaction. We’ve fractured the relationship with the only true source of joy, and God would’ve been perfectly just to leave us in our spiritual emptiness and pour out his holy anger on us.

    But instead, he sent his Son into the world to live the perfectly contented life of worship that we should’ve lived.

    And then Jesus went to the cross.

    His relationship with God the Father was fractured so that ours could be healed. He received the anger and death that we deserved so that we could receive God’s gracious, loving pleasure and a life of unbreakable fellowship with him. He gave up all the rights he had as the Son of God so that we could be daughters and sons who have not only a place in God’s family but an infinite, eternal inheritance. He took on our guilt so that we could be counted righteous. He took on our shame so that we could be made beautiful and acceptable. He walked into the hell of spiritual starvation at the cross so that we could be granted the satisfaction of spiritual fullness with God.

    And do you know what that means? It means there’s no place life can take you where you aren’t securely wrapped in the love of God. It means that no matter where you go, you go in fellowship with God. It means that nothing in the whole universe can strip away the blessings of forgiveness, approval, beauty, and life that Jesus lived and died to purchase for you. And in those promises lies the strength to be content as you go through all of life.

    Jesus—in all the glory of his gospel grace—is uniquely able to satisfy the spiritual hunger in your heart because he’s uniquely able to reconcile you to the God you were made for.

    So your contentment doesn’t have to rise and fall with your circumstances. In Christ, you’ve got God, and all the blessings of belonging to God, in every circumstance.

    And you don’t have to deaden your desires to escape the ache of disappointment. In Christ, you can finally let your desires become fully alive as you stop settling for counterfeit contentment and run full throttle after the eternal joy that only God can offer.

    When you know the secret—when you know Jesus—you can for the very first time in your life experience a security, a fullness, a contentment with the power to endure.

Fertile Soil

    Discontent very often grows in the fertile soil between what you think you deserve and what you think you’ve been given. When you’re convinced that you deserve everything and have been given peanuts, discontent thrives and blooms.

    But meeting Jesus shrinks the distance between those two. In fact, meeting Jesus actually reverses it, because meeting Jesus shows me that I’ve deserved far less than I thought and I’ve been given far more than I could’ve ever imagined.

    And that’s the fertile soil for contentment to sprout and blossom into something truly beautiful.

The Fruits of a Contented Heart

    As the soil of your heart is tilled with the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus—as contentment finally takes root and anchors in all the blessings Jesus grants you—a number of fruits will spring up in your life.

The Fruit of Resilience

    Contentment will bring a stable resilience in every kind of situation. A discontent heart can’t handle either failure or success without being changed in ugly ways. Your success will make you proud and even more voracious in your need to gain, and your failure will leave you hopeless but still striving.

    But as you cultivate contentment in Jesus, you can both succeed and fail with a peaceful joy and a resilient stability that isn’t defined by what happens to you.

    That kind of steadiness is one of the main characteristics Paul wants us to see: “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.”

    So you can lose your money and still be content because God promises as your Father to meet your truest needs with his grace and to grant you a heavenly inheritance as his child. And you can gain all the money in the world without becoming a self-sufficient miser because you see your money as a gift, not your god.

    When you have power, you won’t be obsessed with protecting it and accumulating more. You’ll be able to exercise that power with a humility and fairness that stems from contentment with God. And when you don't have power, you’ll still have joy because you belong to the God of all power who promises to use that power for his glory and your good.

    If you’re content in the gospel, you can feel beautiful without obsessively comparing yourself to others. And you can feel ugly without despair because Christ’s beauty is the beauty that truly defines you.

    You can receive approval from others without becoming a people-pleasing addict. And you can experience rejection with deep security because God has already announced his approval over you in Jesus.

    Tim Keller’s fond of saying that, if the gospel is true, then your success won’t go to your head, and your failure won’t go to your heart. When you’re content in Jesus, neither your successes nor your failures will control you. Neither your abundance nor your need will have ultimate power over you because your confidence in God’s blessings toward you in the gospel will give you a stability that can handle both situations with calmness, grace, and joy. You’ll be constant and resilient in the good times and the bad

The Fruit of Relational Peace

    Contentment will bring peace in your relationships, too. Instead of being a taker who uses other people as a means to contentment, you’ll be able to relate to others out of your contentment in Christ. So because you’re content in Christ’s gift of himself, you’ll become a giver who’s generously willing to offer your money, your time, your wisdom, your home, your whole life to serve others.

    Instead of sucking the life out of people with constant complaints and neediness, you’ll become a source of life and blessing that other people long to be around.

    And where discontent inevitably makes you bitter and hateful when other people experience joy, gospel contentment will free you to celebrate their victories and their blessings. You won’t be left stewing over what you don’t have because your heart will be consumed with all that you do have through Christ. And that will make you a better, more peaceful friend to the people in your life.

The Fruit of Worship

    Finally, your contentment will magnify the glory of God. Where discontent leads to resentment and complaining toward God, gospel contentment will empower a life of glad worship and thanksgiving. You’ll be able to receive all of life with gratitude—even the hard things—because the cross guarantees that everything God gives you, he gives in love, and everything he withholds from you, he withholds in love.

    When you know that—when you’re content in God’s faithfulness and goodness and wisdom revealed most perfectly in Jesus—you can actively worship him through anything. And as you find your contentment in Jesus, your life will declare to the world:

    Jesus is better than silver or gold

    Jesus is better than treasures untold

    Jesus is better than all I can find

    Jesus is better, and Jesus is mine

Cultivating Contentment

    Make it your business to cultivate that kind of contentment. Meet with Jesus in his word where God can feed you with his character and promises over and over again. Confess your discontent with the confidence that God’s mercy is yours. Commune with God in prayer—alone and with others—and spend time fixing your gaze on his sufficiency and delighting in his soul-satisfying beauty. Prepare your heart—and one another’s hearts—for both failure and success so that Christ will be your treasure in the midst of both. Build rhythms of worship with the church community that reinforce God’s message of hunger-quenching grace so that you’re formed in ways that run counter to our consuming culture. Participate consistently in corporate worship with a readiness to hear anew and afresh in readings and songs and prayers and sermons how Jesus is enough to fuel your contentment. And venture regularly to the Lord’s Table to be nourished and sustained with physical symbols of the gospel.

    Christ gave himself, body and blood, to give you God. So know the beauty of contentment by knowing Jesus in all his promise-keeping, heart-fulfilling glory.

[1] John Steinbeck, Sweet Thursday (Penguin: New York, 1954), 16.