Listen: LifeWords Q&A Podcast, Episode 88
The Bible teaches us to be content with our situation in life. Does this mean that Christian’s shouldn’t feel frustrated or desire for growth and change? In this episode of the LifeWords Q&A podcast, Clare and David take a close look about what it really means to be content. Listen above, or read below.
CB: “The Bible tells me to be content with my life. But there’s so much that needs changing in my life. Surely being content doesn’t mean that things can’t change?” Today’s question… is one that’s relevant to now but it’s one that’s been relevant for as long as humanity is existed, isn’t it David?
DR: Yes, it is. You know, we’re gonna be talking about contentment, which is really the theme of today. It sounds really wonderful. It’s wonderful to be content, and I think we all agree with that. But what I want to do today is just to unpack that a little bit to sort out, what we really mean when we say we should be contented, and what we don’t mean.
CB: That’s good, we need to find a distinction because I think we can get it confused with a lot of things. So what is it? What isn’t it?
DR: Well, let’s just explore, for example, when Paul speaks, and what’s that verse in Philippians?
CB: Philippians chapter four, and I’ve got that here. I’ll read it out, yeah. “I have learned to be content, whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I’ve learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty, or in want.” And it does lead some people, David to think, “Oh, well, does that mean I should just stay hungry and be satisfied with it?”
DR: That’s right. And remember, Paul was writing that in prison. And I’m pretty sure that if someone had said to Paul, “okay, prison door’s open, you’re free”, Paul wouldn’t have said, “Oh, no I’m content here in prison”.
Now, I think the context of what Paul is saying there is very important. Contentment is not complacency. Contentment doesn’t mean they just sit back and leave things as they are. For example, I mean, just imagine some of the great ones in Christian history – Wilberforce, Martin Luther King, Shaftesbury, Wesley – all these people, they were not content with how things were, and their discontent drove them to good positive action, changes.
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And I as an individual Christian, can I be content with my level of maturity? Can I be content with the way I love and forgive other people? Of course not. But contentment doesn’t mean that we sit back lazily and complacently and just say, “Oh, well, things are just the way they are and nothing will change them”.
Now, I think we get a bit of a clue when Paul – later on in that text that you read, Paul goes on to talk about saying, “I can face all circumstances through Christ who strengthens me”. And I think what Paul is getting at there is, he will trust God to sustain him and enable him whatever the situation. So Paul is saying, “hey, if I’m in a good place, God will look after me. If I’m in a bad place, God will look after me. If I’m free, God will look after me. If I’m in prison, God will look after me. And I think that’s the context in which Paul is speaking about contentment. He’s not saying, “Let’s sit back and do nothing”. Elsewhere in the scriptures, I think in that same book in Philippians, he says he wants to “press on”, that he’s at a particular place wants to press on. So that’s not contentment there, in the sense of lazy apathy, just accepting things the way they are. It is perfectly okay for a Christian to want to change or seek to change the circumstances, get a job promotion, change jobs, change location. Much Christian work has benefited from one Christian saying, “I’m not compelled to be just where I am. I think I can serve God somewhere better”.
CB: Yeah, that’s good. And another area of life that comes to mind is relationships. It could be misinterpreted to mean, “Be satisfied that your marriage is terrible. Just be happy with that.” But no, we should be seeking to improve our relationships; as well as, there’s this tension of being complete in God and being content in him, and knowing that he is enough, whilst things aren’t perfect – but also strive to improve and bring God’s love and healing and restoration to broken things.
DR: That’s exactly right. And that’s a good summary of the tension, I think Clear, we can both accept the present circumstances and yet be open to the possibility of improving them.
Let me just say a little bit more about discontent. Ungodly discontent is characterized by two things. One is greedily coveting what someone else has. “I am not content with the house I’ve got, with the job I’ve got. I want more. I want what that other person has.” That’s not good discontent.
The other sign that we’re practicing ungodly discontent, is when we’re not thankful for where we are and what we are. I can both say, “I thank God for who I am and for how God has led me to this point, but yes, I do want to move on”. But ungodly discontent, what that tends to do is to say, “I’m not grateful for where I am, I’m not serving God just where I am, I need to be somewhere else”.
I think a truly contented person can say, this is where I am, this is what I’m doing. And I will serve God to the best of my ability right here, right now. But I am always looking and seeking further opportunities.
So I think a key indicator about your degree of contentment is your degree of thankfulness for where you are now, and also to be querying yourself as: “Am I greedily seeking after something else to such a degree, that the grass is always greener somewhere else?”
I reckon if we lack gratitude for where we are, now we’ve got a problem. But if we have gratitude for where we are now, I think that’s a sign of good contentment, even though it’s quite compatible with saying, “Well, God, what else? What next?”
CB: That’s good, that’s a good key having gratitude. It makes me think of maybe entrepreneurs and so on who can be so driven, that no sooner do they achieve one goal, that they’re setting the next one – and meanwhile, the team around them is burning out and dropping like flies, because they don’t pause to celebrate.
And, I mean, I can definitely look back at a period in my life when I was younger, where I was so focused on great big impressive visions for the future, that I lost the simple art of appreciating what was in front of me. And I think that can actually be a real key cause of things like depression. People can have everything they need and still not be content, because they’ve lost sight of being grateful for the present moment. Which is why I think things like mindfulness and meditation have been discovered by psychology to be really key in helping people recover in mental health, because that’s all about contentment and acceptance of the present moment.
DR: That’s right, it’s acceptance of the present moment, without necessarily sort of just sitting back and saying, “Oh, well, this is how it’s always going to be forever”. I don’t think Paul wanted to be in prison! At the same time, he said “right now I will accept it the way I am”.
I’m reminded, of, I forget who wrote it, it might have been Eugene Peterson or one Christian great, who said “contentment means boldly seeking the treasures of God, but also being aware that those treasures may be just beneath your feet”. And I think that’s a good illustration of contentment: “Lord, I want the very best for myself and those I love. And that may mean a change; it may mean all sorts of radical changes and moving on from wherever you are – but it can also be that God is saying “the treasure that I want to give you, the treasure that you seek, it’s right there”. So I think that’s very much a part of contentment to say, “God, I’m going to discover that treasure beneath my feet, so that I’m not always restlessly greedy for something else – when in fact, the treasures of God are staring me in the face right here and right now”.