The Secret of Contentment

In Philippians chapter 4, the Apostle Paul delivers the seminal passage on Christian contentment. Paul asserts that he is, in a sense, never “in need,” because he has “learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (4:11).  The average man, such as I am, is not hard pressed, on a strictly intellectual plane, to comprehend this contentment of Paul’s. It might go something like this: Well yes, I suppose that if Paul always considered himself to stand in need of nothing, he would therefore have been satisfied with whatever he happened to have. However, when I move from this intellectual exercise to putting myself, as it were, ‘in the Apostle’s shoes,’ the scenario makes little sense to me, and might even seem irrational. For instance, how can a man who has nothing claim, with any credibility, that he is content? And how can this same man assert that, in times of abundance, he maintains the same degree of contentment, neither more nor less?

The only fitting answer to these questions is this: the Apostle Paul did not, in the least, count possessions or circumstances as factors in judging contentment.

What, then, is “the secret” [and he does refer to it as “the secret” (v. 12)] of contentment? If there be few who enter the “small gate” of salvation (Matthew 7:14), it stands to reason that fewer still will attain this degree of blessed contentment that Paul possessed. In “The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment,” Jeremiah Burroughs offers this sage advice:

A carnal heart knows no way to be contented but this: I have such and such possessions, and if I had this added to them, and the other comfort added that I have not now, then I should be contented…But contentment does come in that way; it does not come, I say, by adding to what you want, but by subtracting from your desires.

Burroughs suggests that most persons have this notion: that if I had more of what I want (carnally speaking), then I would be content. And further, Burroughs argues that this is mistaken; that the secret to real contentment is in adjusting what I desire (what I perceive that, if I had it, would cause me to be content).

Done rightly, this begins to get at the heart of Christian discipleship; namely, self-denial. But not just any stripe of self-denial, such as found in asceticism. Rather, we are given this three-fold command by Christ: to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. When preoccupation with carnal desires is supplanted by self-denying Christ following, the gauge of personal contentment will shift from flesh to Spirit, from instant gratification to abiding joy that transcends my circumstance.

Even for the believer, it is a rare thing to find this degree of contentment possessed by Paul. But let us not grow weary in this pursuit, for great is the testimony of the Christian who can display a godly contentment no matter the circumstance.


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