Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. (Philippians 4:11-12)
Contentment is very difficult to define because it seems to exist outside conventional wisdom. Substituting the usual words like joy, happiness, and satisfaction isn’t sufficient. We can add fulfilled to the list, but we’re still not quite there. Our definition is still lacking. It still feels incomplete. We’re still reaching for the ‘whole truth’ and words remain inadequate. They don’t quite capture the truth that God intended. As I pondered today’s verses, looking for clarity and understanding, my thoughts settled on a daisy – perhaps the simplest of flowers with none of the intricate beauty and heady perfume of a rose or a lily but possessing something beyond price. Unlike their more exotic siblings, in rain or sunshine, good soil or bad, daisies will always bloom. It’s their very nature to do so, despite the external conditions. ‘Fancy flowers’ need a lot of work. They need careful tending, fertilizer, the right amount of water, the perfect situation, and a regiment of insecticides to bring them to bloom. Daisies simply get on with it. As I considered this – along with a picture of their somewhat cheeky, smiling ‘faces,’ I realized where the message lay.
To be content in all things is our natural condition – the one God created in us – but it is something we have to learn.
This immediately seems like an obvious contradiction. If it’s natural, we shouldn’t have to learn it, and if we have to learn it, it cannot be natural. This conflict is easily resolved. We were created to be complete – content – in God, but sin, self, and the world have leeched it out of us. So much other stuff has got in the way, infiltrated our minds and our emotions, and asserted desires and plans and goals that they have become our focus. We no longer live as God intended. Just as we have to ‘work out our salvation,’ drawing near to God daily and laying down self as we grow in Him, so we have to learn to be content.
Paul goes even further. He tells us learning to be content includes learning how to have and not to have, how to abound and be abased – in other words, how to be content despite the situations and conditions we may find ourselves in. It’s very easy to see that contentment involves far more than the simple dictionary definitions we can find. The truth is that contentment is not physical state. It’s a spiritual one, and can be better defined as ‘an internal satisfaction which does not demand changes in external circumstances.’ Satisfaction, in this rendering, is not worldly satisfaction or self-gratification. Those depend on our circumstances, but to be content looks beyond those to the inner man, the spirit, and to Christ in us.
Obviously, this immediately contradicts the wisdom of the world which has us setting different goals – short, medium, long term – and creating strategies to achieve them. We’re taught to dream big and chase after them, always looking at tomorrow rather than today, building a future rather than living in the present that God has given us. Our entire social, business, and government structure is designed to promulgate and facilitate this outlook, and this is the reason why we have to learn to be content. To do so, we have to obviously first ‘unlearn’ in order to replace the things of the world with the things of God.
Paul says that he has ‘learned how’ to be content. The how is always important, so how, exactly, do we learn this too? The first step is choice, and it’s seldom and easy choice. If we find ourselves in a place of abundance, it’s very difficult to decide that we will remain content even if everything we has is removed. Conversely, if we find ourselves without, it’s very difficult to choose not to long for and work towards the abundance and security we crave. Yet this is exactly what we need to do – to make the choice that, whatever happens, the condition of our inner man will not change.
Obviously, we are creatures of habit. What this means is that, especially in the beginning, that’s going to be a daily – or even moment by moment – choice. We’re subject to habitual thoughts and emotions. The things we have learned in our lives – thought patterns, emotional responses, learned behaviour – are all entrenched and need to be confronted and defeated. Learning to be content is a slow process of battling self in our minds and emotions until the wisdom of God rules in us. Each time we encounter something in us that raises itself up against God’s principle of contentment, we need to take it captive to the obedience of Christ. We make the choice and take action. No one can teach us and no one can learn it for us. It’s entirely our decision.
The difficulty is that we simply cannot do it. Self is a powerful enemy. It’s rooted deep in the fabric of who we are. It’s entwined in our very nature. Defeating self is rather like untangling countless balls of yarn that time and neglect have meshed together to create a creature all of its own. Though we may make the choice to learn to be content, and though we may earnestly desire to see it through to fruition, it can only be achieved in Christ. Verse 13 contains well-known words: I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Our choice includes total reliance on the one who has already won the battle.
It also means consciously giving up everything we regard as important, necessary, or desirable for the perfect will of God, and this is the crux of the matter. Learning to be content means learning that nothing has relevance outside of God. He is the source of everything I have, everything I am, and everything I could be. Learning to be content means coming to that place where we choose God first, where having Him is more important, more desireable, more necessary, than having anything else. It’s the place where, like that simple little daisy, we root ourselves in Him and bloom for His glory, irrespective or where we find ourselves. Learning to be content means coming to the place where we live, and breathe, and have our being in Him.
Above all, learning to be content is living in faith. It is the outworking of a sure and certain knowledge that God is sovereign, that His ways are perfect, and His authority in our lives is absolute. It means believing, absolutely and completely, that He everything under control, that this situation or circumstance will always work to our good because we love Him. We do not say we are content because we have, or because we have not. We are content because we have God – the great I AM, He who is able, He who loves us so much that He gave His life to restore us to Him.
Like everything, learning to be content requires constant practise. Everything in life is learned by repetition in one form or another. The more we do something, the easier it becomes. The more we choose to be content, the more we rely on Him to achieve it, the easier it will be to still the clamouring of the world and old habits. We practise to be content by giving thanks, giving praise, and living lives of worship and surrender. That first choice needs to be constantly enforced and reinforced. When we go from ‘have not’ to ‘have plenty,’ it’s often easy to let the choice slide, to become complacent rather than contented, to convince ourselves that it’s all good, and if we were to lose it all we would remain content. Affluence and ease are often our greatest enemies, and the only defence we have is our daily choice to look only to Him.
This doesn’t exclude having dreams, plans, and goals. God has no problem with those – He said Himself that without a vision, the people perish – provided they are centred in Him. It is an absolute truth that what is emptied and surrendered to Him will be filled according to His purposes. The visions and goals He gives us perfect, and we can be assured that they will manifest at the appointed time. This assurance adds the finishing touch to our definition of what it is to be content – the peace which passes all understanding. If we are content, we will have have peace in our spirit. Self, the world, and the devil will try to steal that form us constantly, but as we learn to be content we learn to recognise the danger and affirm our choice instead. Lord, I choose You, should be our daily declaration. When we learn to be content, we can be sure that the almighty purposes and power of God will work in and through us to His glory. Like the little daisy, our purpose is to bloom for Him no matter what. He will make it happen.
Thank You, Lord, for making Your truth simple and easy to understand. Thank You for the sure and certain knowledge that all we have is from You and is Yours, that as we learn to be content wherever we may find ourselves, we live in You, in Your perfect plans and purposes, and that nothing we encounter can move You. Grant us the peace, today, that comes when we learn to be content, so that we may glorify You in all things.