Contentment is one of the most difficult Christian virtues to attain. Almost four hundred years ago, Jeremiah Burroughs referred to the “rare jewel” of Christian contentment. It is safe to say that contentment is no more common in our day than it was in Burroughs’. Yet, it remains one of the most crucial virtues. A contented Christian is the one who best knows God’s sovereignty and rests in it. A contented Christian trusts God, is pure in heart, and is the one most willing to be used of God—however God sees fit.
We live in a world that breeds discontent. We are bombarded with the message that to be happy we need more things, less wrinkles, better vacations, and fewer troubles. But, ultimately, the problem is the sinful human heart. We are often discontented in our jobs, our marriages, our churches, our homes — in most areas of our lives. We can easily despair that we will never be able to attain contentment. But the Bible teaches us not only that we must be content (Heb. 13:5), it teaches us that we can be content.
This is the point that the Apostle Paul makes in Philippians 4:
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. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (vv. 11–13)
Twice in this passage, Paul says that he has “learned” to be content. Contentment does not come naturally to the sinful human heart. We need God’s grace to strengthen us and to change our hearts. But we also have the responsibility to learn contentment. It requires effort.
The fact that Paul refers to the “secret,” or “mystery,” of contentment, however, indicates not only that contentment does not come naturally, but also that how we pursue contentment is contrary to human ways of thinking. For example, the world typically teaches that the way to achieve peace in your life is to get out of difficult situations that cause you hardship or are not personally fulfilling. But Paul clearly indicates that he has learned to be content both in good situations and in bad — including prison, which is where he was when he wrote this letter. There are also different worldly ways of thinking about contentment and material goods. The “more is better” mentality teaches us that to be satisfied in life, we need this product or that gadget. There is also a worldly “simple living” mentality that says satisfaction comes by getting rid of stuff and living with less. Yet Paul says he has learned to be content in both plenty and hunger, in abundance and need. While there is some biblical truth to the thinking that we should not pursue earthly goods continually, a simple lifestyle alone does not guarantee a contented heart.
Ironically, in many ways the greatest “mystery” of contentment is that to achieve it we must be full of discontent. As Burroughs says, the contented Christian “is the most contented man in the world, and yet the most unsatisfied man in the world.” If we look back one chapter from Paul’s classic passage on contentment in Philippians 4, we read a passage that sounds decidedly discontented:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:12–14)
Far from being the opposite of the contentment that Paul describes in chapter 4, the discontent of chapter 3 is a necessary component of true Christian contentment.
Notice here that contentment does not equal complacency. Contentment, in fact, requires a holy ambition. What is this holy ambition? To understand what Paul means when he says that he has not “obtained this” (3:12), we need to look back to verse 10: “that I may know [Christ] and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” The contented Christian is the one who knows Christ but who has a restless pursuit to know Him more. This knowledge of Christ comes in the Word, in prayer, and in worship. But it also comes in active ministry, which is exactly what Paul is describing in these verses. Paul wants to know the power of Christ in his ministry, to share the suffering of Christ that comes to His servants, and to become like Christ in His death—dying to self, living a life of selfless servanthood.
Burroughs states, “A soul that is capable of God can be filled with nothing else but God.” This, ultimately, is the “secret of contentment”: to know Christ but to press on to know Him more in all areas of life. When we know Him and press on to know Him better, we become like Him. When we know Him and press on to know Him better, we rest in His providence and provision, and we follow His call for us—not seeking our own agenda, but content with His.
The encouraging thing is that what is beyond our ability is attainable. Like Paul, we “can do all things through [Christ].”