Last week we talked about Paul’s take on contentment and his experience of it regardless of his circumstances. But do we really expect to experience contentment in any and every circumstance? Let’s face it: we live in a fallen and broken world. Dreaded diagnoses still come. Friends still die. Marriages still fail. Layoffs still happen. If we aren’t experiencing any of these things right now, we all know that it’s quite possible that it’s just a matter of time. How on earth are we supposed to find contentment in the face of life in a fallen world?
While there isn’t a set formula, I’d like to suggest five things we can do. These are practices, not one-time events. I return to them over and over, and the tougher my circumstances are, the more often I do them. I’d love to hear about what you’ve found helpful!
- Acknowledge our own brokenness and insufficiency. Contentment or “self-sufficiency” paradoxically only comes when we rely on God and His power. It doesn’t come from our circumstances or from our ability to handle them. I’ve written about this idea at length elsewhere, so I won’t dig deeply into it here. Instead, I’ll just quote a bit of what I wrote:
When we recognize, accept, and then integrate our own weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and brokenness into our lives, God brings healing. It is here where we meet Jesus, for it is only when we welcome our own weakness, need, poverty, and insufficiency that we are able to welcome him.
- Trust in God’s character, not in particular circumstances or outcomes. Paul’s joy and contentment in Philippians 4 aren’t because of the financial gift he had received (the outcome). Paul rejoiced in God because of the evidence of the Philippians’ faith that could be seen in their gift. Another good example can be found in the OT, where God led the Israelites in the wilderness. He was faithful (His character), despite their unfaithfulness. That said, we are never told that the journey was easy (the circumstances) because of God’s presence:
Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothes did not wear out and your feet did not swell during these forty years. Know then in your heart that as a man disciplines his son, so the Lord your God disciplines you. (Deuteronomy 8:2–5)
- Be obedient to God’s call on our lives. This obedience can be general obedience to Scriptural commands or specific obedience to something in particular that God is calling you to do. Maybe God has called you to walk away from a dating relationship that doesn’t honor Him. Maybe He has called you to stop gossiping. Maybe He is calling you to trust Him with your finances by tithing. Paul’s contentment didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was a part of his lived experience in obeying God’s call.
- Remember that it’s a process. Paul learned contentment through his experiences. While this contentment isn’t listed as a fruit of the Spirit, I think a similar principle applies. Fruit takes time. It doesn’t just magically appear in our shopping bag or on our plate.
- Cultivate the soil of your life. If fruit takes time, it also grows in the right environment. At some level, contentment relates to our perception of the world around us. In Romans 12:2 Paul urges us to “be transformed by the renewing of” our minds. In Philippians 4:8, just before he talks about the contentment he’s learned, Paul urges his readers to focus on that which is beautiful:
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)
Paul tells his audience that thinking about these things and practicing what he has modeled for them will lead to God’s peace in their lives. Thinking about what is beautiful can take practice and discipline. It’s a choice we have to make every day, over and over again. It ties to what James Bryan Smith has called “mind discipleship.” (Personally, I love his podcast Things Above, where he develops this idea and provides weekly “Thoughts from Above” to meditate on.)
Ultimately, there is no formula. We won’t find contentment by just memorizing this verse and “claiming” its promise. We can’t just take five steps and be overwhelmed with a sense of well-being and contentment. Maybe it happens that way sometimes, but often it comes as we walk with God day in and day out. And while the contentment may not just magically appear, one day we may all of the sudden realize that we too have learned contentment through our experience of walking with God. I’m guessing it won’t be in spite of our circumstances, but because of them.
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The image of the apple tree is by Manfred Richter, courtesy of Pixabay.