Learning the Secret of Contentment

Over 2000 years ago (in 35 B.C.), the Greek philosopher Horace stated, “We rarely find anyone who can say he has lived a happy life, and who, content with his life, can retire from the world like a satisfied guest.”  Centuries later, the Rolling Stones expressed that sentiment for an entire generation of Americans when they sang, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”

But in Philippians 4:11-12, the apostle Paul asserted that he had learned the secret of contentment despite all obstacles: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.  In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.”

If there is a secret to contentment, and if Paul has found it, what is this secret?

In Philippians 4:8-14, Paul describes three key components of this secret:

1: Exchange “if only’s” for gratitudes.  These verses make the point that we find no contentment in life when we complain that we would be happy “if only….”  Instead, contentment is found when we express what we are grateful for.

Paul was raised in affluence.  He came from a well-to-do Jewish family by which he enjoyed the honor of belonging to the Jewish inner-circle as well as the privileges of Roman citizenship. Paul was an up-and-rising star in the Jewish community.  But then he became a Christian, and some would say that it was all downhill for Paul from that point on.  He experienced intense rejection from those who had previously admired him.  He was chased out of city after city, beaten with rods three times, flogged at least five times, shipwrecked three times, stoned once, exposed to death again and again, and imprisoned repeatedly.  In similar circumstances, others might have complained, “I could have been happy in life if only I had stayed with the popular route of life” or “if only I had not encountered so many adversaries” or “if only God had done a better job of protecting me.”  But, instead of saying, “If only,” Paul expressed what he was grateful for.  Specifically, Paul was grateful for the care of the Philippians and the provisions of God.  He said, “I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me…. It was kind of you to share my distress” (verses 10 & 14).  And he said, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” 

Paul found contentment not through completing an “if only” list, but by finding satisfaction in the life he had.  Steve Brown explains, “The most unhappy person in the world is not someone who didn’t get what he or she wanted.  The most unhappy person is the one who got what he or she wanted and then found out that it wasn’t as wonderful as expected.  The secret of a happy life is not to get what you want but to live with what you’ve got.  Most of us spend our lives concentrating on what we don’t have instead of thanking God for what we do have.  Then we wake up, our life is over, and we missed the beauty of the present.” 

2: Watch where you place your head. 

Parents of a baby who is beginning to crawl know that their child explores life through taste.  Babies put everything they touch into their mouths.  Caring parents, therefore, are careful not to put their child on the ground beside the city dump, where sanitation workers have just dumped today’s collection of garbage.  Parents understand that many items in the city dump would not be safe tor their child to put into her mouth, so they will not set their child down in such a dangerous location.

What about our hearts and minds?  Do we pay attention to the dangers around us?  Do we guard ourselves from setting our minds near spiritual dumps where our souls might be injured or poisoned?  Or are we careful to surround our minds with those things that are good and safe and healthy.  Verse 8 stresses, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable,  whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” 

3: Put into practice what you have learned. 

In verse 9, Paul instructs us, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” 

Over and over and over again in Scripture, God makes it clear to us that our faith is to be active, that we are to put our energy into living out what we believe.  That’s why Paul calls us to “keep on doing” what we learn and receive and hear and see.  Susanna Wesley says it powerfully, “There are two things to do about the gospel—believe it and behave it.” 

Verse 9 promises that as we do so “the God of peace will be with [us].”  The presence of the God of peace is closely tied to experiencing the secret of contentment.  As we put our faith into practice, we experience the closeness of the God of peace, and we find the secret of contentment. 

An anonymous saying reads, “If you are not getting much out of the Christian life, it may be because you have not very much invested in it.”  If we want to “get much out of the Christian life,” if we want to experience the peace of God from the God of peace, and if we want to experience the secret of contentment even in trying times, we need to be serious about putting into practice what we learn in the Scriptures.  


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