29th April 2020
by Andrew Ussher
“I have learned, in whatever situation I am, to be content.” (Phil 4:11 ESV)
“For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:10 ESV)
If you are anything like me, contentment has always been one of those challenging, searching, somewhat humbling exhortations in Scripture that you know you are supposed to pursue, but which you feel a constant sense of failure and unease over, and which you’d never claim to have completely achieved.
When thinking about contentment, we generally focus on our attitudes towards money and material possessions and rightly so, as the Scriptures clearly challenge us in exactly this way. Passages such as 1 Timothy 6:6-8 (“Godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content”) and Hebrews 13:5 (“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have”) clearly tie the concept of contentment very directly to our attitudes toward money and the things money can buy.
But what has really challenged me in the past few days are the two verses quoted at the top of this article. They seem to be dealing with contentment in a different sense – not just relating to money and material possessions, but much more directly addressing the need to be content with my circumstances. Situational contentment.
In the current context, this is a very relevant and challenging reality for us to face as believers. If you could honestly take stock of your current situation and circumstances, would you say that your attitude and your mindset would be more accurately described as being content or being contentious? There’s no question that the clamour of voices around us in society is increasingly one of unrest, frustration, complaining, questioning authority, chafing at restrictions, anger at the personal impacts being felt, and rising up against those in positions of governmental responsibility. This was, sadly, characteristic of our age even before Coronavirus lockdowns were implemented – but it has become more and more prevalent as each week in the current environment has passed.
As believers, in the face of these groundswells, what should our attitude be? Well – if we are willing to allow the Word of God to be our guide and to adopt the apostle Paul as a role model to emulate, then the answer is unmistakable – we should be marked by contentment – not contention! Contentment will not be produced by feeding my soul on steady newsfeeds, talkshows, social media posts, twitter streams or other avenues whereby the shrill voices of outrage can inflame my own fleshly impulses. But, thank God, contentment can come if I am willing to quietly yield to the work of the Holy Spirit within me, and allow the plain teaching of the Word of God to guide me.
A careful consideration of the above-quoted passages will yield some valuable lessons about being content. But before examining them together, can I ask you to just pause, and honestly search your heart in the presence of the Lord – are you truly willing to be content? Or are you too angry, or frustrated or disappointed or bitter? Contentment is a choice – and these verses will help show us that it’s a very real possibility for us. It brings freedom, and results in joy. It is honouring to God and liberating to us as believers. But it’s a deliberate choice you and I must make for ourselves. It involves surrendering my self-will and my self-serving interests and resting entirely on God’s will and His purposes. Only proceed with the rest of this article if you’re willing to face that choice squarely, and with God’s help, pursue a path of contentment in spite of current adverse circumstances.
Here are some of the lessons I have gleaned from Paul’s personal musings on contentment from Phil 4:11 and 2 Cor 12:10:
1. Contentment is something you learn from experience
Paul writes in Phil 4:11 “I have learned, in whatever situation I am, to be content”. He expresses a very similar thought in 2 Cor 12:10 with the little word “then”. He writes “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content…” To understand what he means by “then”, we must look to the previous verses, where we find that he’s been talking about adversity in chapter 11, and about personal hardship in the early part of chapter 12. He’s been describing lessons learned regarding his own weakness and inability, and about God’s grace and power. He had faced intense trials, experienced deep disappointment, had earnestly cried to God and didn’t get the answers he wanted. These were not easy experiences – but they were valuable ones, because through them he had learned to be content! Could I gently suggest that our current circumstances, unpleasant though they may be, might just be the means through which God intends to teach us valuable lessons. Will adverse circumstances embitter me and drive me away from my God? Or will they soften me and draw me to Him? The most valuable lessons learned in life are often those beaten out on the anvil of bitter experience, and often they can’t be learned any other way.
2. Contentment means awareness of my circumstances
There’s a world of difference between blissful ignorance and naivete on the one hand, and genuine contentment on the other hand. Contentment is not the result of being unaware of my surroundings or oblivious to my adverse circumstances. Read Paul’s recounting in 2 Cor 11 of his life experiences. Was he oblivious to what was going on? No! He was intensely familiar with the heartaches, the pain, the suffering and the loss. He describes in 12:10 the “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities” he had passed through! In Phil 4:12 he says that he’s known what it is to be brought low as well as to abound. He had faced hunger as well as plenty, need as well as abundance. Paul was absolutely not saying that being content was somehow divorced from an accurate awareness of the situation. He was saying exactly the opposite. He states with clarity that he was content “in spite” of these circumstances. And more than that, he states that he was content in the circumstances themselves. That’s the force of the language in Phil 4:11 “I have learned, in whatever situation I am, to be content”. What a powerful message to us in our current situation. The circumstances may be bleak. Your disappointment and pain may be understandable. The hurt is real and the loss is indisputable. But that does not mean that you need to be bitter, discontented, angry or devastated. If, by God’s grace we can follow Paul’s example, then we can learn what it is to be content right in the middle of these struggles.
3. Contentment involves speaking to the Lord
Interestingly, in the earlier part of 2 Cor 12 we have Paul describing to us a particular personal trial he was called to endure. It was deep and biting and crippling and devastating. Notice what he did. He went to the Lord with it. Three times. And he did it honestly and specifically and earnestly. The text in v8 says he “pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me”. Could I suggest gently to you that the best thing you and I can do with our troubles, is to take them to the Lord. Speak reverently – but speak honestly, specifically, earnestly and openly to him. He already knows my heart. He already has measured my pain and my heartache. But he values hearing honestly from me. I must admit that one of the hardest things for me to do, is to honestly turn to the Lord when I’m broken and hurting and open up in his presence to tell him the truth. Even though I know he knows the truth – I somehow still almost resent at times taking it to him. If you’re struggling right now with hurt, disappointment, frustration and anger – rather than venting it at others or bottling it up within your soul – take it to the Lord, and leave it with him. He may not give you the answer you want (he didn’t for Paul) – but the process of taking it to him is a vital part of “learning to be content”.
Why should I be content?
I was smitten by the words Paul uses in 2 Cor 12:10 – “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities”. This is the great answer to why it’s so important for me to learn to be content. It’s for Him! Have you ever wondered how He feels when he hears your ranting and complaining, or when He witnesses your hostility and insubordination, or when he reads your posts or re-posts, or even more searchingly, when he peers into your heart and measures not just what you say or do, but the motives and the thinking behind it all? I find this personally very, very searching. It is an insult to Him when I am marked by ingratitude, discontent and anxiety. Conversely, how honouring it is to him, and how much he appreciates it when one of us faces adversity with a steady, quiet, humble, accepting attitude, relying on him and trusting him and “for his sake” being content in the midst of the circumstance.
How can I be content?
Finally, and possibly most importantly, Paul’s language in both of these passages helps us understand how we can learn to be content. It’s not just that Paul had a stronger character than us (although in my case I’m certainly willing to concede that this is abundantly true!) nor that he just had a “contentment” gene in his personality. In both passages, he gives us very clearly, in the immediate context, the source of his contentment. In 2 Cor 12:9 he gets a direct message from the Lord saying “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. And in Phil 4:13 he famously says “I can do all things through him (KJV supplies “Christ”) who strengthens me”. In the previous bullet point we learned that Christ is the answer to why we should be content. Here we now learn that Christ is also the answer to how we can be content. His strength is unrivalled, his power is immeasurable, his wisdom is inscrutable and his ways are unsearchable. And all of these infinite attributes that are uniquely his interact perfectly with our weakness and our dependence when we find ourselves in adverse circumstances. That’s the lesson Paul learned. Paul understood that his fate, ultimately, did not lie with the Jewish leaders or the Roman governors or his unjust enemies or some cruel hand of fate. His times were in the Lord’s hands – and recognizing that gave Paul every reason to simply accept them and be content. What a lesson for us!
So, my dear brother or sister, can I ask again the question with which I titled this article – are you content? You may be facing very trying circumstances. The valley may be deep and your hurt may be genuine. Your future may be gloomy and the prospects may seem bleak. But do not fall into the all-too-common trap of lashing out at others or languishing in self pity yourself. You are not where you are today because of the policies or restrictions of a Prime Minister, President or Premier. Your unfavourable circumstances are not because of some misguided initiatives launched and enforced by a Congress or a Cabinet, a Mayor or a Medical Chief. You and I are where we are because of the actions of our sovereign Lord. Not one detail of my current situation (or yours) falls outside his knowledge or his care. There is nothing about where I am or what I am facing that has not been allowed by him, and there is nothing that he cannot ultimately use for his glory and for my good.
So could I just encourage you to turn off the noise around you, protect yourself from poisonous information overload, and don’t wallow in a pit of despair or discontent. Turn to the Lord, learn from his word, rest in his love and rely on his grace.
May each of us humbly pray that, like this dear servant so many centuries ago, we might “learn, in whatever situation I am, to be content”.