Most of us know we ought to practice contentment. When difficulty or delay comes our way, we can rattle off Philippians 4:11 like we’re still in second grade Sunday school. But we don’t always know what contentment is. We assume that it’s “just letting go” or painting a happy face on hard circumstances.
In this light, contentment seems like an inadequate response to financial strain or family drama, to cancer or colds, to loneliness or longing. It seems like laying down in the middle of a hurricane. It seems like fiddling while the city burns. It doesn’t seem like much of a response at all.
Contentment may seem passive. But it’s not.
That familiar verse from Philippians highlights this: “I have learned to be content,” writes Paul (4:11 ESV, emphasis added). Contentment isn’t a limp virtue. It has to be learned, pursued, practiced, repeated, maintained—it requires action. A few verses later, Paul describes contentment as “do[ing] all things” (Phil. 4:13). Contentment isn’t a slow twiddling of spiritual thumbs, it’s doing something. It’s doing everything. It’s active obedience that expresses itself in all areas of our lives.
Consider three things that contentment does:
Contentment Looks Up, Not Down
When we face difficult circumstances, our first inclination is to focus on the situation at hand: How do I pay these bills? When will I get that positive pregnancy test? Where can I find a new job? Why don’t I have the life I’ve always wanted?
Contentment, however shifts our focus. In Jeremiah Burroughs’s classic work on contentment, he defines contentment as “that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.” Contentment recognizes that our circumstances come from a good God, and it causes us to lift our eyes and look trustingly to the Lord.
The secret of contentment is not in having perfect circumstances—enough money or elite status or ideal relationships. Rather, the secret of contentment is placing our ultimate hope in something secure: The Lord will never leave us or forsake us; he is our help, so there is no reason to fear (Heb. 13:5–6). The God who has loved us with an everlasting love (Jer. 31:3) will continue to care for us through all the changing circumstances of our fleeting lives. To be content, look up.
Contentment Looks In, Not Out
In C.S. Lewis’s novel, The Horse and His Boy, the boy Shasta questions Aslan (Lewis’s Christ-figure) about circumstances in his friend Aravis’s life. Rather than explaining himself, Aslan redirects Shasta’s focus: “Child,” he replies, “I am telling you your story, not hers. I tell no one any story but his own.”
Difficult circumstances often make us look with longing over the fence into other people’s lives: Why is she married and I’m not? Why did he get the promotion I wanted? Why did they buy that house while we’re stuck in an apartment? Why is my life so different from theirs?
But contentment refuses to look out at everyone else. Instead, Contentment looks inward, at our own heart, and rejoices in what God is doing there.
Peter reminds us that though difficult times may feel like an indiscriminate blow from a sledgehammer, we have God’s assurance that they are precisely what is “necessary” (1 Pet. 1:6). And though they may feel like they will never end, we have his word that they are only “for a little while” (1 Pet. 1:6). What’s more, we can “rejoice” (1 Pet. 1:6) in the story God is writing for us, because he is using our circumstances to strengthen our faith (1 Pet. 1:7). Our story may not look like the stories of our friends and neighbors, but God has specific things he is accomplishing in us. To be content, look in.
Contentment Looks Ahead, Not Behind
In the whirlwind of trials, we can often get distracted by all the steps that led us to our current situation: What if I had never sent that text? What if I hadn’t met that guy? What if we hadn’t bought this house and had so many children? What if my life could have turned out differently?
Contentment, however, focuses on what is ahead, not what was behind (Phil. 3:13–14). Contentment looks ahead to Christ’s glory.
Because we know that God does all things for our good (Rom. 8:28), because we rest secure in his love for us and our union to him (Rom. 8:38-39), and because we have been given the indispensable help of his Holy Spirit (Phil. 2:13), we don’t have to be consumed with the past. Instead, in this moment, we can seek to bring glory to God (Phil. 2:14-15).
This truth also equips us to face every unknown situation that awaits us in the future. Paul writes that he “can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13); his contentment for today—and for tomorrow—rests on a God who is “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). We don’t know what the coming days will hold, but almost certainly we will face disappointments and frustrations and losses. The particular circumstances of our future are unknown to us, but the loving care of our all-powerful God is certain.
In our pursuit of contentment, we look for help from Christ himself (Phil. 4:13), the only perfectly content man. He is the one who was rich and yet became poor—denying himself every comfortable circumstance—so that we could share the lasting riches of his glorious inheritance in eternity (2 Cor. 8:9). To be content, look ahead!
Tomorrow, the sun will come up, the alarm will sound, the calendar will advance, and your life will go on. For some of us, a new day will bring a fresh set of events—new responsibilities, new relationships, new trials, new expectations. For others, this day will be much like the day before and the day before that and the day before that. But whether the Lord brings us unexpected circumstances or asks us to remain faithful in familiar ones, we trust he will bring only what is best.
Ultimately, contentment is not passive because God is not passive. Every day, he is at work. He will accomplish his grand purposes of exalting Christ, bringing sinners to salvation, and making his children more like his Son—and he will do it in all the moments of your days. In this, you can be content.
Editor's Note: This post originally appeared at the blog for Credo Magazine and is used with permission.