Since discontentment is something we’ve seen in play since the very beginning, is there any hope for us today? Can we become content in who we are? In who God has made us to be? In the city He’s placed us in? In the community where He’s planted us? Can we be content using the gifts we’ve been given—these gifts, the ones that seem so small and insignificant by comparison—to serve those around us?
I’ve asked myself these questions before, and I have a suspicion you’ve had the same thoughts yourself. It’s no surprise what discontentment does to our souls, our ministries and our joy. So, of course we’re on the lookout for the secret sauce to being content. But is becoming a person who is fully con- tent even possible?
My answer is YES and NO.
You want the good news or the bad news first? I’ll start with the bad news.
No, we will never be totally, 100 percent perfect in this life as far as contentment goes (or in anything, really). Sure, we’ll be totally perfect at it one day, but not while we’re still here on earth, am I right?
Sounds like such a bummer if you ask me, but it’s true. We’re all still human. We’re all still broken people who will never completely outgrow our love for sinning. And though He can help us experience moments when we’re truly walking in the freedom He’s fought and won for us—even in the area of contentment—we won’t be all the way there until the day He takes us home.
So, no, we don’t ever get to fully escape the contentment struggle on this side of life. It will always be a struggle in certain seasons. Just will.
But the struggle itself is what leads to the good news. That’s because, just a reminder here: struggling with something isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s always good to be in the fight. Struggling means you’re not settling. Struggling means you’re not giving up. You’re striving. You’re growing. And growing is what God has made possible for us, we who otherwise would possess no hope for achievement or advancement. To be steadily growing in contentment—struggling to be satisfied—is where I hope you find me every day, fighting for it and getting better at it in all of my circumstances.
But it’s hard. I get it.
The reason why Paul is one of my favorite people in the Bible is because he was always so up front about his brokenness and his inability to follow Jesus on his own strength. That’s what makes him feel so real to me, makes him feel normal. He sounds like he understood the struggle I face, trying to do what I know is right even if I sometimes mess up in doing it.
Paul said, for example, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” I have so been there and done that, Paul. As in, today I have been there and done that.
You too? Ever been trying so hard to do the right thing but kept doing the wrong thing? You want to be content where God has placed you. You don’t want to be jealous of others’ positions. You don’t want to compare your gifts or your ministry to everyone you see online. You want to believe that God is always doing what’s best. You want to trust Him in all of your circumstances. You want to be happy with your own voice and calling. And yet you find yourself doing the very thing you hate. Lacking contentment. Constantly wishing your life could be different.
But Paul says you can grow consistently more contented. There is a way to make it to happen. And here it is: The secret to being content is letting God be your strength for doing it.
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Now I’m sure you’ve never abused this Scripture, but I have. When I was in high school, I actually wore this verse on my letter jacket. Our school let us put our names on the back of our jackets along with a favorite phrase underneath, and I chose the “I can do all things through Christ” of Philippians 4:13 for mine. But the reason I can say I was abusing it is because I wasn’t even following Jesus at the time, and yet I still wore that verse proud. Because, hey, I wanted to run faster in track, and make more baskets in basketball, and maybe even score a great boyfriend. That’s what I wanted to do. And if Christ was offering me the strength to do those things — to do “all things”— count me in. “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength,” right? I can do it all!
But to understand what Paul meant here —about doing all things through Christ— we need to back up a bit and read the verses that come before. Understanding what the Bible is saying requires reading it in context, and honestly we need some context for Philippians 4:13. Because without it, Paul sounds like he’s telling us we can count on Jesus always being on hand to help us do whatever we want in life, like Robin Williams as the genie in Aladdin. And yet the thing that Paul was giving God credit for doing in his life—the thing we can always be confident of doing “through him who strengthens me”—was what he’d discovered in Philippians 4:11.
For I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.
CONTENT. There it is—the word we’re all desiring in our lives. Contentment. Paul said he had learned to be content in whatever circumstance he found himself. Which, side note here, Paul wrote this letter while he was IN PRISON! So not only was he letting them in on a secret he’d found, but he was telling them he’d found it while languishing in forced confinement.
I’ve never spent a night in prison, although I’ve spent time ministering to women who have. But I wouldn’t need to be on speaking terms with a prisoner to know that the secret to finding contentment behind the bars of a jail cell should surely work everywhere else. So when Paul says, “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”—he’s saying that’s what we can do through Christ who gives us the strength.
There’s our secret. And notice it doesn’t depend on our circumstances.
Our world says contentment arrives in our lives when things finally start going well—when the job is secure, when the kids are behaving, when all your former problems become tied up in a nice, neat bow. Culture tells us that contentment is attainable by meeting our goals, realizing our dreams, basking in our success. We’d be content, we think, if we could ever find that peaceful place where everything settles down, where the pace is manageable, where people seem happy with us and where we’ve got all the time we need for working our plan.
I’m thinking here of a review I read recently on a Taylor Swift album. I’ve never been a huge T-Swift fan—not because of anything I don’t particularly like about her; I just haven’t added her songs to my listening rotations. But the reviewer based his praise on her reaching “a point of contentment in artistic and personal self-perception—a confidence that comes with a steady near-decade-and-a-half ascension to the top.” She’d worked hard. She’d made it. I mean, who wouldn’t feel content with their life if they were succeeding at the level of a Taylor Swift?
But do you see anything wrong with this form of thinking after what we’ve just read in Philippians from Paul?
Most people equate contentment with success. They make contentment conditional on their circumstances. And yet as followers of Jesus, we see from God’s Word that the secret to contentment is not success or power or happiness. It is only achieved through the strength God gives us for it, regardless of circumstances. Only through His promise of strength do we find contentment. And His strength is avail- able at all times, under any conditions, no matter if those conditions are making you happy or if they’re the most difficult ever.
When we get to a point in our lives that we TRUST GOD in such a way that we can look around at our life, our mess, our pain, our joy, our good things—whatever!—and say, “I trust You, Lord, in all of this because I get my strength from You and You alone,” that’s when we’ll finally start experiencing growth in our ability to be content.
We cannot drum up enough strength on our own for contentment in those seasons. We are simply not strong enough for it. But the strength of our Lord is.
In their book God’s Wisdom for Women, authors Patricia Miller and Rachel Gorman describe contentment this way: “Contentment is not finally getting to a place of peace and rest when all is complete, accomplished, finalized, or safe. Contentment comes amid the mess and pressures of life— the quiet confidence and assurance that God is in control.”
Sounds much easier said than done, am I right? It really is hard work. But it is doable work, we know, because we can “do all things” when we’re pursuing contentment from a heart that’s trusting in God alone.