to live is Christ
If we’re going to talk biblical contentment (you know, so we have a factual definition and framework for continuing in the pursuit of a contented heart), then there’s probably no better place to start than Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Here’s my caveat: we don’t read the Word of God looking for options or convenience – we don’t get to be selectively obedient. We read the Word to know Christ, to celebrate Christ, to glorify Christ. That’s the foundation under my feet any time I approach the Word of God for study and I urge you to establish the same.
In chapter four, verses 8-13, we read one of the most famous passages on contentment in the Word:
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. The things you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity ; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.
Paul begins this segment telling us the secret, before he even gets to anything about contentment. That whole list of “whatevers” is the very key to cultivating a heart that is content – when we dwell on those things, the things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely and commendable, then we are building up a spirit of gratitude and contentment. But it’s easier said than done, isn’t it? In fact, with very little effort, our thoughts drift to those things with which we are discontent. Let me remind you that grumbling and complaining do not unlock the promises of God…these things say I want to be Lord of this moment. I know how it sounds when my 16 month old daughter is whining for something she cannot have, when I have determined it is not in her best interests. I wonder if I sound the same to the Father at times? Really, Lord? But I wanted that. I want. I want. I want. Nnnnnnhhhnn! [That’s the whining noise. You know what I’m talking about!]
But we are exhorted to dwell on the “these things”. Things that are lovely and true and right. It’s an active, deliberate choice we make with our thoughts. The indwelling life of Christ supplies us with everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3), which means we have exactly the strength we need to dwell on what is true and right. If you belong to the Father, you have the mind of Christ, y’all. You are not a victim of your mind, so discipline your thoughts!
In verse 11, Paul says he has learned to be content. The Greek word used here carries with it not just the idea of increasing in knowledge, but the implication of having learned something through use and practice. Paul isn’t just throwing at us some lofty ideal and he isn’t speaking from ignorance – he has had opportunity to practice contentment. May I remind you that this is the man who was shipwrecked, beaten, imprisoned, and in chains? In this great suffering for the cause of Christ, he learned to be content – he had to put into practice ultimate reality that living means Christ. Paul has a holy gladness that Christ is all and provides all he needs. He has seen this at work in his life and has chosen to put into practice “being content whatever the circumstances” by dwelling on what is right and worthy of praise.
And then how does he close the chapter? “By way of reminder, beloved, my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus” [v19]. And this is another post for another day, but I’m going to add it anyway: when we are practicing contentment by dwelling on what is right and true, when we are actively setting our minds to the reality that God meets all of our needs in Christ Jesus, then we are free to give ourselves to and for others. And isn’t that what Jesus was/is all about? Giving Himself away? In the same way, our lives are to be poured out as a drink offering for others. More on this later…
Scottish theologian Sinclair Ferguson defines contentment this way (emphasis mine):
“Christian contentment…is the direct fruit of having no higher ambition than to belong to the Lord and to be totally at His disposal in the place He appoints, at the time He chooses, with the provision He is pleased to make.”
I absolutely love this. It aligns biblically with contentment and expands beautifully Paul’s own refrain “for me to live is Christ and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). If our ambition is for more or different or anything other than what God has orchestrated for our lives, we are in direct opposition to the Spirit of God having his way in us. If we are happy to obey God and enjoy our current circumstances as long as…..[fill in the blank], we are bargaining with a Holy God who does not accept counter offers. He is pleased to dwell in us and we ought to be pleased to dwell in Him, with grace and contentment for the story He is telling through our lives.
So today, what can you do to dwell on what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent or worthy of praise? What practical habits can you put into place to dwell on these things, so that your mind is fertile ground for nurturing contentment in all things?