There is probably no better portion of Scripture that address contentment than Paul’s address to the Philippians in chapter 4:11-13:
“I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want”
The word content (4:11) comes from a Greek word (autarkeia) that means self-sufficient or independent. Some philosophers of Paul’s time took it to mean detachment from one’s emotions and indifference to the various circumstances of life. They regarded this type of contentment as the chief of all virtues. However, Paul did not mean the word in the pagan sense of self-sufficiency, since he affirms that his sufficiency is in Christ (4:13), and his love for people is unquestionable.
Paul learned contentment through real life situations. The word learned is very important for two reasons. First, it shows that this condition was not innate; man is not contended by nature. Second, the word indicates that contentment is learned through time and trial. It was certainly not an overnight virtue for Paul.
We’re often discontent even when all is going well. Consequently, we wonder how it is possible to be truly content during our most difficult trials, especially when there is no end in sight. However, does it not surprise you that Paul wrote the letter to the Philippians when he was in prison, unsure of his future?
Paul says he has learned, not heard, about the secret of contentment. The apostle Paul was a man who suffered and went without the comforts of life more than most people could imagine (2 Corinthians 11:23-28). It was in these most difficult situations where he learned to be contended even with little. It reminds me the words of C. H. Spurgeon who said, “You say, ‘If I had a little more, I should be satisfied. You make a mistake. If you are not satisfied with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled.”
Paul calls it a secret because so few ever discovered the source of contentment. The root of Paul’s sufficiency is Christ’s sufficiency. It is only in Jesus we live, move, and have our being. Paul states categorically and emphatically that he “can do all things through Christ who gives him strength” (4:13). The secret is that when we have Christ we have everything. Like Paul, we can learn to rely on Christ’s promise. Christ faithfully infuses every believer with His own strength and sustains them in their time of need until they receive provision from His hand (Ephesians 3:16). Our contentment as Christians is never to be mistaken with passive acceptance of the status quo, because biblical contentment is the positive assurance that God is able to supply our needs; which in turn releases us from unnecessary desires. This kind of contentment is the fruit of an ongoing, intimate, deeply developed relationship with Christ.
Jesus too has a great deal to say about contentment—being satisfied with what we have, who we are, and where we’re going. Jesus said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes?” (Matthew 6:25).
In essence, Jesus is telling us to be content with what we have. Moreover, He has given us a direct command not to worry about the things of this world. Then He adds, “For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:32-33). From Jesus’ words, we can deduce that lack of contentment is sin and it puts us in the same category as those who do not know God.
How do you respond when circumstances are beyond your control? Do you complain, or get angry? Does despair make you want to quit? Remember our contentment is in our total and absolute dependency on God.