“I have learned to be content in whatever 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 Apostle Paul
In the last few weeks, I have been actively praying that God would teach me to be content. I have asked to learn this lesson within the larger classroom of radical faith, by which I mean a trust in God which transcends all earthly comforts, eschews all earthly striving, rebukes all earthly anxiety, but which finds its expression only in waiting on him in a posture of receiving, hands open before the Throne of Grace. And our gracious Lord, who promised through his Prophet Jeremiah to teach his people himself, has taught me indeed.
When I think of contentment, I tend to think of a general happiness for life’s circumstances. I think of the soft leather of a worn and familiar chair, the alluring bitterness of a hot cup of coffee in hand, the warmth of a wood burning stove hard at work. I think of coziness. Is this what Paul is talking about?
When Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians, he was “in chains,” under arrest for the heinous crime of preaching the saving word of Jesus. This provides our key context for understanding what he means. For as Paul says clearly, he learned this secret “whether living in plenty or in want.” In other words, he learned to be content with a familiar leather chair and warm fire or with a hard stone floor and cold chains. He learned contentment without any succor at all from worldly comforts.
Paul’s attitude begs the question: where do we seek contentment?
Do we seek it in financial security? As any warm-blooded American knows in this season, “financial” and “security” are not words that truly belong together. With one dip in the market, all our financial padding can vanish like vapor. There is no sure security in any of these things. As Job learned quite well, the Lord who gives is the same Lord who can take away.
Do we seek it in status and honor? Many people have tried to find contentment here. We find great comfort in symbols of status and prestige: a sense of style, a fancy car, a lavish mansion. But how fickle are these things indeed. Just ask any politician about the vicissitudes of public opinion. They will disabuse you quickly of the wisdom of finding contentment in this fleeting thing.
Do we seek it in companionship? We Christians pride ourselves on fellowship and community, as these are truly gifts from God. Surely we should seek it here, right? As one whose life has taken him from one community to another in the past decade, and that through the rather neutral circumstances of finding a way in this world, I can say that contentment is not to be found here either. Paul knew this. Some of his companions had abandoned him on his journey, and others outright betrayed him. Sure, Paul was thankful for the friends God gave him, and he took great comfort in them; he even wrote this very epistle with his dear companion Timothy. But he learned not to find contentment in the flesh of humans.
How about vocation? God gives us vocation, right? When we are laboring for him surely we can find contentment in that? Alas, I feel that the answer is not here either. How often have we found that our own conception of our vocation, and how God brings it to fruition in actual practice are not at all the same? If we seek our contentment in what we do, even in so noble a calling as the ministry of God’s faithful, we will end up burned out and discouraged. God truly is the author of our labor, and we are to find a certain satisfaction in it. But contentment cannot be found in any labor, no matter how heavenly derived.
Look how he concludes the very quote which began our inquiry: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Paul has found contentment alone in the tender embrace of Jesus Christ. In other words, it makes no difference what comforts the world offers him or not, for he has the Lord Jesus wherever he goes. That’s why he can say earlier, “Rejoice in the Lord always!” And just to make sure we get it, “I say again: Rejoice!” What does he mean by this? He tells us, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything,” yes, even when in prison, “but by prayer and petition, and with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Because God will then answer our prayers with earthly provision and comforts, right? Not quite. “Then the peace of God, which transcends all understanding,” that is, all attempts to explain it by those who seek their contentment in this world and on the world’s terms, “will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” What does it mean, to “guard your heart”? I think it means that we are protected from the worries and anxieties that seeking contentment through fleeting earthly comforts generates. We are in a place where vermin destroys and moths devour, after all. But in the embrace of Almighty God, there alone are we to find our contentment.
I mean this as radically as I can mean it. This is not a mere theological platitude or cozy sentiment. To take it such would be seeking contentment in our own doctrine! God forbid. We are to renounce all the pursuits of this world. We are to put aside all our American attitudes of making a life for ourselves with our own hard work and discipline. God does not condemn these things; he simply knows that they will not truly satisfy us. But our Lord doesn’t even stop here, as he tells us to renounce even “mother, and brother, and sister.” We are to seek no comfort in any of these things. There is no true, no lasting contentment in a leather chair by a fireplace, for chairs wear out and fires die down.
I asked God to teach me contentment. He is teaching me by the transience of life not to seek such a thing in financial security or companionship or calling. He will provide what I need of these things when I need them. It is in him that I am to find contentment. It is in him alone, under the shadow of his wings, that I am to find safety. Leather chair, move aside. True coziness, which transcends all understanding, is in the arms of God my Maker and Lover alone.
A collect for contentment:
O God my Papa, who truly is the provider of all good gifts by giving us yourself: teach feeble me, amidst all the distractions of this world, to find my coziness in your embrace alone, that I may trust without fear, love with abandon, and hope with constancy for the day when you finally visit us, through the love of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit alone. Amen.