The Secret of Contentment
"We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow's end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present." Uncle Screwtape's diabolical counsel to his nephew Wormwood in C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters is a reminder that most of us live more in the future than in the present. Somehow we think that the days ahead will make up for what we perceive to be our present lack. We think, "When I get this or when that happens, then I'll be happy," but this is an exercise in self-deception that overlooks the fact that even when we get what we want, it never delivers what it promised.
Most of us don't know precisely what we want, but we are certain we don't have it. Driven by dissatisfaction, we pursue the treasure at the end of the rainbow and rarely drink deeply at the well of the present moment, which is all we ever have. The truth is that if we are not satisfied with what we have, we will never be satisfied with what we want.
The real issue of contentment is whether it is Christ or ourselves who determine the content (e.g., money, position, family, circumstances) of our lives. When we seek to control the content, we inevitably turn to the criterion of comparison to measure what it should look like. The problem is that comparison is the enemy of contentment—there will always be people who possess a greater quality or quantity of what we think we should have. Because of this, comparison leads to covetousness. Instead of loving our neighbors, we find ourselves loving what they possess.
Covetousness in turn leads to a competitive spirit. We find ourselves competing with others for the limited resources to which we think we are entitled. Competition often becomes a vehicle through which we seek to authenticate our identity or prove our capability. This kind of competition tempts us to compromise our character. When we want something enough, we may be willing to steamroll our convictions in order to attain it. We find ourselves cutting corners, misrepresenting the truth, cheating, or using people as objects to accomplish our self-driven purposes.
It is only when we allow Christ to determine the content of our lives that we can discover the secret of contentment. Instead of comparing ourselves with others, we must realize that the Lord alone knows what is best for us and loves us enough to use our present circumstances to accomplish eternal good. We can be content when we put our hope in His character rather than our own concept of how our lives should appear.
Writing from prison to the believers in Philippi, Paul affirmed that "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" (Phil. 4:11-12). Contentment is not found in having everything, but in being satisfied with everything we have. As the Apostle told Timothy, "we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. And if we have food and covering, with these we shall be content" (1 Tim. 6:7-8). Paul acknowledged God's right to determine his circumstances, even if it meant taking him down to nothing. His contentment was grounded not in how much he had but in the One who had him. Job understood this when he said, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I shall return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21). The more we release temporal possessions, the more we can grasp eternal treasures. There are times when God may take away our toys to force us to transfer our affections to Christ and His character.
A biblical understanding of contentment leads to a sense of our competency in Christ. "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me" (Phil. 4:13). As Peter put it, "His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness" (2 Pet. 1:3). "Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God" (2 Cor. 3:5). Contentment is not the fulfillment of what we want, but the realization of how much we already possess in Christ.
A vision of our competency in Christ enables us to respond to others with compassion rather than competiton, because we understand that our fundamental needs are fulfilled in the security and significance we have found in Him. Since we are complete in Christ, we are free to serve others instead of using them in the quest to meet our needs. Thus we are liberated to pursue character rather than comfort and convictions rather than compromise.
Notice the contrast between the four horizontal pairs in this chart:
- Self: Comparison leads to covetousness, which leads to competition, which leads to compromise.
- Christ: Contentment leads to competency, which leads to compassion, which leads to character.
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