It is common knowledge that contentment is another name for happiness. There is a Chinese saying: 知足常乐 (zhi zu chang le) which literally means a content person is always happy. However, there are so many things in this world that can make us discontent with our lives. How can we be content with our lives? Why should we be content with the things we have?
Let us get some inspiration from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul told the Philippians: “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. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:11-13)
Paul says that he had “learned” to have a contented mind. Probably by nature he had a mind as prone to impatience as others, but he had been in circumstances fitted to produce a different state of feeling. He had had ample experience (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:26), and, in his life of trials, he had acquired invaluable lessons on the subject. He had had abundant time for reflection, and he had found that there was grace enough in the gospel to enable him to bear trials with resignation. The considerations by which he had been taught this, he does not state; but they were probably such as the following: that it is wrong to complain at the allotments of Providence; that a spirit of impatience does no good, remedies no evil, and supplies no want; that God could provide for him in a way which he could not foresee, and that the Saviour was able abundantly to sustain him. A contented mind is an invaluable blessing, and is one of the fruits of religion in the soul. It arises from the belief that God is right in all his ways. Why should we be impatient, restless, discontented? What evil will be remedied by it? What want supplied? What calamity removed? “He that is of a merry heart hath a continual feast” (Proverbs 15:15); and one of the secrets of happiness is to have a mind satisfied with all the allotments of Providence.
It requires as much grace to keep the heart right in prosperity, as it does in adversity, and perhaps more. Adversity, of itself, does something to keep the mind in a right state; prosperity does nothing. Paul says that he had been initiated into the lessons taught by trials and by prosperity. The secret and important lessons which these schools of adversity are fitted to teach, he had had an ample opportunity of learning; and he had faithfully embraced the doctrines thus taught. He had learned to have an ample supply of his needs, and yet to observe the laws of temperance and soberness, and to cherish gratitude for the mercies which he had enjoyed. He had also learned to be in circumstances of want, and yet not to murmur or complain. He had learned to bear all this without discontent. This was then, as it is now, no easy lesson to learn; and it is not improper to suppose that, when Paul says that he had “been instructed” in this, even he means to say that it was only by degrees that he had acquired it. It is a lesson which we slowly learn, not to complain at the allotments of Providence; not to be envious at the prosperity of others; not to repine when our comforts are removed. There may be another idea suggested here. The condition of Paul was not always the same. He passed through great reverses. At one time he had abundance; then he was reduced to want; now he was in a state which might be regarded as affluent; then he was brought down to extreme poverty. Yesterday, he was poor and hungry; today, all his necessities are supplied.
Now, it is in these sudden reverses that grace is most needed, and in these rapid changes of life that it is most difficult to learn the lessons of calm contentment. People get accustomed to an even tenor of life, no matter what it is, and learn to shape their temper and their calculations according to it. But these lessons of philosophy vanish when they pass suddenly from one extreme to another, and find their condition in life suddenly changed. The garment that was adapted to weather of an uniform temperature, whether of heat or cold, fails to be suited to our needs when these transitions rapidly succeed each other. Such changes are constantly occurring in life. God tries his people, not by a steady course of prosperity, or by long-continued and uniform adversity, but by transition from the one to the other; and it often happens that the grace which would have been sufficient for either continued prosperity or adversity, would fail in the transition from the one to the other.
Hence, new grace is imparted for this new form of trial, and new traits of Christian character are developed in these rapid transitions in life, as some of the most beautiful exhibitions of the laws of matter are brought out in the transitions produced in chemistry. The rapid changes from heat to cold, or from a solid to a gaseous state, develop properties before unknown, and acquaint us much more intimately with the wonderful works of God. The gold or the diamond, unsubjected to the action of intense heat, and to the changes produced by the powerful agents brought to bear on them, might have continued to shine with steady beauty and brilliancy; but we should never have witnessed the special beauty and brilliancy which may be produced in rapid chemical changes. And so there is many a beautiful trait of character which would never have been known by either continued prosperity or adversity. There might have been always a beautiful exhibition of virtue and piety, but not tidal special manifestation which is produced in the transitions from the one to the other.
Of the strength which Christ can impart, Paul had had abundant experience; and now his whole reliance was there. It was not in any native ability which he had; not in any vigor of body or of mind; not in any power which there was in his own resolutions; it was in the strength that he derived from the Redeemer. By that he was enabled to bear cold, fatigue, and hunger; by that, he met temptations and persecutions; and by that, he engaged in the performance of his arduous duties let us learn, hence:
(1) that we need not sink under any trial, for there is one who can strengthen us.
(2) that we need not yield to temptation. There is one who is able to make a way for our escape.
(3) that we need not be harassed, and vexed, and tortured with improper thoughts and unholy desires. There is one who can enable us to banish such thoughts from the mind, and restore the right balance to the affections of the soul.
(4) that we need not dread what is to come. Trials, temptations, poverty, want, persecution, may await us; but we need not sink into despondency. At every step of life, Christ is able to strengthen us, and can bring us triumphantly through. What a privilege it is, therefore, to be a Christian – to feel, in the trials of life, that we have one friend, unchanging and most mighty, who can always help us! How cheerfully should we engage in our duties, and meet the trials that are before us, leaning on the arm of our Almighty Redeemer! Let us not shrink from duty; let us not dread persecution let us not fear the bed of death. In all circumstances, Christ, our unchanging Friend, can uphold us. Let the eye and the affections of the heart be fixed on him; let the simple, fervent, believing prayer be directed always to him when trials come, when temptations assail, when duty presses hard upon us, and when a crowd of unholy and forbidden thoughts rush into the soul: and we shall be safe.
St. Paul also taught the Hebrews to be content with what they have, he told them: “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)
The design of Christ in giving himself for us, is, that he may purchase to himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works; and true religion is the strongest bond of friendship. Here Paul exhorts the Hebrews to practice contentment. The sin opposed to this grace and duty is covetousness, an over-eager desire for the wealth of this world, with envy of those who have more than ourselves. Having treasures in heaven, we may be content with mean things here. Those who cannot be so, would not be content though God raised their condition. Adam was in paradise, yet not contented; some angels in heaven were not contented; but the apostle Paul, though abased and empty, had learned in every state, in any state, to be content. Christians have reason to be contented with their present lot. This promise contains the sum and substance of all the promises; I will never, no, never leave thee, no, never forsake thee (cf. Deuteronomy 31:6; Joshua 1:5; 1 Chronicles 28:20). In the original there are no less than five negatives put together, to confirm the promise: the true believer shall have the gracious presence of God with him, in life, at death, and forever. Men can do nothing against God, and God can make all that men do against his people, to turn to their good.
Let the song “Where Your Treasure Is” reminds us not to be worried about our lives for God will always provide (Matthew 6:25-34):