Contentment – a hard lesson, still learning

Paul_in_prison_by_RembrandtContentment. How do you define it?

No bill collectors calling, no kids sick or flunking, no major house or car troubles. Mostly happy. Pretty much satisfied with life.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, it is “A state of peaceful happiness: satisfied with a certain level of achievement, good fortune, etc., and not wishing for more.”

That’s what I always thought contentment was. Not exuberant joy, but not bad. If circumstances lined up, then I’d be content.

Of course, it did depend on those circumstances… there have been days when I wanted to yell and throw things. At the wall, at other people, at God. When I was angry, frustrated, exasperated and afraid. When I wanted to curl up in bed all day, take pain pills or sleeping pills or “chill pills.” Give up and quit everything.

Times when I had to bite my tongue to keep from speaking my mind, had to leave the room to keep from lashing out at my children. Disappointed. Hurt. Broke. Hungry. No joy. Not much faith. Certainly no contentment. When I had to make a decision, grit my teeth and say, I will survive this. I will survive this. God, you have to help me! And he did.

In his thank-you letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul wrote:

“Not that I am implying that I was in any personal want, for I have learned how to be content (satisfied to the point where I am not disturbed or disquieted) in whatever state I am. I know how to be abased and live humbly in straitened circumstances, and I know also how to enjoy plenty and live in abundance.

“I have learned in any and all circumstances the secret of facing every situation, whether well-fed or going hungry, having a sufficiency and enough to spare or going without and being in want.

“I have strength for all things in Christ Who empowers me [I am ready for anything and equal to anything through Him Who infuses inner strength into me; I am self-sufficient in Christ’s sufficiency].” (Phil. 4:11-13 AMP)

“Those things, which ye have both learned, and received (accepted), and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you.” (Phil. 4:9 KJV)

Here are a couple of interesting definitions from the Greek:

  • Learned – manthano – to be apprised; to hear, be informed; to be increased in knowledge; to learn by use and practice; to be in the habit of, accustomed to.
  • Content – autarkes – sufficient for one’s self, strong enough or possessing enough to need no aid or support; independent of external circumstances; contented with one’s lot, with one’s means, though the slenderest.

Hmmm. He was chained up in prison when Paul wrote the book of Philippians. By then he’d been traveling, working, preaching and teaching for over 25 years.

When he first started preaching, you’d think everybody would be so excited. And some folks were, but some were suspicious (rightly so, considering) and some were murderous. (Acts 9:20-31). He had to escape from Damascus over the city wall in a basket, and then escape from Jerusalem to Caesarea, where friends arranged to ship him back home to Tarsus.

Over the years Paul had lots of opportunities to see God perform spectacular miracles, acquire lots of friends and supporters, and write lots of letters. Along the way he also saw the enemy stir up lots of opposition, some of it vicious. Some of it downright terrifying.

… I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. 24 Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, 26 I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 27 I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 28 Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. (II Cor. 11:23-28 NIV)

So did Paul’s inner attitude fluctuate up and down with whatever was happening, as ours is apt to do? It may have, in the beginning. He certainly had a right, if anyone had! It takes time for the fruit of the Holy Spirit to grow, time to learn a new habit, make a new response.

He had to learn some things as a baby Christian just like we do. Contentment was one of those things. He learned it by being taught by someone, by listening, paying attention, making a decision to go for it, and by experience – by putting into practice what he was learning. Same way we have to learn it.

Who taught Paul to be content that way, despite the circumstances? The Teacher. The Holy Spirit. The same indwelling Spirit of God who will help us learn contentment, too. It takes practice – a lot of practice! But it’s a lesson worth learning.

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