Christians all know that we should be content. But what is contentment? Where can we find it? How do we know when we have it? Broadly speaking, there are two different paths that promise contentment in modern culture. The first locates contentment in our circumstances whereas the second finds it in the strength to ignore them.

But when we turn to Paul’s famous passage in Philippians 4, we learn that contentment is an open secret. We also discover that praying for changed circumstances isn’t necessarily discontentment, while those undesirable circumstances are simultaneously the place where God invites us to learn contentment, by depending on his strength.

Circumstantial Contentment

The 1st and more common type of contentment is grounded in external realities, our circumstances or situation. This is where we are content because life is going our way. We have sufficient resources to live a decent life. We are in reasonably good health and good things are happening to us. Therefore, we are content. Now, as Christians we easily justify this sort of contentment by adjusting the circumstances, slightly. We might say we aren’t looking for anything spectacular; we aren’t greedily ambitious for great wealth. Instead we simply want to be comfortable. This means we’re content, right?

We are in reasonably good health and good things are happening to us. Therefore, we are content.

Well, the problem with this is that it locates contentment in things beyond our control. Being dependant on external events or shifting situations means this contentment comes and goes. But in addition to being easily destroyed when circumstances change, this contentment is not located in God. He never changes. However, as most Africans are fully aware, life is fickle. We’re never far from tragedy, pain, frustration, and disappointment.

Stoical Self-Sufficiency

The 2nd type of contentment is what I would call the “Invictus” path to contentment. This name comes from the title of an inspiring film about how Nelson Mandela, through personal example and willpower, brought together the black and white players of the South African rugby team in 1995. In one scene, Mandela shares the secret of how he survived his 27 years in prison. He tells the Springbok captain that his secret was to continuously meditate on the poem written by William Henley. Here are a few lines from that poem, which is also titled Invictus:

I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

This type of contentment is the “self-sufficiency” model. The negative events of the world don’t affect this person. He disdains the gods, and he disdains the world. Come what may, his head remains unbowed. Needless to say, this contentment is unbiblical. For it is a based on proud self-sufficiency.

We don’t allow anything anyone does to affect our inner serenity.

It is a form of the Stoic philosophy of ancient Greece that Paul argued against. For example, one of the most famous Stoics, a Roman man called Cato the Younger was once manhandled at the public baths by an enemy. When his attacker later apologised for the misunderstanding, Cato responded by saying: “I don’t even remember being hit.” Notice he didn’t say he had forgiven his attacker, but that he disdained to even remember the assault. His point was that he wouldn’t allow anything anyone did to him to affect his inner serenity.

Contentment Depends on Who or What We Trust

As I said before, the two paths above are the options our culture gives us to be content. We now need to ask: how did Jesus, Paul, and the other New Testament writers define contentment? Simply put, they defined it as “God-sufficiency.”

When using the word “contentment,” the New Testament writers communicate that God is sufficient and what he provides is adequate. That is, they are free from worldly desires because of their dependence on Christ. This contentment is based on a strong faith in the goodness and love of God. It is not ignoring our realities or claiming that we have risen above them. Rather it is a steady hope in God to protect and provide whatever may come.

Contentment is a steady hope in God to protect and provide whatever may come.

But how do we learn and grow in this? One of the clearest passages on contentment is Philippians 4:10-13. Paul, imprisoned in Rome, wrote to thank the Christians in Phillipi for renewing their financial support, after a period where they hadn’t been sending any. However, in the middle of his thanksgiving, he says something very interesting. “Not that I am speaking of being in need” (Philippians 4:11). Paul didn’t trust the Philippians to remember him. No, he had learned contentment regardless of his situation.

The Secret to Being Content Is for Everyone

In Philippians 4:12, Paul says that he had learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. That phrase, “learned the secret,” is one word in Greek: mueō. And the word literally means ‘to be initiated.’ It was a phrase used in the pagan religions of Paul’s day, referring to the “inner secrets” or gnostic learning. These secrets were only known by devoted disciples, committed to learning the deep things of their religion. Paul is saying, in essence, ‘I have been initiated into Christ, I possess the inner secret of contentment.’

God will never leave you nor forsake you.

So what was the secret that Paul knew? It is this: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). Paul hadn’t become a Stoic, moving beyond having needs. Rather he is saying that whatever situation that God brings his way, he can handle it. How? By trusting in the strength of the God who will always be with him. This is similar to the contentment providing commandment we find in Hebrews 13:5-6, God will never leave you nor forsake you.

Praying Doesn’t Mean We’re Discontent

What does this mean for us today? Does this mean that we shouldn’t desire promotions or advancements in life? Let me answer by asking you another question: what do you do when your ambitions aren’t met? What would happen if, for example, through no sin on your part, you ended up in prison? Would you respond like Paul did? The problem isn’t our desires, but rather our response when things go wrong.

The problem isn’t our desires, but rather our response when things go wrong.

Does this mean that when we pray for our circumstances to change we’re showing our discontentment? Not necessarily. After all, even Jesus prayed to God in the garden of Gethsemane for the cup of suffering to pass over him. The real question is can we say with Jesus after we have raised our petitions: “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42)? Do we trust that God knows what is best for us? Are we convinced that he is always with us, as he’s promised to be?

Trials Train Us, so Trust God in Them

Paul, the great apostle, had to learn contentment (Philippians 4:11). Thus contentment is not a spiritual gift, but rather a mark of Christian maturity. Every day, our good God is sending us situations of trials and testing. My prayer is that we would see them for what they are: opportunities to learn the secret of true contentment. That is, to be able to say with Paul: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).

Contentment is not a spiritual gift, but a mark of Christian maturity.

Dearly beloved, understanding contentment in this sense is to swim against the strong current of our culture. We are constantly tempted to measure the success of our lives by the numbers of trinkets we have acquired. Even those who escape from this deception usually end up in the grip of pride and self-sufficiency. Only in Christ can we find true contentment. May we run to him, for his power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).