Several times this month I have tried to write about contentment, but I was never satisfied with what I wrote. This might be an example of irony. It might be evidence that I do not heed my own advice. It might affirm the proverb that says, “Those who cannot do, teach.”
The Bible describes contentment. “The fear of the Lord leads to life, and whoever has it rests satisfied; he will not be visited by harm” (Proverbs 19:23). Paul wrote, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:11-13). “Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (I Timothy 6:6-8). “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for He has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’” (Hebrews 13:5).
In these verses contentment seems to rest in satisfaction with what possessions one has in this world—enough food, enough clothing, enough money, but none of these things in excess. Lotteries thrive on the lack of contentment in our society. Advertisements would not work if most people were content. Lack of contentment seems to be a driving force in many of the decisions people make every day, and in the large lifetime decisions people sometimes struggle to make.
The opposite of contentment is coveting. God has forbidden coveting in his Ten Commandments. Coveting is not merely wanting something; coveting is seeing what another person has and desiring it for one’s own. If you are happy to see your neighbor with a new car, you are not coveting—even if you admire the car and wish you could have one like it. When you see your neighbor’s new car and grumble, complaining how unfair life is, then you are coveting. When you are angry at people who have good things you do not have, then you are coveting. Coveting is a sin because you cannot love your neighbor while you covet what belongs to your neighbor. Moreover, you do not love and trust God when you are angry and unhappy because of the things you do not have.
God tells his people not to covet their neighbors’ house. This includes anything that can be bought with money—not only the building next door, but also the car, the clothing, the concert ticket or season ticket, or the winning lottery ticket. Whenever you ask, “Why him and not me?” you are in danger of coveting. God also tells his people not to covet their neighbor’s husband or wife, not to covet their neighbor’s workers, and not even to covet their neighbor’s work animals. This includes anything that is tied to a person by loyalty—pets and friends as well. In junior high school, people are sometimes very open about coveting each other’s friends, to the point of crying because “Susie likes Jane more that she likes me.” As adults we are more subtle about the way we covet, but sometimes we are still unhappy and even angry because of the friendships and relationships other people have that we do not have.
Contentment does not mean that we cannot plan for improvements, work to earn money to buy the things we want, or hope for a better life. We are content, not only with what we have today, but also with what is available to us in the future. Contentment does not mean being satisfied with mediocre work. A content person has done his or her best at a task, and when the task is finished, the content person is able to move on to something else. Contentment does not require us to tolerate evil. When we see wickedness and evil, these things should make us angry. Accepting evil and not resisting it is not being content—accepting evil and not resisting it is being calloused and cold.
Contentment is easier to define in negative ways than in positive ways. Yet contentment is not an absence of desire or of anger. Contentment is a positive state. Contentment is “peace at the center.” Contentment is confidence that God is working all things for good. Contentment is trusting God, while also working to serve God by loving him and by helping our neighbors. Like peace and joy, contentment is a deeper quality than happiness or pleasure. Contentment does not disappear even when things are going wrong. If a Christian is struggling with credit card debt, if a Christian is struggling to pass a difficult class, or if a Christian is lonely and looking for friends, that Christian can still be content. The forces of evil hate to see God’s people having peace and joy and contentment. They fight to strip these qualities away from the Christian. Yet peace and joy and contentment are rooted in God’s gift of faith, which is the very reason that our enemies cannot take away our peace and joy and contentment.
I have seen an inspirational poster that says, “Living in the future is anxiety. Living in the past is depression. Living in the present is contentment.” In part, I disagree. Happy memories and nostalgia also involve the past—not all thoughts of the past are depression. Hope and eager expectation also involve the future—not all thoughts of the future are anxiety. The only time in which a Christian can live, though, is today. God has guaranteed our future. He has already taken care of all our past problems. Now Jesus teaches his people to pray for daily bread, for daily forgiveness, for the ability to forgive others each day, for daily guidance, and for daily protection. Because of the work of Christ, we do not have to pray about the past. Because of the promises of God, we do not have to pray about the future. Jesus teaches us to live one day at a time, praying that day for that day’s needs.
This, I think, is the secret of being content. It starts with knowing God, trusting God, and loving God. It continues by living one day at a time, neither frightened of what is past or worried about what is to come. Living one day at a time, though, we can still thank God for the good things of the past, and we can hope for (and plan for) good things to come in the future. Before writing about his contentment, Paul first gave advice telling how to be content. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).
I know one more secret about contentment. It cannot be pursued successfully. What a Buddhist says of enlightenment, I say of Christian contentment: the harder you seek it, the harder it is to find. You only receive it when you are not looking for it or trying to get it. When I was a boy I used to chase butterflies, but I never captured any. Now that I am a man, I sometimes sit in the garden, and butterflies land on my knee. May contentment come to you, not through your striving, but rather when you are least expecting it. J.