In Philippians 4 11 Paul said he had learned in all things how to be content. But what did he mean? How did he manage to capture that elusive feeling of contentment?
Let’s do a short study on contentment in the Bible to see if we can discover Paul’s secret.
What Is Contentment in the Bible?
The idea of contentment is one that pervades the Bible. Believers are taught to live at peace with all men. They are taught to love their neighbors even if they’re enemies.
Still, contentment is something we struggle with. This may have a lot to do with the fact that contentment as the world defines it is different than godly contentment.
What is contentment?
Before we try to understand contentment in the Bible, let’s get some definitions out of the way.
The Oxford Dictionary defines contentment as a state of happiness and satisfaction.
Satisfaction is defined as the fulfilment of one’s wishes, expectations, or needs, or the pleasure derived from this.
Happiness, satisfaction, and contentment are all used to express a state of being pleased with your circumstances. But godly contentment is different.
What is godly contentment?
Godly contentment has more to do with relying on God than in being satisfied with your circumstances. Worldly contentment has to do with being pleased with your circumstances. But the type of contentment mentioned in the Bible as something to aspire to is simply being satisfied with God.
To understand godly contentment, it’s best to look at Philippians 4:11.
What Does Philippians 4 11 Mean?
In his letter to the congregation at Philipi, Paul wrote some words that would be immortalized throughout history,
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.Philippians 4:11 ESV
The word translated as content in that verse is the Greek word autárkēs, (pronounced ow-tar’-kace). Autárkēs means to be self-complacent, i.e. contented. Philippians 4 11 is the sole occurrence of this Greek word in the entire Bible and so we’re left to determine the meaning of the word solely by the context.
Paul wrote this letter from Rome while he was in prison, yet it is so filled with joy it’s hard to believe it was written by a prisoner. But how could Paul claim to be content? How was he able to rejoice in his circumstances?
If you read all of Paul’s letters, you would notice an undercurrent of joy. Paul, though he had experienced many hardships including being shipwrecked and multiple whippings, rejoiced in the fact that he knew the Lord.
but let the one who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises mercy, justice, and righteousness on the earth; for I delight in these things,” declares the LORD. Jeremiah 9:24 NASB
Paul lived the sentiment above. His happiness has less to do with his physical condition than it had to do with his relationship with God. Through all the trials he had experienced, Paul had proven God to be faithful. Because he knew that God would not abandon him in his trials, Paul chose to find his contentment in the Lord.
As I studied Philippians 4 11 to better understand contentment in the Bible, I was struck by the phrase “to be”. “To be” is in the present tense and suggests an action that is happening now. Since Paul was writing about godly contentment while imprisoned, we can infer that he was experiencing contentment at that very moment. I know, it’s mind-boggling.
Despite his circumstances, Paul could rest in the Lord who was capable of providing for all his needs. Interestingly, Paul’s life says more about contentment than the first couple did.
The story of Adam and Eve should have been a lesson to us on how to live a contented life. But it wasn’t. It was about the dangers of not learning to be satisfied. It became a riches to rags story.
How Not to Live A Contented Life
Adam and Eve were the world’s richest couple. They had everything they could think of. They lived in a luxury that we can only imagine. They had perfect bodies, perfect health, perfect lives. They had no need for doctors or gym memberships.
There was no hunger. There was no pain. There was no fear. There was no abuse (physical, emotional, or mental). There were no extra-marital affairs. To you and me, this sounds perfect. Yet this idyllic marriage didn’t remain that way.
All because Eve wanted something she shouldn’t have. She had not learned how to live a contented life. When we covet or envy what others have or what we don’t have, we train our spirits to lust.
For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world (1 John 2:16 ESV).
Learning to Be Satisfied
Eve’s downfall came because she was not satisfied with what she had. The bounty that she had before her paled in comparison to the one thing she did not have.
God said: “Of every tree of the garden you may freely eat” (Genesis 2:16, emphasis added).
Eve said: “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden.” (Genesis 3:2)
The absence of two words changed the whole perspective of what she had. You could almost hear the click when her eyes focused on the tree that she should not eat from.
“Why can’t I have that? I want it!”
Instead of: “I don’t really need that. I have enough.”
But aren’t we still doing that though? We like to think only the very rich are discontent with what they have. When the truth is, every day we whine and complain about something that we have that a lot of that other people would want.
As Jamaicans say: “Want it want it can’t get it, and get it get it no want it.” That is to say: those who want something usually don’t get it and those who have an abundance of something usually don’t want it or can’t appreciate it.
What We Can Learn from Eve and Paul About Contentment
But we should not get discouraged. We still have the lesson of Eve to help us figure out how to live a contented life. By simply doing the opposite, we can learn to be satisfied with what we have.
Here are three quick ways to shift our focus towards contentment:
1. Praise God. We were created for worship, but when we focus on the “missing” element, we forget to give praise for our many blessings. In more cases than not, our quest for that one thing costs us everything else. Want all, lose all.
Paul had learned the blessing of praise. Each of his letters give glory to God and reminds his readers of the grace they had received from God the Father through His Son, Jesus.
2. Focus. Eve teaches us to focus on what we have instead of what we want. Focus on the bounty instead of what we lack. Eve’s desire for the “missing thing” cost her and her husband everything. Their home. Their cozy jobs. A stress-free life. An unhindered friendship with God.
Let us be more like Paul who saw beyond his circumstances and instead basked in the relationship he had with Christ. Let us choose to be in God’s presence instead of focusing on what we do not have.
3. Avoid the enemy. One of the things which led to Eve’s downfall was that she chose to engage with the enemy. My friend, Satan has been doing his job for a really long time. We are not capable of matching his skill and we won’t always be able to pick up on his deception. Sometimes, the best thing to do when the enemy attacks is to walk away.
Paul would encourage you to suit up in the armor of God before you’re even involved in a battle. He knew that it was God who gives the power to stand against the enemy. Unlike Eve, Paul knew better than to engage with the enemy unprepared and on his terms.
If you have not put on the whole armor of God, do NOT engage with the enemy. You will not win.
What Does the Bible Say About Contentment
The lesson on contentment in the Bible is one we must take great care to learn as it will safeguard us from some of the temptations of the evil one. As you strive to learn how to be content in all things, here are some Bible verses about contentment to contemplate.
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 ESV).
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 (1 Timothy 6:6-8 ESV).
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content (Philippians 4:11 ESV).
And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15 ESV ).
Better is a little with righteousness than great revenues with injustice (Proverbs 16:8 ESV).
Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! Psalm 34:8 ESV
Lord, help us not to focus on what we don’t have. Instead, teach us to appreciate what we do. Thank You for being the God who supplies all our needs. Amen.
Content In All Things
Paul, unlike Eve, had learned not to let his circumstances dictate his state of happiness. He didn’t depend on what he had or who he had around him to make him happy. Instead, he kept his eyes on Christ, using his time and efforts to complete the task God had given him,.
Paul did not dwell on the things he lacked because he knew it would lead to discontentment. My friend, that is a lesson each of us needs to learn as we focus on doing the work of our Heavenly Father.
Are you pursuing something that feels “missing in your life? Are you willing to let it cost you everything? Choose to focus on Christ instead and allow Him to give you contentment.
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