What is “contentment”? The Holman Bible Dictionary defines “contentment” as “an internal satisfaction which does not demand changes in external circumstances”. For the believer, “contentment” is not a passive resignation to one’s situation, but a humble acceptance that all that the Lord has given is best. The contented Christian regards God’s gifts as sufficient, and rejoices in every trial meted out by His sovereign hand: “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning” (Jas 1: 17).
One Biblical example of contentment is that of the apostle Paul. In his letter to his spiritual son, Timothy, the apostle highlighted the blessings of contentment: “But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. 8 And having food and raiment let us be therewith content” (I Tim 6: 6).
An apostle to the Gentiles, Paul wrote at least 13 epistles, four of which were written from a Roman prison – Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon. In one of these prison epistles, the apostle exhorted the Philippian believers to “Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice” (4: 4). Reading the epistle, one might conclude that life for the writer must have been smooth sailing. But were Paul’s circumstances really favourable when he wrote the epistle?
The Bible tells us that the apostle was “in bonds” (Philp 1: 13-14) – in a Roman prison awaiting trial for his appeal to Caesar. As we well know, Paul’s ministry was characterised by many hardships and difficulties. The apostle had to endure persecutions and perils of every kind: “Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches” (II Cor 11: 23-28).
Added to Paul’s numerous trials was “a thorn in the flesh” – to humble him who was granted the blessed privilege of the heavenly vision – “… lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations” (II Cor 12: 7). “Apparently, the thorn was a chronic affliction that served as a reminder to Paul that he was still an ordinary mortal, dependent on God for the strength to fulfil his mission” (A Heart Opened Wide - Studies in II Corinthians – Homer A Kent Jr).
What lessons can we glean from the apostle Paul concerning contentment?
o He learnt “to be content”
In spite of all his sufferings, the apostle did not murmur nor faint under his afflictions. Instead of repining over his negative circumstances, Paul triumphantly declared: “Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” (Philp 4: 11).
It is clear that Paul’s contentment was not a result of a comfortable life or favourable circumstances. We note that Paul did not credit himself with the virtue of contentment. Humbly, he acknowledged that “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” C H Spurgeon aptly commented: “The apostle Paul was a very learned man, but not the least among his manifold acquisitions in science was this – he had learned to be content.”
o He knew how to “be abased … and to abound”
To be contented, one must also learn how to respond rightly to both prosperity and adversity. By God’s grace, the apostle Paul had been enabled “both to abound and to suffer need”: “I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need” (Philp 4: 12). The apostle was able to bear both extreme states well – he did not forsake God in his prosperity neither did he fret in his poverty.
Matthew Henry aptly comments: “We have here an account of Paul’s learning, not that which he got at the feet of Gamaliel, but that which he got at the feet of Christ. He had learnt to be content; and that was the lesson he had as much need to learn as most men, considering the hardships and sufferings with which he was exercised. He was in bonds, and imprisonments, and necessities, often; but in all he had learnt to be content, that is, to bring his mind to his condition, and make the best of it …”
Paul was content in his afflictions, because he had tasted the sufficiency of God’s grace in every trial (II Cor 12: 9-10). With single-minded devotion to the Saviour Whom he loved and served, Paul had learnt to “count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ” (Philp 3: 8).
Brethren, it may be in our nature to murmur and lament when things do not go our way. But let us like the apostle Paul learn to be content even in life’s changing circumstances. May we accept with joy whatever the Lord has ordained for us. When afflicted, let us bear adversities with a spirit of submission and dependence upon the Lord. When in prosperity, let us learn how to abound in every blessing and be thankful to the Lord for His gracious provisions. (… to be continued)