The two of us are long time friends who chat regularly. In recent months, our conversations have focused on what it means to be content during this season of isolation and restriction. Over the course of our lives, contentment has often flowed easily. We have both been fortunate to have loving families, deep friendships, fruitful ministries, and adventures galore. But at other times, contentment has proven to be frustratingly elusive. Almost nigh impossible. Besides the general aches and pains of life, one of us (Leighton) has buried a son while the other (Alec) nearly lost a daughter and has suffered through two cancers. And, like everyone, we are experiencing ongoing frustrations related to the pandemic. In his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul addressed this subject head-on. Rotting in a dank Roman jail, he claimed to have “learned the secret” of “being content whatever the circumstances.” The term Paul used about learning is intriguing. It was utilized by the pagan mystery cults about initiating new members. In other words, contentment doesn’t just happen. There is a process of being initiated and learning! Through experience – including being a prisoner – Paul was discovering contentment. Assuming that Paul wasn’t blowing triumphal smoke, his promise of emotional equilibrium “in any and every situation… whether living in plenty or in want” is most appealing. Even when life disappoints, we can find contentment. Not necessarily happiness, but a place of equanimity and repose.
What exactly was Paul’s secret? And how did he learn it? We label this process of initiation “The “Contentment Cycle.” It is an oft repeated sequence consisting of four steps.
Step 1: Expectations Set
We all set expectations. As parents, we lay out behavior standards for our kids. As supervisors, we establish performance goals for our staff. As a mentor, Leighton encourages young leaders to aim for growth in every aspect of their lives. As a consultant, Alec challenges organizations to improve. Most of us set financial goals, envision levels of physical fitness, create reading lists, and organize vacations. Of course, if our expectations are unworthy (such as harming an annoying neighbor), we can create sour fruit. But in such cases, the problem is not in planning but in the outcome sought. Paul certainly loved to dream big. A bold personality, late in life he set himself the grand goal of planting churches in the western half of the Roman empire (even labeling it “my ambition.”)
Step 2: Expectations Disappointed
Sadly, in a broken world, our best plans often get quashed. This is particularly true during a pandemic. Over the past several months, the list of Covid-19 dream-killers feels endless – income lost, schools unattended, and promotions missed. Weddings, funerals, and vacations cancelled (or radically adjusted). Mo Gawdat, a senior leader at Google, labels these frustrations “the expectation gap.” Such gaps capture the dissonance between our optimistic hopes, on the one hand, and the harsh realities we often face, on the other. The wider the chasm, the greater our sense of discontentment. Paul deeply experienced this sense of loss. Rather than traveling to Spain to carry out his life’s calling, he was unjustly imprisoned in a Roman hole. It is easy to imagine his frustration at this injustice. Aware of his limited remaining time on earth, he chaffed at being involuntarily restrained (as is hinted by his four references to “chains” in Philippians 1). Contentment may also elude us when we get caught up in unhealthy expectations. A friend of ours was invited to speak at a high-level conference in Aspen, Colorado. Checking in, he was assigned a luxurious room with fine furnishings and breathtaking views. He felt very special until he took a walk up the mountain and came to a row of large condos which made his single room look ordinary. Still further uphill he came to a magnificent private mansion which made even the condos look puny. His contentment decreased “with every step up I took up the hill!”
Step 3: Expectations Surrendered
This is the crucial – and most difficult – step in the cycle. Rather than emotionally shutting down post-disappointment – or simply growing bitter – we learn to release our original expectations. Often this includes both lament (for hopes dashed) and repentance (for a sense of privilege). When Paul wrote about learning to be content, he used a surprising word. It literally can be translated as being self-sufficient. But this is not what columnist David Brooks describes as the “hyper-individualism of the current moment.” Rather Paul described inner resources which do not depend on outward circumstances. Paul’s secret was to empty himself of all entitlements. Traveling west? Held lightly. Visiting the church in Rome? Hoped it would happen. Living to an old age? Perhaps. A bull of man with a strong internal will, this certainly didn’t come naturally. But by seeing Jesus as his master and himself as his slave, he learned to let go of his own agenda. Through gritty self-denial, he gained the perspective of “not my will but yours be done.” Such surrender does not come easily. Friedrich Nietzsche actually scorned it as being weak and unworthy. But when forces beyond our control intervene – whether ill-health, recessions, or Covid-19 – we are foolish to assume that we can chase them away through mere will power. Paul encourages us to humbly cast our plans into the hands of a reliable and good master – “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” To be content, however, is not to be passive. It is not mere acquiescence. It is a choice we make based on our trust in Christ. Neither does it imply the acceptance of what is wrong. There is a time not to be content. Our Lord himself expressed holy discord: “I have come to set fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism to undergo, and how hampered I am until the ordeal is over!” (Luke 12:49) Certainly, we cannot be totally content while children starve, fellow believers are persecuted, the gospel goes unshared, and people of color are marginalized. Like Paul, we should have Christ’s strength for ourselves, and a refusal to accept the status quo for others. As Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev reflected: “Bread for myself is a material problem. Bread for other people is a spiritual problem.”
Step 4: Expectations Recalibrated
The final step is to reassess our situation. Often, this is very difficult to do since it involves redefining hopes and plans. For example, how should an 18 year old move forward after receiving a rejection letter from her priority college? How should a patient diagnosed with chronic arthritis adjust to new physical limitations? How should a pastor released by his church approach the future? Or, more simply, during the isolation of a pandemic, how can we do an inventory on what we can do without? And what we can do with what we have? Paul faced his crisis head on. Rather than getting lost in self-pity, he redirected his focus from Spain to his prison guards. What a remarkable recalibration! Though the scope of his plans had shrunk from half a continent to a mere handful of soldiers, he accepted his new reality and moved on. He wrote: “What has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard.” Amazingly, Paul’s letter to the Philippians contains not a single word of complaint. Rather, he uses the word “rejoice” six times, “joy” five times, and “thanks” thrice. This outcome did not come simply or without personal cost. No doubt, he labored to submit, recalibrate, and identify new aspirations.
Paul found contentment despite dire circumstances. And so did John Stott, a leader we both knew and who was famed for his ministry both in the heart of London and around the world. Near the end of his life and not in good health, he was living in a retirement home for elderly clergy. One of his former assistants asked if he was happy in his restricted quarters. “No,” he replied. “I am not happy. But I am learning to be content.” It is our ambition so to learn!