Considering Contentment

Considering Contentment February 6, 2012

Adam Hamilton has me considering contentment. Last Friday, I wrote about a chapter in his book Enough: Discovering Joy Through Simplicity and Generosity (Abingdon, 2009/12). In “Cultivating Contentment” (ch. 3), Hamilton calls us to develop a sense of contentment in our lives, being satisfied with what we have rather than always striving for more stuff. He notes, however, that it is appropriate to be discontent about certain things, such as personal failing or social injustice. Thus, Hamilton has me wondering about contentment. What is it? When is it okay? When might it be not okay?

Part of our problem when it comes to contentment is our sense of what it means to be content. If I were to ask you to picture a content person, what would you envision? I expect some of us might imagine the archetypal person-sitting-on-a-beach-drink-in-hand, someone with nothing to do but enjoy the pleasures of the moment. No worries. No responsibilities. No deadlines. Just sitting, relaxing, drinking . . . ultimate contentment.

Or is it?

In his chapter on contentment, Hamilton refers to a passage of Scripture that is most often quoted when Christians advocate contentment. It comes from the fourth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Christians in Philippi:

Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have.  I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13)

On the basis of this passage, Hamilton writes,

The apostle Paul named the source of his soul’s satisfaction in his Letter to the Philippians when he wrote, “I can do all thing through [Christ] who strengthens me” (4:13, emphasis added). In other words, he found Christ to be his Source, the One who satisfied his every need and enabled him to be content whether in poverty or in wealth. This was Paul’s “secret” to contentment (verse 12). . . . All of his deepest needs were satisfied in his relationship with God through Christ (p. 82).

In a sense, this is quite true. But, notice, Paul does not say that knowing Christ and relating to Christ is the secret of his contentment. Rather, what he says is that he can do all things through the one who gives him strength, namely, Christ. The Greek of verse 13 could be translated literally, “I am strong in every way in the one who empowers me.”

This kind of contentment does not sound like the vegging-on-the-beach variety. Paul does not suggest that he would be perfectly happy just to sit on some Mediterranean beach and enjoy his relationship with Christ. The contentment he envisions is different from our stereotype.

This is confirmed by other passages in Philippians. Consider, for example, Philippians 3:10-14:

I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,  if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

This does not fit our popular sense of contentment, does it? Paul is not content with his knowledge of Christ. He wants a deeper relationship with him. Moreover, Paul is not sitting on some spiritual beach soaking in the love of Christ. Rather, he is straining forward and pressing on for the goal of knowing Christ more deeply. In this passage, Paul uses the imagery of a footrace, in which the winner receives the prize of having his name announced to the crowd.

Thus, on the basis of Paul’s example, Hamilton is right to urge us to be content with our possessions, rather than always grasping for more. And he is also right to distinguish between contentment that we should cultivate and discontent that we should embrace. In fact, I think there is a certain kind of discontent that is wired into us from creation. I’ll say more about this in a future post.

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