In the English dictionary, the word ‘being content’ means ‘being in a state of peaceful happiness’. It also has the synonym of ‘being satisfied or pleased’.
As we read in Philippians chapter 4:11-13, Paul’s definition of contentment is far broader than the definition above. It deals with much more than just being in a temporal state but also with all of life itself.
If you look at the world’s definition of being content, the pathway to being content is through wealth, power, status, position and pleasure.
Some years back, I witnessed how a young man in my church saved all his pocket money in order to be ready to upgrade his Nokia handphone when a new release was announced. When Apple launched a new iPhone, he would spend time queuing up in front of the Machines store just to ensure that he was among the first to own the new iPhone. Today, as soon as a new gadget or accessory is released into the market, you can be assured that many will be tempted to own it. When I observed this young man, I really couldn’t understand how this cycle of purchasing new gadgets could make him contented.
Personally as I grew up in the family of seven siblings. We always heard our parents use this simple phrase to describe contentment - ‘If you compare with those who have more, you will find inadequacies but if you compare with those who have less, there will always be a surplus’. My late father was a successful businessman and I am convinced what he shared with us was relevant as he was a man of vision in business and was so successful as an entrepreneur. This philosophy of contentment led him throughout his life. Of course, as a Christian himself, he also attributed his success in business to the blessings and grace from the Lord.
Advertising agencies thrive on our sense of discontentment. In fact it always highlights our lack to create our desire for a solution that would make us happy and contented. These advertisements often inform of new features in their products, emphasizing how life would be so much easier if we have them. They often make us feel that without these products we are unable to live contentedly. Unknowingly, it certainly drives us to search for contentment through these discontentments.
In the materialistic world today, people are constantly being pressured to keep up with the trends by staying in the latest style through being constantly pressured to obtain more things and higher standards of living.
There is a story that I vividly remember. I am sure those who are of the same age as me would have surely followed this story well. In the late 70s, if you had happened to do window shopping at Jaya Supermarket, you would have seen a signage bearing the words “Barclays card" or “American Express” on the entrance doors. We were all naïve at that time especially me growing up in a small town. I thought that with these cards you could buy a lot of things without having to pay cash. Later, when I completed my studies and came back from the United Kingdom in 1981, I was so eager to apply for the American Express Gold Card. When my application was successful I felt that was the measurement in terms of success as a businessman or professional. Today, when I look back, I now know the card was meaningless.
If we desire the worldly way of searching for contentment, we will never find it. Putting our hope in things keeps us thirsty. Worldly possession, will only give temporary satisfaction which is short lived. Sadly, it usually result in more discontentment.
By contrast the apostle Paul presented a total opposite pathway to contentment.
In Verse 12, he writes “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
When I read this verse, I observed that Paul was a very practical person and very hands-on. He had gone through difficult times and happy times while serving. Through all the circumstances of his life he learnt to be genuinely content.
Therefore, it is necessary for us to learn from the examples of Paul. We are not born content and our natural spirit is to strive for more. Through the many challenges of life, we are given the opportunity to experience many things. These experiences expose us to the lessons for life. Today it is quite common to see the new generation taking a lackadiasical attitude in learning. When I read this portion of the scripture, it reminds me of what my parents always taught me when I was growing up. They always encouraged me to work hard and be diligent. They always told me to ‘taste the bitter part first then taste the sweet part’.
Paul’s main lesson in this passage was not to develop an attitude of not wanting to work hard. Learning to be content is his main focus in this passage.
The apostle Paul goes further from explaining about how he experienced contentment but also taught us about what it means to be contented. The process of learning this is to learn a new definition of contentment. Contentment is not having all that you want. True contentment is satisfaction with all that we have recognising that they are God’s provisions for us.
We notice that Paul states clearly that poverty and wealth are equally regarded as trials. This lesson is not a common perspective, but again something that must be learned. We are naturally inclined to view poverty as a severe trial, and abundance as a great blessing. We continually seek after a state in which we can have everything we want. This indicates that we really don’t know how to define contentment. It is not satisfying all our wants.
I like to share an example of a mission ministry I have encountered. There is a drug rehabilitation centre called ‘Vineyard Keeper’ in the town of Chemor near Ipoh. They provide aid to drug addicts, showing them the love of Christ and providing them with their needs. Their ministry involves feeding drug addicts on the streets as far as the town of Bagan Serai. Through this they can reach out to these drug addicts and bring them back to the rehabilitation centre. The success rate of rehabilitating these drug addicts have been very good. They follow a very systematic program from the Christian’s perspective with the Word of God as the centre of the whole program. Some of the inmates even went to bible school for theological training and returned to work in the centre. Some were happily married after they left the centre and started a new life totally.
Every time when I spoke to the brother who managed this centre, I was always curious on how he managed to meet the financial obligations of the centre. His answer to me was, ‘Brother, though we are always in need of finances, through God’s grace, we always manage to survive’. His reply always encourages me, just like what Paul experienced that whether he was in difficult times or in good times, he learnt to be content.
Let’s ponder the following questions:
Why do we always complain and get so distressed when we are under pressure?
Why do we hunger after abundance, luxury, ease and comfort?
Are we always thinking that we expect God to arrange everything in the universe to suit our personal desires? Usually this is one of the main reasons why we get upset when things do not quite work out the way we would like them to.
Paul’s contentment is based on a person, Jesus Christ. He calls us to have a relationship with Jesus Christ. This allows us to have confidence in God.
Through our relationship with Jesus Christ. Paul teaches us the source of contentment. For Paul, instead of power and wealth, Jesus Christ is our source of contentment. Our confidence is in Jesus.
“I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13)
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me - that’s the secret of being satisfied in every circumstance. If you are unwilling to learn the secret, you certainly will not be enjoying the contentment.