Contentment. The puritan Jeremiah Burroughs called it ‘a rare jewel’. I wonder what images come to your mind as you think of contentment. That satisfied feeling after Christmas dinner, when the stress and rush and hassle and pressure abate, the clearing up has been done and it’s time to put the feet up in front of a fire and half-doze, half-watch the Queen. ‘I’ve got a beautiful feelin’, everything’s going my way.’
I experienced that kind of contentment the other day, while reading Burroughs! The stove was on, and all was happy, until my son came in and said, ‘Dad, I think Mum needs some help’. Now, any episode in our home that begins with ‘Dad, I think Mum needs some help’ rarely ends well (in contrast, those beginning ‘Mum, I think Dad needs some help’ have a statistically greater chance of a successful outcome). I set down the book to investigate. On entering the bathroom, I found my wife trying to wash her hair but unable to unstop the plug in the sink. With feelings of frustration, I bravely reached into the shampooey water trying in vain to un-stop the offending plug. And as I did so, I’m beginning to realise how rare a jewel Christian contentment really is…
What is contentment, and why do we so easily seem to lose it? Listen to what Paul says to the Philippian church –
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. (Phil 4:11-12)
Paul is saying that in situations of both plenty and need, he has learned the secret of being quiet and at peace, of acceptance, of having enough, of contentment. Neither situations of need – from blocked sinks to proper hardships, nor situations of abundance – from firesides to great wealth – sway his sense of satisfaction. He knows how to face all and be satisfied.
Why do we struggle with this? Situations of need and plenty tend to reveal our hearts. As I sat by the stove reading my book, my heart was resting in circumstances aligning with my own wants – I had a beautiful feelin’, everything goin’ my way. As I entered the hassle of a blocked sink, frustrated desires soon gave rise to grumbling. So often our hearts are influenced by the abundance or need of our situation. The Israelites frequently grumbled in the face of wilderness deprivations and were warned about forgetting God when they entered a land of plenty. What are your own heart tendencies in the midst of need and blessing?
The word Paul uses for contentment literally means to be ‘self-sufficient’ in the sense of needing no outside aid or support. And we could easily misunderstand that – is the secret of contentment to be self-contained? Independent and ultimately self-trusting? No, Paul encourages a sense of sufficiency amid varying circumstances that comes from relating to Another. He goes on:
I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Phil 4:13)
The secret that he has learned is to face all situations strengthened through Christ. But how exactly does this work? What could ‘through Christ’ mean? It’s a strength that comes from Christ, who Himself faced need and plenty. He entered this world in poverty, emptying Himself and being born in the likeness of men and lowering Himself to the point of crucifixion (Phil 2:5-8). He is now highly exalted with a name above every name. Our strength comes from One who knew absolute need and absolute abundance. That Strength is yours, and it’s that Strength that enables us to be ultimately quiet, happy, accepting, with a sense of having enough, whatever we are facing.
How do we access that strength that leads to contentment? Paul gives us clues in this letter.
We rejoice in the Lord (Phil 4:4)
We find our deepest gladness not in our situation but in Him. How? Here are some seasonal possibilities: Sing Christmas carols thoughtfully and personally. Let advent readings, Christmas services, devotionals, all stir your joy afresh in who Christ is and what He has done. Rejoice particularly that He is your Lord: that out of His suffering and glory He rules, and that this King is King over your abundance and over your lack. ‘Word of the Father, Now in flesh appearing, O come let us adore Him.’
We pray to this Lord (Phil 4:6)
Whether Christmas is for you a time of sorrow or joy, a time of hardship or a time of blessing, learn to turn to the Lord and talk it over with Him. In everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to Him. Let Him know what you are facing and what you need. Who could pray with you for this strength?
Finding our deepest gladness in the Lord, and bringing our needs honestly to Him, means that our times of plenty and lack needn’t determine our responses. When we’re at the fireside, our deepest gladness is in Him. When we’re before a blocked sink, or far worse, our need is supplied according to God’s riches in glory in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:19). I can face all things through Christ strengthening me.
Where do you need contentment in your life in this season? How can the opportunities that Christmas brings to rejoice in and seek the Lord help you to keep learning contentment? May we know a sufficiency in Christ’s strength and God’s supply whatever we are facing. May the Lord give us the grace of contentment this Christmas.