… I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 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. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (verses 11-13)
Contentment. What a settling word. It takes the wind out of the sails of jealousy and envy, greed and avarice, gluttony and more. It puts an end to that grasping ache for what we don’t yet have. It provides a place of settled rest.
I certainly haven’t had the challenges of living in contentment that Paul faced. Nothing close. But because he “learned to be content whatever the circumstances,” it stretches me to embrace contentment in my own circumstance. He experienced seasons of hunger and thirst. He was imprisoned, stoned, flogged, beaten, shipwrecked, and close to death time and again. All of that and more, yet he had “learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.”
So, what is the secret? How did Paul do it?
I think it relates to his constant perception of being “in Christ.” “I have been crucified with Christ,” he would say, “and it is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). To take that seriously means that every circumstance is utterly transformed. The Lord is in every moment. Equally, every moment we are in him. In each, he carries us – he is atmosphere and foundation. Further, he lives his own life within us. That being the case, whether we are “living in plenty or in want,” makes no difference to the undergirding reality of our lives.
I confronted this issue earlier today as I raced to the ferry terminal, intent on getting to Vancouver Island. I’d started early enough, but when I arrived at the ticket booth I was told my sailing was a “possible wait.” Ordinarily, I’d stress. But my schedule today was less demanding, allowing me to absorb the truth of another scripture that came to mind: “my times are in your hands.” It’s a different angle on this same theme of being “in Christ.” I’m not my own, my times are his. I can trust. So, today, settled-ness reigned instead of stress, resulting in contentment. It was a small lesson, but it rang true. (Plus, I got on the ferry!)
Ultimately, I realize, lack of contentment is simply a failure to trust. If I am in him, and he in me, I can trust him to provide for my needs – or, more deeply, even if my needs don’t seem to be met, I can trust him anyway.
Paul concludes the thought by saying, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” It’s a powerful affirmation for all aspects of life, declaring that an initial perspective of impossibility can be overwhelmed by the reality of “Christ in us.” But it’s intriguing that it was first spoken here in this seemingly un-heroic context of needing to embrace contentment. Maybe that reminds us just how difficult this attitude actually is. Especially in a world that continually stokes discontent by constantly fueling our appetite for more.
So, when we find ourselves confronted by our own discontent once again, rather than being overwhelmed with discouragement, may we remember the scripture telling us we can do “all things” through Christ, and realize it puts contentment first on the list.
Lord, there is an old Jewish prayer that examines your great mercies, affirming after each that if it was the only one we received, “we should have been content.” Yet we have received all your mercies together, doubled and redoubled, again and again, in Christ. I confess my dullness in apprehending your grace. Forgive my discontent. Shake it loose. Overwhelm it with the realization of all you have given me in Jesus. I simply say, thank you. I am content.
Reflect: What looms larger right now, contentment or discontent? Single out several elements of discontent and confess them to the Lord, naming them as lack of trust. What specific elements of trust do you need to embrace as an antidote?