"Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content." – Paul, letter to the Philippians
This verse referencing "contentment" stuck in my craw for whatever reason last week while on a trip to San Juan, PR for work-related customer issues. It was a long trip, fairly productive but also stressing, and I was really just glad to be going home at the end of the week. But it still hung in there as the question over the whole experience: was I content? was I making the most of whatever circumstance in my day? The answer was usually "no", which led to the better question of, "why not?"
A.W. Pink, in a sermon on "Contentment", says:
Discontent! Was there ever a time when there was so much restlessness in the world as there is today? We very much doubt it. Despite our boasted progress, the vast increase of wealth, the time and money expended daily in pleasure, discontent is everywhere. No class is exempt. Everything is in a state of flux, and almost everybody is dissatisfied. / Contentment! Is such a thing realizable, or is it nothing more than a beautiful ideal, a mere dream of the poet? Is it attainable on earth or is it restricted to the inhabitants of heaven? If practicable here and now, may it be retained, or are a few brief moments or hours of contentment the most that we may expect in this life?
I’m not one to usually be filled with angst, but it seems to be a close philosophical companion these last few months. After not business traveling much at all last year, I’ve been on the road five weeks since Thanksgiving – not as much as some, but more than I’m used to. And that’s draining for itself, I suppose. On top of that is the general malaise I’ve been feeling about my own spiritual growth, interacting with others, leading and processing in small groups, and I’ve just been bogged down. Emphasis on the "down" part, making "contentment" a pipe dream at best, a taunting finger at worst.
Now, there is a vast difference between precept and practice, between the ideal and the realization. But in the case of the apostle Paul contentment was an actual experience, and one that must have been continuous, for he says, "in whatsoever state I am." How then did Paul enter into this experience, and of what did the experience consist? The reply to the first question is to be found in the word, "I have learned . . . to be content." The apostle did not say, "I have received the baptism of the Spirit, and therefore contentment is mine." Nor did he attribute this blessing to his perfect "consecration." Equally plain is it that it was not the outcome of natural disposition or temperament. It is something he had learned in the school of Christian experience.
As I was sharing my thought bubbles on being content, a friend at church told me, "You don’t look content. You look disengaged, maybe?" – and I had to take pause again. I don’t think that was the look I was going for, not the vibe I wanted broadcasting to the world around me.
Let our final word be this: real contentment is only possible by being much in the presence of the Lord Jesus. This comes out clearly in the verses which follow our opening text; "I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: everywhere and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me" (Phil. 4:12, 13). It is only by cultivating intimacy with that One who was never discontent that we shall be delivered from the sin of complaining. It is only by daily fellowship with Him Who ever delighted in the Father’s will that we shall learn the secret of contentment. May both writer and reader so behold in the mirror of the Word the glory of the Lord that we shall be "changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord" (2 Cor. 3:18).
Can I add "engaged" and "disengaged" to Paul’s list or paradoxes? Because there’s a part of me that wants to be whole-hearted about whatever is coming next, and another part that wants to self-protect. Maybe that’s not "whole-hearted" at all if there’s a duplicity here, but I’m certain about my uncertainty, and I’ve been in this place before. Selling out to a cause sometimes leaves no cause and nothing left to sell.
[sermon quotations from A.W. Pink]