The (Lost) Art Of Contentment

We’re not supposed to be content. We’re told that what we really should be is busy, productive, and eager to buy the next life-changing device offered half price on Black Friday. The busier the better as we keep pushing forward, improving our station in life, and not letting anybody stand in the way of our dreams. No room in all that for talk of contentment. We’re well entrenched in the habit of waiting for something else to happen before we can settle in and enjoy life – before we can let ourselves be content. Even after we cross the finish line for a big goal, it doesn’t take long to realise that we’re still not content. So we try again, looking for another finish line to aim for, pushing ourselves to the limit to achieve it, and then finding out that it doesn’t satisfy us, either. The cycle continues, and we’re not the only ones caught in it: even the massively successful rich and famous seem to live in the same spiral of goals, achievements, and discontent. Ultimately, it doesn’t even matter if we are successful or not, the underlying discontent with the reality of our lives is there either way. Failure is devastating. Success is empty. Is contentment even possible?

It is. But we won’t find it by looking over and over again in the same tired places. That’s okay, though, because it’s already been found. In a letter written roughly 2,000 years ago, a man named Paul gives us his treasure map with an “X” on contentment:

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 this through him who gives me strength.

Philippians 4:12-13

Needs or not, poverty or plenty, Paul has learned a secret that lets him live in any situation with calm contentment. Doesn’t that sound amazing? To be able to look poverty in the eye – real, cold, hungry poverty (which Paul lived through multiple times) – and say: I know how to accept you and still be happy and secure. And then to be able to look at the jewels dripping off glittering prosperity and say confidently: your gold can’t change who I am. I can take it or leave it. I’m content. Paul said all of this in the face of prison, beatings, death threats – and also prosperity.

So what is this secret that can give us the ability to live so far above our circumstances that we can be content no matter what? Paul says: “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”

How does Paul face the ups and downs of life so calmly? He’s not living for this life. His main purpose in life is not to get the most he can out of life. If it was, than any downs he faced would be devastating because they would be defeating his main goal, and any ups he gained would never be enough because there would always be something greater he could get for himself. The evidence is all around us: there’s no level of human achievement that can actually satisfy us as humans. In the face of this, Paul’s secret is that he is not looking to get something in his life that will satisfy him. The ups and downs have lost their power to throw him, because no matter what, he’s already satisfied. He is content because he has a foundation to live from that is solid and steady in poverty, prosperity, good, bad, and even death itself.

Paul’s secret is that he is secure. He is confident that God has accepted him because Jesus paid for his sin and gave him the right to be brought into God’s family as his child. No amount of money or goodness could buy that confidence, and no loss of anything in this world can take it away. It’s there, firm enough for any hurricane of circumstance or windfall of fortune.

Contentment is not weakness or laziness, it is a solid security strong enough to look life in the eye without flinching. It’s a treasure, and we are poor in our lack of it.

“Godliness with contentment is great gain.”

A Hand In The Dark

“Sorry for your troubles”, they said, one by one, to the smiling lady who offered each one of them a cup of tea. But through her smile, her words were desperate: “To lose one son was bad enough, but at least we knew that was an accident…”

The second son was lying in the front room, pale and cold. The coffin was padded, unlike the rocks where he’d been found at the bottom of a cliff. There was no note. No reason. No signs and signals, even after every memory of every person was turned over in the search. There was just this pale face in the front room, this politely smiling mother, and these cups of tea.

There were eight of us who came up from the south coast to participate in this sunlit scene in the hills of Cavan. Four hours on the road each way made for a long day, but we had to be there. The man lying in the front room had been one of our sports club’s strongest leaders, and had been involved with several other community groups as well. He had done so much for us, and for so many others, perhaps partly because he hated to see anyone else have to go to any trouble. It struck me ironic that here was his family and us and all these neighbours and friends and associates, all going to so much trouble – all because the man who didn’t want to trouble anyone had troubles he didn’t want to trouble anyone with.

I’ll never know what pushed my friend over the edge, but I do know this: I know that hopelessness can be well hidden. It can be hidden under smiles, hidden under chats and cups of tea and friendly complaints about the weather. It can even be hidden under fame and fortune, as we’ve seen in several tragedies in the news recently. But hiding and trying to keep our heads above these feelings on our own is extremely dangerous. If you’re drowning, you won’t be saved by clinging tighter to yourself. The answer simply isn’t in us. We need help. We need someone to reach out to us with a hope that is bigger than we are.

It turns out, fame and fortune are too flimsy to hold us. Weekend bashes with the besties are too temporary to help. Promotions and romance and fast cars and laughing children don’t keep us safe. We need someone with stronger arms. Someone who can reach out to us and pick up all of our troubles and darkness and hopelessness and rebellion and wrong and evil and sin and die under the weight of it and rise again with the indestructible power of a hope that claims victory even over the darkness of death itself. This is the hope we need, and these are the nail-scarred hands that Jesus reaches out to us in our trouble and despair.

Falling into these hands won’t make every storm end, but it will give us Someone solid to cling to while we wait for the dawn, even if the night is long. I’ve never faced the level of desperation that made my friend choose to jump, but I have lived in smaller pits that still took a long time to climb out of. I’ve been in the shadows long enough to know that easy answers won’t do. Eyes that are accustomed to the dark are still blind if you turn the light on too fast. Broken legs that are set still need time to be nursed. Desperate hearts that find hope still need time to heal. But as we learn to lean on the hands that hold us, we’ll find that Jesus’ invitation is true:

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.”