Content or discontent? You choose.
Php 4:11b–13 “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 everything through him who gives me strength.
Discontent is a powerful temptation common to us all. A person who succumbs to it is characterized by restlessness (in the true sense of the word). Such a person lives their life in constant anticipation of elusive ‘if onlys’, which, even if they eventuate, never seem to satisfy the relentless longing for ‘just a little bit more.’ This restless discontent is an enemy of the soul. It shackles a person meant for eternity to the temporal, and yet it robs us of the beauty of the now. Here’s the alarming truth.
So what’s the secret?
Have you ever wondered exactly what ‘the secret’ is that Paul refers to in Php 4:12? Actually the phrase “I have learned the secret” is a single Greek word that has the sense of being initiated into a secret, or into a secret society. You might not think that “the contentment society” is actually very secret. After all, can’t anybody tell who is content and who is not? Well no, actually. That’s just the genius of a secret society. Membership is obvious, but only to the initiated. Most people assume that you are happy because you have more than they do. So here’s the big secret. Contentment is an attitude you choose. Actually, so is discontentment. And both of them operate independently of our circumstances. It does not necessarily follow that a person the world judges to be ‘poor’ will also be discontent, any more than being rich guarantees contentment. That is because true inner prosperity is measured not by the gap between what I have and what others have—by such a measure I will always find a way of judging myself poor—but by the difference between what I actually need and what I have. By this measure we Christians are rich beyond measure, because the one thing that we really need—friendship with God—is the one thing that nobody can take away from us (Rom 8:38–39).
The secret ways of the contentment society
So that’s the big secret. But how do you do it? How is it possible for Paul to claim contentment in any and every situation (well fed or hungry, living in plenty or in lack)? Here are the secret ways of this society:
True contentment begins with unconditional surrender to God and to his purposes in our lives. And this cannot happen without absolute trust in God’s goodness and love. It is that kind of prevailing trust that causes Paul to see past his circumstances, even in prison, and to rejoice (which as I said in my last post, is a key theme in Philippians). God is good. God loves us. God is in control. These are liberating truths.
A contented person understands that they are on God’s team, not he on theirs. In 1Tim 6:5 Paul talks about a certain type of Christian that imagines that “godliness is a means of gain.” Paul’s answer (1 Tim 6:6): “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” In other words, God is not primarily concerned with you getting ahead, but rather with the advance of his kingdom in the earth. If by surrender (and surrender is the only way) we join him in this endeavor, we can be certain that all that we (actually) need in order to accomplish all he desires will be amply supplied. But we should also beware that God will at times use apparent lack in order to build our trust in Him, because God is more interested in the measure of our faith than he is in the measure of our possessions.
A contented person spends more time thanking God for the blessings that they do have, than they do petitioning him for the things that they do not.
A contented person chooses prayer over anxiety. Php 4: 6–7 tells us that we need not be anxious (restless) about anything, because in every situation we can bring our requests to God in prayer with thankfulness. If we do this we can truly be at rest in the promise of His peace. This is a “peace that passes understanding.” It defies logic. And it is the legal right only of members of the contentment society.
So what is the secret of contentment? It is the deep conviction that God has supplied and will supply all that I need for all that he has called me to be and to do. This is a place of true rest, true peace, and great gain.
 For this insight I am indebted to the great 4th century preacher John Chrysostom of Constantinople. It is found in his second sermon in the series on the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31). I am not sure of the copyright implications of reproducing the entire sermon (which is wonderful), but you can read the main points here. You can read much of it (see pp. 39–55) here.