The past few months have been strange for me. I’ve repeatedly found myself in situations where the doors I want open stay shut while those that I didn’t care much for are wide open.

Know how some people are unmarried, not because there’s no man/woman to marry them but because the one they want is taken or not interested? Something like that. Perhaps a better illustration is being stuck in a job you don’t want. The pay is okay, you are qualified, but you don’t really like the “environment”. Or there’s another employer with more prestige; a different position with more clout (and more money of course).

Some people are so dissatisfied with their current job situation that they quit without a fallback plan. They are now unemployed, not because they don’t want or don’t like the jobs that are available. In fact, it seems they would rather starve to death than take a job that’s “beneath them”.

I find myself in a similar situation. Of course, my ego would never let me fully reveal such facts about my heart (and my life), but it is often true nevertheless. And I don’t think I am alone in this. That’s why I am writing this post — to invite kindred spirits into a shared weakness with the hope of leading us all into a shared solution and strength.

I want to share a few brief shafts of lights that I have walked under regarding contentment. More specifically, what contentment is made of, or with more alliteration; the content of contentment.

I confess I suck at being content. I am always looking to have the next best smartphone or be in the loop on the hottest news story in town, for instance. In fact, I am not sure I fully understand or appreciate what contentment is.

Contentment sounds like one of those virtues that are better said than practiced. You know, like perseverance. Though we all admire perseverance as a virtue, we would rather never be in situations where we’d need to put it into practise.

Patience is another one. I’d rather get what I want now than later, even if I have a 100 percent guarantee that I will get it later. Patience is inconvenient. Perseverance hurts. And contentment… Well, I am not sure what to make of contentment.

In his famous words on the topic, Apostle Paul said he had learnt to be content. I wish he had said a bit more about what that looked like in practise.

“I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13)

Unlike perseverance and patience, it appears that contentment is something that you should have whether you have what you want or not. Paul had learnt to be content both when he was hungry and when he was full — “in suffering need and in abundance” he says.

The Stoics believed contentment was the chief of all virtues. I don’t fully agree with them, but I see their point. So what does contentment even mean? A basic dictionary definition for contentment is “a state of happiness and satisfaction.”

For the longest time, though I may have publicly stated otherwise, I privately believed that contentment was about settling for less. Paul shows that it is not. Contentment is as elusive for those who have “everything” as it is for those who have nothing.

I also suspected that contentment was about being okay with not being okay — about being satisfied with sadness or less joy. But Paul’s words show that this is not quite it. He seems to say that satisfaction and joy are not and should never be conditioned by our external circumstances.

Paul seems to be saying that the deeper satisfaction I look for (and think I have found) whenever I upgrade my phone, my job, my car or my spouse is an illusion. There is no such thing. So contentment is not a call to settle, but a call to re-orient our beliefs about where peace and joy and satisfaction really come from – where they are located. They are located in contentment.

However, it is easy to think that Paul is teaching us to be content with what we have. Yet that’s not quite it. Paul is indeed telling us to be content with what we have but he is talking about a very different kind of what. He is talking about being content “in whom we have” — Jesus Christ.

You’ve probably heard of the popular local saying that it is better to laugh on a bicycle than to cry in a Mercedes. That saying is trying to (though doesn’t quite) get at the heart of contentment. In fact, the old Sunday School rhyme nails: “With Christ in my heart I can smile at the storm.”

Contentment was never meant to be found in things and situations. It doesn’t live in the material world and never has. True contentment makes material things and circumstances irrelevant “to being content”. I say this because this is where I disagree with the Stoics. I think the Stoics made the mistake of thinking that material things were irrelevant (in an absolute sense) rather than simply being irrelevant to being content.

Finally, I am learning that every feeling of angst, disaffection and dissatisfaction with “what” I have is a symptom of my idolatry. I should never be viewing what I own this way — they were never meant to fill that seat. That would be to worship them. The solution then is to re-orient my source of joy, confidence, esteem, worth to the right source — Jesus Christ.

  • If they obey and serve him, they will spend the rest of their days in prosperity and their years in contentment. (Job 36:11)
  • The fear of the LORD leads to life;  then one rests content, untouched by trouble. (Proverbs 19:23)
  • Those who seek the Lord lack no good thing. (Psalm 34:10b)
  • Two things I ask of you, O Lord; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God. (Proverbs 30: 7-9)