Five Easy Steps
From Gospel Translations
Earlier this week I spoke with a close friend who has recently gone through a period marked by personal disappointments, discouragements, unfair treatment, and even false rumors about his character and Christian service. I was moved and impressed by his response.“My great consolation is simply this,” he said, “ ‘Godliness with contentment is great gain’ (1 Tim. 6:6).”
Such a reaction to adversity (which is the context in which Christian contentment is tested as well as manifested) is never the result of the momentary decision of the will, nor is it produced merely by having a well-ordered and thought-through time and life management plan calculated to guard us against the twists of divine providence. It means being contented with the Lord’s will in every aspect of His providence. It is, therefore, a matter of what we are, of our very being; it cannot be accomplished merely by more doing.
Doing and Being
Contentment is an undervalued grace. As in the seventeenth century when Jeremiah Burroughs wrote his great work on this theme, so today it remains “The Rare Jewel.” If it could be produced by programmed means (“Five steps to contentment in a month”), it would be commonplace. Instead, Christians must discover contentment the old-fashioned way: we must learn it.
Thus, we cannot “do” contentment. It is taught by God; we are schooled in it. It is part of the process of being transformed through the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:1–2). It is commanded of us, but, paradoxically, it is done to us, not by us. It is not the product of a series of actions, but of a renewed and transformed character. Only good trees produce good fruit.
Few principles seem to be more difficult for contemporary Christians to grasp. Clear directives for Christian living are essential for us. But, sadly, much of the heavily programmatic teaching current in evangelicalism places such a premium on external doing and achieving that character development is set at a discount. Christians in the United States particularly must recognize that they live in the most pragmatic society on earth (if anyone can “do it,” we can). It is painful to pride to discover that the Christian life is not rooted in what we can do, but in what we need done to us.
Some years ago I had a somewhat painful encounter with the “tell us and we’ll do it” mentality. Halfway through a Christian student’s conference, I was summoned to meet with a deputation of staff members who felt duty bound to confront me with the inadequacies of my two expositions of Scripture. The given theme was Knowing Christ. “You have addressed us for two hours,” they complained, “and yet you have not told us one single thing we can do.” Impatience to do hid impatience with the apostolic principle that it is only in knowing Christ that we can do all things (cf. Phil. 3:10; 4:13).
How does this apply to contentment, the key theme in this month’s Tabletalk?
Christian contentment means that my satisfaction is independent of my circumstances. When Paul speaks about his own contentment in Philippians 4:11, he uses a term commonplace among the ancient Greek philosophical schools of Stoics and Cynics. In their vocabulary, contentment meant self-sufficiency, in the sense of independence from changing circumstances.
But for Paul contentment is rooted, not in self-sufficiency, but in Christ’s sufficiency (Phil. 4:13). Paul said that he could do all things — both being abased and abounding — in Christ. Don’t skip over this last phrase. It is precisely this union with Christ and the discovery of His adequacy which we cannot turn on by the decision of the moment. It is the fruit of an ongoing, intimate, deeply developed relationship with Him.
To use Paul’s terms, contentment is something we have to learn. And here is the crux of the matter: how do we learn to be content? We must enroll in the divine school in which we are instructed by biblical teaching and providential experience.
A good sampler of the lessons in this school is found in Psalm 131.
A Biblical Example
In Psalm 131, King David gives us a vivid description of what it means for him to learn contentment. He portrays his experience in terms of a child being weaned from a milk diet on to solid food: “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me” (Ps. 131:2).
Picture the scene and hear its sounds. It will be all the more vivid if you remember that in Old Testament times weaning sometimes did not take place until a child was three or even four! It is hard enough for a mother to cope with an infant’s dissatisfied cries, the refusal of solid food, and the struggle of wills during the weaning process. Imagine battling with a four-year-old! That was the measure of the tussle David went through before he learned contentment.
Two Great Issues
But what was the struggle all about? Again David helps us by suggesting the two great issues which needed to be settled in his life.
“My heart is not proud, O Lord, my eyes are not haughty” (Ps. 131:1 NIV). He does not mean that ambition in and of itself is necessarily wrong. He himself had been set apart for the throne, after all (1 Sam. 16:12–13). But he had a higher ambition: to trust God’s wise providing, placing and timing.
Remember the occasions on which he could have seized position and power by means which would have compromised his commitment to the Lord? First, Saul came into the very cave where David and his men were hiding (1 Sam. 24:6). Later, David and Abishai crept into Saul’s tent and found him asleep (1 Sam. 26:9–11). But in the meantime, he was content to live by the directives of God’s word, and to wait patiently for God’s time.
Christian contentment, therefore, is the direct fruit of having no higher ambition than to belong to the Lord and to be totally at His disposal, in the place He appoints, at the time He chooses, with the provision He is pleased to make.
It was with mature wisdom, then, that the young Robert Murray M‘Cheyne wrote, “It has always been my ambition to have no plans as regards myself.” “How unusual!” we say. Yes, but what people noticed about M‘Cheyne was that it was not so much what he did or said that was unusual — it was what he was and the manner of his being. That, in turn, is the result of being contented with one driving ambition: “I want to know Christ” (Phil. 3:10). It is not accidental that, when we make Christ our ambition, we discover that He becomes our sufficiency and we learn contentment in any and all circumstances.
“I do not concern myself with . . . things too wonderful for me” (Ps. 131:1 NIV). Contentment is the fruit of a mindset that understands its limitations.
David did not allow himself to be preoccupied with what God was not pleased to give to him, nor did he allow his mind to become fixated on things God had not been pleased to explain to him.
Such preoccupations suffocate contentment. If I insist on knowing exactly what God is doing in my circumstances and what He plans to do with my future, if I demand to understand His ways with me in the past, I can never be content, ultimately, until I myself have become equal with God. How slow we are to recognize in these subtle mental temptations the echoes of the serpent of Eden hissing, “Express your dissatisfaction with God’s ways, God’s words, God’s provision.”
In our Augustinian tradition it has often been said that the first sin was superbia, pride. But it was more complex than that; it included discontentment. When we see things in that light, we recognize what an ungodly thing a discontented spirit is.
Keep these two principles in view and you will not easily be caught up in a this-worldly vortex of discontentment. Go back to the school in which you will make progress in being a Christian. Study your lessons, settle the issue of ambition, make Christ your preoccupation, and you will learn to enjoy the privileges of being truly content.