I am not saying this because I am in need, for 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 all this through him who gives me strength. -Philippians 4:11-13
Contentment. Isn’t that something everyone seems to be chasing but very few of us find? Oh, we have our moments of contentment, but who of us has learned to be content no matter our circumstances?
Last month, I was in Asia for two weeks in some extremely impoverished places. Next month I will be in Uganda, once again exposed to some raw poverty. However, at the time of publishing this article, I just returned from the only resort in the world to achieve four Forbes Five-Stars nine years in a row!
Going from one extreme to the other is often a reality for me. On the one hand, I am with people in extreme poverty. On the other hand I meet with people in places where there is great wealth and live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. And while many of us might pity the poor, I have come to see that prosperity presents a unique set of challenges and temptations.
In fact, being a part of a newer mission organization, I have come to appreciate more fully the struggles of both poverty and prosperity. There have been a few months where I have had to hold off depositing a pay-check or have skipped some meals to try to save money either for our organization or family. The fear and worry that lurks in those seasons is a battle to be content and trust God. But when times are good, the comforts of life can be distracting and lull you to sleep spiritually. It can weaken the vibrancy of your faith and dependency on God.
Both poverty and prosperity can make it difficult to be content. You would think it might be easier to be truly content if prosperous, but I have not found this to be the case in my life or with others. Prosperity can bring with it a tendency towards feeling entitled or having higher expectations of the finer things or treatment of life. It can also lead to complicating and cluttering your world. Wealth also adds new burdens and responsibilities. Furthermore, especially when exposed to poverty, wealth can cause a sense of guilt.
I remember when I had one of our international leaders at our house for a few days to share about the ministry. He informed me of how he skipped a few lunches when he saw that it would cost $5 or more. The reason he gave was that he felt guilty knowing that $5 could feed for an entire month, one of the slum children he was trying to take care of. At times I have also found it difficult to enjoy some pleasures of life once knowing the price-tag, and what that amount could do in the lives of those living in poverty.
But what I find encouraging about contentment (according to the passage quoted at the beginning of this article), is that it is something learned. Even the “great” apostle Paul said he had “learned the secret of contentment” regardless of circumstances. Whether having plenty or living in poverty (he was in prison when he wrote this) he had over time discovered the art of contentment. There is a reason he refers to contentment as a “secret.” It’s not that it’s impossible to be discovered, it’s that not many have acquired the ability to be content no matter their circumstances.
So what is the secret?
First, I believe it begins with accepting deep down that contentment has nothing to do with circumstances. As outlined above, both poverty and prosperity present their own unique set of challenges that can easily rob us of contentment. To be content we cannot look to our ever-changing circumstances. This just leads to a sense of uncertainty and instability.
Secondly, Paul concluded with a verse that is often quoted but taken out of context. He states that he can do all things through Christ who gives him strength. But in context, he is referring to the fact that the way he has learned to be content is not by perfect conditions, but finding the strength needed in every situation through personal relationship with Christ.
Circumstances are always changing or can suddenly change. Seasons come, and seasons go. People can go from poverty to prosperity or prosperity to poverty or bounce back and forth. However, Christ never changes and always remains the same regardless of circumstances. His love for us and our identity in Him remains constant no matter our situations. When we remain in the place of actively trusting Christ and depending on Him for all things and in all circumstances, we too can possess the reality of contentment. We can learn the secret of contentment by keeping our focus and confidence in the unchanging character and person of Jesus Christ. He can give us the strength we need in every situation.
Are you focused on your present circumstances or the person of Christ Jesus Himself? Will our gaze be on outward conditions or the inner life of faith in Christ? Whatever your struggles may be, whether in dealing with the reality of not having enough or having more than enough, you and I can learn the secret of contentment by focusing on the daily grace supplied to us in and through Christ. For this we can be grateful. And by the way, that may be the other secret to contentment; cultivating an attitude of gratefulness no matter our circumstances, not necessarily because of certain circumstances.
May the Lord give us the daily strength we need to be content no matter the circumstances. Conditions change but Christ will always remain the same!