Note on Contentment
that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to
is the strongest person in the world?
Physically, it’s the person who can lift 650 pounds.
Constitutionally, it’s the person who is most resistant to
it’s the person who can’t be “bent” through brainwashing or
torture. But who is
strongest personally, humanly, spiritually?
I think I have a surprise for you.
The Greek word that our English bibles translate “contented”
literally means to be possessed of unfailing strength, strength that is
always adequate. To be
contented, profoundly contented, is to be possessed of a strength that
is adequate in the face of any assault, any threat, every temptation.
Our contentment is our strength.
Before we discuss more thoroughly what contentment is we
should be sure we understand what it isn’t.
Contentment isn’t indifference, even though it can be mistaken
for indifference and indifferent people often trade on a reputation for
contentment that they don’t deserve.
As a matter of fact indifference usually masks laziness or
nothing commendable about laziness or callousness.
Furthermore, indifference, we must be sure to note, is the
antithesis of love. (The
opposite of love, we must understand, isn’t hatred; the opposite of
love is indifference. People
who hate at least take seriously those they hate; the indifferent, on
the other hand, take no one seriously and thereby dehumanize everyone.)
Neither is contentment the same as apathy.
Apathy is found in people who have given up on life, quit. Apathy
is found in people who have come to regard themselves or their situation
Neither is contentment the same as inertia. Inertia
is found most commonly in people who are depressed, and frequently
don’t know they are depressed.
In his letter to the congregation in
the apostle Paul insists that he has learned to be content in any
situation. No one -- not
even his worst enemy -- could ever accuse him of being lazy, callous, a
quitter, indifferent, or inert. Everyone
-- even his best friend -- is appalled at the hardships he’s endured:
misunderstanding, slander, imprisonment, shipwreck, beatings.
Still, he tells us he’s content in any and all situations.
And not merely that he is content, but that he’s learned
to be content. He’s had to
learn. In other words, the
contentment he enjoys now he hasn’t always had.
Then how did he get it? He
sprinkles many clues throughout his writings, the most telling being his
pithy pronouncement, “For me to live is Christ.”(Phil. 1:21)
“Christ means life for me.”
It sounds so very simple, yet it means everything: “Christ
means ‘life’ -- at least for me.”
Here we are peering into his innermost heart and spirit.
It’s almost embarrassing to peer.
We feel like voyeurs, gazing at an intimacy that modesty usually
clothes. Yet we have to
gaze, for as surely as we know the dictionary meanings of the five
single-syllable words -- “Christ means life for me” -- the
dictionary can’t come close to capturing the secret of the apostle’s
life and the ground of his contentment.
It’s as though we hear music that moves us profoundly.
We attempt to speak of the event -- the music, our response to
it, its effect upon us -- to someone else.
We fumble and stumble, recognizing that what we’re saying
sounds so very simple as to be almost simple-minded or childish even as
what we’re saying is supposed to communicate what -- yes, that’s the
just the problem: what we’re saying is supposed to communicate what
will always be ultimately beyond communication.
Finally we give up on our fumbling, stumbling words.
We know that if only the music moved our friend as it’s moved
us, words would be superfluous; and if the music didn’t move our
friend, words would be inadequate.
So it is with our Lord Jesus Christ.
If your heart resonates with mine, you know that the words we use
to speak of our common experience of him are as inadequate as words of
the music reporter who speaks of Itzakh Perlman’s violin.
Either words are superfluous or words are inadequate.
In any case, if our pulse quickens when we hear the apostle say,
“For me to live is Christ…. I have learned in whatever situation I
am to be content,” then we shall also know how and why and where he
has learned to be content.
There forever remains a deep-down heart-hunger in humankind.
It isn’t grief; (no one has died.)
It isn’t misery; (there’s no reason to be miserable.)
It isn’t depression; (there’s no need to summon psychiatrist
or pharmacist.) It’s the
deep-down need to be reconciled to our Maker.
We aren’t going to be content until we come to terms with this
Contentment arises when Christ’s love for us surges over us and
our hearts are captured. Contentment
arises when the face of Christ is found to be the face of God
smiling upon us and we know that our deep-down heart-hunger has been met
even if we couldn’t name the hunger before and can’t describe its
satisfaction now. Contentment
arises as the one who calls his disciples “friends” befriends us
with an intimacy other relationships reflect but never rival.
This intimacy, like intimacy anywhere in life, is ultimately as
undeniable as it is indescribable, undeniable and indescribable for the
same reason: no language does justice to Christ’s penetration of our
innermost heart. Lacking
adequate language, we can’t prattle about it; modest and therefore
reticent, we don’t want to.
Let me say it again: to be contented, according to scripture, is
to be possessed of unfailing strength.
In the first place, contentment is the atmosphere in which faith
thrives and character flourishes. Faith and character add up to
godliness. “There is great
gain in godliness,”, writes the apostle, “for we brought nothing
into the world, and we can’t take anything out of the world; but if we
have food and clothing, with these we shall be content.” (1st
I have spoken several times at the Toronto Board of Education
Christian Teachers’ Association. One
fellow I came to know well, a high school chemistry teacher and a
Mennonite, ran into me after we hadn’t seen each for a year or two.
“How’s it going?”, I asked, expecting nothing more than the
usual shorthand greeting. Instead
he began blurting out ever so much that my greeting had never intended
to elicit. I noticed too
that his self-possession seemed to have deserted him, and he appeared as
forlorn as a child lost in a department store.
His story unfolded. A
few years ago he had decided to speculate in real estate.
He made money at it. Whereupon
he speculated some more. And
made more money. And then
speculated some more. Lost
it all in a sudden reversal? Oh
no. On the contrary, he made
an even bigger bundle. And
the entire matter of speculation became a preoccupation with him, an
all-consuming preoccupation. His
wife told him he had lost his Mennonite simplicity and down-to-earthness,
as well as Christian profundity that is part and parcel of
non-simplistic simplicity. In
addition, she could no longer recognize the man who came home now night
by night; not only could she not recognize him, she became fearful for
their marriage in that she began to wonder just what man she was living
with. Most tellingly, he
had lost every last shred of contentment.
“My head is all messed up,” he wailed to me, “my head is
all messed up and I don’t know where my heart is.”
Then we had to depart. When
next I heard about him I was told that his marriage was tottering and
would likely collapse.
We hear all the time, don’t we, about how great a stress
insufficient money is on a marriage; we hear much less frequently that
too much money is no less a stress.
And of course we prefer to lose track of how many couples we have
seen blown apart when their pursuit of wealth succeeded and they found
that their newfound fortune had made them different people, and
discovered as well that now they couldn’t live with the person they
Think about ambition. In
one sense there’s an ambition that is entirely appropriate.
We encourage it, especially in our young people.
People should be eager to develop and use whatever talents they
have. We should be eager to
maximize the qualifications that will permit us to do more satisfying
work. There’s another kind
of ambition, however, that is frightening.
This kind of ambition is a conscienceless “climb to the top.”
It is driven by a desire to gain superiority, to be a showboat,
to dominate others, to strut. It
scares me because I have learned that ambitious people in this sense,
the conscienceless climbers, are highly dangerous.
For the ambitious person nothing matters except his climb to the
top: his friends don’t matter, his colleagues don’t matter,
truthfulness and loyalty and kindness and integrity don’t matter.
And if the ambitious person is also insecure, he’s twice as
“There is great gain in godliness with contentment.
For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing
out; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be
content.” Contentment is
the atmosphere, the only atmosphere, in which faith thrives and
-- Contentment is essential, in the second
place, if our human relationships are to prosper and be for others and
us that richness in our lives before which everything else pales.
Three thousand years ago in
a young man decided to move from his village into the wider world.
The text tells us (Judges 17:8) that he intended to live
“wherever he could find a place.”
Find a “place?” It
doesn’t mean find geographic space: there were open spaces everywhere.
“Find a place” means “find a fit”, live someplace where
he belonged, where he was cherished, where his life was enhanced.
The young man came upon an older man, Micah (not the same person
as the prophet Micah.) “Stay
with me,” said the older man. The
young fellow did. We are
told that the fellow was “content” to stay with Micah, the result
being that he became to Micah “like one of Micah’s own sons.”
In other words, a bond was forged that was as unbreakable as a
As unbreakable as a blood tie?
You must have noticed that among Jewish people there are no
in-laws. The person we call
“son-in-law” Jewish people call “son.” My
mother isn’t Maureen’s mother-in-law; she’s Maureen’s mother –
and Maureen has always called her this.
Two hundred years before the incident with Micah, Moses was
fleeing for his life when his flight landed him among seven foreign
women, Midianites, who were struggling to care for sheep.
These women (they were sisters) told their father Reuel.
Reuel invited Moses into his home for dinner (a most significant
gesture in those days, telling everyone that Reuel wasn’t the
slightest bit hostile to Moses, a stranger.)
We are told that Moses was content to stay with Reuel.
Reuel gave Moses Zipporah, one of his seven daughters, as wife.
Their first child they named Gershom.
“Ger” is Hebrew for “sojourner”; “shom” is Hebrew for
“there, in that place.” “Gershom”
means “sojourner in that place.”
Moses told everyone why he had named his son Gershom: “I have
become a sojourner in a foreign land.”
A sojourner is a resident alien.
Both words should be emphasized: resident alien.
“Alien” in the sense of “not exactly at home;”
“resident” in the sense of “not able to escape, in for the long
haul.” Everyone has the
feeling of being a sojourner in life.
In light of how the world unfolds, Christians especially know
they are sojourners. If
it’s true that we are sojourners, resident aliens, not exactly at home
in the world yet in it for the long haul, then it’s all the more
important that we forge the deepest, strongest bonds with other people
and especially fellow-disciples.
Such bonds are possible only amidst profound contentment.
And I have seen friendships without number dry up and blow away
as someone ceased to be content. It
happens like this. Two
people profoundly “meet” each other and sustain each other and
nurture each other -- until; until one of them finds a higher-paying
job; until someone’s youngster is awarded a university admission
scholarship; until one of them inherits a substantial sum from a
relative; until the wheel of fortune propels one of them into greater
social prominence. The
person who is now anything but contented, thanks to her newly accursed
social inferiority, becomes ever so slightly jealous at first, then,
resentful, soon critical, and finally hostile.
At this point the friendship is heading down fast, soon to
disappear amidst bitter, envious denunciation.
Only one thing can stop the downward spiral before it even
begins: contentment. If we
are profoundly content (which is to say, if our contentment arises, as
in the case with Paul, because to have Christ is to have everything,)
someone else’s apparently good fortune won’t poison us and ruin our
The young man from the Israelite village, and Moses fleeing out
; they profited through enduring human relationships that sustained and
nurtured them even though they were sojourners in a strange land.
Since all of us are sojourners in a strange land, long-term
aliens who have to reside where we aren’t exactly at home, all or us
are going to find ourselves cherished and find ourselves free to cherish
others only as we are profoundly content and therefore aren’t
susceptible to toxic envy and resentment and hostility.
Contentment is the inner fibre that lends resilience to
-- Finally, contentment is a qualification
for leadership in the church. Leaders
are not to be greedy, says the apostle, not greedy for anything, whether
fame or recognition or money. It’s
easy to understand why contentment is a qualification for leadership in
the church. The person who
lacks contentment will always use his position to feed his greed and his
ambition and his self-advertisement.
Leadership in the church, rather, ought always to reflect the
lordship with which Jesus Christ rules us.
He is named “Lord” and is such in truth for one reason only:
he has been to hell and back for us.
In his earthly ministry Jesus spoke of self-important people who
exhibit no self-renunciation at all.
Instead they “lord it over” others by browbeating them,
manipulating them, twisting their arms or pouting petulantly.
Those who “lord it over” others, says Jesus, are the
grasping, ambitious, uncontented people who look upon the church as
their opportunity to be a big toad in a small pond.
Contrary to this it always remains the case that the genuine
leader leads by way of self-renunciation, not self-importance.
The only one big enough to summon followers is the one who is
small enough to consider nothing beneath him.
Several years ago I was asked to pray at a
highschool graduation, and I suspect I was asked, being a
clergyman, as the speaker that evening was Dr. Robert McClure, a
medical missionary whose reputation was deservedly huge by this time. When
McClure had finished addressing the graduating class in the
highschool a student asked him, “It’s been said that in
, where the class system is blatant and rigid, you always ride the train
on a third-class ticket. Why?”
McClure smiled at the student and said, “I ride third-class for
two reasons: one, there isn’t a fourth class; two, I have noticed that
third-class train travellers arrive just as quickly as first-class
travellers.” It takes a
small person to be big and a big person to be small.
Better put, it takes a profoundly contented person to exercise
credible leadership in the
, for only the profoundly contented person can be trusted not to use his
office for inflating himself.
important is it then? How
crucial is it that we learn (yes, it has to be learned) in whatever
situation to be content?
Let’s pretend for a minute that we aren’t content; let’s
pretend that we are out-and-out malcontents.
The apostle Jude has some startling things to say about us.
He says that malcontents are easy to identify, since malcontents
are customarily found in the company of grouchy grumblers, loudmouthed
boasters, self-serving flatterers, leering lusters. It sounds so bad I
don’t even want to repeat it. (If
you think I’m putting words in Jude’s mouth, have a look at one
verse alone: Jude 16.)
Let’s conclude positively.
To be content is to be possessed of unfailing strength, according
to scripture. For amidst
thrives and character flourishes;
relationships are forged that nothing can corrode;
in the church exemplifies the self-renouncing lordship of Jesus himself.
learn such contentment, says the apostle, as our life in Christ becomes
dearer to us than all else.