We are living in the most prosperous time in history. Income increases each year. Since the 1990s, the volume of crime has decreased by around 50% in the UK and many other Western countries. Although our politics are divisive, Western populations remain overwhelmingly moderate.
Yet many of us are less content than our parents or grandparents. We need to learn from the apostle Paul:
“ 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, NIV)
Paul doesn’t say contentment came naturally, he had to learn to be content. This gives us hope we can too.
We experience many advantages over people living in earlier times. But we can learn from them about contentment.
I will share some tips from Jeremiah Burroughs’ 17th Century classic “The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment.”
Unsatisfied and yet satisfied
In one sense, the Christian is the least satisfied person of all. Christ has enlarged our hearts so that nothing on earth could now fulfill us.
“Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.” (Psalm 73:25, NIV)
But, with Christ we can find true contentment with very little else in this life.
“Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:13–14, NIV)
To subtract or add?
Our society teaches us the way to contentment is through addition.
Companies can earn billions of dollars in monitoring our online activity. Are we longing for a new job, car, house or relationship?
Big data, with increasing accuracy, can identify this and offer a product or service to fill that gap.
The basic problem that economics seeks to solve is — how best to meet our unlimited wants with our limited resources.
We might think this is an easy question. Surely, if we get more resources we can fulfill more of our desires?
But our desires do not stay fixed. Therefore, satisfaction doesn’t necessarily increase with our income because we often upgrade our expectations.
During university, going to the pizza buffet was a treat. But when we graduated, a chain Italian restaurant felt more sophisticated. As we began earning more, we ended up eating in more upmarket places.
How do we meet our wants, if they are always shifting up with our incomes or changing with time?
Chasing the next pay rise or next relationship won’t work. We’re better off trying to subtract our desires to fit our circumstances.
Suffering: Remove or change our attitude?
We think if only we can remove our suffering, then we will be happy. But as Paul found, it is possible to be content in any circumstances.
A mystery of contentment is learning that God has a purpose for our suffering. Even if we do not know the specific reason for every act of suffering.
“Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 7:3–4, NIV)
His purpose is to mould my character. Though suffering is painful, He is using it to set me free.
Charles Dickens illustrated this in Great Expectations through the beautiful, yet proud, Estella.
At the end of the book, she meets her childhood friend Pip. Most men desired Estella, but for Pip, she was his lifelong love.
Miss Haversham, her adopted mother, trained Estella to use her beauty to manipulate and punish men. She taught her to be cold and hard. Rejecting Pip, Estella entered into a brutal and abusive marriage with his rival.
The pain and suffering had been unbearable. But she had finally been set free.
“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but — I hope — into a better shape.” — Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
Our calling or our wants?
Christians often long to do ‘great things for God’. But the circumstances of life can frustrate us. We may lack the gifts, time or opportunity to serve God with the fruitfulness we desire.
But we do not find contentment in how much we achieve for God but in our faithfulness to His calling.
“Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.” (1 Corinthians 7:24, NIV)
The poet John Milton became blind at age 44. He had great ambitions to serve God but this disability limited him.
When I consider how my light is spent,
Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,
And that one Talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my Soul more bent
But as Milton learned, we need not prove anything. We find contentment resting in God’s calling.
“God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best…”
Change our hearts or our circumstances?
Sometimes our circumstances can become unhealthy. We might be in an abusive relationship or in a job that doesn’t fit our skills or personality. The wise response is to get out.
But often our dissatisfaction has less to do with our circumstances.
“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight.” (James 4:1–2, NIV)
Our desires sometimes turn dark; they wage war against ourselves and others. We need to question our desires, rather than become enslaved by them.
Are the demands we are making reasonable? Am I comparing my life with others, rather than seeking to walk the path God has called me to?
When facing challenging life circumstances, it can be tempting like Peter to compare with others:
“Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them… When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?”
Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”” (John 21:20–22, NIV)
Making comparisons with others will either fill us with pride (if we do better) or resentment (if we do worse). Either way, we will never truly know the challenges others face. Our task is to follow Jesus where he is leading us.