I think I’ve defined contentment as a heart that has found abiding rest. And in the past, I worked under an assumption that “rest” was connected to a sense of “enoughness.” I have all I need, and therefore, I can be at rest.
So in the past, when I read Philippians 4 and heard Paul say that he was content in any circumstance, I understood that to mean he made the most of what he had and trusted God to provide whatever was lacking–unless it was time for Paul to die, in which case Paul would be even better off. Paul’s “secret” was essentially to adjust expectations to meet the present reality. If I’m flush, great! If I’m at death’s door, great! Anything in between would therefore also be great. And since Acts shows him at both of those extremes, it wasn’t hard to believe he really had figured out how to be at peace with whatever happened to him.
However, now I’m coming to think Paul’s contentment actually has nothing to do with enoughness or accepting present circumstances. For one thing, Paul almost never likes any present circumstances (the closest he comes, that I can think of, is 2 Tim 4:6-8). Everything he says and does is aimed at ushering in a future that’s profoundly better than the present. At best, present circumstances are a means to whatever is next on the agenda: He doesn’t like being in prison, but he rejoices in what it will mean for the Gospel; he doesn’t like finding unrighteousness in himself or the people around him, but he rejoices in the opportunity for grace to abound.
Instead, I think for Paul, contentment emerges when we train our hearts to find rest in something that we have utter confidence we can’t lose or won’t be taken away. For Paul, I think that’s the stuff in Phil 3:7-9: the “knowing Christ” stuff. It’s why he can express profound dissatisfaction with himself a few verses after that:
“not that I have obtained all this or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me”
but also claim abiding contentment in the next chapter:
“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.”
Paul’s contentment transcends enoughness. Enough money, food, accomplishment, friends, or righteousness–those issues aren’t unimportant, but Paul’s secret is that he has discovered they’re irrelevant where contentment is concerned. The source of his contentment can’t be affected in any way by those things.
So if I want contentment like Paul’s, I think it’ll be rooted somewhere in the warm space between Jesus’ beating heart and my ear as it’s pressed up against his chest. Like John, who we see literally experience that during the last supper. Later that night, of all the disciples, John seems to be the least concerned with present circumstances as he follows Jesus and then stands by the cross. John’s primary objective wasn’t personal safety–it was proximity to Jesus, where he had found peace–the peace of the heart that comes from “knowing Christ,” that breeds contentment.
Whenever I get to a conclusion like this in sermon prep, I instantly react against it. I am suspicious of things that smack of, “just get to know Jesus better–it’s all about relationship.” Not because it’s wrong, but because it’s so easy to teach, and I am afraid I’ve been conditioned to default to that by years of mediocre evangelical teaching instead of doing harder, more complete exegesis. But that’s honestly where my thoughts on contentment stand right now. I hope there’s something in there that’s helpful.
Sadly, much of the time, I am not content. Perhaps I’ve figured out Paul’s secret, but I wouldn’t say I’ve learned it.
My friend’s reply
My friend replied later with some insightful remarks
I actually really like your language of ‘practicing enoughness’ even though that was before your ‘but…’ I wonder if the two don’t interact? In the Timothy passage, he puts a ‘basement’ on material contentment (food and shelter + ‘godliness’ whatever that is) to his pastoral charge. And by crediting God with ‘richly providing everything we enjoy’ it seems that material thankfulness is not out of bounds as a mechanism of contentment. But most of the Timothy passage supports your exegesis of Philippians. He prescribes generosity for the rich as a way of ‘hope transference’ to something more secure.