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Scripture exhorts us to rejoice always and to give thanks in all circumstances. Today on Renewing Your Mind, prolific Christian blogger Tim Challies, Ligonier Teaching Fellow Sinclair Ferguson, and Heisman trophy winner and the director of Desire Street Ministries Danny Wuerffel join us to discuss the theme of December's Tabletalk magazine, contentment.

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Further Study On This Topic

  1. blog-post

    Learning Contentment

  2. devotional

    Be Content

  3. article

    Providence and Contentment

Learning Contentment

Sinclair Ferguson

I spoke with a close friend who had 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)."

This is truly a Christian reaction to adversity (which is the context in which spiritual contentment is most deeply tested, as well as best manifested).

Such contentment is never the result of the momentary decision of the will. It cannot be produced merely by having a well-ordered and thought-through time-and life-management plan calculated to guard us against unexpected twists of divine providence. No, true contentment means embracing the Lord's will in every aspect of His providence simply because it is His providence. It involves what we are in our very being, not just what we do and can accomplish.

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 of Christian Contentment. 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 need to be 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 created in us, not done by us. It is not the product of a series of actions, but of a renewed and transformed character. It involves the growth of a good tree that produces good fruit.

This seems to be a difficult principle for Christians today 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. We 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.

Knowing First

Years ago, I had a somewhat painful encounter with this "tell us and we'll do it" mentality. Halfway through a Christian students' conference where I was speaking on the assigned theme "Knowing Christ," I was summoned to meet with a deputation of staff members who seemed to feel duty-bound to confront me with the inadequacies of my first two expositions of Scripture.

"You have addressed us for two hours," they complained, "and yet, you have not told us one single thing to do."

Impatience to be doing hid impatience with the apostolic principle that it is only in knowing Christ that we can do anything (cf. Phil. 3:10; 4:13)—or so it seemed to me at the time.

How does all this apply to contentment?

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 the Stoics and Cynics. In their vocabulary, contentment meant self-sufficiency, in the sense of independence from changing circumstances.

But for Paul, contentment was 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 that last phrase. This kind of contentment 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: to learn it, we must enroll in the divine school in which we are instructed by biblical teaching and providential experience.

A good sampler of the lessons learned in this school is found in Psalm 131.

A Biblical Example

In Psalm 131, the psalmist gives us a vivid description of what it means to learn contentment. He portrays his experience in terms of a child being weaned from a milk diet onto solid food:

LORD, my heart is not haughty, nor my eyes lofty.
Neither do I concern myself with great matters, Nor with things too profound for me.
Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with his mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time forth and forever.

To picture the scene and hear the sounds best, you need to remember that in Old Testament times weaning sometimes did not take place until a child was 3 or even 4 years old! 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 4-year-old! That was the measure of the struggle David went through before he learned contentment.

But what was the struggle all about? David helps us by suggesting the two great issues that needed to be settled in his life.

Holy Ambition

"LORD, my heart is not haughty, nor my eyes lofty" (Ps. 131:1). Ambition in and of itself is not necessarily wrong. David 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.

There had been occasions when David could have seized position and power by means that would have compromised his commitment to the Lord. First, Saul came into the very cave where David and his men were hiding (1 Sam. 24:3ff). Later, David and Abishai crept into Saul's tent and found him asleep (1 Sam. 26:7ff). On either occasion, he so easily could have captured or even killed Saul—who had become his enemy. After all, was he not the anointed future king? But David 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 McCheyne wrote, "It has always been my aim, and it is my prayer, to have no plans with regard to myself." "How unusual!" we say. Yes, but what people noticed about McCheyne was how content he was to pursue one driving ambition: 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 all circumstances.

False Preoccupations

"Neither do I concern myself with great matters ... things too profound for me" (Ps. 131:1). 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. Neither 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 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 until I am equal with God. How slow we are to recognize in these subtle mental temptations the echoes of the serpent of Eden: "Express your dissatisfaction with God's ways, God's words, God's provision. Take what He has forbidden. He does not really love you, so take it! And take it now while you have the chance!

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. A discontented spirit is both the fruit and the evidence of an ungodly heart.

Keep these 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.

This excerpt is taken from In Christ Alone: Living the Gospel-Centered Life by Sinclair Ferguson.

Be Content

Over the centuries, Christian theologians have recognized that although the Law is laid out in great detail throughout the Pentateuch, we actually find a summary of it in the Ten Commandments. These ten laws offer some practical ways in which we can concretely express the gratitude we have for our salvation.

When we look at these commandments we might be tempted to think that they are all radically different from each other. However, this is not the case. Many theologians have noted that one of these forbidden sins is actually the root of many evils. This forbidden sin is covetousness (Ex. 20:17).

John Owen has said that “covetousness is an inordinate desire to enjoy more money than we have, or than God is pleased to give us.” This comment was made in response to today’s passage from the book of Hebrews and is absolutely true. Before we address Hebrews 13:5–6, we will note that covetousness does have a broader application in that it includes inordinate desires for anything that we do not have (Ex. 20:17).

It is easy to see how this sin leads to all others. Ungodly desires for people other than one’s own spouse lead to adultery. Coveting another’s wealth leads to theft. Inordinately desiring power and prestige can lead to lies, murder, idolatry, and other forms of sin.

A warning against covetousness is one of the points that we should understand from today’s passage. We are told to be content with what we have and to be free from the love of money. Money itself is not bad; rather, the inordinate desire to have more than God has given us is what leads us into all kinds of wickedness (see 1 Tim. 6:10).

If we are not careful, covetousness can become one of those things that causes us to stumble and to be disqualified from the race of faith. However, God in his mercy has given us this warning to cultivate the perseverance of the saints. The solution is, as the rest of the passage says, to be content with what we have. For the great salvation that has been granted to us is the only thing that we will ever need. Moreover, we are also reminded that God will never leave us, and thus we should not fear since the Lord is our helper. As John Calvin said, “As long as we have such a helper there is no cause to fear.”

Providence and Contentment

R.C. Sproul

Blaise Pascal, the famous French philosopher and mathematician, noted that human beings are creatures of profound paradox. We're capable of both deep misery and tremendous grandeur, often at the same time. All we have to do is scan the headlines to see that this is the case. How often do celebrities who have done great good through philanthropy get caught up in scandals?

Human grandeur is found in part in our ability to contemplate ourselves, to reflect upon our origins, our destiny, and our place in the universe. Yet, such contemplation has a negative side, and that is its potential to bring us pain. We may find ourselves miserable when we think of a life that is better than that which we enjoy now and recognize that we are incapable of achieving it. Perhaps we think of a life free of illness and pain, yet we know that physical agony and death are certain. Rich and poor alike know that a life of greater wealth is possible but grow frustrated when that wealth is unobtainable. Sick or healthy, poor or rich, successful or unsuccessful—we are all capable of growing vexed when a better life remains outside of our grasp.

Scripture prescribes only one remedy to this frustration: contentment.

Biblical contentment is a spiritual virtue that we find modeled by the Apostle Paul. He states, for example, "I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content" (Phil. 4:11). No matter the state of his health, wealth, or success, Paul found it possible to be content with his life.

In Paul's era, two prominent schools of Greek philosophy agreed that our goal should be to find contentment, but they had very different ways of getting there. The first of these, Stoicism, said imperturbability was the way to contentment. Stoics believed that human beings had no real control over their external circumstances, which were subject to the whims of fate. The only place they could have any control was in their personal attitudes. We cannot control what happens to us, they said, but we can control how we feel about it. Thus, Stoics trained themselves to achieve imperturbability, an inner sense of peace that would leave them unbothered no matter what happened to them.

The Epicureans were more proactive in their search for contentment, looking to find a proper balance between pleasure and pain. Their aim was to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. Yet even achieving a goal in this arena can result in frustration. We might never obtain the aimed-for pleasure, or, having obtained it, we might realize that it does not bring what we thought it would.

Paul was neither a Stoic nor an Epicurean. Epicureanism leads eventually to an ultimate pessimism—we can't get or maintain the pleasure we seek, so what's the point? The Apostle's doctrine of the resurrection and the renewal of creation does not allow for such pessimism. Creation "will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Rom. 8:18–25; see 1 Cor. 15). Paul also rejected the passive resignation of Stoicism, for he was no fatalist. Paul actively pressed toward his goals and called us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, believing that God works in and through us to bring about His purposes (Phil. 2:12).

For the Apostle, true contentment was not complacency, and it was not a condition, on this side of glory, that could admit no feelings of discontent and dissatisfaction. After all, Paul frequently expresses such feelings in his epistles as he considers the sins of the church and his own shortcomings. He did not rest on his laurels but worked zealously to solve problems both personally and pastorally.

Paul's contentment pertained to his personal circumstances and the state of his human condition. Whether he suffered lack or enjoyed material prosperity, he had "learned" to be content wherever God placed him (Phil. 4:12). Note that this was something he learned. It was not a natural gifting but something he had to be taught.

What was the secret to contentment that he had learned? Paul tells us in Philippians 4:13: "I can do all things through him who strengthens me."

In short, the Apostle's contentment was grounded in his union with Christ and in his theology. He saw theology not as a theoretical or abstract discipline but rather as the key to understanding life itself. His contentment with his condition in life rested on his knowledge of God's character and actions. Paul was content because he knew his condition was ordained by his Creator. He understood that God brought both pleasure and pain into his life for a good purpose (Rom. 8:28). Paul knew that since the Lord wisely ordered his life, he could find strength in the Lord for any and all circumstances. Paul understood that he was fulfilling the purpose of God whether he was experiencing abundance or abasement. Submission to God's sovereign rule over his life was the key to his contentment.

As we continue to wrestle with the desires of the flesh, we can be tempted to believe God owes us a better condition than we presently enjoy. To believe such a thing is sin, and it leads to great misery, which is overcome only by trusting in the Lord's sustaining and providential grace. We will find true contentment only as we receive and walk in that grace.

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