Sometimes I create in my mind a misguided picture of contentment. I imagine a fairly carefree disposition of someone who has her life in balance. She’s not overworked or bothered by much. She knows just the right thing to say, and her relationships are full of encouragement, mutual respect, and long conversations at cozy coffee shops. When tough times come, she’s tougher—always able to handle difficulties with a gracious spirit.
This is not my life. Fears arise, trying circumstances burden, and relationships disappoint. Sometimes I’m discouraged simply because I’m discouraged. I look over the fence at Paul’s contentment in profound wonder at his confidence to proclaim, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Phil. 4:11 ESV).
5 Things Contentment Is Not
However, the more I reflect upon Paul’s letters, the more the Lord continues to refine my incomplete notions of contentment. Paul is not carefree, unburdened, and surrounded by trouble-free relationships. In fact, considering the larger picture of Paul’s ministry gives me a fuller picture of what contentment is by gaining insight into what it is not.
1. Contentment is not a carefree existence.
Contentment isn’t having it all together and finding a life of perfect balance between work and play. Nor is it an idyllic moment spent swinging on a hammock, sipping sweet tea, and reading a book on a cool fall afternoon while all the world around you falls apart. Paul’s description of his time in Asia probably wouldn’t make the Facebook feed:
For we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. (2 Corinthians 1:8 ESV)
Burdened, afflicted, despairing—these descriptions are not in opposition to a contented soul.
2. Contentment is not the absence of relational conflicts and anguish.
Paul had his share of relational disagreements, even departing from Barnabas over a dispute regarding Mark (Acts 15:39). In the midst of deep affection, ministry included relational anguish:
For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you. (2 Cor. 2:4 ESV)
Loving others means our hearts will be burdened for them. Contentment is not an indifferent disposition towards others. Instead, we should expect that the depth of our love for one another will involve many tears and anguish of heart.
3. Contentment is not a life without longing and groaning in our distress.
When we mistakenly view contentment as keeping a positive Pollyanna attitude all of the time, we miss entering more deeply into relationship with Jesus. He was troubled in soul on the eve of his crucifixion and in agony prayed multiple times to the Father for rescue. Paul described his own experience with similar distress:
For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling. (2 Cor. 5:2 ESV)
Contentment does not mean that we are free from desires, longings, or heart wrenching circumstances. Crying out to God for relief is not in opposition to contentment.
4. Contentment is not freedom from fear and anxiety.
Paul explained the state of his circumstances and inner turmoil in stark detail:
For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within. (2 Cor. 7:5 ESV)
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. (2 Cor. 11:24–28 ESV)
Paul faced outward danger and inward anxiety. He did not hide his struggles, both physical and emotional. Rather, he shared his weaknesses, hardships, and burdens that he might glory all the more in Christ’s strength (2 Cor. 4:7).
5. Contentment is not freedom from the fight against sin.
Paul was not free of sin. He hated his sinful choices and struggled against them:
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. (Rom. 7:15 ESV)
Paul fought the good fight. It was not easy. The Christian life is described as a race, a battle, and childbirth. Each of these denotes an active (and painful) struggle not a leisurely walk in the park. Fighting diligently against sin is not in opposition to contentment.
In the midst of fears, difficult circumstances, and battles against sin, Paul still claimed contentment in all things. If contentment isn’t some of the things we usually think of it to be, what does it look like?
Jeremiah 17:7–8 tells us:
Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD,
whose trust is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit. (ESV)
In the year of drought, the tree planted by a stream continues to bear fruit.
Contentment is not the fruit of perfect circumstances or a calm constitution. It’s the result of trusting in the Lord. Paul faced fear, anxiety, physical dangers, and ministry difficulties, just like we all do. Yet he faced these struggles prayerfully, with a deep assurance in the goodness of God.
The reality of Paul’s spiritual situation proved greater than his earthly experience. From the spring of heavenly riches, Paul lived a life of earthly contentment. Romans 8 (ESV) provides a window into the truths that brought Paul peace in the midst of various trials:
- Paul rejoiced that his heavenly situation was secure. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (v. 1).
- Paul set his mind on spiritual matters.“For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (v. 6).
- Paul understood that nothing could happen to him except that which was ultimately for his good. “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (v. 28).
- Paul knew that God was for him. “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (vv. 31–32).
- Paul trusted in the one relationship that would never fail.“For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv. 38–39).
In the midst of life’s twists and turns, the good news remains constant: We are not condemned. The Spirit lives within us. God works all things for our good. He is for us. Nothing can separate us from God’s love.
Our world (and our own imaginations) will continue to put forth an impossible dream of a carefree life. If we chase after a mirage of contentment, we will never find it. However, by trusting in Christ, we find refreshment for our souls in the midst of hardships, difficulties, and trials. As Charles Surgeon questioned: “If Christ were only a cistern, we might soon exhaust his fullness, but who can drain a fountain?”1
From the spring of heavenly riches true contentment flows.
1 C. H. Spurgeon and Edmond Hez Swem, Spurgeon's Gold: New Selections from the Works of C.H. Spurgeon. (Washington: Judd & Detweiler, Printers, 1888), 198.