A father who seems to be locked into a low-paying, dead end job that holds little attraction for him and promises few financial rewards. . . . A mother who rises early and retires late, crowding every waking hour with cooking, cleaning, washing, and changing of diapers, often without proper appreciation. . . . A pastor whose church does not grow and whose sermons seem to fall on deaf ears. . . . A young person who cannot seem to find the right young lady, or is never asked by the right young man. . . . Just a few examples which demonstrate the urgent need for the child of God of every age to apply himself to the learning of the grace of contentment.
We hope in the next few months to examine various jewels of Christian virtue which belong to the crown of life that we wear as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. Perhaps the most important of these virtues, and the most difficult to obtain, is that of contentment. As a virtue it sparkles more brightly than all the rest, and therefore its presence or its absence is the most readily noticeable. That contentment stands as the chief virtue becomes obvious when we consider that contentment is actually the inner perfection of the law. The tenth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet. . . .,” is a slightly different kind of a commandment in that it does not govern some new area or relationship of life, but it states something concerning all of the law. It emphasizes that the entire law of God is not a code of external precepts, but is an inner matter of the heart. Positively worded, the tenth commandment calls us to walk in daily contentment. Thus, when a person is content he is in the proper spiritual disposition to keep all of the perfect law of liberty; otherwise not.
The original word for the grace of contentment is a word that at first glance gives pause. It is a word of two parts: the one is the reflexive pronoun meaning self, and the other means to suffice, to be sufficient. The compound word has the literal meaning of being self-sufficient or independent. Contentment involves independence. How can that be? If one thing is clear from Holy Scripture it is that man is not self-sufficient or independent, but he needs God every moment for life, movement, for being itself. That is a fundamental difference between God and man. God has perfect freedom and independence so that He never requires anything; within Himself He finds all that He can ever desire. But manness or creatureness means that we rely upon Someone outside of ourselves for everything needful! Even to think for a moment that we are independent is to commit the sin of high pride and conceit. In fact it is alone when we acknowledge our total dependence upon God that we can be content!
In his Lexicon of the New Testament, Thayer points in the helpful direction when he includes among several meanings for contentment, “independent of external circumstances.” Contentment can only mean, therefore, that the inner life of a man is entirely independent of the external circumstances of his life. To put this most important concept another way, a man is content when he contains within himself a certain strength that will enable him not to have to find support without. And in that sense only is he self-sufficient.
This is all to say that how we look at things, how we feel, what we experience in life, is not to be conditioned by the outward things of this present time. If our spiritual attitude is at the mercy of external events, then we are without rudder or anchor, tossed about by every wind and wave. Too often how or what we feel inwardly is dictated by such things as health or illness, prosperity or poverty, success or failure, friendship or loneliness, the lack or the presence of trials and hardships. If things go our way, we feel good, happy, content. But when these outward circumstances are altered, so that our lot is rough or unpleasant, we feel much different; our outlook is changed and we are ready to speak critically of God. This is all backwards.
Contentment is that virtue which allows the inner life of the child of God to stay beyond the staining touch of outward things. We all have such an inner life of the soul beneath the surface where others cannot see. Belonging to this inner life is the mind, our power of reasoning and remembering. If we are content, with our minds we know that all things are well with us. And this conviction, this knowing, is not conditioned by anything outward in our life, but is completely independent of these changing circumstances. Also belonging to the inner life of a man is the will. When contentment is present our will tells us that we do not want things any different than they are! This means we do not have any needs. And thus the soul has peace; the mind knows and the will is satisfied, so the soul has perfect tranquility.
With regard to what, specifically, are we to demonstrate contentment? The contexts in which the word is found reveal that there are three situations or areas in which contentment is required, but in which we are the most prone to be discontent. And these three occurrences really cover all of life. 1.) Hebrews 13:5, “Let your conversation be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have; for he hath said, I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.” Here contentment, the opposite of covetousness, is required in respect to earthly things, possessions, money. The reason given in the text is that God will never leave or forsake us. You have very little worldly goods? You have no luxury or pleasure? Let us make it very extreme: you say you have only enough to get through one day at a time? Even then there is absolutely no excuse for covetousness, for God will never forsake but will provide faithfully each day’s needs. When the mind knows that, when the will would have it no other way than to live out of God’s hand each day, then the soul can rest and say, It is well!
2.) Phil. 4:11, “. . .for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” The context makes plain that contentment is also required in the midst of afflictions, trials, and infirmities. When Paul wrote these words, he was in a Roman jail cell; his state was that of a prisoner waiting for the executioner to tap at the door. Near the end of his life the apostle here looks back over labors, stripes, imprisonments, dangers, beatings, stoning, shipwrecks, and perils. Surely if ever a man had reason to wish he were someone else, or to wish he were somewhere else, it was Paul. And now he sits in a cell and speaks to us of contentment! What a tremendous virtue it must be if it is able to keep the soul of the saint safe from the clutches of our outward state so we do not fall into the sins of rebellion and criticism. Does any one of us dare to say that the apostle speaks a bit too ideally, but. does not know the rigors of daily life?
3.) Matthew 25:14-30, the parable of the talents. Although the word contentment does not occur in this parable, the idea of contentment is certainly the main thrust of the passage. The master who went into a far country gave to his servant various amounts of money: five, two, and one talent. These talents do not refer to abilities or special gifts one might possess (music or art), but they refer to an office of labor and trust. This is clear from the facts that the master gave to each oneaccording to his ability, and was able to take the talent from them again. So it was the calling of each one, while the master was absent for a time, to labor faithfully in that particular position. Two of them were content to do this and were rewarded with entrance into the master’s joy. The third servant, completely devoid of contentment, was not satisfied to labor in a position he thought to be below his dignity. Rather he angrily buries the single talent in the ground. He refuses to labor! He will not work in a position of such unimportance. And he is driven out after being dispossessed of that which he had. Thus the point is that we are to be content with the place in which God has put us in His kingdom. It is not only ministers and teachers who have kingdom work to do! Every child of God labors in the kingdom, and it is of supreme importance that he demonstrate contentment as he does so!
It follows from the fact that contentment is an inner independence from outward circumstances that it must have a solid basis. And this solid basis is first of all the truth that everything that happens to us in this life is not the result of fickle fate or blind destiny, but is the result of the controlling hand of our heavenly Father. All of our life from our conception to our death, has been determined before the worlds were. And according to that determination it actually has come to pass. If a hair cannot fall from our heads without the will of our heavenly Father, what do you think can happen to us? There is nothing that ever happens without the will of God, without His bringing it to pass.
Since it is true, however, that the circumstances of every man’s life are ordained by God, the wicked as well as the righteous, we must know that our way has been determined by God in love. We cannot rest in the mere doctrine of providence, but in the greater truth that God, through His providence, in Jesus Christ, directs all things unto the salvation and benefit of His people. Circumstances are not just there, they are not merely determined, but they are unfailingly, good for God’s children. This conviction of the mind, this satisfaction of the will, this confidence of the soul allow contentment to flourish and grow. Then a person is saved from the snare of covetousness and rebellion, for then he is able to say, It doesn’t make any difference what happens to me, nothing can ever harm me or separate me from the love of God in Christ!
So there is really nothing new, is there? If the restatement of the above truth does not thrill us, or seems not to be an adequate answer in the season of our discontent, it has to mean that we have not really learned contentment. As we suggested earlier, this virtue does not immediately spring full-blossomed from the soul; it is very difficult to possess. It must be learned. So states Paul while sitting in his final cell. There had been times when the apostle did not have this wonderful contentment, times when he criticized God and despaired of the wisdom of God’s ways. But the point is, he learned! Near the end of his life he looks back, and he is given a glimpse of the wonderful way God had dealt with him. He includes his present afflictions which are but for a moment, he recalls the gifts the saints at Philippi had sent to him; but his conclusion is, I have no want! Paul has reached God’s purpose for him in this life! Storms of life cannot reach him within, where he really lives. For within there is contentment that is based on the unfailing Word and promise of God!
Have we learned? Are we learning? What kind of disciples are we, as we walk after Christ? Do the truths of Scripture strike us at the level of our inner life so that we are built up in this independence? In the way of unceasing prayer and Bible study, this jewel shall shine in our crowns to the praise of God in heaven. How did David put it? The Lord is my Shepherd, I want nothing.