It’s been two months now that most, if not all of us, have been under some kind of stay-at-home order or quarantine due to COVID-19. Though many states are starting to slowly loosen some restrictions, our circumstances will probably not return to the ‘normal’ we once knew anytime soon.
Our lives have been turned upside down with the many changes that suddenly came upon our country. Whether it has to do with jobs changing or being lost, kids being home from school, not being able to meet together at church, or not being able to see friends or family, these changes have been hard. For some, this has probably been one of the hardest periods in their lives.
In the midst of the turmoil and hardship, I have been reminded of Paul’s words to the Philippians about remaining content amidst whatever situation:
“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:11-13).
It is easy for me to be content when everything seems to be going my way, but when things get hard, contentment becomes hard too. In our flesh, it is far easier to notice what we don’t have than to be content with what we do have. This was no different for Paul, who was writing this letter from prison. He had endured much in his life since turning to Christ (See 2 Cor. 11:16-12:10). Yet, despite his circumstances, Paul tells the Philippians that he has learned the secret of being content regardless of his circumstances. What was this secret?
Regardless of his situation, Paul knew that the one constant through it all was God and his character. God was the one Paul could take refuge in and receive strength from to get through the day, whatever it held.
The answer lies in verse 13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Regardless of his situation, Paul knew that the one constant through it all was God and his character. God was the one Paul could take refuge in and receive strength from to get through the day, whatever it held.
So, how do we remain content during our own challenges today?
First, we need to remember that contentment is not the same as happiness. Like I mentioned before, it’s easy to be content if we are happy about our circumstances. However, true contentment shines through in the midst of hardships because it points beyond our circumstances to the God who sustains us. This was the type of contentment Paul had because, regardless of his situation, his contentment was in God himself, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). Paul probably wasn’t happy about being imprisoned, but he was still content he belonged to the Lord, whether in life or in death.
Second, we need to recognize the difference between worldly contentment and godly contentment. The word in Greek that Paul uses for being ‘content’ (autarkeia) actually had a secular meaning in wider Greek culture that literally meant to be ‘self-sufficient.’ Greek stoics valued a person who was able to be self-sufficient, didn’t need anyone else, and didn’t desire more than what he already had. However, when Paul uses this word, it has quite the opposite connotation. Godly contentment doesn’t seek to be sufficient in ourselves, but recognizes our dependence on God and that our sufficiency is found in him. Likewise, godly contentment doesn’t come through the suppression of our desires but in finding their fulfillment in Christ. It’s not necessarily wrong for us to desire better circumstances, but if our desires try to find their ultimate fulfilment through improving our circumstances, then we will never be satisfied. Only in Jesus can our desires be truly met.
Lastly, we need to realize that contentment is a skill that can be practiced and cultivated, not merely an emotion that we try and conjure up when things are hard. Earlier in Philippians 4, Paul gives spiritual wisdom that can greatly help toward becoming content:
- “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (v 4). Rejoicing and being thankful is probably one of the greatest cures for being discontent because it forces you to stop focusing on what you don’t have in your current circumstances and to be grateful for what you do have, both in this world and in Christ.
- “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand” (v 5). By remembering that this world is not ultimately our home, that one day Jesus will return as a conquering king, and that we will live with him in eternity, it helps to put our worldly troubles in perspective. The difficulties that we experience now pale in comparison to what we will one day experience. (Also see Rom. 8:18-30; 2 Cor. 4:17-18)
- “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (vv 6-7). We should never think that God grows weary of hearing our prayers and petitions to him. God desires us to come to him with all our needs. Yet, he also calls us to trust in his faithfulness. That is when the peace of God will fill our hearts.
- “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (v 8). Much of our discontentment can come from lies that we believe or by simply focusing on the negative things which are a part of our lives. While we aren’t called to ignore our negative circumstances, turning our attention toward what is true, honorable, just, etc., puts the negative in its proper perspective. (Also see Col. 3:1-2)
- “What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you” (v 9). Put these principles into practice, and over time, you will gain greater contentment and peace. Paul didn’t suddenly wake up one day with perfect contentment. He learned it through years of hardship.
In the face of the coronavirus, we are facing unprecedented challenges and hardships in our homes, in our country, and in our churches. Finding contentment is most certainly not an easy thing to do, but it is arguably what God is seeking to cultivate in many of our hearts, including my own. I deeply miss meeting together with members of my church, with my friends, going out to restaurants, and doing all the regular things I’m used to. Yet, it is these hard circumstances that I pray the Lord uses to grow a spirit of contentment in my heart, as I seek to find fulfilment for all of my desires in him alone.