They’re few and far between, aren’t they, those days of transcendent joy? You’ve probably experienced a few of them in your life—when the guy you liked finally noticed you; when you got accepted to the college you’d been dreaming of; when you slept well, woke up late and knew the vacation was just beginning. But a life can’t all be highlights, and I’m sure you’ve had more than one moment of wondering, “How do I keep a feeling of contentment on the ordinary days, let alone the difficult days?”
In the book of Philippians, Paul tells his readers that he had “learned to be content whatever [his] circumstances” (Philippians 4 v 11). He’d certainly had his fair share of circumstances! Since his dramatic conversion he had been alternately praised and persecuted wherever he went. Now, writing to the Philippians, he was imprisoned in Rome with everything stripped away. He’d already survived multiple beatings, a shipwreck and being bitten by a poisonous snake. It makes our daily stresses and struggles pale in comparison, doesn’t it?! And yet Paul had learned how to keep this feeling of contentment no matter what kind of day he was having.
When I was studying the book of Philippians prior to writing my book on finding contentment that lasts, If Only, the word I was most struck by in Paul’s letter was “learned”. We can often think that spiritual characteristics like joy, holiness or contentment are things we either have or we don’t. But most of the New Testament, if not the whole Bible, teaches us that we can and must learn these things like we do everything else in life. So how do we go about learning contentment?
"Our contentment will grow as we intentionally rejoice in the way that God is being glorified in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in."
1. Know what matters
Paul has scattered lots of clues for us throughout Philippians. In chapter 1 it seems he must be responding to concerns the Christians in Philippi had for him. He tells them that he’s not bothered about the stories they’ve heard of other people muscling in on his patch and preaching the gospel while he is prevented from doing so. The important thing is that Christ is being preached, and that gives Paul immense joy: his first priority is that God should be glorified and the gospel preached. That is what his heart longs for, more than his own comfort or success. In a similar way, our contentment will grow as we intentionally rejoice in the way that God is being glorified in whatever circumstances we find ourselves in.
2. Care for others
Secondly, Paul cares more about serving others than having his own wants and needs met. We see this in chapter 1 v 21-26 and 4 v 10-19. In chapter 1 he tells his friends in Philippi how he actually looks forward to death, because it means being with Christ, but that it would be better for them if he were to stay alive. For that reason, he chooses to embrace life, putting their needs before his own. In chapter 4 he thanks them for the financial support they have sent to him, but says he’s more delighted at the blessing from God that this will bring to them than at the fact he has been able to eat for another few weeks. How could you use your circumstances to serve others?
3. Think on good things
Thirdly, Paul tells us to train our minds to focus on the things that bring joyful contentment rather than the things that make us discontented. In chapter 4 v 8 he says “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
Notice how he puts this in the positive. If I say, “Don’t think about pink elephants”, I can guarantee you’ll immediately think of pink elephants (where presumably you hadn’t been before). If, however, I say, “Think about a lovely, juicy orange”, that will quickly put all thoughts of pink elephants out of your head and replace them with juicy oranges. So, Paul exhorts us to think of good things, which will help to push the negatives, the struggles, the disappointments out of our minds, and leave us much more contented. And of course, the very best thing to think about is God, his goodness and his wonderful gift of salvation.
As with all things we learn, the way to ensure this contentment really sticks with us is to keep practising. I’ve found it is far easier to do this when you’re in community with other believers—when you feel low and discontented, those around you can remind you of God’s goodness, his past faithfulness to you and his trustworthiness for the future. And when they are feeling discouraged, you can do the same in turn.
As you practise, fail, try again and repeat, you will slowly but surely get better at it, and will find that the feeling of contentment that once seemed so elusive gets easier to sustain and easier to regain when it temporarily escapes.
If Paul can find lasting contentment in a Roman jail, we can find it too, whatever our circumstances.