Learning Contentment

April 25, 1999 / No. 2938

In our message last week we spoke on the grace of Christian contentment. The word “contentment” is a beautiful word and it seems to be a simple grace. It is certainly reasonable and logical. “This is my Father’s world; I rest me in His care.” Well, then we ought to be content.

But it is not easily attained. Nor is it easily kept. For, no sooner do we enjoy the grace of contentment, but it is gone and ugly dissatisfaction returns. Nor is it a grace that we will have in this life with perfection. We read in Psalm 17:15, “I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness.” Then, then I shall be satisfied. But now on this earth I will continue to struggle with dissatisfaction, the rebellion against God Himself.

Nevertheless, the grace of contentment can be learned. The Holy Spirit must be our teacher and the grace of God must bring the lesson to our hearts. You and I, as children of God, can grow in contentment. It is hard learning, but it is very much worth it. As we read in Philippians 4:11, the apostle Paul himself experiences this: “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” That is very comforting. The apostle Paul himself had to learn this grace. And not just once in his life. That is very encouraging. But that also teaches us that it is a lifelong process and there will be also failures. But that contentment, too, is a purchased possession in Jesus Christ. Therefore, by His grace, and in the way of obedience to His Word, we may learn contentment.

When the apostle Paul wrote in Philippians 4:1, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content,” where was he? What was his condition?

He was not taking time out in a busy ministry to send a note to the Philippians. He was not visiting a young church or breaking new ground in evangelism. He was in a prison cell in Rome. Evidently it was during the initial stage of his Roman imprisonment, when he had not been given freedom to be in his own house (as we read in Acts 28). His future at this moment is very uncertain. According to II Timothy 4:16, he has been given his first hearing before Caesar. It was at that hearing that no one stood with the apostle Paul. He is awaiting a verdict. The present situation is, therefore, very unpleasant, deeply frustrating. He is in a Roman cell: damp, with little light, and probably cold – very uncomfortable. The Scriptures tell us that the Romans had an obsession for chains. The apostle Paul himself refers to those chains in II Timothy 2:9, where he says that he is presently bound, or chained. And he says in Acts 26:29 also, that he could wish that all men were as he, a child of God, yet without these bonds, these chains.

Further, we learn from II Timothy 4:13 that it could well be at this time that the apostle Paul lacked adequate clothing and books, for he asks Timothy to bring his cloak and the books with him when he comes to visit him.

So he was in a situation which was intended by Satan to produce despondency and despair. He was deprived of companions, of liberty, and even of some of the very necessities of life. A situation in which many would contemplate suicide.

That is where he was. What was his temperament? Who was Paul?

We learn from the Scriptures that he was a very sociable person. He valued and enjoyed Christian companionship. Every one of his epistles speaks of remembrances and love for fellow believers. Still more, the apostle Paul was an extremely active man. His constitution was to go at it. He loved his work. He carried the churches upon his heart. God’s glory burned and stirred within him.

Still more, the apostle himself was not a self-assured person. We read of his first visit to the city of Corinth, that he was afraid (Acts 18:9). And the apostle there records the truth that the Holy Spirit (God Himself) told him, “Saul, do not be afraid. I have much people in this place.” He knew what it was to feel overwhelmed. In II Corinthians 1:8 he says that in the course of his missionary journeys he was pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that he despaired even of life.

That is where Paul was – in a prison. That is the kind of man he was – a man of like passions as we are.

By the grace of God, he says, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” That did not come easy. If Paul had reasoned his way by the impulses of his own thinking, he would have found his present condition intolerable. But he found it to be blessed. The knowledge of his Lord’s power and grace made his prison cell pleasant to him. Paul had so much more than Caesar, who was above him with his marble floors and silver spoons. He had learned the grace of contentment.

How did he learn that?

First of all in the steps of learning Christian contentment is prayer. That is the first step.

The blessing of prayer is contentment. The fruit of a sincere drawing near to the throne of God through the blood of Christ will be peace. The apostle himself had said in Philippians 4:6, 7 that we must be anxious about nothing, “but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” We may arise from prayer and possess, by the grace of God, the peace which comes from having been in the presence of God. By prayer we are brought into the sanctuary of God. We come apart and we may find rest for our souls in our God. Jeremiah 17:12, “A glorious high throne from the beginning is the place of our sanctuary.” God’s throne, in prayer, is a sanctuary for us. A place of holiness for sure. But a sanctuary is also a place of safety and security and rest. So God says to Jeremiah in chapter 33:3, “Call unto me, and I will answer thee, and shew thee great and mighty things, which thou knowest not.”

Still more. We learn this truth that contentment with the will and strength to do the will of God is found through prayer. We learn of this from the Lord Himself. Mark 14:36, the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Abba, Father, all things are possible unto thee; take away this cup from me: nevertheless not what I will, but what thou wilt.” Then we read in verse 42 that, after He prayed three times, the Lord was able to say to His disciples: “Rise up, let us go; lo, he that betrayeth me is at hand.” Our Lord was strengthened in the way of perfect obedience and experienced a total contentment with the will of God through prayer.

The secret of contentment for the child of God is really no secret in the sense that the formula is hard to figure out. The formula of contentment is not like a formula for algebra. It is not “stress squared times your thyroid plus your age equals contentment.” No! The secret is personal experience of prayer. And the number one cause of discontentment in an age of mass marketing and career-stress and suburbs and all the rest is that “there is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee” (Is. 64:7). Do you worry about what others think? Do you find yourself frantic over your finances? Do you worry about your child? You have no rest? Do you pray? Pray, you say? We’ve got to do something! Yes. Prayer and obedience are not opposites. Prayer is the strength of obedience. True prayer before God prompts you to do something. It gives you obedience to do His will.

The second thing on the steps to contentment is to guard the ambitions of our heart and to control the preoccupation of our mind. If you have a Bible with you, you could open to Psalm 131, a very short psalm. It is a psalm of ascent, or a psalm of degrees. That means that it is a psalm that the children of God would often repeat as they made the geographical ascent or went up to Jerusalem, to Zion, to worship. As they went up to Mount Zion, they would repeat these psalms. There the psalmist speaks of contentment. And he reveals the truth that he had found contentment, first of all, by guarding the ambitions of his heart. He says, in verse 1, “LORD, my heart is not haughty, nor mine eyes lofty.” He does not assume that he knows what is best for himself.

This is a psalm of David. David had been anointed to be the king. He had been given intimation of his future greatness. And that was, of course, a very great and noble thing – to be king. But that great thing of being a king, if it puffed the young David up with self-importance, would be a bad thing. So David says he checked his own ambition. He waited on God’s will. He waited for God’s time and in God’s way. You will remember that there were two times when that ambition was put to the test. In I Samuel 24 we read of the fact that Saul once, while he was hunting for David, went into a cave, and in that cave David was hidden with his men. His men urged David that now was the opportunity that he could kill Saul and become king himself. But David told them that he would not lift up his hand against the Lord’s anointed. At another time, I Samuel 26, Saul and his army, which were again seeking the life of David and his men, were fast asleep. Abishai and David sneaked down into Saul’s camp. There Abishai, standing over the sleeping Saul, says to David, “Let me take the spear and smite him. And I will not have to do it twice.” David says, “No, this is the Lord’s anointed.” David’s desire, a legitimate desire, to be on the throne was held in place. It was held in place because, by the grace of God, his whole life was brought into submission to the will of the Lord and to the commandments of the Lord. He lived on this principle: God’s will, in God’s way, and at God’s time. Therefore he was able to behave himself, he says, as a weaned child. He was content to wait upon God.

Not only did he watch over the ambitions of his heart, but also he sought to control what went on in his mind. He says in verse 1 of Psalm 131, “…neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me.” He did not allow his mind to become preoccupied with things beyond his possession. His mind was not obsessed with things that he did not have. He refused to be preoccupied with things which were too high for him, that is, things beyond his understanding. He did not dwell upon the question: Why do I have to suffer? Why am I hated? Why am I an outcast of society? Why must I be hunted by Saul? All of these things were too difficult for David to understand. He refused to become obsessed with finding answers to all of these questions. He would believe God’s wisdom and he would wait upon his God. He would stay himself upon his God. He would not kindle his own light.

David controlled the ambitions of his heart and the preoccupations of his mind. And in this way, God granted him the grace of contentment.

Still more. If we are to be content we must not only live a life of prayer; we must not only, by the grace of God, control the ambitions of our heart and the preoccupations of our mind; but we must also maintain basic Christian priorities.

One way of holding priorities is in keeping the right questions before your mind. When we are discontent, it is often because the wrong questions are occupying our mind. Satan’s effort is always to get us to drift from the questions that ought to be asked to questions that ought not to be asked. What are the basic Christian priorities? What are the basic Christian questions that we should be asking? First of all, Who am I? The answer: A child of God is a debtor to the grace of God. I am a sinner. I have no rights. I am least of all the saints. I am what I am by the grace of God. His grace has been exceeding abundant to me.

Another important question, even more important than the question, Who am I, is Whose am I? The answer: I am not my own. I do not belong to myself but unto my faithful Savior. Whether we live, we live unto the Lord (Rom. 14:8). Or whether we die, we die unto the Lord. Whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s. We are his property. He is responsible for us. He must provide for us.

Another question: What am I? The answer to that: I am a pilgrim and a stranger. I am apprehended for glory. I do not belong here below. My citizenship is in heaven. The Lord said: “Let your loins be girded about, and your lights burning, and ye yourselves like unto men that wait for their lord” (Luke 12:35, 36). We must be focused upon the things that are above, not here below. We are pilgrims. This life is not the end-all. It is only the preparation for that life which is to come.

Another question: What do I need? And the answer: I need God’s grace. Psalm 63: “The lovingkindness of my God is more than life to me.” There is one thing that is needful: that grace of God which comes to me through the Word of God. What really matters? This is what really matters: That we have the Word of God and that we possess it and read it and love it and go to God. That is the thing that is important! The most important thing is to be rich toward God. The most important thing is expressed in the Lord’s Prayer, in the first petition that He taught us: Hallowed be Thy name! That is, give me rightly to know Thee, to sanctify, glorify, and praise Thee in all Thy works; and order and direct our whole lives, our thoughts, our actions, that Thy name may never be blasphemed, but rather honored and praised on our account. Life is not about you. It is not about how you feel, what you think, what you have, how you look, what do people think of you? It is not about you! It is about God – that His name be honored. That He be glorified by us. And that is why a prison cell for Paul was enough. He found contentment there.

I can well imagine some of the apostle Paul’s thoughts. Perhaps he may have said to himself, look at these chains and these bars. But the Word of God is not bound. Never will the Word of God be bound. The Word of God will break in pieces all that stands against it. And even though I am bound, I rejoice in the fact (Phil. 1) that there are others who preach that gospel with boldness. Perhaps he thought to himself that it is very cold and damp and lonely in here. But then he thought a little further: yet I have all. The lovingkindness of my God is more than life to me. I abound. My God shall supply all my needs.

Beloved, do not make so much of yourself and of this world. God has given us the great good. God has blessed us with the enduring work of Jesus Christ. God is our God. And God has given to us the true riches. Have your priorities right, ordered by the Word of God.

The steps to contentment? Prayer, controlling the ambitions of the heart and the thoughts of the mind, maintaining Christian priorities.

May God teach us the grace of contentment.

Let us pray.

Father, we thank Thee for Thy word. We pray that we may live in obedience to Thee. Amen.