By Jonathan Waits
Have you ever been in a place where you were totally content? That’s a hard place to be. It goes against our natural inclinations. Our natural lean is to constantly reach and strive for whatever is the next best thing.
For a lot of companies, their bottom line depends on this tendency. How many times have you watched news footage of people lined up to get whatever the newest iPhone is? (How many times have you been in one of those lines?) The kick is: 99 percent of the people in that line already have a perfectly good iPhone. There’s nothing wrong with it at all except it’s not the latest and greatest. One of the latest deals from cell phone companies is that you can add a rider to your plan (for a modest price hike of course) that will allow you to automatically upgrade to the newest iPhone whenever it comes out so you don’t even have to bother with waiting in line anymore.
About a year and a half ago we bought a new van. While it’s not over-the-top loaded with features it does have a lot more bells and whistles than any vehicle we’ve ever owned before. We should have been totally content with our new toy. And we were — for a little while. But then we started thinking about how nice it would have been to have paid the little bit of extra money to get the next van up in terms of features. Then we could have had two DVD players and there would be no more fighting over movies. In other words, we weren’t totally content any longer. I’ll bet you can think of more times than you have fingers when you have done the same thing.
This tendency toward discontentment has always been a part of us. I mean, part of the serpent’s tactics in the Garden of Eden was to introduce the seeds of discontentment into the hearts of Adam and Eve. Remember what it says in Genesis 3:6? “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” When they saw all these things and specifically saw through the lens with which the serpent carefully had fitted them that they went beyond what they currently had from God (which was the whole garden, by the way), they gave in to their desire and ate.
This tendency toward discontentment is not limited to individuals either. It can affect whole cultures and nations. Consider how the nation of Israel responded to God’s miraculously delivering them out of 400 years of slavery in the land of Egypt? They almost immediately complained to Moses that he had led them out in the desert to starve to death and wanted to go back to Egypt — into slavery. Then when they got tired of the miraculous food God provided for them every single day they complained again and wanted to go back to Egypt — and slavery — where at least they had good food to eat. They should have been perfectly content in light of all God had done for them and yet the first place they went time and time again was to discontentment.
Now maybe you aren’t quite so melodramatic when your fits of discontentment strike, but I have a strong suspicion that you have them all the same. I know that, by the way, because I do. But come on: We both know this is no way to live. When discontentment rises, happiness vanishes like cockroaches when the lights come on. And who wants to go through life unhappy all the time because you don’t have what you really want (especially when that’s a moving target)? Wouldn’t it be better to live in such a way that what you really want is the things you already have? Perhaps to put that another way: wouldn’t it be better to live life with a deep-seated spirit of contentment?
Sure, but why write something like this during the week of Thanksgiving? Shouldn’t we be talking about the secret of being grateful? Simple. Because while the holiday is great, genuine thanksgiving always comes out of a place of contentment. So then the best question to ask at this time of year really is this one: What’s the secret of being content?
For my money, the best place to find this is near the end of Paul’s letter to the church in ancient Philippi. In chapter 4, Paul begins to offer some concluding thoughts and finally lands on a word of thanks to the church for their care for him while he was sitting in prison awaiting his trial and probable execution at the hands of Nero. In other words, he wasn’t exactly in the most desirable place in the world. Yet after thanking them for their willingness to help meet his needs, he writes this: “Not that I am speaking of being in need ….”
Not in need? He was in prison awaiting an unjust trial and execution. I think we can safely conclude that he needed a few things. Perhaps, but I don’t think that’s what he meant. Given the context a somewhat more interpretive translation here might be this: “Not that I am speaking of being discontent ….” You see that, right? Discontentment comes when we move a want over into the category of need. Those two are not interchangeable and our list of genuine needs is much, much smaller than most of us would image. In this country we are trained to think that we need a car and we need air conditioning (or a heater) and we need a TV and we need a phone and we need the Internet and so on and so forth. Wrong. We need food, water, air and some shelter. Everything else is luxury.
No, Paul wasn’t in need. Nor was he discontent. But why? Because he had learned the secret of being content. “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.” Fantastic. What is it?
The answer is a verse that is both incredibly familiar and wildly misapplied. “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” But wait! Isn’t that an athletic rallying cry? No, nor is it a blank check to do whatever we want as long as we’re “doing it with God’s strength.” This verse is really the secret of contentment. Okay, but what exactly is the secret?
The answer comes just a bit earlier in the text. A bit earlier and in the same context Paul commands his readers to not be anxious about anything. He could just as easily have said: Don’t be discontent. Well, what are we to do instead? In everything — that means everything — let your requests be made known to God by prayer and supplication. So the secret of contentment is to pray? Not exactly. What comes next? Paul tells us how we should approach God: with thanksgiving. This is the heart of the secret. We bring our hearts to God with thanksgiving. We go to God with grateful hearts — which, looking back even a bit further in the text, we are able to do because of our constant rejoicing in him — and we come away with his peace which leads to this incredible sense of contentment.
Fine, but why go to God for this? Why not start somewhere else? Well, because we trust him. We trust him because he’s proven himself trustworthy over and over and over again. And, if you’re feeling a little short on examples from your own life at the moment, just take a few minutes in the Scriptures and be reminded. As we learn to trust him with gratitude for the things he’s done and will yet do we will gradually develop the spiritual muscle of being content, of being at peace, of experiencing joy, of being deeply grateful to God regardless of our circumstances. Or to put that all a bit more succinctly: the secret of contentment is grateful trust in God.
Think about it: a life marked by living and not wishing to live. Imagine it: a life characterized by an unshakable peace and not constant anxiety. Visualize it: a life spent enjoying the bounty of God’s goodness and not wallowing in misery. Seems like there’s no comparison. But be warned: this is not an easy exchange. To embrace this gift we must actively work against all of our natural instincts, gradually seeing them replaced by godly ones. The end result, though, will be well worth it.
The secret of contentment is grateful trust in God. When we own this we will own the farm. And when we own the farm we can have a nice, happy thanksgiving feast because all the resources we need will be at our disposal — and I’m not talking about food. If you want the kind of thanksgiving this year you know in your heart of hearts is what you really want the secret is to be content. Contentment leads to thanksgiving. And the secret of contentment is grateful trust in God. So go this week — and be content.