In Philippians 4 Paul says he has “learned to be content whatever the circumstances”. He says that what he has learned is a secret and hints that is has to do with “him who gives me strength”. Don’t you wish you could ask Paul to expand a bit? Exactly how did he learn to be content?
A few of my recent mentoring conversations have probed this question. As a result, I’m inclined to believe that the pathway to learning contentment may well be slightly different for every person with a few themes in common. I decided to itemise the things that I think I personally need to practice to learn contentment. I offer them here simply as a thought-starter. If you want to work on your own list it will probably end up looking a bit different to mine.
- I need to clearly acknowledge that God is both big and good, and do this especially in the midst of bad circumstances. God is far and away the biggest factor in the universe. If he is also good, then my posture towards the world does not need to be one of caution, fear and suspicion. Peaceful satisfaction comes from relying that our good God has things under his control.
- I need to receive love from others with gratitude. Discontent can make me turn in on myself, and that is self-defeating. The affection of loved ones is a great source of contentment. Even if all others fail to love me well, my heavenly Father certainly does.
- I need to direct my focus away from lack and towards blessing.
- I need to distinguish between needs and wants and choose not to fixate on unfulfilled wants.
- I need to practice taking delight in beautiful things that are free. Ugliness eventually wears away at my soul; beauty restores it. I don’t need to own a beautiful thing to benefit from it. Many beautiful things are not commodities – sunsets, the laughter of small children, music, a jacaranda in full bloom, the smell of the forest after rain.
- I need to neutralize any sense of entitlement I might have with humility.
- I need to develop a sober estimate of myself, both my capacities and my limitations.
- I need to resist comparing myself to anyone else.
- I need to promptly forgive offences, both actual offences against me and things I merely perceive as offences.
- I need to exercise patience, taking the long view even as far as into eternity. Too much of my discontent comes from having a limited, short-term perspective.
- I need to practice sabbath and silence. That is, I need to stop doing and stop talking with some kind of regular frequency.
- I need to find my identity in Christ – the one who strengthens me.