Contentment: A virtue to be pursued

Once upon a time there lived a king who wanted to become the richest king on the earth. So he prayed to his gods to turn everything he touched turn into gold. His gods granted him his wish but under one condition: “This gift cannot be returned back”. The king was very happy and started to touch everything around him. He enjoyed seeing them turning into gold. He touched the walls of the palace and it turned into a golden palace. He touched the sand it turned into gold. He touched the rocks and they turned into gold. Amazing! He went around the city touching every article he could find. He became a very happy man on the earth. At the end of the tiring day, he returned to the palace, thirsty and hungry. He ran to drink water and have his food. When he touched his food and water, they turned into gold. Unfortunately, his thirst was not quenched and his hunger was not satisfied. As he started to come to his senses, suddenly his daughter came running up and hugged him. To his utter dismay, she also turned into gold. The king stood helpless. This is an example of a king who was discontented with what he had.

When we come to the era in which we live, it can be labelled as an era of materialism. Where one’s worth is measure against what material possessions one has and does not have. Material possession in turn shows one’s financial power to buy things. Financial power in turn shows one’s status in the society. It is a vicious cycle. Not only that, we live in the age of brand names, high-end electronic gadgets, high-end automobiles, designer clothes, designer jewelleries, discounts, special offers, instant loans and credit cards. To facilitate all these, we are always flooded with convincing and attractive commercials to go for their products. Everywhere we turn on the road we are flooded with discounts and special offer billboards. Now -a -days we find offers throughout the year. A Year-end clearance sale offer, then a New Year offer, an exchange offer, a Holi offer and an Ugadi offer. In the end we will become paupers. Some offers are very hilarious: “Cost of the product is Rs.99 only but the tax Rs.999/-” We are offered easy cash at a competitive interest rates, which is a perfect formula for bankruptcy as in credit cards. This is an age of consumerism were the consumer is almost considered a god.

The reality is at one point of time somewhere at the back of our mind we may have desired to go for the things we want to have. Yet the truth is, we will never have enough of what we want. Can we? We all one day or other have entertained the thought of becoming rich. It’s quite human. It’s all right until it becomes an obsession. We can’t stop a bird flying over our head, can we? However, we can definitely stop the bird from building its nest on our head. So what are we going to do about it? If at all we have a choice, how are we going to go about it? What does our Bible have to say about it? So, shall we turn our attention to what the Apostle Paul says in his epistle to the Philippian Church (4: 10-13)?

If we look at the background of the epistle of Philippians it is believed to be written from the prison where Paul is mentions he is in chains (1:13, 14) probably under a Roman house arrest as mentioned in the book of (Acts 28:30)(Reason: people were able to meet Paul and send help in money and goods). The church in Philippi came into existence as a result of Paul’s obedience to the “Macedonian call” mentioned in Acts 16:9 ff. Hence the church at Philippi became the first church in the Macedonian province.

If we consider the history of the city of Philippi, it was founded by Philip of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great in 357 BC. So it was named after him. It was a Roman colony. So its citizens enjoyed the privilege of Roman citizenship. It also had special protection and all the privileges granted by the Roman law. They were spared from paying taxes and what else does one want? The citizens of Philippi were influenced by the Greek philosophies and Roman environment.

So what was Paul’s purpose in writing this epistle? Probably one can trace out more than one purpose for Paul writing to the Philippians. Paul revisited the Philippian church as mentioned in the book of Acts (20: 2, 6). So Paul wanted them to know what had happened to him as he served to peach the gospel. He speaks about his chains. He mentions about the arrival of Epaphroditus with the gifts from them. He warns them against Judaizers (a group of Jews who taught circumcision inside the Church). He addressed the issue of unity among the believes both generally and personally (4:2). He exhorts the believers.

However, in the given passage in 4:10-13, Paul is appreciates the Philippians for their concern for him and they acted out of it, to help him. It is interesting to note that Paul is not explicitly thanking them. Rather he is expressing an attitude of gratitude towards their deeds for him. This morning I would like to call our attention to 4: 11-13, where apostle Paul is prescribing an antidote for this pandemic of materialism and consumerism.

In verse 11, apostle Paul is writing, “I have learned to be content”. The good news today is none of us are born content; we learn to be content. Therefore, Contentment comes from Learning. In other words Paul learned how to be “content”. Paul was not born with this virtue; rather he acquired it through learning. Paul says, “I have learned the secret of being content”. It is an open secret. Paul never says that “I pray that I will be content in every circumstance”. Contentment is not like the Spiritual gifts we pray for. Rather it is a Spiritual discipline we develop. In other words it is a state of mind or heart or attitude. It is a Spiritual discipline. If it is a Spiritual discipline, how do we cultivate it?

Let us just think about “learning”. What comes to our mind? It is a process. Learning takes conscious effort from our side. It is a deliberate act. It involves discipline coupled with hard work. It cannot take place in a disorganised setting; rather it takes place in a systematic setting. Therefore, contentment is a principle, which one develops from conscious, deliberate, disciplined and systematic learning. Since it is a process, we cannot expect it to happen instantaneously under normal circumstances. From this we understand it is not a passive withdrawn state; rather, it is an active learning process.

Above all when there is a learner most of the time there is teacher as well. Who is Paul’s teacher? It is Jesus Christ himself; because it is in this context of contentment Paul says in v.13 “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Though he does not explicitly say that Jesus is the teacher, Paul implies it.

From this we understand three things. The first is that learning takes place in a relational context. It is a relation between the teacher and the student. Paul can be content because his relationship is to the extent of saying, Phil 1:21 “For me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain”. One cannot learn to be content without having a proper relationship with Jesus Christ because He is our role model. He has warned us to choose between serving God and money. He has promised to meet our needs but not our wants. He has promised provision of essential and necessary things of life but not luxury. We know what our needs are and our wants are? We are our better judge to judge between our essential things that we need and luxury.

Secondly it takes Divine strength and grace to learn contentment. The reason is Paul says, “I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” In other words, God gives strength to be content in every circumstances. It is a Divine enablement in co-operation with our efforts. To be specific, the source of this Divine strength is Lord Jesus Christ. This again emphasizes the need for relationship or a state of connectedness with the source of Divine strength. Most of the time the desire for material gain is very strong. Therefore, we need this Divine strength and grace to be content which will act as a defence mechanism. Contentment protects from leading a discontented life.

Thirdly this relationship cultivates a healthy trust in God to meet one’s material needs. In other words we will be dependent in the all sufficiency of God to be our ultimate source to meet our needs. We may have our jobs, salaries, and things we need; but ultimately it begins and ends in God. Here in this context when Paul is using the word “Content”, it is employed as metaphor of a “self sufficient city with no imports”. Which means to manage well with whatever one has in life. Stoic philosophy considered being self sufficient or content to be virtue. Interestingly, Paul is redeeming the concept and tells he is self-sufficient because he is dependent on Christ. He is not only self-sufficient but more than that he is, “Christ sufficient”.

Now if we again come back to chapter 4:11b Paul says that “for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances.” From this we understand “Contentment does not depends upon our circumstances. Contentment is independent of our circumstances. It is state of the heart and it depends on us whether to be content or not.”

He goes on to say “I know what it is to be in need” or “I know what it is to have plenty”. “Well Fed” or “hungry.” “Living in plenty” or “in want.”

If we observe the circumstance Paul mentions, these are extremes of life’s circumstances. We always oscillate between extremes of life. To be contended is to rest somewhere in between the extremities of life. To find a rest so that we will stop oscillating between the extremes of life. Be contended despite the things we have and don’t have. It is a voluntary choice we make to be content. Here Apostle Paul chose to be content with whatever he had. If we wait for the circumstance to change or improve, so that we will be content, it may not happen. Apostles Paul’s circumstances and our circumstances are no different. The time in which he lived and we live might be different. But the world is materialistic in nature as it was then and is today. Therefore, contentment is independent of our circumstances but depends on us depending on Christ’s sufficiency. Contentment does not comes from whatever we have now or going to have in future, rather whom we depend, Christ Jesus or money.

Apostle Paul is not promoting lethargic people. He is not sceptical about earning and planning for a good and decent life. He is not promoting asceticism or sanyasa. He is speaking about God’s economy and the economy of this world. God’s economy encourages us to be “Christ sufficient”, depending on God to be the ultimate source for meeting our material needs, whereas the world’s economy bogs us down to depend on money. If we are contented we will enjoy what we have rather than be worried about what we don’t have or will not have in life. Contentment is a protection from leading a discontented life.

Authored by Bro. Karthick Jayabalan