“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13)
Sometimes of an evening Pat and I watch an episode of House Hunters International. This is a reality TV program in which a couple is house hunting in a country outside the U.S. We follow them as they view three properties, one of which they select at the end of the show. The closing scene is several months after they have moved in, where they extol the wonderful choice they have made. Often the couple is enjoying a glass of wine with friends as they admire the view from their new home. It is intended to be a picture of contentment. But most of us are not so easily duped because we know the moment will soon pass, and the reality of normal living will overtake them. In a recent program, the couple was house hunting in Rome, where they found an apartment within eyesight of St. Peter’s Basilica. How amusing to imagine contentment being found simply by viewing one of the holiest sites of Christianity – the one religion that teaches the narrow way of deep contentment.
The Apostle Paul had a stay in Rome 2000 years earlier. We do not know if Paul had a view of the city, but his accommodation was certainly far less comfortable than modern day. He was under arrest and whether confined to a house or prison cell, we can be certain that it was a Spartan existence at best. Paul had good reason to be discontented. Yet his letter to the church at Philippi tells a different story – one of joy that transcended his personal circumstances. For despite the conditions, Paul had found deep contentment. In his words, “I have learned the the secret of being content in any and every situation.” (Philippians 4:12)
I wrote last month about the importance of contentment in our faith journey, and about three distinct manifestations: discontentment, conditional contentment, and deep contentment. This month I reflect on Paul’s “secret of being content in any and every situation.” (Philippians 4:12) At the outset, it should be noted that Paul doesn’t spell out what this “secret” is, but gives us some leeway in discovering it for ourselves. He provides a clue by tying his own contentment back to Jesus “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13) And so, it seems right to consider what Jesus said about contentment, which he did in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).
The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ concise teaching on life in the kingdom of God. I have never heard it framed from the perspective of contentment. But, in fact, this is exactly what Jesus does in the metaphor he uses to conclude the Sermon: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24-25) This seems clear enough: our ability to stand firm in the face of the storms of life comes as we apply Jesus’ teaching, that is, as we put his words into practice. Not falling apart when encountering difficult circumstances is a pretty good description of deep contentment.
So what, in essence, do Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount (recorded in Matthew 5-7) tell us? Simply stated, we are to: 1) Forgive what is past; 2) Live honorably in the present; and 3) Be hopeful about the future. As we do these things in increasing measure, deep contentment will more or less follow automatically.
Forgive What is Past. Many of us are burdened by regrets, guilt, and even self-condemnation resulting from our past actions. As a result we are restless and unable to experience deep contentment. This is why Jesus teaches us to press into God by praying, “Forgive us our debts.” (Matthew 6:12) Jesus understands the destructiveness of a guilty conscience, and that this is something God alone can heal and will heal if we but ask him.
Our struggles though are not only with our own past actions, but also with how others have hurt us. If we do not forgive them, we will not know deep contentment. Living with unforgiveness is like living in the exhaust vent of a smoldering volcano that periodically releases fumes from a long past eruption. We never experience deep contentment because we are repeatedly poisoned by escaping gases. There is an inseparable connection between our need to be forgiven and our need to forgive. Jesus makes it very clear. “If you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” (Matthew 6:14)
Live Honorably in the Present. If we do not live honorably in the present, we will not experience deep contentment. Those who do not respond to Jesus’ call to live a life of virtue – one of compassion, purity, honesty, love, etc. – will inevitably be distressed. This we know from Scripture: “There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil.” (Romans 2:9) And this we also know from the testimony of our own consciences. We will never be settled as long as we are enslaved by patterns of sin in our lives.
Be Hopeful About the Future. If we worry about the future, we will not know deep contentment. Worry is one of the great cancers of the spiritual life. It not only eats away at our present joy, but slowly consumes our soul as more and more of today is sacrificed to the future. Jesus words in the Sermon are, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear … do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” (Matthew 6:25, 34) Not succumbing to our fears, but trusting fully in Jesus, is a measure of our Christian maturity.
Still, worry is more than fear about the future, although it is that. Worry includes any undue emphasis we place on our desires being met. For example, the great political divide in this country is reflected in the passionate views held by people on all sides. Whenever our emotions come to dominate our reason we will not know deep contentment. Dallas Willard put it thus, “Those who are wise will, accordingly, never allow themselves, if they can help it, to get in a position where they feel too deeply about any human matter. They will never willingly choose to allow feelings to govern them. They will carefully keep the pathway open to the house of reason and go there regularly to listen.” (Renovation of the Heart, page 125)
Paul, of course, wrote extensively about these three – forgiving the past, living righteously in the present, and not being anxious about the future. But Paul gives us one more handle that ties all three together. Namely, gratitude.
Paul’s letters often mention gratitude (thankfulness). For example, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18) “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.” (Colossians 3:15) And in his letter to the Philippians, in which he writes about deep contentment, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (Philippians 4:6)
In the context of mature discipleship, Ronald Rolheiser observes, “Gratitude is the basis of all holiness. The holiest person you know is the most grateful person you know. That is true too for love: the most loving person you know is also the most grateful person you know because even love finds its basis in gratitude. Anything we call love, but that is not rooted in gratitude, will, at the end of the day, be manipulative and self-serving. If our love and service of others does not begin in gratitude, we will end up carrying peoples’ crosses and sending them the bill.” (247-248)
Jesus modeled gratitude as he often thanked the Father when he prayed. But while Jesus does not speak directly about the importance of thankfulness, Paul does. Indeed, Paul puts a rather fine point on thankfulness, “Finally, brothers and sisters, 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.” (Philippians 4:8) True gratitude always starts with our thoughts. Thinking about things that are excellent and praiseworthy is precisely what fosters gratitude in our hearts. Gratitude leads to loving acts and contentment grows.
The human heart longs to experience deep contentment. To know and feel an abiding sense of peace, patience, and joy that transcends external circumstances. The paradox of deep contentment is that it not achievable by direct effort. Rather, it is the by-product of a living a certain kind of life – a life that is within our reach – one of forgiveness, righteousness, and hope. And one that is forever grounded in gratitude.