A story is often told about a Jewish man in Hungary who complained to his rabbi, “Life is unbearable. Nine of us are living in one room. What can I do?”
The rabbi answered, “Take your goat into the room with you. Do as I say and return in a week.” The man was incredulous but obeyed. He went home and brought his goat into the room. Now there were nine people in one room, plus a goat.
A week later, the man returned to his rabbi more distraught than ever. “We can’t stand it!” he said. “The goat is filthy!”
The rabbi replied, “Go home and let the goat out, and come back in a week.”
A week later, the man returned radiant. “Life is beautiful!” he declared. “We enjoy every minute of it now that there is no goat. There are only nine of us in the room.”
Sometimes we need a goat experience to teach us contentment. Often we lose perspective and focus on the wrong things. As a result, our lives get turned upside down. We become ungrateful and start to complain; and we concentrate on life’s difficulties, rather than on the One who holds our very breath in His hand and loves us.
Jeremiah Burroughs, a 17th-century Puritan preacher, wrote, “Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.” Contentment is learning to trust God’s administration. As the apostle Paul wrote,
Now godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim. 6:6–10).
The Greek word for contentment is autarkeia. It’s a combination of two words: autos, meaning “self,” and arkeo, meaning “to be sufficient” or “to be full.” So contentment means being satisfied within ourselves. It does not mean we cannot take self-improvement classes or explore the possibility of job advancement. But it means those things should not drive us. We should be satisfied with our circumstances.
Paul wrote we should be content if we have food and clothing, since “we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out” (v. 7). In North America, most of us have plenty of food and more than enough clothes. Yet we tend to covet what others have. We allow society’s marketing ploys and television advertisements to make us discontent by constantly telling us what we own is not as up-to-date as it could be. But Scripture tells us to be content. So how do we become content?
LEAN ON GOD’S GRACE
God told the apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9). The word for “sufficient” is the same word for “content.” God’s grace is enough. Contentment is seeing yourself as having enough, as being sufficient where you are.
Paul wrote, “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need” (Phil. 4:12). The verb translated “have learned” is the Greek word memyēmai, which means “to be initiated.” Paul had been initiated into contentment, as opposed to being instructed about contentment. How does that work? Paul explained:
Are they ministers of Christ?—I speak as a fool—I am more: in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness—besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I do not burn with indignation? (2 Cor. 11:23–29).
That was quite an initiation. God placed Paul in many situations where he had to decide whether to be content—to trust God’s overall management of his circumstances—or to complain about how unfair life is.
Paul experienced persecution, peril, illness, and sleeplessness. Sooner or later, we experience hardships that can initiate us into contentment, if we let them. We must ask ourselves, Am I going to live above my circumstances? Can I let God take my possessions away from me? Will I be content when that happens?
In some ways, life’s events are like puzzle pieces. When we first dump a jigsaw puzzle onto a table, we don’t understand how the pieces will fit together. We may even pick one up and say, “No way will this piece ever fit. I’ll never figure out where it goes.” But with patience, we start to assemble the puzzle and eventually see where the piece belongs.
Similarly, we need to trust the fact that God, as the Administrator of our lives, knows how all the pieces fit together. We need to say, “All right, Lord. I have no idea how this piece fits or how it’s going to work. But I know You’ve made some promises to me. I know You’ve said all things work together for good [Rom. 8:28]. I know You’ve said no weapon formed against me will stand [Isa. 54:17]. I know You’ve said You will supply all of my needs through Christ Jesus [Phil. 4:19]. So, I’m going to trust You. I’m going to leave what I’ve been fretting about in Your hands. And at some point, I’ll see how this piece fits into the jigsaw puzzle.” That’s what it means to be content.
Many people like to quote Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” But I rarely hear it quoted within its proper context.
It follows verse 12, which is about contentment. Paul was saying, “I can be content no matter what the circumstances are because I can do it in Jesus.” So while we must make the effort to practice contentment, we cannot do it alone. We need Jesus’ strength.
But we must decide to be content. We must decide to praise God for all the good things He’s done and decide to trust Him, despite what may be difficult circumstances. As we focus on who Jesus is and His plan for our lives, we can be content through Christ, who strengthens us.
We can also focus on the profit that comes from others. Paul wrote,
Even in Thessalonica, you sent aid once and again for my necessities. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that abounds to your account. Indeed I have all and abound. I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things sent from you, a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God (vv. 16–18).
Paul was thankful for the gift that came, but he was more focused on how the givers would benefit and be blessed by God because of their selflessness. Likewise, we gain contentment by focusing on what God is doing in our lives and in the lives of others.
Joni Eareckson Tada is a great example of contentment and what it means to focus on others. Though she became a quadriplegic at age 17, she allowed God to use her disability to initiate her into contentment and uses her platform to advocate for others with disabilities. Mrs. Tada once said, “Contentment is an internal quietness of heart that gladly submits to God in all circumstances.”
Do you gladly submit to God in all circumstances? Or are you fighting with God, saying, “I’m not happy where I am. I refuse to submit to God’s sovereign plan for my life”? Let’s decide to learn contentment. Let’s study the Scriptures, reaffirm God’s sovereignty, praise Him for the blessings He has already given, allow our experiences to initiate us into contentment, and then practice contentment with Jesus’ help. That’s how to lead a productive, happy Christian life.