Contentment can be confusing. Like, is it a good thing, or a bad thing? Is contentment something to be pursued, or resisted?
On the one hand there’s this positive side to it, in that it’s good to be content with what you have, not constantly wanting more in a way that drives unhealthy habits or desires. But on the other hand there’s this negative angle to contentment we often hear about, in that we should always “chase our dreams” and “never give up or settle for anything less than the best”. So, what will it be, world? Is contentment a good thing that brings about joy in our lives or is a bad thing that robs us from joy that we would otherwise never have?
Now, I have to admit that what got me thinking about this whole perplexing dilemma in the first place was a book I’ve been reading to my 2-year old called Scuffy the Tugboat. I’ve read the book over a dozen times, and it’s a little long for a two year old so I often pull the ol’ “turn several pages at once” trick to make it go faster (I can feel your judgment, don’t act like you haven’t done that before). But recently we read it in the middle of the day, which meant I wasn’t tired or in a rush and actually read every word on every page. As we wrapped up and Kaden ran off to go set up another train collision or something, I couldn’t stop thinking about Scuffy. There was a simple, yet meaningful message being conveyed as there often is in children’s books when you take the time to stop and think about it.
The brief plot of the story (spoiler alert coming) is that Scuffy, a red tugboat with a blue smokestack, is sick and tired of his life in the bathtub because he was, in his own words, “meant for bigger things”. So his owners, the man in a polka dot tie and his son, bring him to the brook outside their home, but again, Scuffy was meant for bigger things. With the help of a strong current, he gets away from his owners and was finally on his way to bigger things. Nothing could stop him now, and as he cruised downstream, he claimed, “This is the life for me”.
From the brook, he made it to a stream rolling through the countryside, then to a river that runs through town, to a larger river that went through the city, and finally, to the open sea, the biggest waterway he could ever dream of. The problem was, as he climbed the waterway ladder to bigger and bigger places, he experienced more and more trouble along the way. He had to dodge timber floating down the stream, larger boats in town, and even had to endure through a hurricane in the city.
The sad irony in the midst of escaping from that miserable tub and chasing his dreams, is that he actually achieved his dream but realized it wasn’t what he truly wanted. It didn’t fulfill him. He got away just to realize that all he wanted was to be back home. So as he drifted toward the open sea, he was relieved when the man in the polka dot tie scooped him up from the end of the dock. The story ends with Scuffy, sailing back in the tub, smile on his face saying “now this is the life for me”.
Paul’s View on Contentment
Scuffy found what I think many people find in their lives – that a constant, nonstop pursuit of more and what we may call “otherness” often proves to be hollow, a rat race where we’re always tired but never fulfilled and come to the end just to realize we’re just a rat.
So what does the Bible have to say about contentment? Is it shed in a positive light or in a negative one? Is it obedient to be content, or lazy? There’s far more to it than can be covered in one post, but one passage in particular echoes the loudest:
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, 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. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:10-14
Three brief takeaways of Biblical contentment:
1. Contentment is rooted in faith, not circumstance.
The secret to contentment is not based in a specific job, or a certain amount of money in the bank, or even a subjective level of “happiness”. It’s simpler than that – the secret to contentment is to trust in the Lord with all your heart. Once we are content with our identity in Christ, we can face any and every circumstance open-handed. Paul knew was it was like to have much, and he knew what it was like to have nothing, but neither season defined him. If he was rooted in Christ, then he could “do all things”. In this way, Philippians 4:13 is way more powerful than it’s often used as a singular proof text that supposedly proves we can do anything we want.
2. Contentment is not an enemy to grace-fueled effort.
Paul isn’t saying to be lazy. He’s not anti-dreams and passions, and if anything, judging by his relentless missionary journeys, we could very well say that Paul is more driven than anyone else in history. To be truly content does not mean you don’t give a whip about success. On the contrary, contentment actually frees us to put forth much effort in all that we do because our joy and identity is not bound up in our success as it’s already secure in Christ.
So push yourself, get after it. Take risks, climb the ladder. Just make sure that as you go, you can still say along, with Paul, that you have “learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” As long as your supreme pleasure is not bound by what the world defines by success, then go full throttle with grace-fueled effort.
3. Contentment is learned over time.
This one is key, because we all have moments or seasons of our life where we will be tempted to believe that we will be more joyful only if we had more ______. More money, more status, more vacation time, more sleep, more muscles, more whatever. Contentment is not received in full at the moment of salvation, but it is a vital aspect of our sanctification, of our growing more Christlike day by day. Paul said twice he’s learned this, which undoubtedly implies that he’s had his struggles. In many ways, contentment is a mark of growth where our joy increases with our ability to be content in Christ, regardless of circumstance. Give yourself grace, friend, this won’t come overnight. Be patient, press into the Lord, and trust that he will continually and gradually shape your mind and heart.
So, believer, where are you at? Are you on the pathway of learning the secret of true contentment, of learning how to be at rest in your trust of Jesus Christ? There is such joy and freedom in Biblical contentment, and it’s my prayer for all of us that we would be in pursuit of it.
And if nothing else, go buy Scuffy the Tugboat. It’ll make you think more today than your Twitter timeline will, I guarantee it.