“I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” These were the words of the Apostle Paul as he wrote from his lonely prison cell to the Christians in Philippi. Those are challenging words, and far easier to say than to live out. Paul knew what he was talking about, however, when it came to suffering and tribulation. Few people have had it worse than him. In 2 Corinthians 11:24-29, Paul describes some of his suffering:
Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?
Paul must have been a real man of character. To the flesh, the temptation to despair and wallow in self-pity must have been great, but by God’s grace Paul was strengthened that he might be content in any and all circumstances. Having come through all of these difficult life-challenges, Paul could really say that he had “learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” He doesn’t say that he had merely heard that he ought to be content. Paul’s beliefs about godly contentment were not merely a doctrinal or propositional type of knowledge. Rather, through experience, he had learned to be a practitioner of contentment. It is often only through practically experiencing turbulence that we learn contentment at a level deeper than propositional knowledge. That is something to bear in mind as we go through these difficult times in our lives — Hebrews 12:5-11 tells us that God disciplines those who are his children so that we may grow more Christlike. Often, spiritual truth only begins to trickle from the intellect into the heart after we have been trained and disciplined by practical experience.
Throughout the Scriptures, we see numerous examples of men who learned to be content and rest in God’s providence through the most challenging of trials and tribulations.
Joseph, having been betrayed by his own brothers and sold into slavery, learned to be content with what God had ordained for him, and sought to honor God in the occupation to which God had called him. Job had everything he treasured taken from him. His wife said to him “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die,” (Job 2:9). But Job learned to be content in the sovereign ordination of God, saying “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21) When Paul and Silas were in prison with their feet fastened in stocks, instead of joining the other prisoners in groaning and cursing, they praised God, thereby providing a powerful testimony to their fellow inmates (Acts 16:23-34). Indeed, when the opportunity arose, they didn’t even attempt to escape, and through their testimony the Philippian jailer came to know Christ.
During the early centuries of the church (up until the edict of Milan in 313 A.D. that guaranteed religious freedom in the Roman empire), the Christian movement faced intense persecution under various emperors of Rome. Among those who were martyred during those years we see many pictures of godly contentment. One of my great heroes of the faith is Ignatius, the third bishop of Antioch and disciple of the Apostle John. Having been taken prisoner in Syria, he wrote a series of letters from Smyrna (in modern day Turkey) to various churches, issuing his final farewells and spiritual advice. His letter to the Romans is probably the most spiritually challenging of his letters. With his pending death rapidly approaching and clearly at the forefront of his mind, he wielded his pen to compose the following:
How I look forward to the real lions that have been got ready for me! All I pray is that I may find them swift. I am going to make overtures to them, so that, unlike some other wretches whom they have been too spiritless to touch, they may devour me with all speed. And if they are still reluctant, I shall use force to them. You must forgive me, but I do know what is best for myself. This is the first stage in my discipleship; and no power, visible or invisible, must grudge me my coming to Jesus Christ. Fire, cross, beast-fighting, hacking and quartering, splintering of bone and mangling of limb, even the pulverizing of my entire body — let every horrid and diabolical torment come upon me, provided only that I can win my way to Jesus Christ!
All the ends of the earth, all the kingdoms of the world would be of no profit to me; so far as I am concerned, to die in Jesus Christ is better than to be monarch of earth’s widest bounds. He who died for us is all that I seek; He who rose again for us is my whole desire. The pangs of birth are upon me; have patience with me, my brothers, and do not shut me out from life, do not wish me to be stillborn. Here is one who only longs to be God’s; do not make a present of him to the world again, or delude him with the things of earth. Suffer me to attain to light, light pure and undefiled; for only when I am come thither shall I be truly a man. Leave me to imitate the Passion of my God. If any of you has God within himself, let that man understand my longings, and feel for me, because he will know the forces by which I am constrained.
Since Ignatius was to be executed in Rome, he asks the Roman Christians not to make any attempt to rescue him. He said “Do not have Jesus Christ on your lips, and the world in your heart; do not cherish thoughts of grudging me my fate. Even if I were to come and implore you in person, do not yield to my pleading.” He had found contentment in Christ, and thought himself honored to be martyred for the sake of Christ, even going so far as to say, “Here and now, as I write in the fullness of life, I am yearning for death with all the passion of a lover.” Had it not been for the power of the spirit of God in Ignatius’ life, the natural man could never have written those words and meant them. As Ignatius wrote to the church in Smyrna,
[T]o what end have I given myself up to perish by fire or sword or savage beasts? Simply, when I am close to the sword I am close to God, and when I am surrounded by the lions I am surrounded by God. But it is only in the name of Jesus Christ, and for the sake of sharing His sufferings, that I could face all this; for He, the perfect Man, gives me strength to do so.
Indeed, a second-century epistle from a Christian author to a pagan by the name of Diognetus, speaking of the Christians who were “flung to the wild beasts to make them deny their Lord”, observes how they always “remain undefeated,” asking “Do you not see how the more of them suffer punishments, the larger grows the number of the rest? These things do not look like the work of man; they are the power of God, and the evident tokens of His presence.”
Likewise, when Ignatius’ close friend Polycarp of Smyrna (also a disciple of the Apostle John) was before the governor at the age of 86 and being threatened first with wild beasts and then with fire, in an ancient Smyrnian letter recording the event, Polycarp is described as “overflowing with courage and joy, and his whole countenance was beaming with grace.” Moreover, “it was not only that he himself was anything but prostrated with dismay at the threats which were uttered; it was the Governor who, on his part, found himself now completely at a loss.”
How can a Christian exercise godly contentment and thereby communicate Christ through the way he or she faces the trials of life? What are the basic principles of finding contentment in Christ? In what areas should a Christian be content? Are there any areas in which a Christian ought to lack contentment? It is these questions that will be the subject of this article.
Principle #1: Cast Your Anchor in Heaven And Find Your Identity in Christ
One Christian author who has had a significant influence on my own thinking is the English puritan preacher and writer Thomas Watson. His writing is rich with metaphor and word pictures that really make him an engaging, though very challenging, writer. Thomas Watson wrote a tremendously inspiring book called The Art of Divine Contentment.
Among his many illustrations, Watson compares a contented spirit to a watch, saying that “though you carry it up and down with you yet the spring of it is not shaken, nor the wheels out of order, but the watch keeps its perfect motion.” Watson points out that Paul had this contented spirit, for “though God carried him into various conditions, yet he was not lift up with the one nor cast down with the other; the spring of his heart was not broken, the wheels of his affections were not disordered, but kept their constant motion towards heaven; still content.”
In what is a contented spirit anchored? Switching metaphor, Watson explains that,
The ship that lies at anchor may sometimes be a little shaken, but never sinks; flesh and blood may have its fears and disquiets, but grace doth check them: a Christian, having cast anchor in heaven, his heart never sinks; a gracious spirit is a contented spirit. This is a rare art.
He who sets his anchor on the things of this world will never find true contentedness, but he who casts anchor in Heaven will be able to endure any storm of this world. In Matthew 6:19-20, Jesus says,
Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Indeed, it was the failure to heed this principle that led Rachel, the wife of Jacob, to grieve so bitterly over the loss of her children. She had been discontent over her inability to conceive, and grew envious of her sister Leah. She said to Jacob “Give me children, or I shall die!” (Genesis 30:1). Ironically, Rachel in fact died in child-bearing while giving birth to Benjamin (Genesis 35:16-20), a lesson to us all that only God knows what is best for us. Jacob ultimately fathered children for Rachel through her servant girl Bilhah. Having anchored her identity in her children, Rachel over-grieved their loss, according to Jeremiah 31:15: “Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” Thomas Watson advises that “When we let any creature lie too near our heart, when God pulls away that comfort, a piece of our heart is rent away with it.” Moreover, “Those that would be content in the want of mercy, must be moderate in the enjoyment. Jonathan dipped the rod in honey, he did not thrust it in.” Watson continues,
Fly aloft in your affections, thirst after the graces and comforts of the Spirit; the eagle that flies above in the air, fears not the stinging of the serpent; the serpent creeps on his belly, and stings only such creatures as go upon the earth.
With this in mind, we can now see why Ignatius was so able to be content in his difficult predicament, for he wrote to the Romans that,
Earthly longings have been crucified; in me there is left no spark of desire for mundane things, but only a murmur of living water that whispers within me, ‘Come to the Father.’ There is no pleasure for me in any meats that perish, or in the delights of this life; I am fain for the bread of God, even the flesh of Jesus Christ, who is the seed of David; and for my drink I crave that Blood of His which is love imperishable.
Root and ground your identity in Christ, not in any earthly thing, and you will learn to find contentment in Him alone. The rich fool in Luke 12:16-21 grounded his identity in his wealth. He said “What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops? I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’” But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Indeed, as Thomas Watson says, “There is a time shortly coming, when, if we had all the riches of India, they would do us no good; we must die and can carry nothing with us.”
Principle #2: Thank God For The Many Blessings You Enjoy
When we survey the numerous martyrs throughout the life of the church who have suffered horribly, it should cause us to feel a sense of conviction that far too often we are disposed to become discontented over trifles — the latest fashion, the next job promotion, the newest technology. The epistle that narrates the martyrdom of Polycarp speaks of the cruel tortures that early Christians were subjected to:
Some of them were so cut to pieces by the scourges that their very vitals were plainly exposed to view, down to the inmost veins and arteries; and yet they still bore up, until even the bystanders were moved to tears of pity for them. Others displayed such heroism that not a cry or a groan escaped from any of them. […] So it was that, with all their thoughts absorbed in the grace of Christ, they made light of the cruelties of this world, and at the cost of a single hour purchased for themselves life everlasting. For them, the fires of their barbarous tormentors had a grateful coolness, for they held ever before their eyes their escape from the quenchless flames of eternity, and looking up they beheld with inward vision the good things in store for those who persevere. […]
It was the same with those who were condemned to the wild beasts. The pains they endured were horrible, for they were forced to lie on beds of spikes and subjected to other varied forms of torture, in the hope that these lingering agonies would enable the Fiend to extort a recantation from them; in fact, there was no end to the devices the devil employed against them.
You will probably never be called to suffer in that way. For this, we should be content. Whenever you feel discontentment over the lack of something, remember that there are countless numbers of people in a far greater state of suffering or poverty than you, who would seize an opportunity to exchange places with you. There are so many blessings that we in the west take for granted which we should be thanking God for every day — our freedom, our relative wealth and peace. In countries around the world, our brothers and sisters are being persecuted simply for their confession of the name of Christ. We should be thankful for the privileges, rights and freedoms we enjoy in the west and not feel discontented over trifles and trivialities! Moreover, those worldly trifles that we hunt after so determinedly rarely satisfy. As the Roman magistrate and governor of Bithynia, Pliny the Younger (A.D. 61-113), once wrote in one of his letters (Book II, letter 15), “An object in possession seldom retains the same charm that it had in pursuit.”
When God removes a grace from your life, be not discontent over that one loss but praise God for the many, many graces and blessings you still enjoy. Thomas Watson says “God hath plucked one bunch of grapes from you; but how many precious clusters are left behind?”
Principle #3: Believe That God Knows What Is Best For You
I know from my own experience that frequently an event that, at first is disappointing, in retrospect you see God’s hand at work. God has promised to work all things “together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose,” (Romans 8:28). It is usually only with the benefit of hindsight that you can see why what was once perceived as a disappointment or setback is in fact the best thing. In some cases, we may not even know those things until we get to Heaven. Remember that God has the box top of your life’s jigsaw. He knows how all the pieces are meant to fit together. Short of that knowledge, all we can do is trust God to fulfill His promises. It was only after Joseph had been made governor over Egypt that he could look back on his past sufferings and say that “God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today,” (Genesis 50:20). Perhaps God intends that you, through your suffering, will be in a position to relate to and serve others going through similar suffering. Maybe God intends to use your conduct when facing suffering to lead souls to find Him. Thomas Watson writes that,
God’s decree is the cause of the turning of the wheels, and his providence is the inner-wheels that move all the rest. God’s providence is that helm which turns about the whole ship of the universe. […] God hath set us in our station, and he hath done it in wisdom. We fancy such a condition of life is good for us; whereas if we were our own carvers, we should often cut the worst piece.
If the thing we desire be good for us, we shall have it; if it be not good, then the not having is good for us. The resting satisfied with the promise gives contentment.
As previously alluded to, Rachel said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I shall die!” She got her heart’s desire, but it cost her her life in the process. Similarly, Lot chose to go to Sodom (Genesis 13), but the city was later destroyed by fire. Out of discontent, Abraham fathered Ishmael through the bond-servant Hagar, rather than trusting in God’s promise to provide a son through Sarah. But Ishmael was born a son of strife. In Genesis 16:11-12, the angel of the Lord speaks to Hagar, saying,
Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has listened to your affliction. He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.
Often what we really want is not what is best for us, but if we exercise discontent then maybe God will give us our heart’s desire. Thus, we should be careful what we ask for. In this case, God said to Hagar that he had “listened to [her] affliction.” She had what she wanted, but it was not what was best for her, since he would be a “wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone and everyone’s hand against him.”
Perhaps, if God gave us our heart’s desire, we would treasure them more than we treasure God, leading us into the sin of idolatry. We may not know our hearts well enough to discern this, but God does. God might want us to be more devoted to Him, and thus he removes idols from our lives that are obstacles to our wholehearted service to God. Watson writes,
Those that write concerning several climates, observe, that such as live in the northern parts of the world, if you bring them into the south part, lose their stomachs, and die quickly: but those that live in the more southern and hot climates, bring them into the north and, their stomach’s mend, and they are long-lived; give me leave to apply it. Bring a man from the cold, starving climate of poverty, into the hot southern climate of prosperity, and he begins to lose his appetite to good things, he grows weak, and a thousand to one if all his religion doth not die; but bring a Christian from the south to the north, from a rich flourishing estate into a jejune low condition, let him come into a more cold and hungry air, and then his stomach mends, he hath a better appetite after heavenly things, he hungers more after Christ, he thirsts more for grace, he eats more at one meal of the bread of life, than at six before; this man is now like to live and hold out in his religion. Be content then with a modicum; if you have but enough to pay for your passage to heaven, it sufficeth.
In Matthew 6:25-32, Jesus says,
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
In a previous post, I showed that one can believe something with their intellect that is not believed in their heart. Promises such as Romans 8:28 are easy to throw around casually. But do you really believe it? If you do, then why do you harbor discontentment? To quote Watson,
True faith will trust God where it cannot trace him, and will adventure upon God’s bond though it hath nothing in view. You who are discontented because you have not all you would, let me tell you, either your faith is a nonentity, or at best but an embryo; it is a weak faith that must have stilts and crutches to support it.
According to Psalm 139:16, “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” Key, then, to godly contentment is believing in your heart that God is sovereign. Each day of your life has been written in God’s book before even one of them came to be. Therefore, trust God to work all things to accomplish His purposes.
Principle #4: When You Part With Blessings, Thank God That You Had Such Blessings To Part With
Challengingly, Thomas Watson implores us to “be not discontented that a mercy is taken away from you, but rather be thankful that it was lent you so long.” After all, “Mercies are not entailed upon us, but lent; what a man lends he may call for again when he pleases.” Writing about one who is discontent over the loss of a child, Watson writes, “O Christian! Be not discontented that thou hast parted with such a child; but rather rejoice that thou hadst such a child to part with. Break forth into thankfulness.”
Often the blessings of life are lent to us by God only for a season. When they have accomplished the purpose in our lives for which they were sent, they are no longer needed and so God removes them. It is imperative that we keep in mind that we are owed nothing by God. Every blessing in our life is an act of God’s unmerited grace. We should thus be thankful that He has blessed us in any way, in any measure, and not be discontented that He has removed a grace from our lives.
Principle #5: Recognize That Discontent Accomplishes Nothing And Limits Your Usefulness
To quote Thomas Watson again,
When the sea is rough and unquiet, it casts forth nothing but foam: when the heart is discontented, it casts forth the foam of anger, impatience, and, sometimes little better than blasphemy. Murmuring is nothing else but the scum which boils off from a discontented heart. It excludes an uneven discomposure: when a man saith, “I am in such straits, that I know not how to evolve or get out, I shall be undone”; when his head and heart are so taken up, that he is not fit to pray or meditate, he is not himself; just as when an army is routed, one man runs this way, and another that, the army is put into disorder; so a man’s thoughts run up and down distracted, discontent doth dislocate and unjoin the soul, it pulls off the wheels. It excludes a childish despondency; and this is usually consequent upon the other. A man being in a hurry of mind, not knowing which way to extricate, or wind himself out of the present trouble, begins to faint and sink under it. For care is to the mind as a burden to the back; it loads the spirits and with overloading, sinks them. A despondent spirit is a discontented spirit.
Watson also writes,
When an army is put into a disorder, then it is not fit for battle; when the thoughts are scattered and distracted about the cares of this life, a man is not fit for devotion. Discontent takes the heart wholly off from God, and fixeth it upon the present trouble, so that a man’s mind is not upon his prayer, but upon his cross. Discontent doth disjoint the soul; and it is impossible now that a Christian should go so steadily and cheerfully in God’s service. O how lame is his devotion! The discontented person gives God but a half-duty, and his religion is nothing but bodily exercise, it wants a soul to animate it. […] Contentation brings the heart into frame, and then only do we give God the flower and spirits of a duty, when the soul is composed. Now a Christian’s heart is intent and serious. […] Now, as it is with milk, when it is always stirring, you can make nothing of it, but let it settle a while, and then it turns to cream: when the heart is overmuch stirred with disquiet and discontent, you can make nothing of those duties. How thin, how fleeting, and jejune are they! But when the heart is once settled by holy contentment, now there is some worth in our duties, now they turn to cream.
What is accomplished by being discontent with the things that God has given you? The simple answer is “nothing at all”. As Jesus says in Matthew 6:27, “which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” Conversely, what is to be lost? The answer is, “much”. When you allow your mind to be filled with discontent you become bitter, fixated on it and unable to focus on more important things, and less able to enjoy God or even the pleasures of life. Watson writes,
Discontent is a fretting humor, which dries the brains, wastes the spirits, corrodes and eats out the comfort of life; discontent makes a man that he doth not enjoy what he doth possess. A drop or two of vinegar will sour a whole glass of wine. Let a man have the affluence and confluence of worldly comforts, a drop or two of discontent will embitter and poison all.
Rather than enjoying and being thankful for all that God has graciously given you, a discontented mind becomes filled with thoughts of that which you don’t have. As Watson further explains, “Contentation is as necessary to keep the life comfortable, as oil is necessary to keep the lamp burning; the clouds of discontent do often drop the showers of tears.”
A brilliant illustration of this is to be found in John Bunyan’s classic work, Pilgrim’s Progress. In that book, John Bunyan describes the escape of two pilgrims, Christian and Hopeful, from Doubting Castle, which is owned by Giant Despair. Upon their escape, they arrive on the Delectable Mountains and encounter the shepherds Knowledge, Experience, Watchful and Sincere. As they walk in the mountains with the shepherds, Christian and Hopeful observe “several men walking up and down among the tombs that were there; and they perceived that the men were blind, because they stumbled sometimes upon the tombs, and because they could not get out from among them.” Christian asks “What means this?” The response from the shepherds is,
Did you not see a little below these mountains a stile that led into a meadow, on the left hand of this way?…From that stile there goes a path that leads directly to Doubting Castle, which is kept by Giant Despair, and these, pointing to them among the tombs, came once on pilgrimage as you do now, even till they came to that same stile; and because the right way was rough in that place, they chose to go out of it into that meadow, and there were taken by Giant Despair, and cast into Doubting Castle: where, after they had been a while kept in the dungeon, he at last put out their eyes, and led them among those tombs, where he has left them to wander to this very day.
When we doubt God’s sovereignty in the midst of our hardship, we make ourselves vulnerable to being captured by Giant Despair and cast into doubting castle. After a while in this state, Giant Despair will put out our eyes so that we become aimless wanderers with no clear direction to our lives in God’s service.
While a Christian ought to be content with that which God has given him, he should never be content with his devotion and conformity to Christ. Thomas Watson writes that,
A true Christian is a wonder; he is the most contented, and yet the least satisfied; he is contented with a morsel of bread and a little water in the cruise, yet never satisfied with grace; he doth pant and breath after more; this is his prayer, “Lord, more conformity to Christ, more communion with Christ; he would fain have Christ’s image more lively pictured upon his soul. True grace is always progressive; as the saints are called lamps and stars, in regard of their light, so trees of righteousness for their growth; they are indeed like the tree of life, bringing forth several sorts of fruit.
A Christian should also not be content with his sin, but must strive daily to mortify sin and be conformed ever more and more into the image of Christ. He should never be content with his knowledge of God or his personal relationship with God, but must work to grow in these areas daily.
I have offered above a number of principles for godly contentment. For a far more extensive treatment of this subject, I invite readers to read Thomas Watson’s book The Art of Divine Contentment. By exercising godly contentment, we live out our Christian duty to demonstrate the work of God’s spirit in us so that the world may see the transforming power of our God. By finding contentment in every situation, we show the world how those who are in Christ face difficult trials and tribulations. Watson explains the difference between those who have the spirit of God at work in their lives and those who do not: “Wicked men are often disquieted in the enjoyment of all things; the contented Christian is well in the want of all things.” I will finish with one final quote from Watson, which I think is a good note to end on:
Would we have comfort in our lives? We may have it if we will: a Christian may carve out what condition he will to himself. Why dost thou complain of thy troubles? It is not trouble that troubles, but discontent; it is not the water without the ship, but the water that gets within the leak which drowns it; it is not outward affliction that can make the life of a Christian sad; a contented mind would sail above these waters, — but when there’s a leak of discontent open, and trouble gets into the heart, then it is disquieted and sinks. Do therefore as the mariners, pump the water out, and stop the spiritual leak in the soul, and no trouble can hurt thee.
Words to live by.