CONTENT IN CHRIST
Written by Doug Ponder on September 15, 2013
Everything’s Amazing And Nobody’s Happy
In his interview on Conan O’Brien, comedian Louis C. K. famously observed, “Everything’s amazing and nobody’s happy.” (He also said, “We live in an amazing, amazing world, but it’s wasted on the crappiest generation of spoiled idiots.” But since we’re not quite sure which generation he’s talking about, so we won’t comment on that quote.)
His point was simple. We now have cars with multiple seats and trunks for cargo instead of donkeys with clay pots on the side (not to mention airplanes and cruise ships). We now have cell phones with the ability to surf the internet instantly instead of rotary phones with cords of fixed length (not to mention computers, iPads, and so forth). We have ATMs that give us access to money at any time of the day, instead of being forced to wait until the bank opens tomorrow. We have medicines that routinely cure illnesses that once killed hundreds of thousands of people. We have boxes that cook our food with the push of a button, just like the Jetsons. Everything’s amazing but nobody’s happy. What we should wonder is, “Why?”
Louis C. K. says we should “just be grateful.” Gratitude is needed, to be sure, but how do you snap your fingers and make yourself grateful for something? Will thinking about how hard life used to be for other people (and still is for many in the world today) really change the attitudes of our own hearts? And how will any of this cure boredom, stop jealously, fix loneliness, anger or depression? Everything’s amazing but nobody’s happy, and all the time and money we spend seeking contentment doesn’t bring us the lasting satisfaction that we crave.
Learning from One Who Was Content
The apostle Paul says he has learned the “secret” to being content. He says, “I am not 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” (Phil. 4:11-12).
He wrote those words when he was in jail. Not an American jail with three squares, a cot, and free time to watch TV or work out in the gym or play basketball—no, he wrote those words in a Roman jail that had no toilet, no bed, and no promise of food. (If your friends didn’t bring you meals, you would starve to death.) But in that situation Paul says, “I’ve learned the secret to being content.”
Now he wasn’t saying that he was happy about every detail of what is going on. He probably hating being in jail. Who wouldn’t? Instead, Paul shows that contentment is something that can be found in any circumstance no matter what. In other words, contentment is the ability to face wealth or poverty, feast or famine, everything going your way or nothing going your way, while still being satisfied and fulfilled enough to say, “I have no real needs.”
It’s easy to say that when we have an abundance, but that wasn’t Paul’s point. He’s not saying, “I used to live like a wealthy man and I was content doing so.” He’s saying, “I learned to be content even in the midst of wealth. I didn’t sell out for money. I didn’t cling tightly to material possessions. I didn’t love comfort and ease more than Jesus.”
The Secret of Contentment
Why does Paul call contentment a secret? Because everyone wants it but not many people know how to get it. So, we try different things, but nothing seems to work.
Some people simply to get more. “I’ll be happy when I fulfill my goals and my dreams.” But we know from experience that this isn’t true. After achieving our goals, we still want more. The satisfaction that we thought success would bring slips like sand through our fingers.
Others take the opposite route. “Just lower your expectations,” they say. If you expect less, then you’ll be disappointed less often. That may work for a season, but hardly anyone expects to end up in jail like Paul did. Yet he was content even in spite of being imprisoned unjustly.
A popular rabbi says, “Success is getting what you want, but happiness is wanting what you get.” This is an insane notion. Does he really think that we should be happy if we “get” the news that our family has died? Paul offers a better solution than happiness because of circumstances.
No matter where you look, just about everyone offers you a way to be content (or happy) through having, getting, or doing something. But not Paul. He says that contentment is NOT about having or getting or doing; it’s about knowing Jesus.
That is why he says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). This was not a verse about getting rich with God’s help, or making straight A’s, or finding a spouse, or chasing your dreams, or anything like that. This verse is the testimony of a man who knows Jesus and has found him to be supremely valuable and satisfying. Paul says that knowing Jesus is what makes us content.
Truly Knowing Jesus
We’re not talking about vaguely knowing about Jesus. We’re talking about seeing Jesus for who he is: surpassingly valuable, supremely precious, infinitely better than all else. It’s not saying, “I think these things are true about Jesus” but “I’m excited that these things are true—my whole life is based on my faith that these things are true.”
You see, Paul had it all—klout, degrees, family history, pedigree, more Facebook friends and Twitter followers than you can imagine. His entire career was lined up for him: one of the 70 most important men in the entire nation of Israel. Fame, fortune, power. All of it, Paul says, garbage compared to Jesus. “I count everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil. 3:8)
Jonathan Edwards: “The enjoyment of God is our proper aim; and is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To fully enjoy God is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Better than fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of any, or all earthly friends. These are but shadows; but the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams; but God is the sun. These are but streams; but God is the fountain. These are but drops, but God is the ocean.”
Contentment Is Learned
The biggest miss for most people, including Christians, is that true contentment is learned. It is not something that is downloaded in two seconds. It’s something is developed through practice and patience and faith. (To make sure that we don’t miss this, Paul says twice that contentment is learned!)
But how do we learn contentment? By thinking, meditating, or dwelling on Christ (Phil. 4:8)—that is, thinking on what you have gained in him, and realizing that what is lost is nothing compared to what is found in him. It also means thinking on the brevity of life and the reality of your death and God’s promise to rescue and redeem all those who come to him, letting these things drive you to humble thanksgiving and joyful gratitude.
As you walk with Jesus through the highs and lows of life, never taking your eyes off of him, we learn to be content in Christ, regardless of our circumstances, because in Him we have everything we need, both for now and forever. For how can we not be content if we realize that as believers in Christ we are “joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17), and will inherit everything from the Father that Christ inherits? How can we remain discontented when we realize that “He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how will freely give us all things with him?”
True contentment is knowing, feeling, believing, and trusting deep in the very depths of your soul that if you know Jesus, he will be enough—not matter what. It means being able to say, “I want this, but I don’t need this, and if I don’t get this, I’ll be OK. Actually, I’ll be more than OK. I’ll be completely content. Happy. Satisfied. Fulfilled—all because of Jesus. I am content in him.”
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.