How to be content in all situations
St Paul learned the secret of contentment and we can too, says Liz Carter
I used to think the word ‘contentment’ could never apply to someone like me.
I thought it was for people who’d got their lives together, people who were successful and in good health. People who had money and nice things, whose Facebook feeds were filled with filtered pictures of harmonious family days out and celebrations of achievement. I thought contentment was something that just happened if you were lucky enough to have an easy and happy life.
But it couldn’t be for me. I have suffered from a rare lung disease all my life, my lungs slowly deteriorating over the years. As well as general fatigue and breathlessness from day to day, I am afflicted with repeated chest infections. Some sections of my lungs are collapsed, some are enlarged and covered in scars. This leads to a life that can be narrow, existing within four walls for weeks at a time while my body struggles to cope with the strain. So how could I be contented?
I also thought I was letting God down. Sometime in the past I’d swallowed the line that as Christians we should be ‘Shiny Happy People’. Some Christian books and articles claimed that being Christians should make us the happiest people on earth. But I didn’t feel very shiny or very happy. I felt pain-filled and disappointed.
I thought that I should plaster a big smile on my face and demonstrate how happy Jesus was making me. When I failed to do this, I thought I was failing God.
But then I reflected on some words the apostle Paul wrote about contentment: “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).
Could he really mean every situation? I began to wonder if the contentment he was talking about looked completely different from contentment as I’d envisaged it.
I found out that he was in prison when he wrote the book of Philippians. And not only that, but he was under threat of execution too. And yet here he was, saying he’d learned the secret to contentment! What could he mean?
Contentment is an active process
The first thing that Paul says about contentment is that he has learned it. Immediately, we can see that contentment isn’t something that just happens to us, but something we must seek out – an active choice we can make every day. Paul, in his prison cell, makes a decision to set Christ before him and hold out his hands. He shows us that contentment is something we can all catch hold of, not something that is out of the grasp of those who are struggling and suffering.
Contentment is confidence in God
After a recent hospital stay with severe pneumonia, I felt battered and bewildered. A friend asked me how I could keep holding to my faith and hope in God, when it seemed God kept letting me down. But I’d discovered that confidence in God could be deepened within pain, rather than hanging on by a thread despite pain – and could actually be strengthened by the doubt that can rack us in difficult times.
Doubt isn’t bad in and of itself. If we don’t listen to our doubts and address them, they will eat away at us, eroding any sense of certainty and setting us adrift once again. Learning to live with that sense of ambiguity – why doesn’t God heal me? Why hasn’t God turned up? – is a process which can further our confidence, if we let it.
In that painful hospital experience, in my frailty I had nowhere else to go, and when I went to God, I found the everlasting arms spread far wider than even my acute distress, and even wider than any doubt in me.
Confidence in God isn’t about what happens to us, but who God is – and how God meets us in our lived darkness.
Contentment is courage in brokenness
I wonder if, as Christians, many of us have made the mistake of tethering our faith to the notion that we should be fully fixed, and when this doesn’t happen our faith takes a bashing. But what if God is ministering to us even more profoundly within that agonising crucible?
When we look at Scripture, we find so many characters who had a difficult time in their lives and yet held on to hope. Jesus himself gave up his place by the Father – the God of glory flung into dust, then suffering the cruellest death, the most excruciating pain any human person ever knew.
In 2 Corinthians 12, Paul describes a ‘thorn’ which he has asked God to remove again and again. But God doesn’t. Instead, God says that his grace is enough for Paul – for God’s power is made perfect in weakness (v9). In a radical movement away from the ‘wholeness is best’ mindset, God shatters the values of the world, and holds out contentment to weak people – to all of us. We only have to respond – to hold out our hands. Even when there’s a thorn in them.
Contentment is captivated by worship
Glorifying God draws us to the deepest fulfilment any person could ever possibly find.
Praise can be especially liberating when we feel cloaked in darkness. It can lead us away from bitterness and take us above our disappointment. Reading the psalms can be a great balm for anxiety – the psalmists so often expressed their pain, but chose to remember God’s work in their lives and to praise him anyway.
Glorifying God sets us free while bringing praise to the one we love, whether through contemporary worship songs in a warehouse or through quiet meditation on a sickbed. It doesn’t matter where we praise or when we praise, but let’s praise, because we are created to do so.
Contentment is caught – and catching
Jesus lived contagiously. In all his actions and interactions, he was overflowing with the love of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. All his actions were seasoned with grace.
When we spend time in God’s presence, we too can be contagious with contentment. Looking at Jesus gives us a model for holy living; a model of submission to God, of worship and expectation, yearning and hope, reconciliation and forgiveness. The harder we chase these things, the more we experience the perfect peace that Jesus promised – the “peace beyond understanding” which Paul describes in Philippians 4.
We can choose to live with the realisation that we don’t just sit back and receive peace because of circumstances, but we chase it through surrender to Jesus, knowing that it is only in him that true soul-rest can be found.
Contentment is for you
What if instead of contentment happening to you, you can reach out for it – and you can catch it?
And what if it makes you more fully whole than you can imagine – even if you’re not mended, or healed?
What if turning your face to Christ soothes the deepest and wildest places in you?
Liz Carter’s book Catching Contentment is published by IVP (ISBN 978 1 78359 740 6)
Connect with her at www.greatadventure.carterclan.me.uk
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