The Secret to Contentment

Have you ever had a big event where you expected a lot of people to show up? You planned for a Bible study and had 25 people tell you that they would come. Then, only 5 showed up. You planned an anniversary party for 100, and only 50 showed up. Disappointment.

Getting involved with people can be disappointing. The Apostle Paul was involved with a lot of people. He was dependent on people to give him money to fund his work.

We might expect that when people didn’t give what they had promised, he might be frustrated. But he wasn’t. He had learned the secret to contentment: “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. 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” (Phil. 4:11-12).

Most of us walk around thinking that we would be happy if other people would change. If my kids would act differently, if my spouse would show me respect, if my employer was more understanding, if I had more money, if I had a better car, if I lived somewhere else, I’d be happy.

The trouble with this approach is that things outside of us will rarely match up to our expectations inside us. So, we’ll always be unhappy.

There’s another option. We can adjust to our circumstances. That’s the secret to contentment that the Apostle Paul had learned.

Notice that he had learned it. He does not say that he knew how to be content the moment he became a Christian. It’s something he learned.

So, we can learn it, too.

Here’s the sum of what he learned: leave the past in the past, leave the future in the future, and embrace the present good and opportunities.

Leave the past in the past. We often can’t let go of the failures, hurts, and losses of the past, and so we can’t be happy in the present. The Apostle Paul had learned to let those things go. “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14).

Leave the future in the future. Worry about the future robs us of contentment in the present. Here’s what Paul had learned: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6). We can be sure that our heavenly Father will take care of us in the future and that our future is bright. We just need to lay these worries on Him and let Him carry them.

Embrace the present good. As I pointed out here, our brain is like velcro for the bad and teflon for the good. We need to start taking in the good. Since we normally don’t take in the good around us, it’s not surprising that we’er unhappy.

Here’s what the Apostle Paul said: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8). Don’t ignore the bad. Just take in the good. That’s the secret to contentment.

The most important present good is the love of Christ. We can rejoice in the Lord. In Him, we are the forgiven, justified, adopted children of God who are being made like Christ and transformed into eternal glory. If we would take this one thing in, we would be much less concerned about our circumstances.

Finally, we need to embrace the present opportunities. We are often stuck in the opportunities of the past or looking for those of the future, but there are opportunities for us to do significant things today. The Apostle Paul prayed that they would find this, “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more” (Phil. 1:9). Not tomorrow but today.

For example, people often lament that their family relationships aren’t what they had hoped for, and they lose sight of the opportunity that they have the opportunity to work on those relationships today.

Embracing the opportunities we do have and letting go of the opportunities we’d like to have but don’t will bring us contentment in the present.

God has so much more for us than we tend to think or often notice. He has love and peace for us that transcends our understandings. He has blessings in abundance. He wants to use us to do significant things that bless ourselves and others and glorify God. So, let’s leave the past in the past, leave the future in the future, and embrace the present good and opportunities.

This may seem like a tough task. Another part of Paul’s secret is that we can’t do it on our own. It’s Christ in us: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me the strength.” It’s ultimately Christ who gives us the very peace that produces contentment.

In the church, we often talk about receiving Christ as our Savior. If you haven’t done that, I would encourage you to do so. But that’s just the beginning. Christ is not only the one who saves us. He’s the one who continues to empower us and shower us with His love. We need to continue to embrace that by the same faith by which we first believed.

Unlike some cynics, I don’t think Tim Tebow is wrong to apply Phil. 4:13 to football. God is pleased with our work and play in creation as well as activities that relate to salvation.

However, let’s note the immediate context. This is about contentment. God wants us to experience joy and peace. He’s not only calling us to experience it. He’s empowering us to do it. Let’s believe and claim this promise.

Hardwiring Happiness

Our brains present an interesting paradox. When it comes to bad things, we worry about them and go over them again and again.

When it comes to good things, we don’t even hold them in our mind for ten seconds.

Rick Hanson, in his helpful book Hardwiring Happiness deals at length with this paradox from the perspective of brain science.

Hanson notes that our brain “has a hair-trigger readiness to go negative to help you survive” (20). He describes the way our brain works this way, “when the least little thing goes wrong or could be trouble, the brain zooms in on it with a kind of tunnel vision that downplays everything else” (21).

In contrast, Hanson notes, our brains hardly give any attention to good experiences. “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones” (27).

Think about it: “how often do we stay with a positive experience for five, ten, or twenty seconds in row?” (27).

We just don’t take in the good.

In a previous article, I pointed out that part of the cure of anxiety is prayer and trust in our heavenly Father. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6; you can read my post on this topic, “The Anxiety Cure,” here).

Another direction from which we can attack anxiety is by taking in good things. Notice that little prepositional phrase that Paul adds to his statement about prayer, “with thanksgiving.” That means, even in our stress, we need to take in the good and be thankful for what we have.

That’s also what Paul mentions immediately afterwards. “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8).

What does this look like? Obviously, for the Christian, it means that we take in the good news that we are accepted by God and adopted as His children in Jesus Christ. We need to dwell on this in our minds for a period of time (see more on this here).

But we shouldn’t limit it to that. God has given us good things all around us. For myself, I go out onto my deck in the morning and enjoy a time of meditation, prayer, study, and coffee. I need to take this experience in and enjoy it. I need to dwell on the fact that I have beautiful trees around me and that God has blessed me with a beautiful place to live. I see all the places where my children play and enjoy the beautiful property where God has blessed us to live. He has given me a mind to know Him and interact with Him. He blesses me with the quiet of the morning. He provides me with good things like coffee that give me pleasure.

This is not a call to ignore hard things. It’s a call to balance, to really see and experience the good.

But what would happen if we really took in these good things consistently throughout the day by meditating on them for 10 or 20 seconds or longer? Wouldn’t thinking on what is good and lovely have a significant effect on our mental well-being?

What if we accompanied every request we made with thanksgiving that dwelt on the goodness of God and the resources He has available for us?

Rick Hanson gives a helpful description of the science of contentment, but we have more. We have the promise of God. “And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).