Contentment or Complacency?
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, and to make matters worse, I didn’t know how to respond at the time. I was talking with a Christian friend of mine who was in his early thirties. He was well educated, intelligent and very healthy. Yet, he happily lived at home with his parents, worked a low-paying part-time job and did nothing with his free time except watch movies and play video games. When I confronted him about his use of time and resources, he said, “I’m content with this lifestyle, and doesn’t the Bible say that I should be content?”
Like my friend, it’s very easy for us to be confused about contentment. And this confusion is very dangerous because a true understanding of contentment is tied to experiencing a life of true joy. In order to understand contentment we need to recognize 1) What’s it’s not, 2) What it is, and 3) How we get it.
What It’s Not
In Philippians, the Apostle Paul said that he had learned the secret to being content in any and every circumstance (Phil.4:11). But in chapter 3 of the same letter, Paul said, “Forgetting what is behind and straining forward to what lies ahead … I press on” (Phil.3:13-14). So which is it? Should we strain forward and press on? Or should we be content? The answer, of course, is both, but we must first understand what contentment is not for these to function together.
Contrary to popular use, the biblical word for contentment does not primarily mean to be satisfied. It’s because of this misunderstanding that leads people, like my friend, to confuse contentment with complacency. To be content does not mean that we just sit back and do nothing because we are “satisfied” with the ways things are. Contentment does not mean that if we don’t have a job, we don’t seek a job. Being content does not mean that we refuse to set goals, work hard, or dream big. Contentment is not tied to inactivity in our lives; it’s tied to trusting God’s activity in our lives.
What It Is
The word Paul uses for contentment literally means to be sufficient. Contentment is the attitude or mindset that who I am, what I have, and where God has placed me right now is sufficient to biblically fulfill the roles and responsibilities God has given to me. Let me explain.
As a young boy, I loved watching the television show MacGyver. The show follows secret agent Angus MacGyver who faced a slew of situations that looked hopeless. As you watched, you would think to yourself, “What he has is not sufficient to succeed.” And what made the show so interesting was that MacGyver always found a way of escape or a way to make something work with just the simple things that were around him. MacGyver could break out of prison or jumpstart a car using things like a pair of scissors and toothpaste. In any and every situation, even when it didn’t look like it, MacGyver revealed that he actually did have everything he needed. It was as if he knew that what he had around him was sufficient. This is contentment.
Contentment is recognizing that even though it may not look like it, we have everything we need to biblically succeed. Contentment is making the most of what we have in front of us today. That’s why Paul says in verse 13, “I can do all things.” He’s saying that he’s learned to maximize the moment, to make the most of having a lot or having a little to the glory of God. So how do we get it?
How We Get It
Learn the Lesson: One of the most encouraging things about contentment is that it first must be learned. Paul says twice in verses 11 and 12 that he had to learn to be content. Why is that encouraging? Because biblical contentment is not just given to those “super Christians.” Contentment doesn’t just drop out of the sky for special people. It comes when we embrace what God is teaching us through any and every situation. And what is God teaching us? That He has and will continue to provide for all our needs.
Get to know God: The secret to contentment is not found in what we have but in Who we know. That’s why Paul goes on to say, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil.4:19). How could Paul make such a radical claim? Where did Paul get that type of confidence? Paul knew His God and applied the gospel. The gospel is the primary way Christ strengthens us to “do all things.” But how does this work?
Apply the Gospel: Elsewhere, Paul says, “He who did not spare his Own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things” (Rom.8:32). You see what Paul is doing? He’s working out the implications of the gospel. In essence, he’s saying, “Look at the lengths God went to meet our ultimate needs. God gave us His best while we were at our worst.” God did not hold back what we needed most. He gave us His Son who lived the perfect life that we all need to stand before God and willingly took the penalty for our sins that need to be punished by God. And three days later Jesus rose again from the dead.
Paul knows that Christ is alive. Therefore, the God who supplied our needs then, is the same God who will supply all our needs now! If God met our ultimate needs in Christ, He will meet our immediate needs in our circumstances today. God is not a cosmic miser. Joy comes by knowing God is not withholding one thing that we truly need today. Contentment is recognizing that what I have is sufficient and then making the most of it. So if God heals my sickness tomorrow, it means that I didn’t need it to be healed today. If God financially provides for my car to be fixed next week, it means that I didn’t need it to be fixed today. This is the secret to contentment, that like Paul, we all must learn in order to live with joy.
So, no matter where we find ourselves in life, let’s look to the God of the gospel for strength and then seek to make the most of who we are, what we have and where God has placed us for His glory.