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I spoke with a close friend who had gone through a period marked by personal disappointments, discouragements, unfair treatment, and even false rumors about his character and Christian service. I was moved and impressed by his response: “My great consolation is simply this,” he said, “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6).

This is truly a Christian reaction to adversity (which is the context in which spiritual contentment is most deeply tested, as well as best manifested).

Such contentment is never the result of the momentary decision of the will. It cannot be produced merely by having a well-ordered and thought-through time-and life-management plan calculated to guard us against unexpected twists of divine providence. No, true contentment means embracing the Lord’s will in every aspect of His providence simply because it is His providence. It involves what we are in our very being, not just what we do and can accomplish.

Doing and Being

Contentment is an undervalued grace. As in the seventeenth century, when Jeremiah Burroughs wrote his great work on this theme, so today it remains The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. If it could be produced by programmed means (“Five steps to contentment in a month”), it would be commonplace. Instead, Christians must discover contentment the old-fashioned way: we must learn it.

Thus, we cannot “do” contentment. It is taught by God. We need to be schooled in it. It is part of the process of being transformed through the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:1-2). It is commanded of us, but, paradoxically, it is created in us, not done by us. It is not the product of a series of actions, but of a renewed and transformed character. It involves the growth of a good tree that produces good fruit.

This seems to be a difficult principle for Christians today to grasp. Clear directives for Christian living are essential for us. But, sadly, much of the heavily programmatic teaching current in evangelicalism places such a premium on external doing and achieving that character development is set at a discount. We live in the most pragmatic society on earth (if anyone can “do it,” we can). It is painful to pride to discover that the Christian life is not rooted in what we can do, but in what we need done to us.

Knowing First

Years ago, I had a somewhat painful encounter with this “tell us and we’ll do it” mentality. Halfway through a Christian students’ conference where I was speaking on the assigned theme “Knowing Christ,” I was summoned to meet with a deputation of staff members who seemed to feel duty-bound to confront me with the inadequacies of my first two expositions of Scripture.

“You have addressed us for two hours,” they complained, “and yet, you have not told us one single thing to do.”

Impatience to be doing hid impatience with the Apostolic principle that it is only in knowing Christ that we can do anything (cf. Phil. 3:10; 4:13)—or so it seemed to me at the time.

How does all this apply to contentment?

Christian contentment means that my satisfaction is independent of my circumstances. When Paul speaks about his own contentment in Philippians 4:11, he uses a term commonplace among the ancient Greek philosophical schools of the Stoics and Cynics. In their vocabulary, contentment meant self-sufficiency, in the sense of independence from changing circumstances.

But for Paul, contentment was rooted not in self-sufficiency but in Christ’s sufficiency (Phil. 4:13). Paul said that he could do all things—both being abased and abounding—in Christ.

For Paul, contentment was rooted not in self-sufficiency but in Christ’s sufficiency

Don’t skip over that last phrase. This kind of contentment is the fruit of an ongoing, intimate, deeply developed relationship with Him.

To use Paul’s terms, contentment is something we have to learn. And here is the crux of the matter: to learn it, we must enroll in the divine school in which we are instructed by biblical teaching and providential experience.

A good sampler of the lessons learned in this school is found in Psalm 131.

A Biblical Example

In Psalm 131, the psalmist gives us a vivid description of what it means to learn contentment. He portrays his experience in terms of a child being weaned from a milk diet onto solid food:

Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor my eyes lofty.
Neither do I concern myself with great matters, Nor with things too profound for me.
Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with his mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time forth and forever.

To picture the scene and hear the sounds best, you need to remember that in Old Testament times weaning sometimes did not take place until a child was 3 or even 4 years old! It is hard enough for a mother to cope with an infant’s dissatisfied cries, the refusal of solid food, and the struggle of wills during the weaning process. Imagine battling with a 4-year-old! That was the measure of the struggle David went through before he learned contentment.

But what was the struggle all about? David helps us by suggesting the two great issues that needed to be settled in his life.

Holy Ambition

Lord, my heart is not haughty, nor my eyes lofty” (Ps. 131:1). Ambition in and of itself is not necessarily wrong. David had been set apart for the throne, after all (1 Sam. 16:12-13). But he had a higher ambition: to trust God’s wise providing, placing, and timing.

There had been occasions when David could have seized position and power by means that would have compromised his commitment to the Lord. First, Saul came into the very cave where David and his men were hiding (1 Sam. 24:3ff). Later, David and Abishai crept into Saul’s tent and found him asleep (1 Sam. 26:7ff). On either occasion, he so easily could have captured or even killed Saul—who had become his enemy. After all, was he not the anointed future king? But David was content to live by the directives of God’s Word and to wait patiently for God’s time.

Christian contentment, therefore, is the direct fruit of having no higher ambition than to belong to the Lord and to be totally at His disposal in the place He appoints, at the time He chooses, with the provision He is pleased to make.

It was with mature wisdom, then, that the young Robert Murray McCheyne wrote, “It has always been my aim, and it is my prayer, to have no plans with regard to myself.” “How unusual!” we say. Yes, but what people noticed about McCheyne was how content he was to pursue one driving ambition: to know Christ (Phil. 3:10). It is not accidental that when we make Christ our ambition we discover that He becomes our sufficiency and we learn contentment in all circumstances.

False Preoccupations

“Neither do I concern myself with great matters . . . things too profound for me” (Ps. 131:1). Contentment is the fruit of a mindset that understands its limitations.

David did not allow himself to be preoccupied with what God was not pleased to give to him. Neither did he allow his mind to become fixated on things God had not been pleased to explain to him.

Such preoccupations suffocate contentment. If I insist on knowing exactly what God is doing and what He plans to do with my future, if I demand to understand His ways with me in the past, I can never be content until I am equal with God. How slow we are to recognize in these subtle mental temptations the echoes of the serpent of Eden: “Express your dissatisfaction with God’s ways, God’s words, God’s provision. Take what He has forbidden. He does not really love you, so take it! And take it now while you have the chance!”

In our Augustinian tradition, it has often been said that the first sin was superbia, pride. But it was more complex than that; it included discontentment. A discontented spirit is both the fruit and the evidence of an ungodly heart.

Keep these principles in view and you will not easily be caught up in a this-worldly vortex of discontentment. Go back to the school in which you will make progress in being a Christian. Study your lessons, settle the issue of ambition, make Christ your preoccupation—and you will learn to enjoy the privileges of being truly content.