To me, contentment is one of those words that you think you know what it means until someone asks you to define it. I’ve have found myself in some of those predicaments with my boys when they ask me to define words they’ve learned like: sarcasm. We all know what sarcasm is, but to put words to it so a child can understand it is difficult.
So when I sat down to start putting my thoughts together I asked myself how I would define contentment and when I had come up with my definition, I started to wonder if I was correct.
I get the sense that our culture would define contentment as: Happiness with one’s situation in life.
My personal definition prior to doing this study was “feeling satisfied with my current circumstances”.
A few weeks ago, I took an informal facebook poll and asked my friends how they defined “contentment”. Some of their answers were:
• Enjoyment of whatever may be desired
• The absence of dissatisfaction or anxiety; peace.
• Being at peace with yourself
• Absence of want
Stop for a moment and consider how YOU would define contentment.
Dictionary.com defines contentment as “satisfaction; ease of mind” and sites the word “happy” as a synonym.
But, according to the Holman Bible Dictionary, the definition of contentment, from a biblical perspective is: “An internal satisfaction which does not demand changes in external circumstances.”
How do we know this? Well, by far the most sited scripture on contentment is Philippians 4:11 which in the King James version says “I have learned, in whatever state I am, therewith to be content.” The (NIV) says-“for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”
Charles Spurgeon was a prolific author and pastor in the 1800’s. His work remains highly influential to this day.
According to Spurgeon, the words “I have learned” show us that contentment is not a natural propensity of man. When Paul says, ‘I have learned to be content;’ he is basically saying that there was a point in his life that he did not know how to be content.
But now, he has LEARNED how to be content in his circumstances. I think it’s important for us to review what those circumstances had been when he wrote that. In 2 Corinthians chapter 2, Paul says: “I have worked much harder. I have been in prison more often. I have suffered terrible beatings. Again and again I almost died. 24 Five times the Jews gave me 39 strokes with a whip. 25 Three times I was beaten with sticks. Once they tried to kill me by throwing stones at me. Three times I was shipwrecked. I spent a night and a day in the open sea. 26 I have had to keep on the move. I have been in danger from rivers. I have been in danger from robbers. I have been in danger from people from my own country. I have been in danger from those who aren’t Jews. I have been in danger in the city, in the country, and at sea. I have been in danger from people who pretended they were believers. 27 I have worked very hard. Often I have gone without sleep. I have been hungry and thirsty. Often I have gone without food. I have been cold and naked.”
So this is what Paul had endured when later in Phillipians he says: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”
So the state of contentment has to be learned because our natural propensity is to be discontented. The last of the ten commandments addresses this aspect of the human condition. Commandment #10 says “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”
To covet, or covetousness, is a sin mentioned frequently in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. It is considered a root of other serious sinful behaviors.The term means “to desire intensely.” In Scripture this word expresses the intense love and desire for any object or person; that is given more importance, and becomes a substitute for the devotion and love due to God.
I don’t know about you but when I hear the word covet, it sounds like an “old word” like “hither” or similar words that we don’t often use in our contemporary vernacular. So I find it hard to relate to in my own life. I don’t think any of us would consider ourselves necessarily guilty of coveting. But this is a sneaky one. And it creeps in as another word we can more easily recognize: comparison.
Don’t make the mistake of comparing yourself to others. Some of us have nice looking outsides but messy looking insides. And vice versa.
The danger of comparison is that it predominantly leads to two sinful responses: Pride and Despair.
If we compare ourselves to someone who struggles with an issue that happens to be an area of strength for us, we will be tempted toward pride and we’ll wonder why they can’t just get it together!
If we compare ourselves to someone who is strong and gifted in an area where we are messy and weak, we’ll be tempted toward despair and we’ll wonder what is wrong with us that we can’t get it together!
Both pride and despair lead us away from our rightful posture of holy confidence and humble dependence.
Colossians 3:2 says “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things”
Whenever we look horizontally and compare ourselves with others, we’ll perceive things through a skewed lens. Looking up vertically for perspective keeps us more focused on God’s strength than our weaknesses.
If we forget to look up and only look out, we will subject ourselves to the devil’s attempts to lure us away from God’s promise of peace and contentment.
I believe this applies to fostering material contentment as well as spiritual contentment. Times are tough. And it’s easy to compare ourselves to others and wish we had more. But our GOD has limitless resources and, at a minimum, He will give to us according to our actual need. Phil.4:19
1 Timothy 6:6 says that “godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.” Have you ever seen those bumper stickers or license plate frames that say “Whoever dies with the most toys wins!” They have never heard this scripture. They need to have this bumper sticker instead: “Whoever dies with the most toys…misses the point!
But don’t let me confuse you. Discontentment is not just associated with material things. Through this study, I came to realize the depth of my spiritual discontentment. And as I grow in my walk, these are some of the thoughts that pop into my mind:
I wish prayed more like so and so.
If only I had more biblical knowledge like so and so.
Oh man, she spends an hour each day with the Lord and some days it’s a miracle if I do it at all.
I still struggle with sin! Argghhh… why can’t I be more holy!
Now, I’m not saying that you can’t look at someone and be encouraged to live a holier life. I’m just saying that when you compare yourself, the slope to despair is slippery. So for me, this is an area of discontent that can easily lead me to sin.
Of course, this line of thinking is not from God. Instead of living feeling condemned, I need to claim the Victory of Jesus Christ! And remember that true contentment can be learned.
Greek Definition for the word “learn” means to increase ones knowledge through experience, to appropriate the truth personally, and to live it out practically.
Spurgeon reminds us that on earth, things that grow must be cultivated. If we are to have wheat, we must plough and sow; if we want flowers, there must be the garden, and all the gardener’s care.
Contentment is one of the flowers of heaven, and if we would have it, it must be cultivated; it will not grow in us by our human nature; it is the new nature alone (right?, we are new creations in Christ) that can produce it, and even then we must be especially careful and watchful that we maintain and cultivate the grace which God has sown in us.
To be content is to trust that God is great and that He is always up to something good.
So how do we learn contentment?
I’m a do-er by nature, so I like to have how-to’s whenever possible. So here are a couple to get you started.
1) To battle discontentment you must put on the armor of God.
i. on Psalm 119:36 which will protect you against coveting:
Turn my heart toward your statutes
and not toward selfish gain
(In other words, “Grant me the future grace of strong influences on my heart to give me an appetite for your truth that breaks the power of my appetite for things.” )
b. Flee 1 Timothy 6:11
i. But you, man of God, flee from all this (covetousness and discontentment), and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.
c. Slay (Put it to death!) Colossians 3:5
i. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature (as we learned earlier, discontentment is part of our earthly nature).
2) Do Not Complain Instead Focus on Thanksgiving.
a. This allows us to see all the good things we have and makes contentment easier.
b. Philippians 2:14
i. Do everything without grumbling or arguing (this means DO LIFE without grumbling)
c. James 1:17
i. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
d. Luke 12:31
i. But seek God’s kingdom, and all your other needs will be met as well.
So What are the Considerations in Parenting?
We must go after discontentment in our children with the same resolve we seek to uproot disobedience because both are rooted in a sinful, selfish mid-set – and these are not the kinds of things we want growing in our kids.
I’m about to say something controversial so forgive me. You know how people always say “children are so innocent.” Well, I’m not sure about that. Children may be inexperienced but they are not necessarily innocent. In fact, some have argued that thanks to Adam and Eve, they are born with an inherently sinful nature. A nature that is inclined to disobey God.
So, why do I think this? Have you ever seen a couple of toddlers who want the same toy? How does that play out? “MINE!” So they are naturally selfish. How about when the terrible 2’s hit? What is a 2 year old’s favorite word? “NO!” They’re defiant.
The reason parenting is so exhausting is because we are constantly trying to teach them contrary to their human disposition and impulses. But don’t get discouraged. Remember that Proverbs 22:6 instructs us to “Train up a child in the way he should go”. And God will always equip us for the work He has called us to do.
In the book Spoiled Rotten, the author references a marvelous saying: “there is nothing as shattering as a dream that comes true”. Our children need to dream, to have things to look forward to, and things to hope for. But don’t interfere with natural consequences or make the mistake of meeting their every desire because you can’t stand to see the disappointment in their eyes or don’t want to deal with their wrath when they don’t get their way.
When through the best of intentions we fulfill their dreams prematurely, we are unintentionally robbing our kids of anticipation, excitement, and optimism. Instead we may be inadvertently teaching them to be demanding and to expect instant gratification.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t encourage our children to dream and hope or that we shouldn’t teach them how to cope with broken hearts or disappointments. But there is a difference between experiencing natural feelings and throwing a tantrum.
Children learn what they live. If they live with parents who are never satisfied, always striving, ever looking for the next best thing to feed their material appetites, then those children will come to believe that life comes from stuff. But stuff breaks down, gets old, is outdated in a matter of hours or simply doesn’t satisfy for very long. As a result, those kids will hunger and thirst and yearn for more stuff. Different stuff, but more stuff none the less.
My boys have way too many toys, most of which I have not purchased myself. And they are always asking for new toys. Before birthdays and Christmas, we go through the toys and I ask the boys to toss broken toys and then donate functional toys to “boys and girls who are in need”. Nothing new comes into the house unless we donate some first. And when I have control over it, we do not purchase every toy they fancy. It’s ok to not give them everything they want.
If we don’t teach our children and actively provide perspective when they are young, they will likely grow up with one of two schools of thought: 1) I NEED the stuff or 2) I HATE this stuff and will lose a measure of respect for parents who were too shallow to teach them these principles.
We have some family friends who raised 2 daughters. They lived in affluent community and because they, the parents, were raised with very little, they gave their daughters everything they wanted. Now these daughters are in their 30’s and one of them continues to purchase whatever she desires whether or not it’s financially responsible because she feels like she’s entitled to have whatever she wants. The other daughter, hates receiving gifts and gets annoyed whenever her parents try to offer her financial help. She accuses them of trying to buy her affection.
Knowing these parents pretty well, they are “normal” parents. They wanted to give their daughters what they didn’t have growing up. But they failed to teach their children the proper perspective on materialism and contentment.
Not that we are going to seize every teaching moment perfectly but may we live close enough to the Father’s heart that we hear His voice when He whispers “Be thankful in this moment or You don’t need to buy that today or Don’t look too long at your neighbor’s stuff. Come and spend some time with Me instead”.
When our children watch us battle through our unfulfilled desires to find contentment, they’ll learn that though it’s not always easy, it is possible, and it is worth it. When they hear us regularly thanking God for specific blessings in our life, they will remember that they too are blessed. When they see us giving to others more often than grabbing for ourselves, they will see that “stuff” is a nice but not a source of contentment.
But for the entitled, demanding, foot-stomping child, the only proper response is one of discipline and intervention.
Be prepared to leave the store, the restaurant, or the park. Cancel plans, interrupt conversations and do what you have to do to take care of the outburst on the spot. Doing so sends the message to your child (and to the world): that their character means so much to you that you willing to inconvenience yourself any day of the week to deal with wrong behaviors and misguided perspectives.
Reward proper thinking.
A couple of winters ago, I pathetically fell while skiing my first run on a beginners slope and hurt my knee….bad…as in the ski patrol had to come get me and toboggan me down to the medic. I spent the rest of the day icing my knee and feeling sorry for myself as the rest of my family got to finish their day of fun. My little guy, Joey, came to check on me and when he saw me in my pitty party said “Well, mom, at least you didn’t break it!” And I thought, you know, out of the mouths of babes!
Catch your child doing something right and reward them for the right attitude and perspective.
As we wrap up, I just want you to remember that there will always be someone skinnier, prettier, better or holier than you. Contentment has little to do with our circumstances and everything to do with what we tell ourselves about those circumstances. Contentment arises from an inward disposition that we cultivate with Christ.
God wants us to learn to be content in our circumstances, not when they improve.
True contentment is a joyful, humble, uninterrupted, and independent of circumstance, dependence upon Christ. It is an attitude which cannot be controlled by material comfort or poverty. It is a ready acceptance of whatever God may allow in your life.
Dear Heavenly Father,
Thank you for being good to us. And thank you that we can rest assured that you will come through for us again.
At this very moment each one of your daughters in this room possesses more than they can comprehend and is more blessed than they know.
Help us to embrace what you have given us today and grow us in trusting you for the desires of our hearts in accordance with your will.
May we continually be reminded that You are more than enough for us and whatever our lot, may it be well with our soul.
Legacy of Contentment
Are You Content?
• Looking at the world today, give an example of how the world beckons us to be discontent with our life.
• Share an example of when you find it most difficult to have contentment in your life?
• How has your definition of contentment changed in the last hour?
• During your prayer time, list 5 things you are thankful for each day. Comb all areas of your life and try to come up with 5 different things each day. We can all say we are thankful for family, friends, food, etc. But get specific (ie. I am thankful that the kids slept through the night and that baby’s cold hasn’t turned into an ear infection, etc.)
• Regularly check up on those who have less than you and offer help whenever possible. Something as simple as a phone call to a lonely person will do wonders for your state of mind and bless them immensely. Then pray for those you’ve just reached out to, count your blessings and thank Jesus for all you have.
• When you notice yourself feeling discontented, retrace your steps and find out where your perspective changed. Ask God for a renewed perspective. Meditate on Psalm 51:10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Can you think of other Bible verses that you can cling to, memorize, meditate upon, and apply to help you battle your discontentment?
Look for teaching moments to discuss the proper perspective on contentment with your children.
Utilize meal time to discuss how things are going that day. Praise God for things that are going well. When things are not going well, look for the bright side in that situation. This will teach your child to look for the silver lining and practice contentment.
During night-time prayer take turns listing your blessings with your child. When requesting something from God, be sure to teach your child that God’s Will will be done and that we are to be content with how our prayers get answered. I have found that ending prayers with “but not our will God, Your will be done” helps us to remember that posture.