Should Christians be content with their circumstances? Our first reaction might be “Of course!” After all, doesn’t Scripture command contentment? But what does that mean? Dictionaries typically define contentment as “happiness and satisfaction,” so are we always supposed to be happy and satisfied with our circumstances? If so, what does contentment look like when you’ve just lost a child, or a parent? Or when you’re struggling with a chronic illness or a difficult relationship?
It is useful to begin this brief exploration by considering our attitude to financial circumstances, because it is primarily here that Scripture uses the language of contentment, even if the idea is present elsewhere. In 1 Tim 6:8 Paul speaks of contentment with food and covering (which may include both clothing and shelter). However, in Phil 4:12 he says that he has learned to be content even in hunger and poverty. This did not mean that Paul felt no hunger, and so we should we wary of supposing, for example, that contentment in illness involves not feeling pain, or that contentment in singleness involves not feeling or grieving the lack of a partner. No, Paul hungered, just as Jesus hungered after fasting for forty days and yet refused to satisfy his hunger inappropriately. But even in hunger and poverty Paul endured “through him who gives me strength” (Phil 4:13).
Hebrews 13:5 charges “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.’” In contrast to those who look to wealth for security and happiness, Christians are to trust in God’s fatherly care, which is why Luke 12:22–34 follows Luke 12:13–21 (note the “therefore” in verse 22). This does not mean that Christians will never be in need, for we are commanded to “share with the Lord’s people who are in need” (Rom 12:13). Accordingly, “Be content!” is just as inappropriate a response to a brother or sister in financial hardship as is “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed” (see James 2:16). And the same is surely true of other needs and griefs; we are to “carry each other’s burdens” and thereby “fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2).
Sadly, although many of us have more than we need, brothers and sisters around the world still die of hunger or treatable diseases. Even then, however, God does not abandon his children but brings them through death into his presence, awaiting resurrection when Christ returns. Contentment does not, therefore, involve having no needs or cares, or being “happy and satisfied” with our finances, but rather trusting in God’s care and provision and refraining from covetousness and sin (see Luke 3:14; 1 Tim 6:9–10).
Likewise, when it comes to our circumstances more generally, Scripture does not lead us to expect a pain-free life. Because of sin our world is “subjected to frustration,” and so we “groan inwardly” (Rom 8:20, 23). Groaning is not an expression of happiness and satisfaction with our current situation, but of longing for the world to come when God will wipe away every tear (Rev 21:4). Moreover, Christians follow a suffering saviour (Luke 9:23–24; 1 Pet 2:21), and so the Christian life is a cross-shaped one of sacrifice and suffering and self-denial. Scripture promises us many griefs and hardships in life (Acts 14:22), and divine grace does not dull the pain but rather enables us to endure (Rom 15:5). Failing to grasp this may lead to disappointment or doubt when suffering comes our way, or make us shy away from decisions that will involve hardship. Moreover, we need not feel guilty when we find life hard. As we see in Psalms, it’s appropriate to cry to God in our pain.
Yet our hardships are temporary. Paul writes “our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all“ (2 Cor 4:17; see also Rom 8:18). Paul’s “light and momentary troubles” included multiple imprisonments, floggings, beatings, and shipwrecks, as well as sleepless nights, hunger, thirst, cold, nakedness, and constant danger from all sides (2 Cor 11:23–28). His trust in God did not make him oblivious to the pain; he was “hard pressed” and “perplexed” (2 Cor 4:8), and wrote of his “great distress and anguish of heart” and “many tears” for the Corinthians (2 Cor 2:4). Yet he counted these troubles “light and momentary” in comparison to the glory to come. The biblical approach is not to deny the pain, but to keep it in perspective.
An eternal perspective enables us to redirect our longings from longings for change in this world to longings for the world to come. The prayers “your kingdom come” (Matt 6:10) and “come, Lord Jesus” (Rev 22:20) remind us that we are not supposed to be content with this world as it is. As our bodies and minds deteriorate, rather than longing for the health of others or of our younger selves, we can long for the day when the perishable will be clothed with the imperishable and the mortal with immortality (see 1 Cor 15:53). And when singleness is hard, seeing marriage as the solution can lead to disappointment, for we may not find a spouse, or may find marriage every bit as hard. Better, therefore, to turn that ache of loneliness or heartbreak into a longing for the world to come, when we will all be happily single (Luke 20:35–36), and will enjoy the perfect relationship with God to which earthly marriage points (Rev 21:2–3).
Not only are our hardships temporary, but God gives us grace to endure them, and even works through them. Paul writes: “Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Cor 12:7–9).
We don’t know what Paul’s thorn in the flesh was. But he describes it as “a messenger of Satan,” who, as we see in Job, puts pressure on God’s people to entice them to sin. As Christians we can expect such trials. We need not pretend that they are good, and we may plead with the Lord to remove them, as Paul does. Yet God had a purpose in Paul’s suffering, namely to keep him from conceit. And he has a purpose in your suffering and mine. It might not be revealed to us, as it was to Paul. But God allows suffering for a variety of reasons—for example, to refine our faith and glorify Christ (1 Pet 1:7), or to keep us dependent on God (2 Cor 1:9).
Notice that God did not answer Paul’s prayer by removing the thorn, nor by removing the pain. Faith in Jesus is not an anaesthetic that allows us to undergo trials in a state of euphoric oblivion. Rather, God gave Paul grace to endure. And so Paul boasts about his weaknesses so that Christ’s power may rest on—literally, dwell in— him. Finding life hard, therefore, is not in itself a sign of ungodly discontent. Even Paul, who had learned the secret of contentment, found life hard at times, and could plead with God for relief. But God allows difficult circumstances for a purpose, and grants strength and grace to endure.
Even in hardship Christians have much to rejoice in, and our hardships must not overshadow the blessings God has richly bestowed on us. He is our heavenly father. Our names are written in heaven (Luke 10:20), and we have an inheritance laid up for us there that will never perish spoil or fade (1 Pet 1:4)! No trouble, hardship, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, or sword can separate us from Christ’s love (Rom 8:35). Thus Paul describes himself as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor 6:10), and we too are to “rejoice always” (1 Thess 5:16) and “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess 5:18). This takes discipline, for when life is tough it is tempting to focus on the challenges and hardships that face us. As secular psychologists have recognized, gratitude journals and regular thanksgiving are invaluable for cultivating a positive attitude.
So to return to the question posed at the start, should Christians be content with their circumstances? Not if that means always being happy and satisfied with our situation in this world, no matter how challenging. Rather, our happiness and satisfaction are rooted in our confident hope of the perfect world to come, in knowing God as our heavenly father, in the many blessings we have from him, and in our trust that he cares for us and will provide what we need until he brings us safely to his heavenly kingdom. Finding contentment outside our present circumstances helps us to focus less on ourselves and on this world, and more on the interests of others and on the world to come. Meanwhile we can serve one another in our hardships by bearing one another’s burdens with practical care and emotional support, and allowing room for grief while also pointing one another to God and his promises.
Article by Chris Thomson
Biblical quotations are from THE HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by International Bible Society, www.ibs.org. All rights reserved worldwide.