I’m not sure if this is anyone’s favorite word. I once attended a women’s retreat where the keynote was centered entirely around this concept, and I must admit it was some of the sharpest conviction I’ve ever experienced. To this day, it’s a word that inspires a little bit of a cringe in me, and it’s something I think most of us try not to think about too much. But what is it?
What is “contentment”? What does the Bible say it is?
This is our fourth lesson in the Biblical Vocabulary series. If you haven’t yet, pause for a moment to read up on faith, joy, and worship, because they’ll all play a role in our understanding of contentment.
What is contentment?
The dictionary definition of contentment is straightforward:
“The state of being satisfied with what one is or has; not wanting more or anything else.”
Now you understand why this word stings the conscience a bit. I don’t know when I last met someone I could freely describe as “contented,” and I certainly don’t think I’ve ever met a contented version of myself.
For all secular intents and purposes, this definition of contentment is pretty good. But there’s one very important thing it’s missing if we want to develop a truly Biblical understanding of what it means to be content, so our next stop needs to be the Bible itself.
But I rejoiced greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Nevertheless, you have done well to share with me in my affliction.
We all know at least one verse in this passage: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Without its context, this verse becomes a mantra for athletes and a slogan for bumper stickers, but it gains a whole new power when we realize this isn’t about what we can achieve, or reaching for the stars. It’s about what we can be satisfied with - even if we never touch the stars.
Notice Paul’s situation as he writes these words to the Philippians. They’ve sent him a gift, something to help sustain him as he continues in the work of ministry, and he rejoices in their care for him. But he does not need their care for him in order to be content. He doesn’t covet their resources; he’s not driven to steal or con his way to accessing them. If God provides through the Philippians, Paul rejoices - and if He does not, Paul is content. It’s nothing about Paul’s circumstances, relationships, or potential that give him this power and freedom; it’s Christ alone (which should sound familiar to you if you studied the definition of joy with us!).
“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” I am satisfied because Christ is my satisfaction and sustenance.
The dictionary told us that to be content is to be “satisfied with what one is or has; not wanting more or anything else.” The Bible tells us that the only way this state of being is possible, especially when we are truly “suffering need” as Paul said, is to be entirely dependent on Christ.
That’s the piece that our dictionary definition is missing.
Contentment is born of surrender.
Biblical contentment is not just about being okay with it if we never get that new car or nicer house or better job. Like faith and joy and worship, true contentment is not a feeling; it is an action, a surrender, a way of living. We can be content even when we lack basic needs and wants because contentment is a theological acknowledgement statement that “God has done right.” It is rooted in the absolute dependence and surrender that can only come from trusting that God is who He says He is: good, sovereign, loving, personally invested in our lives, our provider.
“I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.” That is, I have learned how to acknowledge, in every situation, that God has done right by me. Even in my times of need, I have more than I could possibly deserve. I have a relationship with the living God! And because of who He is, I can remain strong and satisfied in that truth, regardless of my circumstances.
There’s one more important thing I hope you see before we leave this discussion of contentment: Contentment can’t exist without an established foundation of faith (seeing things the way God says they are instead of how my eyes see them) and joy (the resolute assurance that God knows and cares about the details of my life). If my perspective is small and fearful, and I perceive God to be cold and distant, I will never be able to submit my heart to the truth that God has done right. I will always notice what I’m missing out on and become embittered toward God for seeming to not care about my needs. Eventually, this will lead me toward the three core sins of discontentment: covetousness, theft, and disregard for God’s Sabbath (see Exodus 16).
Faith, joy, and contentment are some of the key fruits of a life that is learning who God is and allowing His character to define reality. If you’re not there yet - maybe you don’t really know who God is, or you think you do but He doesn’t seem like someone who would inspire faith, joy, and contentment at all (you are not alone!) - I can only encourage you to spend time in His Word, where He reveals who He really is through the narratives, laws, poems, and prophecies of the Scriptures.
The Bible is a big book. If you need help tackling it or knowing where to begin, I’m leading a challenge to read through the Bible in 180 days again starting January 1 - I’d love to have you join us! You can learn more here.