Archive for November, 2014


November 6, 2014

Contentment is one of the most crucial virtues. It is the “rare jewel” in the present day society. Because we live in a time that is set up to keep us from being content with ourselves and therefore we suffer from insecurity, lack of self-confidence and anxiety. Take a look at the media. The whole point of media and advertising is to convince us that we are not happy, that we don’t have enough, that we need more of what they are selling. When we buy their product, or when we have the lifestyle and body and looks of celebrities and models, then we will be happy!

The current economic system is set up to do the same thing. It is expected of us to try and earn as much money as we can. One house is not enough. Two cars are not enough. A six-digit salary is not enough. There is always an anxious need to gain more, even it means stepping on others to get there.

So from the moment we are born we are brainwashed to believe that the only way to happiness is to earn as much money as possible, to have perfect abs, the perfect boyfriend or girlfriend, or big house in the right neighbourhood. If we don’t have these things, then we are not happy. Since most of us don’t have these things, we hold on to a neurotic need to be different than who we are and live life with much stress and anxiety as we helplessly look for the thing that will make us happy. And those of us who have the money, the perfect abs and all the rest are just as unsettled, because they discover that the things they thought would make them happy really don’t. They too helplessly look for that elusive and illusive thing they are missing.

And the result is DISCONTENTMENT.

Discontentment opens up our hearts to many unhealthy habits in our lives. Materialism is, after all, the natural behaviour born out of discontent with our self-image. Dishonesty is born out of discontent with the truth. Substance abuse is born out of displeasure with the current state of our lives. So many people are unhappy in their jobs and in their marriages or with their own self image. They cast off their spouse in search of someone with better mansions or better status or more hair or less shortcomings. But no matter what they do they can never shake off that gnawing sense of anxiety and unease that is stuck in their chest.

If a person cultivates discontentment instead of contentment, then that person will never be happy and at peace with who s/he is, and what s/he has.

One person who had figured out the secret of contentment was the apostle Paul. In his letter to the church at Philippi, he talks about contentment: “Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have” (Phil. 4.11).

The Greek word that is used for “content” in Phil. 4.11 is autarkēs, which means “sufficient or adequate in one’s self” or “contented with one’s lot”. This word is found only here in the entire New Testament. In I Tim 6.6 another Greek word autarkeia is used for “contentment” which means “contentedness” or “a frame of mind viewing one’s lot as sufficient”.

Autarkēs is used by the Stoic philosophers to describe a man of emotionless, wooden impassivity, the man whom nothing could touch because in himself he had found a completely satisfying world. Paul used this word meaning “restful contentment”, the opposite of covetousness or the desire for more. Circumstances have no power over a contented person. Paul says, “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need” (Phil. 4.12).

Contrary to Paul, the people of Israel lacked the virtue of contentment during their journey in the wilderness. At Pi-hahiroth, when the Israelites saw the Egyptian army they cried out in great fear to the Lord and said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, bringing us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, ‘Let us alone and let us serve the Egyptians? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness” (Ex. 14.10-12; compare this with Ex. 3.7-10 which tells that Israelites cried to God to liberate them from their Egyptian bondage!). Again Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger” (Ex. 16.3). At Rephidim when there was no water, they again complained, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Ex. 17.3). And Ex. 17.7 says, “He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?’” They tried to force God’s hand: “If God were really with us this would never have happened. Let him deliver us and we will trust him.” Thus they tested God. Israelites expected their God to fulfill their needs and wants with or without their demand! In other words, they wanted their God to act or provide according to their expectations, and thus keep them comfortable, insulating them from any lack or pain or suffering! This resulted in their discontentment.

Contentment is not found in having everything we like or we want or we need. It is not about always being comfortable and always getting our way. If that’s the only way we can find joy and peace, then we will be unhappy and restless a lot. In Phil. 4.12 Paul explains that contentment isn’t about circumstances. He says, “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” The greater part of our happiness and misery depends not upon our circumstances, but upon our disposition. Socrates says, “He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.”

Therefore, contentment is an attitude and an intentional act of will or a willful choice. As Paul told Timothy, “We brought nothing into the world, so that we take nothing out of it, but if we have food and clothing (and shelter) we will be content with these” (I Tim. 6.7-8). Job understood when he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1.21).

Contentment is the state of being satisfied with what one has, with her/his status and current situation. It is not resignation, which is more about giving up, being a victim and feeling disempowered. Being contented means that one is truly satisfied with her/his life as it is right now! Of course there is always room to grow and expand who we are and how we live our lives. But we can also be satisfied with how much we have and accept ourselves as we are. This is a powerful way to be in the world. This means we are not victim to other’s opinions, including media and movies. We actually live our lives in a more authentic way!

Contentment is a learned behavior. It is something which Paul learned: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have” (Phil. 4.11). The Greek verb used here for “learned” is manthanō which means “to learn by practice or experience” or “acquire a habit”.

In Phil 4.12 a different Greek word is used for “learned”, i.e. mueō, which means “to be disciplined in a practical lesson” or “to learn a lesson”. This word is used in the Greek mystery religions to describe people who had worked their way up through the various lower “degrees” and had finally admitted into full possession of “the mystery” itself.

Through all life’s ups and downs Paul has learned how to be content. Bit by bit, test by test, circumstance by circumstance, he persevered through the lower “degrees” until he finally “matured” in acquiring the virtue of contentment. Contentment did not come easily. He acquired it through discipline. Paul says, “I have made my way up through the degrees of progressive detachment from the things of the world, its comforts and its discomforts alike, and finally I have reached maturity on this point. I know the secret; circumstances can never again touch me.” Thus, contentment is the mark of a mature believer, and a virtue to be cultivated by all believers who want to grow in Jesus Christ, who had “nowhere to lay his head” (Lk. 9.58).

What is the secret of Paul’s contented life? How could he be joyful and peaceful in spite of being imprisoned, being in trying situations (1.7, 13, 17; 4.4, 10)? How could he be joyful and peaceful at all times? Paul says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4.13). This verse might be translated as “I have strength for all circumstances through him who strengthens me.” True, lasting, lifelong contentment is found only in God.

Obstacles to Contentment

In every single one of our lives there are things that stand between us and contentment like a huge wall that we can never seem to scale. Some of the most common ones are:

  1. Selfishness

Pleasure seekers get caught up in high consumption, compulsive acquisition and instantaneous gratification. Instead of being content with what they have, they want to have the latest and the greatest. They feel they need to have something new to satisfy them.

Although the root of discontent is selfishness, it plays out in two ways: Greed and covetousness. Even though these two are closely related, there is a difference. When I am greedy, I just want what is there, whether it is needed or not. When I covet, I specifically want what you have.

  1. Greed

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to contentment is greed. “If only I had a little bit more money, a little bit more things, a little bit more beauty, a little bit more comfort….” The words “if only” are contentment-killers.

Ambition is not wrong. One may strive for excellence and to go up the socio-economic ladder. But when ambition is uncontrolled, or when it simply fuels our ego, it is not good. James writes, “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind” (James 3.16).

Bible warns specifically against the selfish ambition to get rich: “Keep your lives free from the love of money” (Heb. 13.5). Because “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (I Tim. 6.10). The love of money is not only a root of all kinds of evil, but also an empty love. It will never satisfy, rather it brings misery and destruction. Greedy people fall into temptations like lust and envy. They fall into the traps of corruption and compromise. They become trapped by their own envious desires as they forsake their morals and convictions in order to achieve their goal of financial gain (or selfish purposes/ends). Their greed, their foolish and harmful desires will plunge them into ruin and destruction (I Tim. 6.9, 10).

  1. Covetousness

Covetousness is a big factor in being discontent. It means desiring what belongs to the other. This happens when people are not satisfied with their own selves and what they have, and start comparing with others. The problem is that comparison is the enemy of contentment, because there will always be people who possess a greater quality or quantity of what they think they should have. Because of this, comparison leads to covetousness. Instead of loving their neighbours, they find themselves loving what they possess.

Covetousness robs people of enjoying and being grateful for who they are and what they have. Advertising agencies exploit this human weakness. The goal of advertising is to create discontent with who they are and what they have. It makes them believe that their toothpaste isn’t good enough, their vehicle isn’t good enough, their appearance isn’t good enough, and their life isn’t as good as it would be if they bought their products. And it works. It seeps into their brains and spoils their hearts.

Discontentment breeds resentment towards themselves, their parents, their spouses, their children and God. They get angry and resentful toward God because from their perspective, God is depriving them of what they think they should have.

The truth is that if they are not satisfied with who they are and what they have, they will never be satisfied with what they want!


  1. Unhealthy Sense of Entitlement

Another major obstacle to contentment is an unhealthy sense of entitlement. It is thinking that we deserve something or that the world owes us something. It’s getting angry when we don’t get our own way. Paul addresses this in I Timothy 6.6-8: “Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.”

So the world doesn’t owe us anything. We are not any more special or privileged than the next person. We came into this world with nothing and we will leave it with nothing. Let’s be humble and not think more highly of ourselves than we should.

  1. Unrealistic Expectations

Media, movies and advertisements are contributing to unrealistic expectations of people, particularly younger generation. The level of expectation has changed and many people today just expect everything to be theirs. When young people get married, they want everything right now that it took their parents years to accumulate.

The consequences of unrealistic expectations are anxiety, stress, depression, addictions, unhealthy relationships, family conflicts, divorce and suicide.


How to Cultivate the Virtue of Contentment

  1. Gratitude

Everywhere one looks these days, one finds unhappy and upset people. Parents demean their children, children blame their parents. Advertisers make it clear in thousands of ways every day that our lives as consumers will never be meaningful or fulfilled until we purchase their products. We live in a culture of deficit, demand and desire. One’s own self and its insatiable demands become the center of one’s life. The orientation towards deficit, demand and desire is rampant in contemporary culture which results in discontentment.

One deep root of the pervasive discontent appears to be ingratitude. The inability to acknowledge and appreciate gifts and benefits one has received from God, parents, siblings, spouse, friends, relatives and natural world tends towards bitterness and, eventually, inhumanity. Immanuel Kant, German philosopher and theologian, counted the inability to express gratitude among the three “meanest and basest vices” that degrade the individual and corrupt society.

Ingratitude is hardly a modern phenomenon. One day Jesus encountered it while on his way to Jerusalem (Lk. 17.11-18). Luke’s account of the healing of the ten lepers underscores the human tendency to expect grace as our due and to forget to thank God for his acts of grace and kindness. To be ungrateful is, at root, to deliberately and willfully ignore God’s acts of grace and kindness. Jesus had to ask the one leper, who was healed and came back to thank Jesus, “Were not ten made clean? But the other nine, where are they? Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

One of the main causes for ingratitude is deliberate and willful forgetfulness. Ancient Israel’s calendar included several annual festivals to remind the Israelites of God’s acts of deliverance and provision so that they would renew their sense of gratitude and reliance upon God.

In spite of this Israelites forgot: “Nevertheless they were disobedient and rebelled against you” (Neh. 9.26); “Our ancestors when they were in Egypt did not consider your wonderful works; they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love … But they soon forgot his works” (Ps. 106. 7, 13). Prophet Hosea captured the essence of this decline into ingratitude: “When I fed them, they were satisfied; they were satisfied and their heart was proud; therefore they forgot me” (Hos. 13.6).

Os Guinness says, “Rebellion against God does not begin with the clenched fist of atheism but with the self-satisfied heart of the one for whom ‘thank you’ is redundant.”

Centuries earlier, Moses warned the children of Israel that they would be tempted to forget the Lord once they began to enjoy the blessings of the promised land: “When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” (Deut. 8.12-14, 17). The antidote to this spiritual poison is: “But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gave you power to get wealth” (Deut. 8.18).

Even as believers in God, we tend to overlook the fact that all that we are and have – our health, our intelligence, our abilities, our very lives, our families – are gifts from God, and not our own creation.

Forgetfulness leads to ingratitude. We tend towards two extremes when we forget to remember God’s acts of grace and kindness in our lives. The first extreme is presumption: when things are going “our way”, we may forget God or acknowledge him in a shallow or mechanical manner. The other extreme is bitterness and resentment due to difficult circumstances. When we suffer setbacks and losses, we wonder why we are not doing as well as others and develop a mindset of murmuring and complaining.

Most of us are awful at acknowledging and showing appreciation for the goodness done to us. A young man with a bandaged hand approached the clerk at the post office, and asked, “Sir, could you please address this postcard for me?” The clerk did so gladly, and then agreed to write a message on the card. He then asked, “Is there anything else I can do for you?” The young man looked at the card for a moment and then said, “Yes, add a PS: ‘Please excuse the handwriting!’” The disposition of the young man is not on the help that the clerk extended graciously, but on the bad handwriting of the clerk!

Gratitude is a knowing awareness that we are recipients of goodness. It combats discontentment because gratitude takes our focus off what we don’t have and onto what we have. It grows contentment in us. Therefore, gratitude and contentment go hand in hand. Cicero, Roman philosopher, says, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.”

Gratitude is a conscious and willful choice or decision, not merely a feeling. It is not a result of our circumstances. Gratitude causes us to focus on the good things we already have regardless of our present circumstances. That’s why Paul says, “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (I Thes. 6.16-18). The more we live in the discipline of conscious thanksgiving, the more natural it becomes, and the more our eyes are opened to the little things that we have received.

Gratitude requires humility. It requires us to admit we have been the recipient of goodness we don’t deserve. Gratitude broadens our perspective so we can see the source of the good things we have. Whether we are thanking our parent, spouse, teacher, friend, or a mentor who has invested into our lives, our response of gratitude to their action gives the praise to the one who rightly deserves it.

Studies show that there is a correlation between gratitude, physical health and contentment. Grateful people report increased wellbeing, better health, healthier lifestyles, increased optimism, and a more positive outlook on life. Additionally, those who display a high level of gratitude are much more likely to have below average levels of materialism.

The fruits of gratitude are:

  • Lower stress
  • Stronger immune system
  • Improved cardiovascular function
  • Increased energy
  • Less likelihood of depression
  • Deeper sleep
  • Stronger relationships
  • Deeper sense of purpose
  • Better coping strategies

Thus, gratitude is the very thing that makes life at the same time both livable and delightful. “Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home and a stranger into a friend.”

  1. Generosity

Generosity is a sign of being content. In other words, the secret of contentment is revealed in generosity. Because contentment makes the poor man rich and discontentment makes the rich man poor (Prov. 11.24-25). When we give our time, our energy and our resources to help others, it has a way of adjusting our priorities and reminding us how blessed we are. It also gives peace, joy and satisfaction.

  1. Trust in God

Contentment is an outworking of our faith in God. The closer our relationship with God is, the more we will trust him and the less we will be bothered by the circumstances of life. We rest in his power and sufficiency. That’s why Paul says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4.13). The writer of Hebrews instructs, “Be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you. So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid” (Heb. 13.5-6).

  1. Want Vs Need

One should contemplate on the difference between a want and a need. A want is usually based on fantasy. It’s usually something we don’t have and we think that when we get it we will be happy. Wanting something leads to never feeling satisfied because the mind is very creative thing, easily persuaded by the latest trends and always dreaming up more and more things to want. This means we rarely get the chance to fully enjoy what we already have!

A need, on the other hand, is more practical and has to do with the basics – either physical, emotional, mental or spiritual. One may want the “perfect boyfriend”, but what she may need is affection, support and some enjoyment. There is nothing wrong to have dreams, but dreams take time to attain, may be a lifetime, while getting our needs met can happen quickly – if we can identify what they are and if we have the courage to ask!

Charles Spurgeon said, “A man’s contentment is in his mind, not in the extent of his possessions.” The secret of contentment is not about HAVING, it’s about BEING. Contentment is found when my mind and heart are centered on God.