Paradox is an interesting word. It refers to a statement that seems contradictory, unbelievable or absurd, but is actually true in fact. The Bible teaches we are to be content and discontent at the same time. We are imperfect and sinful but at the same time perfect and sinless. How can we be in two opposite, diametrically opposed conditions at the same time? This condition would appear to be absurd and unbelievable, yet we know God’s Word is infallible with no contradictions. Therein lays the Paradox of Contentment for the Christian.
We will begin our study of this subject in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. This writing differs from his others in that there is less logic and more from his heart. It is an outpouring of love from the founder of the first church on European soil towards one of the most affectionate, faithful and unselfish congregations he established. Paul wrote this letter from Rome toward the end of his first stay there around 63 A.D., shortly after a member of the Philippian church had returned from bringing provisions to him. The primary text for our study is taken from Chapter 4:10-13 “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
As stated in the last verse, we know that the previously mentioned conditions are possible, but what did Paul mean by being both full and hungry, both abounding and suffering? This is the Paradox of Contentment. Contentment can be a great virtue AND a great vice. We are living in a world of anxiety, worry and frustration. A large percentage of hospital beds are occupied by people with emotional and mental disturbances. Drugs are prescribed by the millions in an attempt to alleviate these problems. Christians have the blessing of a natural contentment based on the teaching of the Bible.
But on the other hand we are also living in a world of apathy, indifference and unconcern. We hear on every hand, “so what”, “who cares”, or “I don’t want to get involved.” We often read about crimes being committed while people stand around and watch. There is a wholesome DIScontent we need to learn. The problem is simple, we are content when we ought be discontent and vice versa.
Let’s first look at the realm of contentment. What does the word actually mean? It is NOT satisfaction in the sense that satisfaction is the state of having ones desires FULLY appeased. This would be a person who has everything. The rich person may not have their health, the handsome or beautiful person may not have intelligence or someone may be rich and attractive but not have a happy home life. Satisfaction is at best only relative.
Neither is contentment the suppression of desire for better things. Paul, as a Roman prisoner, desired to live in a rented house. This was much better than a prison and since he was able to afford it, he chose to live there, but we know from verse eleven he would have been content in prison. There is nothing wrong with desiring better things as long as we are content until we achieve those things and do not let our desires create anxiety and frustration which often leads to trouble.
Contentment is not stoicism. Paul encountered Stoics in Athens and they were part of the reason he had little success there. This philosophy is based on a fatalistic outlook on life and the principle or practice of showing indifference to pleasure or pain. Christianity is not and was never meant to be stoic. Paul instructs the Romans in Chapter 12:15 to “rejoice with those that rejoice and weep with those who weep.” Religion is by nature emotional. If we are to be truly committed to Christ, we must give ourselves to Him completely: physically, spiritually and emotionally. Paul exhorts the Philippians in Chapter 4:4 to “rejoice in the Lord always; and again I say rejoice.” There was a country song out many years ago entitled “You can’t be a beacon if your light don’t shine.” How can we lead people away from the world’s pleasures if we don’t continually express our joy in Christ? Stoicism is NOT contentment.
Contentment IS submission to life’s unpredictable changes, good or bad, without anxiety, in the belief there is a heavenly Father who knows our needs and supplies them. Contentment is defined as the state of not being disquieted or disturbed by desire, even though not every wish is gratified.
The Scriptures emphasize contentment. John the Baptist, in Luke Chapter three, exhorts the man with two coats to give one away and to be content with one; the publicans to be content with collecting ONLY the amount expected by Rome; and the Roman soldiers to be content with their wages. Paul instructed Timothy to be content with material things in First Timothy Chapter 6:6-12 “But godliness with contentment is great gain, 7 for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. 8 But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. 9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs11 But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. 12 Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” The Psalmist writes in Psalms Chapter 37:16, “Better is the little that the righteous has than the abundance of many wicked.17For the arms of the wicked shall be broken, but the Lord upholds the righteous.”
By necessity we must learn contentment. We are not born with it; it is not bestowed upon us by another; it cannot be bought; it must be learned. We can look to Paul as a source of contentment. He learned the truth regarding contentment through the teachings of Jesus Christ. We read in Luke 9:57-58, “As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” He learned the precepts of Christ as stated in Matthew 6:25-34 “25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.34 “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble”
In other words we must establish our priorities, realizing that God knows our needs, and we must be content with the fact that He will supply those needs.
Lastly Paul learned the promises of Christ mentioned in Matthew 7:7-11 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 9 Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” How long will these promises last? That question is answered in Matthew 28:20 “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Paul applied these truths regarding contentment in his ministry. Second Corinthians 11:23-27, “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death. 24 Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. 25 Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; 26 on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; 27 in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.”
Now as he writes the Philippians he is an aged minister, unjustly confined. What Christian has suffered more for the cause of Christ than Paul? What was the meaning of Paul’s contentment? It can be found throughout the Philippian letter. The theme is “I rejoice – you rejoice!” Some twenty times within this letter are found such words as “joy, rejoice, thanksgiving, contentment and peace.”
Due to the Paradox of Contentment, we will now look into the realm of Christian discontentment. For Christians contentment can often be a vice and NOT a virtue. To be content with one’s lot in life is to be desired; to be content with one’s self in life is be abhorred. Paul wrote in Philippians 3:12-14, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”
God expects us to grow in Christ, Ephesians 4:10-13, “He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” If we lose our zeal, if we lose our fire for the Lord, what can we expect in return? That question is answered in Revelation 3:15-16, “I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”
We must not be content with our spiritual lot in life. We cannot allow ourselves to fall into the category of the Christians chastised by the Hebrew writer in Chapter 5:12-14, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, 13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. 14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” Spiritual progress is dependent on being discontent. In looking at ourselves in the mirror of God’s Word we ought to be disturbed; moved to grow in knowledge, spirituality and good works; toward a more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.
It is also a sin to be content with the suffering of others. Everywhere around us are the downtrodden, widows, orphans and the hungry. It was reported some years ago that in the United States our garbage disposals eat better than 25% of the world’s population! We must be moved to assist them. James talks of this in Chapter 2:15-16, “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” James defines pure religion in Chapter 1:27, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Christ was not content to see men suffering; He was moved with compassion to help blind men, lepers, widows and the multitudes.
It is of primary importance to be discontent with the ignorance of others. As we see a crowd in the street or at a sporting event what should we think about? We should reflect on the fact that one day every one of them will meet Christ at the Judgement. As we see them in their ignorance of Christ and the Gospel we ought to be disturbed-moved to somehow tell them of salvation in Christ. As Paul saw the world in sin and darkness, he was moved to be a soul winner; Romans 1:13-16, “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. 14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. 15 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
I am reminded of a phrase used by Jay Young, who said, “Those churches that don’t evangelize will fossilize.” We cannot be content until every soul has heard the message of salvation. For a congregation that is pleasing to God there can be no contentment with the number of members, empty seats at worship, knowledge of God’s Word, interest in one another or monetary, physical and emotional giving. A congregation must be discontent, disturbed – moved to greater evangelism, attendance, study, fellowship and liberality.
Paul compared his life as a Christian to a fight and a race. He strove to be content with his lot in life but never his self in life. No one ever said being a Christian was going to be easy. God expects us to “work out our own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12)There will be times of joy and times of sorrow, but the rewards for a faithful life in Christ are “out of this world.” We need to pray, “Lord help us to be content with the material and unimportant things and discontent with the spiritual and really important things.”
The Paradox is this: maintaining our equilibrium yet turning the world upside down; being unconcerned, yet concerned; being immovable, yet moved to do greater things for Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:58, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”