One of the most precious (and curious) statements in all of Scripture is Paul’s words in Philippians 4:12: “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.”
It’s hard to read this verse without some degree of intrigue. Content? In any and every situation? And he wrote this while he was unmarried, imprisoned (unjustly), constantly persecuted, actively misrepresented with ill intent, and relentlessly tempted to live in regret for his grievous past? We rightly marvel at Paul’s statement. But one word in this famous verse is often overlooked—the third one. Did you notice it?
Paul says, “I have learned the secret of being content…”
This one word is enough to provide mountains of hope for every reader, reminding us that our past mistakes, present difficulties, and unknown futures do not consign us to a life of discontent. According to this verse, contentment is not something one naturally has (or doesn’t have); it’s something she learns. Yes, contentment is a rare jewel, but it is a rare jewel that any Christian can experience—especially if we rid our lives of known killers of contentment. Consider five “C’s” from the book of Philippians.
Contentment Killer #1: Comparing
Philippians 1:15-18: “Some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry … supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that … Christ is preached. And because of this, I rejoice.”
Likely the number one killer of contentment—and perhaps the most subtle—is comparison. This was true back in Paul’s day and it’s arguably even more the case today in our social media-driven culture. Before you even get out of bed in the morning, you can—with a few effortless scrolls—begin comparing your “boring” life to the best moments of others’ physical appearance, success, marriage, kids, experiences, career, and possessions. Nothing like a cold shot of inadequacy to go with your morning brew.
In one sense, the pressure to measure up has never been higher. Moms can’t just be moms anymore—you must now be a mom with a niche if you want to keep up with all the Instagram moms who are (seemingly) crushing it while also contributing to society. Artists can’t just be artists anymore—if you hope to ever be noticed, you better have a unique and growing platform from an early age. We used to be evaluated against those in our localized social circles (which was enough pressure by itself!). Now we are evaluated against the world’s most gifted YouTubers, funniest TikTokers, best-looking Instagrammers, most inspiring influencers, most eloquent bloggers, most romantic couples, most all-together moms, most creative artists, most successful entrepreneurs, most enviable homeowners, most intelligent pastors, most affluent businessmen and businesswomen. Good luck measuring up to that.
Beyond this, the expected age to “be something” has quickly and drastically plummeted. At a rate unknown to previous generations, middle schoolers and high schoolers are now walking into classrooms with “celebrity peers”—some with followings of hundreds of thousands or even millions. The pressure to create yourself—which in decades past intensified around the age that one had to declare a major in college—is now being placed on the shoulders of kids not even old enough to drive.
One of the net results of all of this is a widespread, suffocating flood of comparison—quickly turning companions into competition and wreaking havoc on our contentment.
How can we escape the trap of comparison?
How did Paul sidestep this contentment-killing “envy and rivalry” (1:15)? According to his letter to the Philippians, he did it by keeping the gospel (1:18)—and Christ himself (1:21)—at the center of his life. He renewed his mind daily in prayer and God’s Word (1:3-4; Romans 12:2; Colossians 3:16) and kept his focus on the mission and prize of Christ (1:21-26; 3:8-11; 3:13-14).
What was the fruit of Paul’s Christ-centered, gospel-driven mindset? It turned the successes of others into fuel for his joy instead of fuel for his jealousy (1:17-18). It multiplied his thankfulness (1:3), hope (1:20a), courage (1:20b), peace (4:7-9), praise (1:4; 1:18; 4:4), affection and love (1:8-9). It assured him that both life and death are gain for the Christian (1:21).
Keeping our minds fixed on the gospel of Christ—and on Christ himself—is the surest remedy to contentment-killing comparison (4:8-9; 4:12-13, especially v. 13).
Contentment Killer #2: Complaining
Philippians 2:14: “Do everything without grumbling or [complaining].” (cf. ESV, NKJV)
Philippians 4:6: “In every situation … with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
There is an important difference between grieving and grumbling. The Bible calls us to grieve. It forbids us to grumble. Both are responses to pain and expressions of dissatisfaction—but one can coincide with (and even produce) contentment, whereas the other destroys it. How can we tell the difference between grieving (healthy) and grumbling (unhealthy)?
Perhaps the quickest way to distinguish the two is with this simple test: Is my expression of hurt and dissatisfaction drawing me closer to God or pushing me away from him? Grief asks (honestly), “God, where are you in this?” Grumbling (functionally) declares, “God has left me,” or, “God is not good.” The grieving person acknowledges the felt gap between her present pain and her belief that God is good, present, and all-powerful. She asks God, “How can these two be reconciled?” Grumbling doesn’t even try to put the two together.
Another distinguishing mark between grumbling and grieving is where it leads. Grumbling culminates in despair (1 Corinthians 10:10); godly grief culminates in hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). The grieving Christian rightly acknowledges that her pain is real and worthy of lament—but she also acknowledges that God will make things right, even if she can’t see how yet. And she longs deeply for this promised redemption (Philippians 1:23; Romans 8:20-24).
One of the biggest misconceptions about contentment is that true contentment is the absence of longing. The book of Philippians blows this idea out of the water. In the same letter that Paul says that he has learned the secret to being content in every situation (4:11-13), he also says that he longs to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far (1:23). As my friend Andrew Micah wisely put it, “Contentment is not the absence of longing; it is trusting God in the midst of our longings and setting them in the context of his larger story.”
What can we do when we’ve fallen into the trap of chronic grumbling? Three of the surest remedies are daily repentance (Romans 2:4; 1 John 1:9); gratitude (4:6), and gazing at Christ and his promises (1:21; 3:8-14; 3:20-21). For more on the topic of grumbling, see chapter 9 of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.
Contentment Killer #3: Contorting (or crushing)
Philippians 3:18-20: “Many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven—and we eagerly await a Savior from there: The Lord Jesus Christ…”
Contorting happens whenever we put pressure onto an object to be something that it wasn’t designed to be or do something it wasn’t designed to do. Every time we look to a gift of God (a creation) to do something that only God (the Creator) can do, it inevitably ruins the gift and kills our contentment.
We could just as easily refer to this contentment killer as “crushing.” Any time we squeeze onto a gift of God and say, “Be God for me! Save me!” It will always break the gift. It is akin to squeezing an ornament with the amount of pressure that only a baseball could withstand—it will always shatter. No created thing can withstand the pressure of being one’s savior.
Here’s the good news: While everything in this world shatters and breaks when we put pressure on it to be our savior, Jesus does not. You cannot possibly cling to Jesus too tightly or ask too much of him. Hebrews 1:3 says that Jesus sustains the entire universe by his word—meaning he is strong enough to sustain you, save you, and carry the heaviest of your burdens.
Contentment Killer #4: Complacency (and perfectionism)
Philippians 3:12-14: “[Not] that I have already reached perfection, but I press on to possess that perfection for which Christ Jesus first possessed me. No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.”
Someone once said to me, “I will never stop growing—I refuse to be content!” He went on to express his concern that contentment would hinder his growth. While I admired his desire to grow, he was confusing contentment with complacency—and there is a huge difference. Complacency involves stagnancy; contentment does not. (We might say that complacency is stagnancy without fulfillment, whereas contentment is fulfillment without stagnancy.)
When it comes to spiritual growth, we most often fall into one of two ditches: complacency or perfectionism. We either abuse the grace of God through complacency, or we distrust the grace of God through perfectionism. Both are equally dangerous. Complacency whispers to the Christian, “You’re good enough—why even try?” Perfectionism whispers to the Christian, “You’ll never be good enough—why even try?” Both ditches not only prevent us from growth but also destroy our contentment: Complacency strips us of the joy of sanctification (growing in Christ); perfectionism strips us of the joy of justification (being secure in Christ).
What can keep us from falling into these ditches? According to Philippians 3:12-14, we must press on in sanctification while simultaneously clinging on to the perfection of Jesus for our justification. We must never stop working to grow in practical righteousness (1:27; 2:12), but we must also never stop resting in Christ’s righteousness for our salvation (2:13; 3:9).
Contentment Killer #5: Conceit (and entitlement)
Philippians 2:3-11: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves … Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage—rather, he made himself nothing … [and] humbled himself by becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross!”
Similar to grumbling, entitlement is a surefire way to kill contentment. Contentment says, “I have more than I deserve.” Entitlement says, “I deserve more than I have.” You cannot possibly have an entitled heart while also having a contented heart—this is a contradiction in terms.
What relief is available to the person wrestling with entitlement? The Holy Spirit tells us in Philippians 2:3-11: Fix your gaze on the only person who actually deserved to be entitled—Jesus Christ! Jesus was with God—with every right and reason to hold on to the comforts and riches of heaven—but instead of using his riches to his own advantage, Jesus left his Father’s throne above and gave up his riches so that we through his poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Whenever entitlement (or any other contentment killer) threatens to suffocate our spiritual life, Christ is our oxygen (4:13). So let’s breathe in the gospel today and keep our gazed fixed on our Savior—who humbled himself to the point of death, in order that we may have life.
Read “Four Burdens Jesus Never Asked You to Carry” here.
Read “Three Ways to Glorify God in Worry and Anxiety” here.
Read “An Answer to Prayer Even Better Than Clarity” here.
Listen to “And Can It Be?” (Enfield) here.
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