Contentment in Christ, Not Settling for Less

I have often heard Christians say that we ought to be content in Christ, and not ask for anything outside of Christ.  I think they are on to something important, but I worry that they might be misunderstood.  Yes, Paul “learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Phil. 4:12), and the letter to the Hebrews commands, “be content with what you have,” linking that to God’s presence: “because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you'” (Heb. 13:5).  But if this is the case, why do some people hear “you should be content in Christ” as a disappointment?

We must accurately diagnose the issue.  If someone believes in Jesus, yet does not find their full contentment in him, I do not think it means that they don’t want what Jesus provides.  It usually means, I suspect, that they have too narrow a notion of what Jesus provides.  They might think to themselves, “I’m glad I have Jesus – he has forgiven my sins!  But how am I going to provide for my kids?”  Or “I’m grateful for eternal life; it’s just this life that makes me anxious.”  The problem here is not that they are trying to earn special spiritual status or accomplish their own salvation, apart from Jesus.  The problem for these people is that they do not realize that Jesus cares as much about the here and now as about the forever and ever amen.

If someone believes that Jesus is good “only” for forgiveness or a get-out-of-hell free card, when they hear, “Be content in Christ,” they think that the church cannot help them in this life.  With such a limited view of Christ, the command to be content sounds like a lack of care for practical concerns.  But the Bible does not command us to ignore practical concerns!  Indeed, James chides those who say, “Be warm and well fed,” without providing the physical resources to accomplish those (Jam. 2:16).  Jesus cared so much about physical needs that he had compassion on hungry people and provided them with food (Matthew 14:31-21; 15:32-38).  He provided physical healing to many people, not just forgiveness of sins.  The Lord said of his sheep, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).  (Many prosperity gospel preachers distort this passage, of course.  But Jesus said it, and even those of us who reject the prosperity gospel must come to terms with it.)  The fact of the matter is that salvation is more than (but not less than!) forgiveness and a reserved spot in heaven, and our Savior is so much bigger than “the afterlife.”  He cares about everything that is good for us, and he provides for us in every aspect of our lives.  Jesus Christ is bigger and better than our puny images of him.

It is true of course that he allows us to experience hardship, and in some cases severe deprivation or intense suffering, even death.  (This is where prosperity preaching goes off the rails…)  There are occasions when we keep praying – maybe for years! – for a job, for restoration in a relationship, or for physical healing, and sometimes he chooses not to provide, not to comfort, not to heal.  But we can be sure that those situations are not because he doesn’t care, or doesn’t know about the situation, or that they are outside his power or outside his jurisdiction.  His reasons and motives in such cases are almost always obscure to us, but his character is clear.  “The Lord is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his deeds” (Psalm 145:17).

A duty to be content in Christ does not sound like good news; it may even suggest that you might have wanted more than Christ provides.  The good news is that Christ is so much better than you think, and if you only knew how great he is, then no reasonable person could want more than Christ.  There is nothing greater than Christ to want!  He provides us with everything: God “has blessed in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3).  God “placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church” (Eph. 1:22).  “For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Col. 1:13).  In Christ “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).  “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9).  Paul even wrote, “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:32).  God is not some heavenly vending machine that we might get to work if we can find the right coin – that’s prosperity preaching.  God is far better than that – he is the Lord of the Universe, who loves you more than you can imagine, who loves you so much that he has already provided (at considerable cost to himself) for your eternal needs, to transform your present messed-up state into joy forever with him.  When Christians say we are “content” with Christ, it is not that we have “settled” for him and given up wanting other things; it is that we have found everything we desire in him, the Giver of all good things.  It is not that we “ought to” be content in him, whether we want to or not; it is that being discontent with the abundantly generous Lord of the Universe is just crazy talk.  We can be content with what we have, because we know that in Christ we have everything, not just for now, but forever.  To him be the glory for his marvelous grace and astounding generosity, now and forever.

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2 comments

  1. Brother Theophiletos, you know from past exchanges that I am not a fan of using feelings as indicative of any spiritual state. Feeling contentment, as if I should feel contented, is so bogus. Accepting contentment as a posture of reliance on the totality of the Lords substitutionary propitiation is not a feeling at all. It is an intentional expression.
    I am curious what clarity might be offered in looking at the Greek for the word contentment. What I am wondering is whether or not contentment has a significant cultural bias. In other words, contentment for the original reader of the Apostle’s dispatch and a contemporary (perhaps Buddhist) meaning are not aligned.

    1. Brother Dana, I appreciate your trouble-making.

      I usually find the English translations good. The verb most commonly translated “to be content” is the passive of ἀρκέω, which by the relevant period often means “to be strong enough, to suffice” in the active voice, and in the passive means “to be satisfied with” (according to Liddell & Scott). “Contentment” in Timothy 6:6 is the related αὐταρκεία (with the adjective version found at Philippians 4:11), often considered “self-sufficiency.” NIV supplies the word “being content” in Philippians 4:12 from the context; no such word occurs there itself.

      In writing this post, I was actually struck at how rarely the notion of “contentment” occurs in the New Testament.

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