Can We Learn to Be Contented?
J. R. Miller
Someone has said that if men were to be saved by contentment, instead of by faith in Christ, most people would be lost. Yet contentment is possible. There was one man at least who said, and said it very honestly, "I have learned in whatever state I am, therein to be content." His words have special value, too, when we remember in what circumstances they were written. They were dated in a prison, when the writer was wearing a chain. It is easy enough to say such things in the summer days of prosperity—but to say them amid trials and adversities, requires a real experience of victorious living.
But just what did Paul mean when he said, "I am content"? The original word, scholars tell us, contains a fine sense which does not come out into the English translation. It means self-sufficing. Paul, as a Christian man, had in himself all that he needed to give him tranquility and peace. Therefore he was not dependent upon any external circumstances. Wherever he went, there was in himself a competence, a fountain of supply, a self-sufficing. This is the true secret of Christian contentment wherever it is found. We cannot keep sickness, pain, sorrow, and misfortune away from our lives—yet as Christians we are meant to live in any experience in unbroken peace, in sweet restfulness of soul.
How may this unbroken contentment be obtained? Paul's description of his own life, gives us a hint as to the way he reached it. He says, "I have learned to be content." It is no small comfort to us common people, to get this from such a man. It tells us that even with him, it was not always thus; that at first he probably chafed amid discomforts, and had to "learn" to be contented in trial. It did not come naturally to him, any more than it does to the rest of us, to have peace in the heart, in time of external strife. Nor did this beautiful way of living come to him at once as a divine gift when he became a Christian. He was not miraculously helped to acquire contentment. It was not a special power granted to him as an apostle.
He tells us plainly in his old age, that he has "learned" it. This means that he was not always able to say, "I am content in any state." This was an attainment of his later years, and he reached it by struggle and by discipline, by learning in the school of Christ, just as all of us have to learn it if we ever do, and as any of us may learn it if we will.
Surely everyone who desires to grow into spiritual beauty, should seek to learn this lesson. Discontent is a miserable fault. It grieves God, for it springs from a lack of faith in him. It destroys one's own heart-peace; discontented people are always unhappy. It disfigures beauty of character. It sours the temper, ruffles the calm of sweet life, and tarnishes the loveliness of the spirit. It even works out through the flesh, and spoils the beauty of the fairest face. To have a transfigured face, one must have heaven in one's heart. Just in proportion as the lesson is learned, are the features brightened by the outshining of the indwelling peace. Besides all this, discontent casts shadows on the lives of others. One discontented person in a family, often makes a whole household wretched. If not for our own sake, then, we ought at least for the sake of our friends to learn to be contented. We have no right to cast shadows on other lives.
But how can we learn contentment? One step toward it is patient submission to unavoidable ills and hardships. No earthly lot is perfect. No mortal in this world, ever yet found a set of circumstances without some drawback. Sometimes it lies in our power to remove the discomfort. Much of our hardship is of our own making. Much of it would require but a little energy on our own part to cure. We surely are very foolish if we live on amid ills and frets, day after day, which we might change for comforts if we would. All removable troubles we ought, therefore, to remove. But there are trials which we cannot change into pleasures, burdens which we cannot lay off, crosses which we must continue to carry, and "thorns in the flesh" which must remain with their rankling. When we have such trials, why should we not sweetly accept them as part of God's best way with us? Discontent never made a rough path smoother, a heavy burden lighter, a bitter cup less bitter, a dark way brighter, a sorrow less sore. It only makes matters worse. One who accepts with patience what he cannot change, has learned the secret of victorious living.
Another part of the lesson is that we moderate our desires. Paul says, "If we have food and clothing—we will be content with these." 1 Timothy 6:8. Very much of our discontent arises from envy of those who seem to be more favored than ourselves. Many people lose most of the comfort out of their own lot, in coveting the finer things some neighbor has. Yet if they knew the whole story of the life they envy for its greater prosperity, they probably would not exchange for it their own lowlier life, with its homelier circumstances. Or if they could make the exchange, it is not likely they would find half so much real happiness in the other position, as they had enjoyed in their own. Contentment does not dwell so often in palaces—as in the homes of the humble. The tall peaks rise higher and are more conspicuous—but the winds smite them more fiercely than they do the quiet vales. And surely the lot in life which God makes for us—is always the very best that could be made for us for the time being. The cause of our discontent is not in our circumstances; if it were, a change might cure it. It is in ourselves; and, wherever we go, we shall carry it with us.
Envious desires for other people's places which seem finer than ours, prevent our getting the best blessing and good out of our own. Trying to grasp the things which are beyond our reach, we leave unseen, unappreciated, untouched, and despised, the many sweet bits of happiness which lie close about us. Someone says: "Stretching out his hand to catch the stars, man forgets the flowers at his feet, so beautiful, so fragrant, so multitudinous, and so various." A fine secret of contentment lies in finding and extracting all the pleasure we can get from the things we have, while we enter no mad, vain chase after impossible dreams. In whatever state we are, we may therein find enough for our need.
If we would learn the lesson of contentment, we must train ourselves to live for the higher things. One of the ancient wise men, having heard that a storm had destroyed his merchant ships, thus sweeping away all his fortune, said: "It is just as well, for now I can give up my mind more fully to study." He had other and higher sources of enjoyment, than his merchandise, and felt the loss of his ships no more than manhood feels the loss of childhood's toys. He was but a heathen philosopher; we are Christians. He had only his studies to occupy his thought when his property was gone; and we have all the blessed things of God's love. No earthly misfortune can touch the wealth a Christian holds in the divine promises and hopes.
Just in the measure, therefore, in which we learn to live for spiritual and eternal realities—do we find contentment amid earth's trials and losses. If we live to please God, to build up Christlike character in ourselves, and to lay up treasure in heaven—we shall not depend for happiness on the way things go with us here on earth, nor on the measure of temporal goods we have. The lower desires are crowded out by the higher. We can do without childhood's toys when we have manhood's better possessions; we need this world less as we get more of God and heaven into our hearts.
This was the secret of the contentment of the old prisoner whose immortal word is so well worth considering. He was content in any trial, because earth meant so little and Christ meant so much to him. He did not need the things he did not have; he was not made poor by the things he had lost; he was not vexed by the sufferings he had to endure, because the sources of his life were in heaven, and could not be touched by earthly experiences of pain or loss.
These are hints of the way we may learn in whatever state we are therein to be content. Surely the lesson is worth learning. One year of sweet content, amid earth's troublous scenes, is better than a lifetime of vexed, restless discontent. The lesson can be learned, too, by anyone who truly is Christ's disciple, for did not the Master say: "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give unto you"?
The artist painted life as a dark, storm-swept sea filled with wrecks. Then out on the wild sea-waves, he made a rock to arise, in a cleft of which, high up, amid herbage and flowers, he painted a dove sitting quietly on her nest. It is a picture of Christian peace in the midst of this world's strifes and storms. In the cleft of the rock is the home of content.