Finding joy even when times are tough.
Would you consider yourself a happy and contented person? Or, do you think happiness and contentment are things you could only attain if you were just a little bit smarter or better looking or had more money?
Research has shown that acquiring more materially will not bring happiness or contentment. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who did a study on what brings people contentment, said:
“If people strive for a certain level of affluence thinking it will make them happy, they find that on reaching it, they become very quickly habituated, and at that point they start hankering for the next level of income, property or good health. … Studies have confirmed that goals keep getting pushed upward as soon as a lower level is reached.”
So, what does it take to find happiness and contentment? The apostle Paul gives us the answer in his letter to the Christians in Philippi. In fact, the theme of the New Testament book of Philippians is joy.
However, the joy Paul was speaking of isn’t the same as happiness, because happiness ebbs and flows, depending on what we’re experiencing in life. If good things are happening, we can be relatively happy. And if things are not going well, then we’re unhappy.
In contrast, the joy of the Lord can be at the forefront of our lives, regardless of our circumstances.
Joy in Tough Places
What amazes me is that Paul is writing about joy, but in many ways he had nothing to be joyful about. Circumstantially, he was in a very difficult situation. He was a Roman prisoner, and his case was coming up shortly. He could be acquitted, or he could be beheaded.
To make matters worse, there was some division in the church concerning Paul. Some people were for Paul, while others were against him. Yet in this epistle Paul wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4).
So what was secret of Paul’s joy? We find it in the word “mind.” Paul used “mind” 10 times in Philippians. He was saying the secret of Christian joy, the secret of contentment, is found in the way that we think—our outlook, our attitude.
Now, Paul wasn’t offering some shallow, self-help philosophy or suggesting a mind-over-matter way of thinking. Rather, he was saying that we need to learn how to think rightly about life and about God.
Paul was single-minded. He said, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil. 1:21). He had a clear objective in life, and that was to live for Christ.
Striving for Growth
Paul also had the mind of spiritual growth and progression. In chapter 3 he wrote, “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” (vv. 13–14). He was saying, “I want to keep growing.”
Too often we think we’ll find contentment from different circumstances in our lives. The assumption is that if we had a bigger home or a nicer car or a higher salary or a new spouse or a new face or a new body, then we’d be content. But Paul was saying that real contentment comes from the state of the heart.
Then in chapter 4 he said:
“Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.” —vv. 11–13
Remember, Paul was in prison when he wrote these words. Yet he was saying, “I have learned the secret of living in every situation.” Notice he used an important word: learned. Contentment doesn’t come naturally to us. We need to learn how to be content, because we’re naturally discontented.
We’re also naturally selfish. No one needs to teach selfishness. You don’t have to teach children to say, “Mine!” It comes naturally to them.
The Secret to Contentment
Paul also used the word “secret,” which, in the original language, is an unexpected word. The pagans of that day used it to speak of having obtained something or having been initiated into some secret truth.
So, Paul was saying, “I’ve been initiated. I’ve found the secret. I know the secret to contentment.”
Paul’s contentment did not come from what he had; it came from the One he knew. Paul knew that regardless of his circumstances, the Lord was with him. And notice that he went on to say, “For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength” (v. 13).
No other word or name fits the statement “I can do all things through … who gives me strength.” We can’t say, “I can do all things through alcohol and drugs that give me strength.” Drugs and alcohol don’t solve problems; they only exacerbate them and create altogether new ones.
Nor can we say, “I can do all things through money that gives me strength,” “I can do all things through friends and family that give me strength,” or “I can do all things through politics that give me strength.”
Writing to Timothy, Paul said:
“Yet true godliness with contentment is itself great wealth. After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content.” —1 Timothy 6:6–8
Contentment is not the fulfillment of what we want, but the realization of how much we already have. Contentment is understanding that if we’re not satisfied with what we have, then we never will be satisfied with what we want.