What Contentment Means After Losing Nearly Everything

I crave contentment. I’d love to nestle into a hammock of comfort, secure in the knowledge that I have everything I could ever need.

But we live in a consumer-driven culture that tells us there’s always one more thing to want, and hungry, restless souls that whisper to us that contentment is something we can master…or, at the least, something we might eventually acquire or earn.

I’ve spent more than four decades in suburban churches where I hear the word “contentment” used as sort of a mark of sacrifice in responding to consumer wish lists: “I wanted to remodel my kitchen, but God is helping me learn to be content with a new glass tile backsplash instead.” We drain contentment of its meaning when we treat it as though it is a consolation prize or a place-holder for the thing we really want. Contentment is not about settling for a less-fancy version of something we’ve seen advertised on basic cable.

What does contentment mean in the Bible?

1 Timothy 6:6 tells us, “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” I suspect Paul, who penned these words to his young protégé Timothy, would be very confused by the way in which we Christians often use the word “contentment.” The Greek word for contentment in this verse is autarkeia, and it means that a person is resting in a place of safety and security in their lives. The context for this verse is a discussion of the greed of false teachers and the lure of our own acquisitive desires. Godly contentment says “enough” instead of spouting Christianized versions of “I want more.” I appreciate the irony of Paul saying that godly contentment is the only “more” for which we should be aiming.

“I don’t have contentment all figured out.”

I don’t have contentment all figured out. When we lost our home to a short sale in 2012, the bank gave us ten days’ notice to vacate our property. At the time, I thanked God for his nearness during the tumultuous and uncertain months as we waited for a decision from the bank about what would happen to our home, and for his good gifts of family, friends, and a more-than-adequate rental roof over our heads. But I also grieved the hit we took to our finances, our sense of security as we were rapidly approaching retirement age, and having to say goodbye to our slim slice of the American Dream of home ownership.

“I began to discover that contentment had little to do with my emotions…”

A deeper understanding of what contentment really meant began to be revealed in the midst of never-unpacked boxes of books (because why unpack them when I’m just going to have to box them up and move again in a year or two?) and curtains pinned instead of hemmed (because why hem them when they might not fit the windows in the next place we may live?). Until then, I’d always thought of contentment as a description of an uber-calm emotional state, something like the tryptophan-fueled satiation that follows a Thanksgiving dinner.

I began to discover that contentment had little to do with my emotions, but instead with choice. When Paul was commending his friends in Philippi for their concern for him, he assured them he was more than fine no matter what his circumstances were: “…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:11-13)

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SOURCE: Crosswalk, Michelle Van Loon