The Grace of Contentment
Reformed Free Publishing Association
This blog post content is taken from Communion with God chapter 21 written by Herman Hoeksema.
“For I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.”—Philippians 4:11
I rejoiced in the Lord.
Because now at the last your care of me has flourished again.
Thus the apostle had written to his beloved Philippians, referring to the gift they had sent him by Epaphroditus.
Yet so imperfect are our words as vehicles of the exact sentiment we wish to express, how this statement might be misconstrued and be the occasion of misunderstanding.
At last your care has flourished again.
Might not the Philippians receive the impression from these words that their beloved spiritual father insinuates that they had been lukewarm and indifferent, that they had forgotten him in his suffering in the Roman prison, and that it was due to lack of brotherly love that for a time their care of him had not flourished? Would, then, these words not cause them sorrow? Hence, the apostle adds: Wherein you also were careful, but you lacked opportunity.
But even so the statement might be misunderstood.
Had he not written that he rejoiced because their care for him had flourished, because they had sent him a gift?
Might these words not carry the thought that the apostle was in want, that his joy was caused by the gift, and that therefore it was not joy in the Lord at all that moved the apostle to express his appreciation of their care for him?
Even that ought not be.
Not the material gift was the cause of his rejoicing, for even that gift caused him to rejoice in the Lord. Not in respect of want had he written.
For he had learned a great lesson, that of contentment.
Contentment in every state, in all conditions.
And in the Lord he rejoiced.
Have I learned? Learned to be content with whatsoever may be my lot?
The answer to this pointed, definitely personal question the word of God in this passage would elicit from our hearts.
Let us not overlook two features of the text. First, it is a personal profession. Second, it speaks of contentment as a lesson that must be learned. As a personal confession it purposes to have a place in our own hearts and upon our own lips, so that we have really not heard the word of God until we, you and I can repeat it after the apostle with personal application: I have learned to be content with whatsoever may be my state.
That it presents contentment as a lesson, which even the apostle had to learn in the way of experience, in the way of prayer and self-searchings, in the way of strife and suffering, warns us not to think lightly of the matter, not too easily and superficially to draw the conclusion that we are content with our lot.
Thus arises the serious question: Have I learned?
And, no doubt, the earnest prayer: Teach me, O Lord!
Blessed state in which we feel ourselves victorious over all external things, conditions, states, circumstances.
As is plain from the passage in its context, contentment has to do with external things, with states and conditions, with things that are earthly.
To these external things our earthly life is related; in a measure we are dependent on them; we are in need of them; we cannot do without them. Therefore, there is in our hearts a certain measure of desire for them. We want them, expect them, look for them, and strive to acquire them. We need bread to eat and clothing to cover us, a home to shelter us, and the means to obtain these; we crave health and strength that we may go about and labor; we hunger for friendship and love, for happiness and liberty. We tire easily and need earthly things to satisfy our earthly needs and desires. Contentment concerns the relation between the things we have and the desires of our hearts with regard to those things. It is the perfect equilibrium between the two: the constant adaptation of the one to the other, the continuous adjustment of our inner state to outward circumstances. It is the positive answer to the question: Have you enough? It answers affirmatively to the query, Are you satisfied? It constantly asserts, I do not speak in respect of want.
The very opposite it is of discontent, which gives the negative answer to these questions in every state.
When the inner state of our hearts and minds, our desires and longings with respect to earthly things, is wholly in accord with the measure of earthly things we possess, with the circumstances in which we find ourselves, with the way we must travel, with the experiences we are called to pass through, and when this harmony between outward circumstances and the inner state of our heart and mind is essentially an adjustment of the latter to the former, then we are content.
The cause of contentment lies not in things, but in the heart.
It is not from without but from within.
It does not arise from the fact that all things seem to bend to our slightest wish, but from the spiritual power always to adapt our inner state to our outward conditions.
Of such power the apostle speaks.
Notice that the text gives a reason for the preceding statement. Paul had assured the Philippians that he spoke not in respect of want. He knew no want. He had enough. The reason for this expression of satisfaction lay not in the fact that the apostle had an abundance of things, that he enjoyed the fellowship of friends and brethren, and that he could do as he pleased, for he was in prison and Nero’s sword was even at this moment threatening to take his very life. But the reason is expressed in the statement, for I have learned to be content with whatsoever state is mine. I have learned to adjust the inner state of my mind and heart to outward things and circumstances.
This is not the satisfaction of the Epicurean, who carefully measures the capacity of his inner needs and desires in order that he may exactly fill them with earthly things; for this Epicurean satisfaction is utterly dependent on outward things. Nor is this the proud show of contentment of the Stoic, who chokes down the cravings of his heart that they may not appear in his face, for this stoical pride is inner dissatisfaction. It is not happiness. Neither is it the slavish satisfaction of ignorance, which is content with things that are because it knows of no better things.
It is victory!
It is that state of mind in which we are able correctly to evaluate all earthly things, circumstances, and experiences.
Correctly judging of their real significance and value, we clearly perceive that we have just enough.
That we need what we have.
A state of profound inner satisfaction with all things. A constant state of tranquil happiness that reflects itself in the features of its subjects.
In whatsoever state I am.
For a grace it is, not a natural gift, nor a trait of character.
The natural man is a stranger to this blessed state of mind and heart—and he must be.
True, even in the world there is found a resemblance to this spiritual power. There is a difference between man and man as to the measure of his craving for things of the world. One is more easily satisfied than another. After men have had a taste of abundance and worldly prosperity, it is more difficult than before to adjust their desires to a state of economic depression.
Yet the natural man knows not the contentment of which the text speaks.
Nor is he capable of learning its secret. You may explain it to him, you may exhort him to be content with whatsoever may be his way and lot—he will not understand. Insofar as he understands the doctrine but not the blessedness of true contentment, he will despise it.
The trouble is that he is natural.
The natural man is carnal. And the carnal mind is enmity against God; it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. The man of this world does not and cannot have his joy in the Lord. The precepts of the Most High are not his delight. To know God, to taste his grace and enter into the secret of his tabernacle, to serve him and love him with all his heart and mind and soul and strength, to seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness, to consider all other things as subservient to this highest purpose—these things are hidden from him. He cannot see them afar off.
The natural man has his delight in the things of the world. Things that were ordained as mere means to an end are to him an end in themselves. He seeks them. He wants them. And he wants more and still more of them. To possess them is inseparable from his happiness. Prosperity he craves, and he grumbles if he cannot have it. Still he murmurs and grumbles if he can have all the world may offer, for the things of this world do not satisfy. He has separated the means from the end, the world and himself from God, the things temporal from the things eternal. And temporal things have their end in death. He knows it and cannot find contentment.
Death is all he has.
A grace, a gift of grace, bestowed by the God of all grace upon his regenerated child, through Christ Jesus our Lord, is contentment.
Not man in general is speaking in the text, but the apostle and in general the Christian, redeemed from the present world, delivered from the power of sin, through our Lord Jesus Christ, by mere grace.
A little farther in the chapter the same Christian glories, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!
Contentment is a gift of grace, the very root of which is the love of God in Christ Jesus. This love of God in Christ is spread abroad in our hearts not as our love to him, but as his love toward us, seeking and finding its response in our love of God. Because of this love of God, our joy is in him, and it is our highest delight to be well-pleasing to him and to glorify him with all our being and with every means. Because of it we know that hope makes not ashamed, and we seek the things that are above, the things heavenly and eternal, and know that all things earthly are but means to the realization of eternal glory. By that love we have confidence that our God in Christ will surely send us those things that tend to his glory and our salvation.
Thus arises within our hearts the tranquil assurance that all things work together for good, and the calm confidence that we have just enough in whatsoever state we may be.
Beautiful because it is not of man but of God.
Beautiful because of its perfect victory over all things earthly and transient, its independence with respect to all outward circumstances, its unlimited freedom.
Beautiful because of its strong patience, able to endure prison and death.
Beautiful because of its cheerful gratitude, able to give thanks unto God at all times and in all things.
Beautiful because of its profound peace.
Its tranquil joy.
A grace, yet also a lesson.
For let us not overlook that the apostle speaks of his contentment in every state as a lesson he had learned. I have learned to be content.
Even he had acquired his present state of mind only by passing through the school of experience.
Not always had he been able thus to glory.
Times there had been when he had not understood the ways of God. Thorns in the flesh and angels of Satan that buffeted him had been his lot. He had strongly desired of the Lord that his state might be changed, that the thorn might be pulled out and the devil be made to refrain from buffeting him. For this he had prayed. And, perhaps, during a period of fourteen years he had prayed again, and prayed the third time.
Until he had understood: My grace is sufficient for you.
He had learned to be content with thorns in the flesh and angels of Satan.
No different is it for the Christian in general.
Surely, contentment is a gift of grace and the gift the child of God possesses, but the actual practice is acquired only in the way of experience. One must learn to be content. And the lesson is a difficult one. Difficult because God’s ways are often dark and rough, and of them he gives no account to his children who are called to walk in them. “Whatsoever state I am” often means trouble and affliction, sorrow and grief, reproach and shame, deprivation and want, darkness and death. The chastisement of God’s people frequently is there every morning, while the wicked prosper. Difficult is the lesson too because we have not reached the perfection in which we shall live by grace only. There is another law in our members, warring against the law of our mind.
Always, according to that other law, we would seek the things of the world.
We must learn to be content.
Learn it in the way of sanctification, in which alone we truly seek the things that are above and have our joy in the Lord.
Learn it in the way of constant fellowship with him who determines our way and our every state.
Learn it in the way of prayer and supplication, in which we may hear the divine answer resounding in our soul: My grace is sufficient for thee!