That title doesn’t sound right. Isn’t hard work at the opposite end of the spectrum from contentment? You’re not content if you are working hard.
Maybe. But contentment is a bit of a fuzzy word. A word that we all think we know what it means or at least feel like we should know what it means, but when we talk about it, we use it in various ways and the meaning gets a bit soft around the edges.
Not that there is no definition, (feeling or showing satisfaction with one’s possessions, status, or situation – Merriam Webster); but what it looks like, what its opposite, when and how we pursue it, all tend to get a bit more individualized when we talk about being content; the meaning starts to get a little squishy.
We may not even be aware, but sometimes we think that contentment requires settling, resigning ourselves to whatever—good, bad, or ugly, life has given us. That would make hard work the opposite of being content. It’s easy to think of being content as being passive, of accepting anything and everything just the way it is.
Let’s start with an acknowledgement: the Bible doesn’t talk directly about contentment as much as we might like. In the New Testament, there are only 6 places where it is mentioned, and all of those are more encouragement to be rather than instruction on how to be.
What the Bible Says about Contentment
John the Baptist tells some Roman soldiers that they should be content with their pay (Luke 3:14). The soldiers had asked what they should do to show repentance. John told them not to try to get more money, especially by cheating and stealing, but to be satisfied with their pay. In other words, learn to live within the means you have.
The next four (of 5) references to being content in the Bible all come from the Apostle Paul. Only two of the recipients of Paul’s letters hear anything about contentment, the believers in Philippi and Timothy.
While in prison (a hard place to imagine being content), Paul tells the people of faith in Philippi that he has learned to be content no matter the circumstances and that he can be so both in plenty and in want, because he has learned the secret of being content—a major part of which is that Jesus gives him the strength to do so.
Paul writes to Timothy that we should learn to be content with little (food and clothing), and that rather than earning piles of money being great gain, that godliness with contentment is great gain.
The final use comes from the letter to the Hebrews. There, people of faith are encouraged not to love money, but to be content with what they have.
All of this points to the fact that contentment has little to do with the number of things we have; it is the way we look at what we have and what we do not have.
I’d like to suggest that work, deliberate concerted effort, plays a crucial role in Paul’s “secret” to being content.
Learning to be Content
I don’t mean working hard at being content—a bunch of self-talk about being satisfied with your circumstances or trying to change the way you look at things or think about them. No, unless we are putting in our best effort, using our time, talents, and resources well, we will not find what we are looking for.
That’s not to suggest that contentment comes through the relentless pursuit of things. Or that a go, go, go lifestyle is the basic requirement to a contented life. That also would be the opposite of contentment. We were created to live in a rhythm work and relaxation.
Rather, satisfaction, true, deep, and restful contentment, can only come when we know that we have been good stewards of what God has given to us in this life. That is because “satisfaction with our possessions, status, or station” begins with being satisfied that we have done our part.
Work is part of how we are made. Adam was given the task of working in and caring for his garden home before sin ever entered the world. If he was to be content, and there’s no reason to think that he wouldn’t, it would come through the work that he had been given to do.
Take a moment to think about how you feel when you know you could have done better. How do you feel when you know that you have not given your best effort to reach a goal? When you have frittered time away? It’s true that we must live with our choices, but when we know that we could have, should have, made better choices, those consequences are less likely to leave us feeling content.
There’s an important aside here: Contentment is a choice. Even in less-than-ideal circumstances we can choose an attitude of contentment.
The apostle Paul points us in this direction when he says that he has learned to be content in both plenty and want (Phil. 4:11-12). So even if our circumstances are lacking, not what we wish they would be, we can be content.
Part of the secret of contentment that Paul learned (Phil. 4:12) is that he can be content because he has done all that he can do, and he has done it well. He cannot blame his want on a lack of effort or dedication on his part. Despite being under house arrest at the time he wrote these words, he was still making the most of his opportunities by sharing the gospel of Christ with his guards, with anyone who would listen (Phil. 1:12-14).
At least part of Paul’s secret was that he learned to keep working.
Making the Most of Every Opportunity
Satisfaction doesn’t come by changing our view of things and assigning them less value—although on occasion we may well have to ask if we are overvaluing something—or through resignation with a righteous twist. Instead, satisfaction begins when we can look at our lives and know that we have indeed done our best with those resources that God has given to us.
Acceptance and satisfaction with status, standing, or possessions. To be truly satisfied, we also need to feel satisfied with the effort we have put in to get there. In my moments of discontent, which, to be fair, are perhaps too frequent, I can often easily find missed (or deliberately ignored) opportunities that lead to the situation I am dissatisfied with.
We need to ask ourselves if we are making the most of every opportunity. Certainly, this means sharing the good news of faith and life in Jesus; it also may mean that we take the “every” literally. No matter our situation, task, or relationship, we make the most of it.
Contentment takes hard work, and it begins with you, not your circumstances. Find a place to put in more effort this week.