“I am not saying this because I am in need, for 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.”
The Apostle Paul tells us there’s a “secret of being content in any and every situation”, and as a lifelong Christian I’ve desired to discover and live into that secret.
If I’m honest, it’s often felt like settling.
When the hardships hit, and God didn’t fix them as I thought He should, I would resign myself to giving up the good things and accepting what I perceived as a bad arrangement, mustering a smile and muttering, “I’m fine.”
Is this what Paul meant? When he said he was content, was he talking about resignation and forced acceptance? Are Christians destined for a lesser life where they feign happiness?
Deep down we know he wasn’t inviting us to “fake happiness”, but the concept of happiness is so coveted that it is hard for us to define contentment with it, or embrace contentment without it. In fact, Oxford even defines contentment as “a state of happiness and satisfaction.”
Does this mean Paul was happy when he was in need? Was he happy when he was persecuted? Afterall, this secret was meant to apply “in any and every situation”, which meant Paul was saying it was possible to be content in even the worst case scenarios, like when he was unjustly flogged. How can one be happy while being beaten?
I remember a moment when the “secret of being content” clicked in a new way for me. I was in the midst of a years-long difficult environment, and had come to realize that there was nothing I could do to fix it. In easily one of the most hopeless moments of my life, I knelt weeping on the closet floor, uttering, “God, I’ve tried everything, and it’s clear there is nothing I can do to make this better.” From my vantage point, I could clearly name the wrongs, injustices, neglect, and harm that had been suffocating me, and the only way to happiness was to be freed from them so I could once again breath. However, God would not free me. I knew he had not abandoned me, but could not understand why He allowed the oppression to continue for years, leading to this hopeless state.
It was as though I was in the middle of a tumultuous ocean, having long ago exhausted my strength and recognizing that all that was left was to sink below the waves, where I would no longer be able to breath. I did not want to sink, but I knew my strength to tread water was gone, and though I had cried out to be freed from the crashing waves, God never pulled me out. While I had rightly given up on my ability to fix the hardships, I never gave up on my belief that “God is God and God is good”, and so just as Job didn’t “curse God and die”, I found myself sinking while still trusting God.
I sank beneath the waves, and then something peculiar happened: I could breath.
My circumstances were such that contentment should be impossible; yet through a series of God-events, it became clear that God could make me content — even happy — in even the worst case scenarios. Somehow, I could breath underwater while the waves crashed above me, no longer able to harm me.
Part of my contentment came in dying to what I thought needed to happen. Prior to going under the waves, I thought God needed to fix the way certain individuals were treating and perceiving me, or remove certain hardships and obstacles; when He didn’t, I was confused and heartbroken. Meanwhile, God looked at the same situation and softly said, “Dear child, those things don’t need to happen, and that’s why I’m not fixing them. You don’t need those solutions; you only need me.”
He went on: “What if I didn’t fix your situations, and things got worse: would you still trust me? Would you still seek me?”
When I hit a painful low, God showed me that He was not only present, but was enough; that if I stop telling Him what I needed, I could discover contentment in Him, amidst of the storm. “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:8)
My contentment also came in dying to where I thought I needed to be. I wanted to be safe and dry on a boat; meanwhile, God wanted me to discover the impossible beauty of breathing and swimming underwater.
There is a moment in the movie Avatar: The Way of Water when the protagonist Jake Sully’s children must learn to function underwater from their sea-based hosts. Most of the children struggled, holding their breath as long as possible before desperately thrashing to the surface; not Kiri. While her brothers had a logical understanding of water (and their inability to thrive in it), she had a unique spiritual understanding, and quickly discovered that she could not only survive beneath the waves, she could thrive. While they gasped for breath above water, she was in awe as she interacted with the incredible sea-life beneath.
My humanity (understandably) believed that my destination should be a good reputation, sustainable job, and healthy relationships, and my prayers were aimed at that destination. Fortunately, alongside this logical understanding the Spirit brought a spiritual understanding, one that said I could thrive even amidst a tarnished reputation, unsustainable job, and broken relationships. I was reminded that Jesus — dearly loved by his Father — was misrepresented, called to the most painful task, and abandoned by those he loved, and yet exuded joy. Death could not defeat him.
As my situations got worse, God showed me the beauty beneath the violent waves, and I discovered a peace that “surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). I didn’t need to be where my humanity said I should, but rather where my Father invited me, even if it seemed like foolishness.
Maybe you feel that you have been treading water amidst oppressive waves for too long, and the idea of being “content” seems like settling. “God, it would be much better if these waves stopped and I was dry and comfortable on a boat… but fine, I’ll pretend to be ‘happy’ and let myself be battered by the waves.” It is fully understandable that contentment feels like making do with the violent waters.
When God doesn’t free you from the storm, perhaps it’s because He knows that isn’t what needs to happen; when He doesn’t place you on a dry surface, perhaps He knows you can breath underwater. It could be that the invitation of contentment is not to get to the optimal situation or muster a smile in less, but to trust that through the Spirit you can thrive “in any and every situation”, even the worst.
This doesn’t mean that it won’t be difficult or painful — even Jesus wept in the garden — but that our definition of contentment becomes less shaped by our circumstances and more shaped by God’s character. We can be content not because things are better, but because He is best; we learn to embrace that we can be in the worst of situations and find a peace that makes no sense because in Him is all we need.
God will not let you drown. If He isn’t pulling you from the waves, it could be that He is inviting you to “immeasurably more than [you] could ask or imagine, because of the power at work within [you].” (Ephesians 3:20) The secret to being content is not Him making things better: it is simply HIM. Whether He invites us to rest on the boat and calms the storm, to walk atop the wild waters, or to breath safely beneath the thrashing waves, “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” (2 Peter 1:3)