The Apostle’s contentment was grounded in his union with Christ and in his theology. He saw theology not as a theoretical or abstract discipline but rather as the key to understanding life itself. His contentment with his condition in life rested on his knowledge of God’s character and actions. Paul was content because he knew his condition was ordained by his Creator. He understood that God brought both pleasure and pain into his life for a good purpose (Rom. 8:28). Paul knew that since the Lord wisely ordered his life, he could find strength in the Lord for any and all circumstances.
Blaise Pascal, the famous French philosopher and mathematician, noted that human beings are creatures of profound paradox. We’re capable of both deep misery and tremendous grandeur, often at the same time. All we have to do is scan the headlines to see that this is the case. How often do celebrities who have done great good through philanthropy get caught up in scandals?
Human grandeur is found in part in our ability to contemplate ourselves, to reflect upon our origins, our destiny, and our place in the universe. Yet, such contemplation has a negative side, and that is its potential to bring us pain. We may find ourselves miserable when we think of a life that is better than that which we enjoy now and recognize that we are incapable of achieving it. Perhaps we think of a life free of illness and pain, yet we know that physical agony and death are certain. Rich and poor alike know that a life of greater wealth is possible but grow frustrated when that wealth is unobtainable. Sick or healthy, poor or rich, successful or unsuccessful—we are all capable of growing vexed when a better life remains outside of our grasp.
Scripture prescribes only one remedy to this frustration: contentment.
Biblical contentment is a spiritual virtue that we find modeled by the Apostle Paul. He states, for example, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Phil. 4:11). No matter the state of his health, wealth, or success, Paul found it possible to be content with his life.
In Paul’s era, two prominent schools of Greek philosophy agreed that our goal should be to find contentment, but they had very different ways of getting there. The first of these, Stoicism, said imperturbability was the way to contentment. Stoics believed that human beings had no real control over their external circumstances, which were subject to the whims of fate. The only place they could have any control was in their personal attitudes. We cannot control what happens to us, they said, but we can control how we feel about it. Thus, Stoics trained themselves to achieve imperturbability, an inner sense of peace that would leave them unbothered no matter what happened to them.
The Epicureans were more proactive in their search for contentment, looking to find a proper balance between pleasure and pain. Their aim was to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. Yet even achieving a goal in this arena can result in frustration. We might never obtain the aimed-for pleasure, or, having obtained it, we might realize that it does not bring what we thought it would.