Back in the 1980s, I really liked a song by the band U2. The title was “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” The song sounds a bit like a personal lament, like a Psalm out of the Bible in a way. Something is missing in this person’s life, and he can’t find it. Perhaps it is satisfaction, perhaps contentment. After all, contentment is something we all long for in our lives, don’t we? Yet it seems to elude so many people. I heard someone say one time, “Contentment makes poor men rich; discontentment makes rich men poor.” Someone else said, “Discontent, like ink poured into a bottle of water, turns all to blackness.” It can have a really nasty effect on us and turn things dark.
What’s behind the discontentment we sometimes experience? One word that comes to mind is envy. It’s an age-old human problem. Proverbs says, “A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot” (Prov. 14:30). Again and again throughout Old and New Testament we see the problems attached to envy. For instance, Cain was envious of his brother, Abel. Sarah was envious of Hagar, who could have a child though Sarah could not. King Saul was envious and jealous of David’s popularity and chased him out in the wilderness to kill him.
In the New Testament, we find the Pharisees envious of Jesus. Pontius Pilate even remarked on it as Jesus stood trial before him. Envy has the power to bring out the worst in us. Essayist Joseph Epstein once said, “Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all.”
When the Grand Hall in Florence, Italy was being decorated a long time ago, outstanding artists were asked to submit drawings. Leonardo da Vinci, the artist of his time, seemed to be the man for the job. However, a young man by the name of Michelangelo submitted some sketches, and they were magnificent! The committee was so enthusiastic, they gave the job to him. When the news of this choice reached Leonardo da Vinci, the old artist went into a decline from which he never fully recovered. Evidently, envy of his young competitor took its toll on da Vinci.
On and on it goes, even amongst us in this day and age. We are envious of the person who got the promotion at the office instead of us, the guy on the team who gets more playing time than we do, the woman at the office who receives more attention from the boss than the others. Envy can kick in and cause us to do, think, and feel some ugly things. This battle goes on inside of us because of our sinful nature. It all begins when we compare ourselves with other people. Our ego, selfishness, and pride kick in.
External triggers can get us going. Outside sources may point out what we’re lacking in our lives and make us feel like we’re missing out. Turn on the television set and you see commercials telling you that you need their product. You will be happy if you only purchase this, use this, take this, eat this, drink this, drive this, or wear this. On Facebook people post highlights of them having the best of times. Sometimes we read them and think, Look at the pictures! Boy, I wish I could go on a vacation like that! If only I had a bit more money. My life isn’t half as fun and exciting. I wish I had those kinds of friends. I’m really missing out.
There’s financial envy too – I wish I had their income, as we watch the neighbor build a big and beautiful house.
Or relational envy – I wish I had friends or family like hers.
Or circumstantial envy – I wish I had a spouse, as I sit and watch couples having a good time.
Envy can get us into such trouble. Every time someone feels green with envy, they are ripe for trouble. It can ruin your attitude, steal your joy, and move you to do some unwise things like purchase things you can’t really afford in order to keep up with others, or talk other people down who have what you don’t have, or wish ill will toward those who have what you want.
It can wreck our relationship with God. We become upset with Him and blame Him for our unhappiness. Lord, you shorted me! you think to yourself.
So how do we get on the road to contentment and leave discontentment behind?
The Apostle Paul, in the early days of Christianity, wrote some words in a letter about contentment. It’s a personal testimony, really. It’s meant to teach the people about where to find true contentment. Found in a book called Philippians in the New Testament, it’s kind of a thank-you letter and includes some teaching for their edification.
Paul really loved the Philippians. They had been very supportive of him. Near the end of the letter, after saying thanks for the gift they’d sent him, Paul says, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances, I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need” (Phil. 4:10-13).
The first thing that jumps out at me in this passage is the personal pronoun he uses. I know, and I have learned. Paul is speaking from personal experience. He’s not simply laying some philosophical statements on them that he dreamed up on a mountaintop. This statement comes from one who has experienced the ups and downs of life, just like you and me. In fact, his downs were probably worse than any I’ll ever have.
The Apostle Paul basically lived the life of hand-to-mouth each day, traveling and doing work for the cause of Jesus Christ in the world. But his life wasn’t always like that. He lived a fairly comfortable existence until he met Jesus on a road outside Damascus. His life was never quite the same afterward. He found grace in Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of God, the assurance of everlasting life, and a relationship with God. Paul also received a calling, a new purpose in life – to serve Jesus in this world.
Paul had been on the go for the cause of Christ ever since. It was not always easy, and he did not always have good times. In one of his letters, Paul writes a bit about some of the hard times. He says, “Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches” (II Cor. 11:24-28).
Paul had a very rough time! He wasn’t just sitting around studying his Bible! He wrote his letter to the Philippians from jail. It is an amazing letter, reflecting such joy and contentment. One has to wonder where his joy is coming from.
Earlier in this particular letter, Paul reflects on the things he gave up: “I consider them to be nothing in light of what I have now.” He follows up with, “I’ve learned to be content.” He continues, “Along the way I have learned the secret to facing life’s ups and downs.”
What stories were in his mind, I wonder, as he wrote this statement? Was he thinking about lying in a Philippian jail the first time he visited the area after being arrested for causing trouble? Was he thinking about other times when he was shipwrecked and so on? I have learned through personal experience, he is saying, (the classroom of life). Then he says: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Athletes often use the statement, “I can do all things in Christ.” I can run faster, pitch better, hit harder. But this really isn’t the intent of the context of Paul’s statement. It’s about facing circumstances, going through hard times, failures, and disappointments as well as navigating the good times in a healthy manner and finding the strength through Christ to overcome trials as well as temptations. He says, All I looked to for security and contentment is absolutely overrated compared to having Jesus Christ in my life. By trusting and obeying Him, I have found inexhaustible resources for living life with contentment, through ups and downs.
Paul says, first of all, I found that in all circumstances with Christ in my life – good times or bad – weakness or strong – Christ is faithful. He is always there with me strengthening me, carrying me with His Spirit’s power. I face nothing alone. He has never deserted me or left me like an orphan to face matters in life. I know Christ has prepared a place for me. He’s given me a glimpse of what awaits me when I breathe my last in this old world. I’ve placed my trust in Him, and the best is yet to come. He’s prepared a place in His Father’s house for me in heaven.
And so Paul can say confidently to those Philippians, “To live is Christ, to die is absolutely gain.” As one places his or her faith in Jesus Christ, they are heaven bound. They know the big picture now. Paul would say, As I’ve lived with Him and followed Him as His student, living in His Holy Word and talking to the other disciples who walk with Him, Jesus has taught me what makes for contentment and how to avoid pitfalls that can pull me into being discontented. What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and wreck his soul? What is really important in life, anyway?
Giving yourself away, Jesus teaches, is where real life, contentment, and fulfillment is found. He points me to a loving Father. When I’m worried, He says, “Don’t worry about what you eat or drink or wear. Look at the birds of the fields; God takes care of them! You’re more valuable than they” (Matt. 6:25-27). He loves you. He knows what you need.
He teaches me gratitude for what I have, pointing out that God is busy in His creation. He is providing for me, and I need to count my blessings. When I let Him down with my thoughts, my words, and my actions, He points me to the cross and tells me, You are forgiven. I love you.
This is what Paul would say to us. The secret of contentment is living and following Jesus Christ, who gave His life on the cross for you and me, then rose from the grave. He is present and available to live with us all the way into eternity. This is where contentment begins and ends – Christ!
In his autobiography, Just as I Am, Dr. Billy Graham tells a story that speaks to this truth of where to find contentment. “Several years ago, Ruth and I had a vivid illustration of this (contentment) on an island in the Caribbean. I have a friend who is one of the wealthiest men in the world. He asked us to come to his lavish home for lunch. He was 75 years old, and throughout the entire meal he seemed to be close to tears. ‘I’m the most miserable man in the world,’ he said. ‘Out there is my yacht. I can go anywhere I
want to. I have my private plane, my helicopters, I have everything I want to make life happy. Yet I am miserable . . .’
Billy Graham says, “We talked to him and prayed with him trying to point him to Christ, who alone gives lasting meaning to life. Then we went down the hill to a small cottage where we were staying. That afternoon, the pastor of the local church came to call on us. He was an Englishman, and he, too, was a widower like the first man. He spent most of his time taking care of his two invalid sisters. He was full of enthusiasm and love for Jesus and others. ‘I don’t have two pounds to my name,’ he said with a smile, but I am the happiest man on this island!”
Billy Graham relates how he asked his wife Ruth after they left, “Who do you think is the richer man?” She didn’t have to reply because they both already knew the answer.
I have a friend named Frank, a fellow pastor, who started a recovery ministry years ago for alcoholics and addicts. Our congregation began financially supporting this ministry, which is a few miles away from us. It’s been a rough, challenging, and effective ministry. Frank will share stories with me over coffee that cause me to shake my head. He and his wife have been living for years hand-to-mouth, month-by-month. Somehow or another God provides and keeps them going. They have displayed such great faith.
Frank’s wife, Lois, recently passed away at a rather young age and Frank insisted on preaching at her funeral because she wanted him to. In the midst of his message, he told us this: “Through Lois I’ve learned to have faith in Christ’s promises. He’s been taking care of Lois and me for a lot of years. He surprised us not only spiritually but even materially along the way as we have entrusted everything to Him, and He’s kept us going in this ministry.” Then he stopped and said to us, “And you can trust Him, too!”
Frank found contentment – not an easy life, but a contented life following Jesus. He learned the truth of Paul’s statement, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
And so can you, my dear friends. Trust Christ. Amen.
Rev. Steve Kramer