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(Philippians 4:12-13).
I looked at Paul’s words on the page of my new Bible as one of the women in the study I had joined read them aloud. My eyes watered. Is it really possible to be content in all things?Maybe for Paul—a saint––but not for someone like me, an ordinary person who looks back on a life that included a childhood filled with religious abuse, an unwanted divorce after 20 years of marriage, separation from two of my children for a time, and two years of illness that I had never expected. Contentmentseemed as far from possible as skydiving off the Empire State Building.
And yet, there I was facing this challenge in a conversation with the other women who, like me, had come together to talk about the topic of contentment in our daily lives.
I examined the verse closely. The word learned jumped out at me. Paul claims that he learned the secret of contentment. It didn’t simply drop into his life. And he didn’t take credit for mastering this virtue. He found the strength to be “content in plenty and in want” through his relationship with Jesus. A flicker of hope caught me by surprise. Not long before, I had surrendered my life to Christ and looked forward to being guided from that point on. I certainly hadn’t had any success hiking the mountain of life on my own.
Hmmm. Maybe I, too, could find contentment not by trying harder or wishing with all my might, but by drawing close to the source of contentment––Jesus.
I left our meeting that day with plenty to think about from the experiences the other women shared and from the pieces of my life that I shared with them. We would talk more about this the following week.
In Plenty and in Want
I read the verse again that night before bed. What does this mean in the real world of daily living? I asked myself. I was feeling a bit cynical at this point even though I remained hopeful.
It was going to take a lot—a whole bunch––an absolute windfall for me to feel content even if I had plenty, which at the time I did not.
Then one day as I walked along the beach feeling at odds, I saw a homeless man begging for a dollar, even a coin or two. He was as thin as a stick and his eyes red with fatigue and fear. I gave him a couple of dollars—all I had with me at the time. Then I jogged home and returned with a few groceries, hoping he’d still be there. He was. He accepted my small gift into soiled hands and smiled with appreciation.
A feeling of contentment trickled over me. I couldn’t change this man’s situation, but I could help in a small way with what I had. I felt the grace of God touch me in a new way. As I had given, I also received. My heart was full. I accepted this blessing from the Lord instead of analyzing it. Even though nothing in my circumstances had changed, I was strangely content with things exactly as they were in that moment.
Maybe, I thought, plenty and want are two sides of the same biscuit—the one plain and the other buttered. Every day we all experience both––plenty of one thing and less of another. That’s just the way it goes. Could that be what Jesus meant when he said in John 10:10, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full”? I had thought full referred only to overflowing blessings and good things, but perhaps it really means a life filled with all the experiences one can have––in plenty and in want. And it’s not for me to judge what is plenty and what is want. That’s God’s business.
In Any and Every Situation
Can I be content through a divorce I never wanted? Can my neighbor be content after hearing she has fourth stage breast cancer? Is it just fine to watch a child die in your arms or a friend turn on you without apparent cause or a boss let you go from a job you thought you’d have for the rest of your work life?
Yes, it does mean that. It means that if we walk with God, following the teachings of Jesus we can be content in any and all situations, difficult as that may be to grasp. It doesn’t require us to laugh and clap our hands with joy or to like what has happened or to close our hearts to the hurt in the world. It simply means we can be okay with whatever comes because the God of the universe knows all, sees all, and takes care of all.
In AllWays and Things
Yes, no matter what! Regardless of what is going on––from entire islands washed away in a tsunami to children dying in poverty and starvation, from a school massacre to an ambush in a war zone. From drug smuggling to sex trafficking—all of it, every single bit of it. This doesn’t mean we turn our heads or ignore the pain or take matters into our own hands. It simply means we remain content through Christ who strengthens us to continue on while his Holy Spirit manages and oversees and brings about the good that will come from even the most heinous of crimes and behaviors.
Does that mean there is nothing for us to do about the evil in the world and the disappointment in our own lives? I’m thinking that if we are to find contentment our part is to meditate on verses that guide us and then listen for the quickening of the Holy Spirit whether to wait or to act.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.
This verse has seen me through many anxious moments, when my daughter moved to Africa for a season, when my son lived apart from our family for two years, when my second husband lost his job without warning, when my mother had a stroke and lost her ability to speak, and when a book I’d written was suddenly cancelled right before publication.
I hung on to these words, putting my hope in the Lord, not in doctors or publishers or employers. I couldn’t control illness, jobs, the result of my writing, or my children’s choices. But God promised he’d be present in all these situations and be responsible for the outcomes.
Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.
I found special comfort in these words as I thought about my past, the shame I experienced when I had to ask for rent money from the church Deacon’s Fund one month when my husband and I were flat broke, and the heartache I felt as I watched my sister die right before my eyes.
I knew in the deepest part of me that God was there and that my tears would one day turn to joy. I also knew it was going to take time. I could be content in my memory of the relationship we enjoyed for over 70 years.
My journey toward contentment is ongoing, as I assume yours is too, step by deliberate step, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, with plenty of pauses along the way for conversations with God, for praise and prayer, for smiles and tears, but always with a deep knowing that I am not alone, never have been, and never will be as long as I stay close to God through Jesus Christ who strengthens me.
Karen O’Connor is an award-winning author and speaker from Watsonville, California. You can reach her on the web: www.karenoconnor.com.