Follow the Flags to Contentment

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Follow the Flags to Contentment

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I remember laughing and enjoying coffee with one of my friends once when he switched to a more serious tone. He said, “I’m getting older, and I’m not where I envisioned myself years ago. I’ve made purposeful efforts to better myself, but they have all been failures.” And then he hit me with a bombshell: “I’ve come to the conclusion that I must be messed up.”

Whoa. What struck me was the amount of pressure and worthlessness in his voice.

Feelings like this can happen to anyone regardless of the stage in life. Pressure and worthlessness can creep in while struggling with any number of life issues—hard decisions, uncooperative health, pressure from friends, school or job frustrations, relationships or singleness.

All this pressure can be overwhelming. Many want to just-stop-feeling-it, but what if we could use it to get rid of it? What if like a figurative rubber band, we could use its own power to flick it far from us? If we only knew how.

There is a solution. In a way, the Bible says: follow the flags to find contentment.

There is a time and place for stress—good stress, like when we need to step up and take responsibility. But the pressure I’m talking about negatively affects our self-worth and is often related to our sense of contentment about our status or things.

In Philippians 4, Paul is writing a kind of thank you note to the Philippians for how much they care and want to give. In verses 11 and 12, he says, “Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.”

For some of us who struggle with contentment, these verses sound like a fairy tale. It’s the fact that we are not in the state we want to be (or others expect us to be) that causes anxiety, stress, pressure. How is Paul able to say he’s found contentment no matter what situation he finds himself in?

The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown commentary says this about Philippians 4:11 Philippians 4:11Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatever state I am, therewith to be content.
American King James Version×
: “...The Greek word for ‘content’ literally expresses ‘independent of others, having sufficiency in one’s self.’” The commentary goes on to explain, “Christianity has raised the term [of contentment] above the ‘haughty self-sufficiency of heathen stoicism’ to the contentment of the Christian, whose sufficiency is not in self, but in God.”

The stoic self-sufficiency described in the commentary depends completely on the human individual involved. This is similar to the state of mind that God warned the Israelites about. He predicted that they would enter the promised land, forget God and start believing they alone were responsible for the wealth and cities they inhabited. In contrast, true Christian sufficiency is based on God, who makes us self-sufficient because of who He is. It’s a contentment not based on things or status but on our identity in God.

Do we all of sudden find this right sense of self-sufficiency and contentment just by being a Christian or being baptized? Clearly not. How do we actually find this right type of contentment? Much like conversion, contentment is a process, and one proverb shows us some flags for how to find it.

Proverbs 30 records the words of Agur, who describes himself as “more stupid than any man” (verse 2). He seems to be clearly aware that he is not sufficient on his own—the foundation for finding godly contentment.

In verses 7-8, Agur shows his God-reliant attitude by making his requests to God, knowing he can’t provide for himself: “Two things I request of You. (Deprive me not before I die): remove falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches—feed me with the food allotted to me.”

When I read this scripture, I usually focus on “give me neither poverty nor riches,” but Agur’s first request is the bigger deal in regards to contentment. He says in verse 8, “Remove falsehood and lies far from me.” The reason so many of us experience discontentment is we believe a big lie.

Every big lie is very personal. My friend who concluded that he “must be messed up” fights a lie that says, “I should be married by now.” Lies like this tell us that we should be or have certain things, and because we don’t, the lies go on to conclude “I must be messed up” and even “I must not be worthy.” These lies create pressure and false expectations, which then lead to comparing ourselves unfairly to others. These comparisons then reaffirm our false conclusions, creating a vicious self-defeating cycle.

Imagine hurts and pressures like the lights on an airport runway. With the right perspective you’ ll eventually see the lights line up, showing a path forward, exposing those lies.

The truth is, if we put “getting something” as the key to our contentment, we will never find contentment. If we cannot be content where we are, new issues will always pop up, moving the goal posts of contentment farther down the field, always putting it out of reach.

Solomon said, “He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver; nor he who loves abundance with increase. This also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 5:10 Ecclesiastes 5:10He that loves silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loves abundance with increase: this is also vanity.
American King James Version×
). So, what is it that is stopping you from being content?

Making lots of money, finding someone to marry or getting into a certain college won’t make you content. Rather, each situation is just a different state with different benefits and challenges. None of us needs anything more than what we have to be content. The writer of Hebrews says, “be content with such things as you have” (13:5).

So we come back to the question: How do we find contentment? One approach is to use the section in Proverbs 30 as a series of flags that show us the path toward contentment. Proverbs 30 shows a person self-aware enough to ask God for what he needs. But there are levels of self-awareness. The key to becoming more self-aware is to ask ourselves why we feel or do certain things.

If we notice a particular hurt or pressure affects our value as a person, then that should raise a red flag, and we are likely dealing with the first request of Agur. We need God’s help to remove falsehood and lies far from us.

The way I imagine these hurts and pressures in our brains is almost like all the lights on an airport runway. If you look at a runway from the wrong side, it’s just a bunch of random lights. However, if you change your approach to the runway by asking yourself “Why?” you’ll eventually see the lights line up, showing a path forward, exposing those lies. If we can then submit the lies to God and see the truth, we’ll find contentment at the end.

The tricky thing is that a haughty type of contentment can masquerade as the godly one. For those who do have the status and things they want in life, sufficiency and contentment must still be from God. We all have to recognize there are shortcomings in our character and that we have not achieved perfection as Christians. That’s a status we can never achieve on our own, but that God desires for us and is faithful to give us if we endure.

We started in Philippians, where Paul was able to be content in whatever state he found himself. The next verse is Philippians 4:13 Philippians 4:13I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.
American King James Version×
, which says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” God has definitely given all of us this verse to encourage us to achieve our far-off dreams. But this verse is actually set in the context of contentment, of being okay with what we have even without achieving any of those dreams. Paul said, “I know how to abound, and I know how to be abased,” so when he says “I can do all things,” it’s in the context of accepting the season we’re in, or what we have, good or bad. The verse can be expanded to talk about achieving our dreams also, but not without first seeing that we are sufficient in our identity with God. That has to come first.

When we remove the lies and see the truth about our lives through God’s eyes, we create a runway that can get us to contentment. So, ask “Why?” on your path to removing the lies and finding contentment.