Contending with Contentment

On our recent trip to India, I reflected on my earliest memories of the poor and the hungry. Growing up, my parents encouraged my siblings and me to eat all the food on our plate by reminding us of the world’s population of starving children. For many well-meaning parents, it has been a way to foster a sense of contentment in children who have the privilege of refusing food because of preference or lack of intense hunger. Today, I look back on this tactic and want to cry because I realize that the poor were presented as simply a contrasting image to my lack of gratitude and contentment. 

When not able to attend school, children are often required to either stay home, caring for siblings or playing in the streets, or join their parents at work.

When not able to attend school, children are often required to either stay home, caring for siblings or playing in the streets, or join their parents at work.

This past month, my husband and I traveled to India as members of the G.O.D. Intl. India team.  As we rode to our headquarters from the airport, I saw the poor, the hungry, the disabled, and the sick lining the streets. The needy children that I imagined as a child are everywhere. They are begging for coins from passers-by or living in makeshift houses on the side of the road, under bridges, and near construction sites. Children are making toys out of sticks, rocks and bits of discarded items. No matter what direction I turn, I am overwhelmed with the visual onslaught of needs. These are the images that were expected to shame me into eating one of my three daily meals. The plight of the poor was intended to make me appreciate what I had. Their suffering and my contentment were linked together.

It is within this socio-economic context that we reunited with our team of Indian nationals to study God’s Word. Sharing with a group of women that daily witness the suffering of so many, or have personally experienced severe lack, I introduced my topic. “Today I want to talk about contentment.” 

I began our study in the book of Proverbs. The writer in Proverbs 30 makes a good case for contentment as he presents his request to God:

Give me neither poverty nor riches;
feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or lest I be poor and steal
and profane the name of my God.

The wisdom writer believes he has found the secret of contentment: having just enough. Not too much and not too little. But having just enough to meet needs (not wants that have been culturally and commercially manufactured as needs) is the hope of so many in the developing world—“just one good meal a day, just a safe place to sleep at night, just a way to treat my sick child, just…” If contentment is found in having needs met, then discontentment should be the state of every one who suffers from ‘not enough.’ However, God’s word reveals that contentment isn’t automatically conferred on those who have all their needs satisfied, it is learned. 

The apostle Paul testifies in the midst of suffering: “…for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” Phil 4:11-13. The apostle Paul does not cry out for a life that is without suffering. He does not ask to live in the middle between too much and too little. Not contingent on circumstances, his contentment is found in the One who sustains and strengthens him. 

Bible studies are an integral part of every day that any team spends on the ground in India. We believe that God’s word is essential for daily living and the filter through which we should understand the world around us.

Bible studies are an integral part of every day that any team spends on the ground in India. We believe that God’s word is essential for daily living and the filter through which we should understand the world around us.

This is the message that crosses economic and social boundaries. It is the message that can be communicated even when the view outside our window is one of abject poverty, substandard living situations, and harsh working conditions. Contentment is not found in realizing that others are in worse condition than you, nor is it subject to having all of your needs met. Contentment comes on the other side of an education in God’s Word, learning that the Lord sees the affliction of his people, knows their sufferings, and will deliver them (Ex. 3:7-8). 

Telling people to resign themselves to contentment when they are socially marginalized and politically impoverished is not what God’s Word promotes. Historically, oppressed people groups have been presented a gospel that serves to silence their voice by those who benefit from the downtrodden -- “this is your lot in life, be a good Christian and accept your circumstances because you will be rewarded in the afterlife.” However, in the same context that Paul pronounces that he has learned to be content in whatever situation he is in, he thanks the church at Philippi for their support in helping to meet his needs once and again. In other words, contentment in the state of suffering or lack is not the end of a person’s condition. God provides for their needs by moving his people to give a “fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Phil 4:18).  For Paul, this came in the way of financial support, service, and prayer. 

The writer of Proverbs and Paul are not in conflict. One comes from the perspective of wisdom and the other from revelation. A wise person will testify to all things in moderation. But the revelation of Jesus Christ goes beyond contentment via moderation. It teaches that contentment can exist in plenty and hunger, abundance and need. Since Paul teaches that circumstances cannot determine contentment, the blessing of being content in any and all circumstances is available for everyone. It is not only acceptable to teach this principle to those who have ‘too little,’ it is imperative. Although there are life-altering benefits to possessing a positive mindset, contentment is more than a state of mind. It is not the placebo for the poor and needy. Contentment is a choice based on the knowledge of a God who has cared for humanity since the beginning of time.