For the longest time I thought the adage “he/she is a natural born leader” was true. You either had leadership qualities and knew how to use them or you didn’t.
If you didn’t have them, then too bad – you couldn’t lead people. Little did I know how wrong I was.
While certain personality traits can facilitate a person’s rise into a leadership role, leadership is actually something anyone can learn. I found that out when I started reading people like John Maxwell and listening to other voices in the leadership development industry. Suddenly a whole new reality seemed possible in how I could grow into and become an effective leader.
I believe the same misunderstanding occurs in the life of Christians when it comes to the idea of contentment. We read verses like Hebrews 13:5 – “…be content with what you have…” – and think that attitude is one we are either born with or not. If you don’t have it then oh well. You’ll never have a spirit of contentment your entire life.
This isn’t an accurate picture of what the Bible really says about contentment. In fact, just like learning how to be a leader, we can learn to be content. I get that takeaway by looking at the life of Paul and reading what he said about this very issue.
Learning To Be Content
Paul revealed an enlightening concept about contentment in Philippians 4:11-12. In those verses we read him saying,
“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.”
Did you catch what he said there? Paul wasn’t born with a contented spirit. It didn’t come naturally to him. He says twice that he learned how to be content. It was something he had to achieve.
His statement is even more compelling considering what he went through. We know he was often taken care of by the churches he founded. He even had a side job as a tent maker that supplied him with money to meet his needs. So there were times that were undoubtedly good and easier to be content in.
But in II Corinthians 11 Paul opens a window to what his life was like as a traveling missionary. The laundry list of circumstances he went through is enough to tip anyone’s contentment scale clean over. Would you be content if any of this happened?
Five times Paul received 39 lashes from the Jewish leaders for his preaching.
He was beaten with rods, stoned and left for dead
Three times he was shipwrecked and on one occasion spent a night floating in the middle of a body of water.
His travels exposed him to dangers from thieves, foreigners and other religious leaders who wanted to see him fail.
He was often weary, tired, hungry, thirsty, cold and without clothing.
How in the world could he be content in those circumstances? I know he had a tight relationship with God but those situations are as bad as they come. You wouldn’t naturally think they would lead to a contented spirit.
My only explanation is that Paul had learned to be content in whatever state he found himself, just like he said. I’m sure he was unhappy at the events he endured. But we have to remember that happiness doesn’t equate to contentment.
Happiness is based on our present circumstances. It’s all about the feelings we are dealing with in the moment. Contentment looks past the present moment and sees it within a bigger picture. When content, we can experience satisfaction and peace no matter what we are going through. I can only assume that’s where Paul had made it to in his mind as he was enduring all that hardship.
Ways To Learn To Be Content
At this point you may be asking, “How can I learn to be content?” I’ll admit, I’ve asked myself that same question. Here’s what I’ve found works in my own life as I fight the daily battle to be content.
1. Rely on God. This seems like the obvious first step but I’ve missed it. On my own I can’t force myself to be content. I must rely on God each and every day to help develop a contented spirit within me. I should realize that all I have flows from His goodness and He will give me exactly what I need.
2. Help others who are less fortunate. I gain perspective when I shift my attention to someone else. Getting around and helping people who have less than I reveals my own attitudes and helps me keep it in check.
3. Stop with the comparisons. Just because your neighbor has it doesn’t mean you need it. Stop looking to keep up with everyone else and focus only on your own situation. Contentment will never be achieved by comparing yourself to others.
4. Fight the “I’ll be happy when…” thoughts. We have a tendency to project into the future and say, “I’ll be happy when (fill in the blank) happens.” The problem is that this mindset doesn’t have a cure. If we achieve that one thing that makes us happy, we will only be looking towards the next thing to make us happy. And besides, we’ve already seen that happiness isn’t the same as contentment so don’t base your life on trying to be happy.
5. Appreciate your imperfections. Don’t misinterpret this to mean that we shouldn't improve ourselves. Our focus can be on building on our strengths to be awesome at something. However, at the same time we must realize we have limitations. If we continually get down on ourselves because we aren’t perfect, we will never be content in who we are. We will always be trying to “fix” what’s wrong instead of resting in who God has made us to be.
6. Have some fun. I’m all for being driven to new challenges. But discontentment can arise if we are always looking for the next big merger, or raise, or house or whatever. Life’s not all about getting ahead. We have to schedule in time to relax and even play. This allows our mind to rest from the cultural pressure to have it all.
Ultimately our level of contentment will grow as our relationship with God matures. I’m just glad Paul let us know we can learn to be content. That gives me hope because I know I surely wasn’t born with it.
Questions: Do you struggle with contentment? What helps you maintain a contented spirit?