Learning the Art of Contentment…and Discontentment

However much you have, there are others who have more. However little you have, there are others who have less. All of us have more than some other people. All of us have less than some other people.

However much or little God has trusted to you, there will be seasons of life when you have less and seasons of life when you have more. Let’s stand in both positions today and hear what God says to us when we have more and when we have less.

When You Have Less: Learn the Art of Contentment

Godliness with contentment is great gain. (1 Timothy 6:6)

Contentment is finding joy in what God has given to you. The opposite of contentment is greed. Contentment is a Christian grace that grows over time. It does not come quickly, easily or naturally. Paul says “I have learned to be content” (Philippians 4:12).

How did he learn it? He tells us “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” (Philippians 4:12).

God used the experience of loss to produce the good fruit of contentment in Paul’s life. Have you discovered the secret of being content?

Jeremiah Burroughs described contentment as “a rare jewel.”[1] How can you find joy in what God gives you, especially when it is less than you had before? Burroughs has great wisdom on how to obtain this jewel:

A Christian comes to contentment, not so much by way of addition as by way of subtraction…Contentment does not come by adding to what you have, but by subtracting from what you desire. The world says that you will find contentment when your possessions rise to meet the level of your desires… The Christian has another way to contentment, that is, he can bring his desires down to his possessions.[2]

So why is godliness with contentment “great gain”? Paul gives four reasons in 1 Timothy 6:

  1. You cannot keep what you gain in this world (v7).
  2. If you set your heart on money, you expose yourself to powerful temptations that ruin many people (v9).
  3. You may wander from the faith (v10).
  4. You will experience great sorrow because of all of the above (v10).

When you have less, learn the art of contentment. Learn to enjoy what God has given more than you grieve what he has taken away. Practice the art of godly contentment and you will find that it is great gain.

When You Have More: Learn the Art of Discontentment

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. (1 Timothy 6:17)

When God gives you more, you need to develop a holy discontent with the things of this world. The more God gives you, the more important this becomes. The world is discontent with less and says, “You will find contentment with more.” God says, “Learn to be content with less, and learn to be discontent with more.”

When you have more, learn to be disturbed about the fact that you will leave this world and you cannot take what you have with you (Luke 12:13-21). Learn the art of discontent. As God gives you more, ask how you can use it.

John Calvin has a marvelous picture of this that my wife, Karen, and I resonate with because we know it from experience. If we truly believe that heaven is our home, we will be like those who emigrate to another country. They send their goods ahead of them so that they may enjoy them for a longer time.

Believers ought to see to it that after they have learned that this life will soon vanish like a dream, they transfer the things they want truly to enjoy to a place where they will have life unceasing.

We ought, then, to imitate what people do who determine to migrate to another place, where they have chosen a lasting abode. They send before them all their resources, and do not grieve over lacking them for a time, for they deem themselves the happier the more goods they have where they will be for a long time.

…If we believe heaven is our country, it is better to transmit our possessions [there] than to keep them here, where upon our sudden migration, they would be lost to us.[3]

How do we cultivate discontentment and change what we love?

Thomas Chalmers says,

You have to set before people another object of affection more worthy of the hearts attachment, so that the heart shall be prevailed upon…to exchange an old affection for a new one.

That is exactly what God does for us in the gospel.

In the gospel, God holds out infinite love and eternal life. This new affection is birthed at the cross. Dying, he bears in himself all the guilt and shame that keep us away from God. Rising, he ascends to heaven to prepare a place for us there.

Love Christ more and you will love money less. When you have less you will find yourself saying, “I am learning to be content. Christ is more to me than all the world.” When you have more you will say, “How can I use what I have to serve Christ? Because Christ is more to me than all the world.”


[1] Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment.
[2] Ibid., p. 45.
[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, book 3, chapter 18, section 6.

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Colin Smith (@PastorColinS) is senior pastor of The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in the northwest suburbs of Chicago and a Council member with The Gospel Coalition.

Date Posted: Jul 14th, 2015