“Real contentment must come from within. You and I cannot change or control the world around us, but we can change and control the world within 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 in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
We are living in strange times. ‘Busy’ seems to have replaced ‘fine’ as the stock response to “How are you doing?” If we are not busy then we are slacking; life is out there to be grasped and it’s the restless go-getters that win all the prizes.
In our popular culture ‘having it all’ is considered immensely desirable: a fulfilling career, great sex, beautiful house/kids/family, exotic holidays, designer clothes and interesting friends. To find contentment in a simpler lifestyle, reduced opportunities, needy friends, a tedious job and financial constraints might arouse sympathy rather than admiration. We may well be asked “Why don’t you push at doors, get out more, make some contacts instead of sitting there grinning?”
And there will be times when we should push back: when apathy has set in, when we have allowed discouragement to blunt our edge or when we have accepted anything less than God’s clear calling for our lives.
But when our external circumstances are tough and our material resources limited we have God’s inner resources to draw on. This was how Paul discovered contentment when writing from prison in Philippi; his inner world in Christ was immensely deep, rich and satisfying. And when we are reliant for our happiness on what is exterior and notoriously capricious we are destined to be constantly disappointed.
Being serious about joy
Joy is the fuel that powers the engine of contentment. And joy, for a Christian, is not an optional extra. We cannot be obedient to the gospel without being serious about seeking or removing any obstacles to joy. Or as Paul puts it in Philippians 4:4 (MSG) “Celebrate God all day, every day. I mean, revel in him!”
So here are some small steps that we can make towards instilling joy into our everyday lives
- Practise gratitude, even for small things. Say grace before meals, even when eating on your own. Thank colleagues, shop assistants and public servants especially for the ‘thankless’ tasks.
- Avoid advertising. Treat it like the plague; its aim is to make you feel dissatisfied so you try and buy yourself happy. Use mute on the TV during ad breaks. Discipline your curiosity in public spaces; you’ll feel so much happier when not reminded of what you’re supposed to be missing…
- In those fleeting down-times when you are tempted to turn to your smart phone, take a deep breath, remind yourself that God is present and picture his love and peace pouring down like a waterfall upon you. Take a moment to receive. Thank him before your mind moves on.
- Minimise media. TV, films, glossy magazines and all types of mass media affect us deeply and often sub-consciously. We rarely have the luxury to reflect on what they are telling us about life, God, our selves and our values. Until you remove them you won’t appreciate how much they are affecting you.
- Take pleasure in the free stuff. Visit museums and art galleries. Discover your local library. Make any excuse to be out-of-doors, especially in green places. Prioritise face-to-face conversation ahead of social media.
- Spend some time with people less fortunate than yourself. Get to know them and take a genuine interest in their world.
- Invest in solitude and silence at least once a day. Don’t leave until you feel loved by God.