What does it mean to PRAY FOR CONTENTMENT?

Sometimes, unknowingly, someone says something to someone, and it gets shared with someone else, and eventually it gets shared with you — and it sticks. For decades.

This is precisely what happened with some second-or-third-or-fourth-hand advice I got from my high school friend who got it from her boyfriend who got it from his mother who said:

Pray for contentment, no matter where you are or what you’re doing or what you have or don’t have… pray to be content.

That concept has stuck with me for 40-plus years now. It’s proven to be valuable and, to some extent, sanity-saving, because I am quick to admit I’ve had times of great discontent. And that’s when my friend’s boyfriend’s mother’s advice echoes around in my gray matter again.

In 1 Timothy 6:6, the Apostle Paul succinctly tells young Timothy: “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” After quite a bit of pondering, I dissected this verse and created an arithmetic equation:

Godliness + Contentment = Great Gain

Let’s take it a step further and drill down into each concept. But I want to start at the end with great gain. That two-word phrase could mean a lot of different things to a roomful of people. Is great gain the same as financial gain? Well, financial gain is great gain, but it’s not this great gain. In fact, Paul makes sure Timothy knows this great gain is absolutely not referring to financial gain.

1 Timothy 6:5-6: … (False teachers are those who) have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain. But godliness with contentment is great gain. 

Right there, Paul nails a big ‘ole sign to the wall: Godliness Is Not a Shortcut to Wealthy Living. That sign was posted in the first century A.D. when Paul wrote this letter to Timothy, and that sign is still valid in the 21st century. Great gain does not mean being wealthy.

Paul goes on…

1 Timothy 6:7-11: For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.

Remember, this was a personal letter from Paul to Timothy, and in the last sentence above, you can see how directly Paul tells him to not just try to avoid, not just try to turn over a new leaf. Paul said FLEE from all the examples of avarice listed in the previous three sentences: flee from wanting to get rich, flee from falling into temptation, flee from these kinds of traps, flee from foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin/destruction, flee from being eager for money, flee from wandering from the faith, flee from piercing yourself with many griefs.

Let’s pause right here and talk about a verb. The word for “piercing” in verse 10 doesn’t have one bit of relevance to the decorative piercings of today. (Some of those piercing make me want to lose my lunch, but that’s another post for another day. Or maybe never.) “Some people have … pierced themselves with many griefs.” The word in the original Greek text is peripeiro, which means “to put on a spit, to pierce, to wound deeply.”

Take that in for a moment. Paul is equating the pursuit of monetary wealth with being strung up on a spit like a soon-to-be-roasted pig. People who are “eager for money” and who want godliness to lead to financial wealth fall into temptation and a trap, and they are stringing themselves up on a spit, ready to be roasted.

So, great gain is not financial gain. Great gain is (referring back to our equation) the sum of “godliness” and “contentment.”

Next, let’s consider the first part of the equation. Godliness — what is it? Ye olde online dictionary says it is “the quality of being devoutly religious; piety,” and also “the condition and quality of being godly, pious, scrupulously observant of all the teachings of one’s religion, practicing virtue and avoiding sin.”

I’d say it more simply: godliness is simply reflecting God’s character traits in your life — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control. (Those sound familiar, don’t they? Check out Galatians 5:22-23 for the details of the fruit of God’s Spirit.)

In verse 11, Paul writes down a list for Timothy that looks a lot like the Galatians 5 list: Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness. 

Pursue these traits, and you’ll find contentment is easier to come by.

But let’s look at another place in another letter from the prolific Paul where he mentions contentment. In Philippians 4:11, Paul wrote, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” A few key words to electronically underline there: I have learned to be content. Contentment doesn’t come naturally, and it isn’t a genetic predisposition. Contentment is something we have to LEARN, something we have to INTENTIONALLY PURSUE. I’d go so far as to say contentment is something we have to PRACTICE and TWEAK in our life for the rest of our life.

Take a moment to read how a couple of my fave Bible versions phrase the Philippians passage:

Philippians 4:11-13 — New International Version

11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 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. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.

Philippians 4:11-13 — Amplified Version

11 Not that I speak from [any personal] need, for I have learned to be content [and self-sufficient through Christ, satisfied to the point where I am not disturbed or uneasy] regardless of my circumstances. 12 I know how to get along and live humbly [in difficult times], and I also know how to enjoy abundance and live in prosperity. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret [of facing life], whether well-fed or going hungry, whether having an abundance or being in need. 13 I can do all things [which He has called me to do] through Him who strengthens and empowers me [to fulfill His purpose—I am self-sufficient in Christ’s sufficiency; I am ready for anything and equal to anything through Him who infuses me with inner strength and confident peace.]

Pursuing godly contentment (GOD-HONORING contentment) above all things does not mean you check your goals at the door, that you become a doormat to what life dishes out.

It does mean you constantly REALIGN YOUR PRIORITIES with God’s priorities. You ask God to guide you to SEE YOUR CIRCUMSTANCES in light of eternity and in light of God’s kingdom purposes.

How could intentionally pursuing contentment help you right now?

What does it look like to intentionally pursue contentment? Let’s unpack it a little.

We humans are, by nature, problem solvers. Need to get across the river? Let’s figure out how to float across it or build a bridge. Need water to grow crops? Let’s figure out how to reroute the river or stream to bring the water to our land. Want to get a better job? Let’s take some night classes and work toward a degree or certificate to improve our skill set.

Sometimes, our pursuit to live in the State of Contentment comes from being able to CHECK THE BOX that we solved problem after problem after problem. Ahhh, got that one solved… contentment reigns for a moment… then we’re off to solve the next problem — and we’re not content until we do. Consider this: Have you ever thought if you could just get “this” or “that” problem ironed out, then life would be fine? Have you ever pushed yourself to get to this or that “plateau” in life, thinking that once you arrive there, all will be well?

Sometimes, life throws some curve balls which cannot be solved by building bridges or irrigating land or earning class credits. Sometimes, life’s problems are soul-ripping… anger-producing… tear-inducing… mind-boggling, and we are stymied by how to fix the problem and get to our State of Contentment.

Personally, one of the biggest impediments to claiming my stake of ground in the State of Contentment was our infertility problem. We tried to solve it for a decade. Time after time after time, I thought if we could just solve our infertility issue, then I could handle whatever life threw at us. I would BE CONTENT. The infertility era of our life was absolutely the most grief-filled, agonizing experience of our lives up to that point.

Did I pray for a divine solution to trickle down from heaven? You betcha. But I had to look at how many times, particularly in the Old Testament, infertility (or the yuckier word, barrenness) was part of God’s larger plan to bring about His kingdom purposes for people’s lives.

Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth — the names of the barren echo through history, and we see the end result: eventually, they did bear at least one child. (Hannah really knocked it out of the park because she eventually had five or six children [1 Samuel 2:21]. I bet she was just wallowing in contentment!)

But these women’s years of infertility were part of God’s plan — until God chose to “open” each barren womb. Remember, they lived about 3,000 years from the nearest infertility clinic, so their options were next to nothing outside of divine intervention. Scripture records how each woman yearned for children desperately, and we can infer they prayed for God to remedy their infertility problem. How and when God chose to do that is part of the working out of His kingdom purposes.

I looked to these ancient women and their stories to remind myself that somehow my infertility was part of God’s kingdom tapestry. Would He reverse my infertility? Would I ever be a parent? Meanwhile, would I LET GOD use my infertility for His purposes and His glory? It was a tough batch of prayers to pray, but it was eventually out of SHEER DETERMINATION to HONOR GOD with the situation that I was able to pray for His will in this problem.

And that’s when my friend’s boyfriend’s mother’s advice came trickling down through the years to remind me to:

Pray for contentment, no matter where you are or what you’re doing or what you have or don’t have… pray to be content.

To be content while waiting is just plain, stinkin’ hard. Were we sitting on our duffs just waiting for God to “open my womb” (ewww…)? No, we weren’t just twiddling our thumbs, so to speak. We were exploring infertility options (because infertility clinics were just down the highway from us, not 3,000 years away). We were also exploring adoption — praying about it, doing a lot of soul-searching, and investigating different agencies and methods of adoption.

Contentment was hard to come by, but we prayed for it, and we pursued it. What I discovered is this nugget: part of the trek toward the State of Contentment comes when we take our eyes off the end goal — which is often stuck in our field of vision like a Post-It note that’s been super-glued to our forehead — and start looking for JOY IN THE MOMENT.

When I stopped thinking constantly about how much I wanted to be THERE (in the future as a parent) and started being grateful for whatever was happening NOW, my outlook improved little by little. I found “strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.”

I did not buy into the lousy theology that says something like, “If you’ll just learn to be content with where you are, then God will give you what you want.” Nor did I buy into the inaccurate infertility advice: “If you’ll just stop trying and being stressed, then it will ‘just happen.'” I call baloney on both those.

Pursue contentment because it honors God right where you are, not because it’s your bargaining currency to get what you want. Pursue contentment because it really will bring you more joy in the moment than continually longing for what you can’t make happen fast enough.

Skip to the end of our story: We never solved our infertility issues. God never brought about a genetic offspring for us. We became parents through adoption — and one day, I’ll share the many miracles that took place for that to happen. But for now, the key thing is I found how to be content without solving our infertility problem. I found contentment moment by moment, day by day in looking for God’s presence in my life as I took step by step by step. I leaned into His Word like crazy and I found strength to keep walking the infertility journey until it became the parenthood journey.

But what if your pursuit of contentment has been ham-stringed by something else? Something much more tragic than infertility — like the death of a loved one, the end of a dream, the loss of your health or the life you once knew. There may not be a way to “solve” that problem and get to the contentment you long for because that reality has evaporated. Is the pursuit of contentment still even possible?

As gently as I know how, I’d like to suggest the answer still comes in looking for joy in the moment… in leaning into God’s Word for strength… in trusting that God will guide you, hold you, and even carry you as you faithfully take one step and then another in this journey you never wanted to be on.

Let me officially hand you this advice as it was handed down to me:

Pray for contentment, no matter where you are or what you’re doing or what you have or don’t have… pray to be content.

So let me close by circling back to this: Contentment doesn’t come naturally, and it isn’t just a genetic predisposition. Contentment is something we have to LEARN, something we have to INTENTIONALLY PURSUE.

11 I have learned to be content [and self-sufficient through Christ, satisfied to the point where I am not disturbed or uneasy] regardless of my circumstances. … 13 I can do all things [which He has called me to do] through Him who strengthens and empowers me [to fulfill His purpose—I am self-sufficient in Christ’s sufficiency; I am ready for anything and equal to anything through Him who infuses me with inner strength and confident peace.]” (Philippians 4:11, 13, Amplified Version)

Will you join me in this pursuit?

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