There is a tale of a king who suffered from a painful ailment. His counselors advised him of the only cure—to find a contented man, get his shirt, and wear it night and day. So, the king sent messengers to find such a man, with orders to bring back his shirt. After months of searching the kingdom, they returned empty-handed.
“Did you find a contented man in all my realm?” asked the king.
“Yes, O king, we found only one in all thy realm,” they replied.
“Then why did you not bring back his shirt?” the king demanded.
“Master, the man had no shirt.”
(Condensed from Tan, P. L., Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations, Bible Communications, Inc., 1996, pp. 272–273).
The story’s point is that contentment is a rarity, yet something we all desperately want and need. What, then, does it mean to be content? The apostle Paul seemed to have the insider’s scoop: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 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” (Philippians 4:11–12).
Paul’s statement, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation,” is truly astonishing considering the circumstances he endured and situations he encountered while serving the Lord. He was beaten, whipped, stoned, shipwrecked, tossed in the open sea, harassed by enemies, and betrayed by false believers. He endured hunger, thirst, and even nakedness, just like the man with no shirt (see 2 Corinthians 11:24–28).
The Greek term Paul used, translated as “content” in English, describes a state of being satisfied or satiated with things as they are. Paul had “learned the secret,” meaning he “learned the mystery” of contentment. This expression implies acquiring special information.
Contentment is learned, and we gain it through experience. Like Paul, James had learned to be joyful and optimistic through trials and testing because he understood them to be privileged occasions for growth—to become “mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2–4). Paul’s deficiency, his weakness in hardship, was an opportunity for God’s “all-surpassing power” to shine forth through him (2 Corinthians 4:7–9). He had discovered that the indwelling power of Christ supplied him with strength, grace, peace, and contentment no matter what life threw at him (Philippians 1:6; 4:13; 2 Corinthians 12:9; Ephesians 3:16). When Paul hit a roadblock or faced a storm, He drew on the deep well of resources springing from his faith in God and his life hidden in Christ (Philippians 1:21; 3:10; see also John 15:5).
The author of Hebrews described contentment as being satisfied with what we have, knowing God will never fail us or leave us (Hebrews 13:5). Paul told Timothy, “But godliness with contentment is great gain. 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” (1 Timothy 6:6–8).
Paul was content in every circumstance because his life was anchored in Christ and focused on eternity: “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:16–18; see also Colossians 3:1–3).
To be content as believers, we must resist the temptation to become over-attached to the things of this world (1 Corinthians 7:31). The opposite of contentment is anxiousness and worry. Jesus told His followers, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:25, ESV). If our heavenly Father feeds and cares for the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, certainly He will take care of us, His treasured children. Jesus continued, “These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:32–33, NLT; see also Philippians 4:6). Trusting God in everything, even if we are shirtless, is the secret of being content.