Rightly understood, contentment is impossible to understand. A preacher who sets himself to explain it is therefore heading into treacherous waters. He needs to take care to explain only those aspects of it that are laid out in the Word, and then leave the the Holy Spirit to His work in bringing about contentment in our lives.
This is because the Bible clearly states that contenment is a mystery. King James I once joked that the poetry of John Donne was like the peace of God — “it passeth understanding.” But this joke depends on remembering something about the peace of God that we too often forget. But St. Paul plainly tells us this.
“Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:6-7).
“And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful” (Col. 3:15).
When it comes to contentment, it is so easy for us to slip off the point, and so we should take special care to look directly at what these passages are saying. We should do so, expecting to be surprised. If God is going to do something in our lives that passes all understanding, we should perhaps expect the run-up to contain something of the unexpected also.
In the Colossians passage, we have the duty of contentment stated. But notice how it is stated. The peace of God is to be sovereign. Let the peace of God rule, he says. Notice also that contentment is a corporate duty — we are called to this, he says, “in one body.” God’s intent with regard to contentment is that it be manifested in a corporate way, with in the body. And third, notice the close association of contentment with thanksgiving and gratitude.
In Philippians, we also have the duty stated — be careful or anxious for nothing. We then move into what we think is familiar territory. The apostle tells us to pray. Something comes up, and someone says, “We need to pray,” and someone else says, “Has it come to that?” This is something we know to do, but we frequently don’t do it the way we are instructed here. We do let our requests be known to God, and we do this by means of prayer and supplication. But this leads to the very common problem of worrying on our knees. We pray and we pray and we pray, like Sisyphus pushing his rock up that hill in Hades. We never get to closure. We try to get the issue shut, but the latch never clicks. This is because worrying on our knees is still worry, and just because it looks “spiritual” doesn’t make it any fun.
But here is where St. Paul says two very surprising things. The first is that he says the petitions are to be presented with thanksgiving. The second is that he promises the peace of God will guard our hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. And this is where it passes all understanding. Let us consider this second aspect first.
Our tendency — when we are worrying on our knees — is to try to figure out a way for our hearts and minds to guard the peace of God. We consider contentment, the peace of God, to be our soft innards which must be protected by the hard shield of our works, plans, thoughts, understanding, and so on. We try to protect the wrong thing with the wrong thing. But the peace of God guards your hearts and minds; your hearts and minds do not protect the peace of God.
The peace of God is armor. It is no fragile thing. The peace of God is not a gutttering candle in a tornado, certain to go out. The thing that mystifies us about this is how strong the peace of God is. And one thing is sure; we are told here that the peace of God guards us, and we do not guard it.
So the peace of God is not the soft body that needs to be protected; it is the hard armor that does the protecting. How do we put this armor on? This returns us to the earlier point about presenting our petititions with thanksgiving. Thanksgiving at the time when the petition is offered (which means that it is before the petition is granted) is thanksgiving offered in faith. We thank God for hearing our prayers, and we thank Him for the answer He will bestow.
But thanksgiving takes a very different form than presenting a raw petition alone. Thanksgiving is different than a straight request. Thanksgiving offered in faith is still gratitude. It is still thanks. “I thank You, Father . . .”
This is something the Lord Jesus Himself did. We know that He presented His petition in the Garden of Gethsemane, and He did so with loud cries. He agonized over the petitions He was presenting. He knew what going to the cross would involve. And yet, what was the context of His request? Earlier when He had taken the bread at the Supper, He said that it was His broken body, and He gave thanks. He was obviously giving thanks by faith – He was not giving thanks as part of an emotional rush. The cross was still in front of Him. He gave thanks over His own broken body before the prayer in the Garden. Scripture tells us that for the joy that was set before Him He endured the cross, despising the shame. So thanksgiving can be spontaneous and unforced when the object of your desire is realized. But thanksgiving can also be rendered by faith before the natural and emotional thanksgiving arrives for the celebration.
So put this all together. You have a trouble, a discontent. It may be unwarranted, or there may be real reasons, genuine troubles. In the Lord’s case, He was dealing with a real trial. We face real trials as well, and nothing said here about contentment should be seen as minimizing such trials. You may have a loved one who is dying. You may have hostile persecution at work. You may be facing financial disaster, and not of your making. In all this, we should remember that a servant is not greater than his master. If the Lord Jesus could give thanks at the beginning of His trial — and there has never been any other trial like it — then we can give thanks at the beginning of our trials. It can be a bit of work understanding how this armor goes on, but once on, the peace of God which protects your hearts and minds passes understanding. Others around you cannot understand how your heart and mind is withstanding the blows. They see the blows, and they see your response. They don’t see the armor.
But other times — unfortunately, many other times — our discontent is simply a matter of murmuring or grumbling. We do our best to imitate the children of Israel in the wilderness. Too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, too much, too little, and all topped off with a poor me. In these circumstances, presenting our petitions to God, with thanksgiving, amounts to confession of sin, and our discontent just vanishes like the attitude problem it was.
Now what we don’t understand in all this is how the peace of God protects us. But we can understand what we are to do in order to avail ourselves of the peace of God. We can learn how to put this armor on. We come before the Lord with an anxiety, a worry. We have trouble, and it troubles us. We lay it out before God, like Hezekiah in the Temple. We present the difficulty, and we do not put three layers of holyspeak varnish on it. In other words, we are not required to pretend that we are not troubled when we actually are. We are not required to pretend that our troubles are not troubles. Look at the psalmist. These psalms are in our Bibles for very good reasons, and one of those reasons is to teach us how to pray. When it comes to his troubles, the inspired psalmist is frequently a noisy bucket. He lets God know exactly what the problem is here. We should do the same. Presenting our petitions and requests to God should be an honest activity. Let it all out.
But here is the strange part. St. Paul tells us to do this, but he also adds that we are to do it with thanksgiving. Keep a psalter or a hymnal available. When you have laid all your troubles before the Lord, pick out a hymn or psalm of thanksgiving and sing it. “But,” you might say, “I would feel really stupid doing that.” Well, if you are the kind of person who feels dumb and stupid doing something like this, then you probably need to sing two or three of them. This is the pattern: present, thank, rest. Remember it is not your job to protect the peace of God. His peace is there to protect you.