Clean Contentment

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One of the running temptations we encounter in this world is the temptation to come up with makeshift forms of holiness. We think we know what God wants, and we bustle around to come up with some form of that on our own. But then we discover later, to our dismay, that this is not what He was asking for at all.


“Let him that stole steal no more: but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth” (Eph. 4:28).

“But fornication, and all uncleanness, or covetousness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient: but rather giving of thanks” (Eph. 5:3-4).


I would like to begin by emphasizing one word that is found in both of these texts. That is the word rather (mallon), a word that Paul uses in exactly the same way in both texts. In the first instance, his use of it is not really that surprising to us. In the second, there are perhaps quite a few surprises in store. In the first example, Paul says that a thief should stop stealing, and that instead of this he should get an honest job, working with his hands. This is because in Paul’s mind there is a basic alternative here—stealing or working. If you work, and generate a surplus for sharing with those in need, then you have filled up your life with that which will exclude the practice of stealing. We should note in passing that Paul does not tell the thief to get a job so that he can make his own money, and then be in a position to tell hippies to “get a job.” Honest work enables providing for one’s own needs, and for sharing.

Now there are a lot of observations that seem like “common sense” to us, when actually they are the heritage of many centuries of Christian teaching. This may be in that category, but whether it is or not, today we can immediately see the connection between learning how to meet your needs the hard, honest way and avoiding the temptation to meet them the easy, dishonest way. Seems obvious.


But Paul argues in exactly the same way a few verses later when he teaches the Ephesians how to get free of crass joking, covetous grasping, the easy naming of fornication and uncleanness, and so forth. The impure life is to be replaced with . . . now here is where we would say “the pure life,” but Paul says “with thanksgiving.” We contrast impurity with purity, but Paul contrasts impurity with contentment. There is something deep going on here. This is not a trivial point.


Now biblical contentment is not stoicism. We are not called to be content in the same way that a block of wood is content—even though we may assume that it presumably is content. That is not what we are called to. Paul is not urging us into some kind of happy, happy, happy all the day stuff. He is not urging a constant and frothy giddiness. No, he sets the pattern for us, providing us with an example. In one place he describes himself as “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Cor. 6:10). His joy, his contentment, was not a perverse kind of denial, or a stiff-upper-lip stoicism. And yet it was “always rejoicing.” This kind of contentment, whether well-fed or hungry, is a deep satisfaction with the will of God for you (Phil. 4:11-12). This is bedrock stuff—a basalt kind of joy twenty feet down. And it needs to be a foundational, bedrock joy that runs underneath the entire house.


Paul tells that we must, always and for everything, give thanks in the name of Jesus—“giving thanks always for all things” (Eph. 5:20). This is part of his sustained argument, where he is continuing to show us the contrast, not between dirty and clean, but between dirty and grateful. This is what helps us to name the problem rightly.

For example, if you are fighting a losing battle for godly entertainment standards at your house, the problem is not teen sex comedies, the problem is discontent. The problem is not dirty jokes, but frustration. If an authority figure says, “you should tell clean jokes instead of dirty jokes,” this is a perfect set up for the comeback, “but clean jokes are lame.” But Paul doesn’t tell us to fight dirty jokes with clean jokes, lame or not. He says to fight dirty jokes with contentment and gratitude.

And for those who see the world biblically, they see that those whose talk is full of corruption are not revealing a worldly-wise sophistication, but rather a seething and unhappy discontent.


Just as the thief is trying to get something the easy way instead of God’s way, so also the person with a foul mouth is trying to get satisfaction in his own way. But outside of Jesus Christ, there can be no deep satisfaction—and in Christ, everything is pure. So if we are trying to find satisfaction independently of Him, that move will always veer toward the crass, the filthy, the immoral, the disturbing, and the rest of that fetid swamp. But it makes no sense for someone to live in the swamp of discontent with a resolve to “keep it clean.” Keeping it clean is arbitrary, given the quagmire of discontent he lives on, and on top of that, keeping it clean there is impossible.

“Keeping a rule,” however technically correct, falls easily into the trap of abstraction and impersonalism. As a result we oppose sin with a false standard of holiness, and then are surprised at its impotence. But gratitude, thanksgiving, contentment, and joy are always personal, by definition. Jesus is there, and if you thank Him, then that gratitude fills up all the available space.


Scripture teaches us that gratitude and thanksgiving are central to a right relationship with God, which in turn is central to a right relationship to the world around us. The fundamental problem with the unregenerate heart and mind is that it will not honor God as God, and will not give Him thanks (Rom. 1:21). Contrary to this, we want to make sure we do both. Confronting sin, we should approach it with gratitude displacement.

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Mark Burnham
Mark Burnham
1 year ago

This teaching is blowing my mind right now. Thank you, and God bless you Pastor Wilson!