Learning to Be Content
by Pastor George Van Alstine

The Apostle Paul wrote of his own journey away from materialism:

“I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13)

Two important ideas stand out in this passage. First, Paul makes it clear that both not having enough (having “little”) and having more than enough (having “plenty”) can cause problems. We need God’s help to handle both bounty and poverty. Second, he twice refers to the fact that his contentment in every circumstance was something he had to learn. Humans by their connection with the material world are by nature grasping and possessive. Only when their spiritual side is awakened by God can they rise above this to some degree of contentment.

When I am asked by a couple to perform their wedding, I offer to give them four sessions of premarital counseling, and they usually take me up on it. In the first session I introduce them to my favorite algebraic formula S=R/E. After letting them guess what the letters stand for, I tell them that it’s SATISFACTION=REALITY over EXPECTATION

What that means in English is that we experience Satisfaction when our Reality is bigger than our Expectation. In everyday experience this seldom happens, and that’s why we’re so often depressed and frustrated. When people who are in love decide to marry, they see everything through rose-colored glasses, and their Expectations are sky-high. The Reality of their actual marriage can’t possibly measure up, and they’re guaranteed to be disappointed.

I explain to the couple that there are two ways to expand their Satisfaction in marriage: by improving their Reality or by lowering their Expectations. In our counseling sessions I will try to give them some good information and effective techniques that may improve the Reality of their marriage. I can help them some (though I’m not a trained marriage counselor), but I have relatively little power to lift the level of their Reality. I have a whole lot more power to lower their Expectations, and I’ll try hard to do that by bursting a few of their bubbles. Is that a cynical approach to premarital counseling?

What if we had this S=R/E approach to all of life? To our self-image? To our career? To our bank account? To how we raise our children? It won’t come easy. We will have to learn to be content. Some of our learning will come through times of need, of want, of loss, of disappointment. On the other hand, some of our learning may come through experiences of plenty, of bounty, of well-being, of self-satisfaction. The latter kinds of lessons may be harder to learn than the former. As we submit to our Teacher, we may approach the Apostle Paul’s contentment “in any and all circumstances.”

Isn’t it interesting that this passage is the context for the oft-quoted affirmation “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (verse 13). Paul realized that this kind of a contentment can only be experienced by the grace of God “who strengthens me.”