By Peter Amsterdam
January 17, 2017
We read in the New Testament and throughout this series that growth in Christlikeness calls for “putting on” and “putting off.” Gratitude is a key element in becoming more like Jesus, so learning what steps we can take to develop gratitude, as well as what actions we can take to counter ingratitude, can help us raise our sails so that the Spirit of God can move us progressively closer to Christlikeness. This article and the two following will touch on five different aspects of developing gratitude. Two of those topics, contentment and generosity, fall under the “putting on” category, while the other three—covetousness, envy, and greed—are clearly things we want to “put off.”
One aspect of a grateful attitude is contentment. What is contentment, as expressed in Scripture? It’s an internal satisfaction that keeps us at peace in spite of outward circumstances. We can see this reflected in what the apostle Paul wrote about his experiences:
I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.1
Paul expressed that no matter what situation he found himself in, he was inwardly at peace regarding God supplying his material needs.
The Greek word used to express contentment and its cognates are found in verses such as:
If we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.2
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”3
The same Greek word is also translated as sufficiency:
God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.4
He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”5
When we are content, we are satisfied with and grateful for what God has given us, no matter what our circumstances.
One author describes contentment this way:
The contented person experiences the sufficiency of God’s provision for his needs and the sufficiency of God’s grace for his circumstances. He believes that God will indeed meet all his material needs and that He will work in all his circumstances for his good. That is why Paul could say, “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” The godly person has found what the greedy or envious or discontented person always searches for but never finds: He has found satisfaction and rest in his soul.6
When we are content, we are satisfied with the necessities of life, with the care and supply that God is giving us at the time. This doesn't signify a passive acceptance of our situation. It doesn’t prevent us from pursuing goals or remove the desire for improvement. It’s not complacency or self-satisfaction with no desire to make progress. Neither is it fatalism, which accepts things as they are and refuses to work to make things better. Rather it is the positive assurance that God has and will continue to sufficiently supply one’s needs. Contentment is rooted in trust and faith in God, in the knowledge that He takes care of us; and that because He does, we are to be at peace with what He has supplied during the current phase of life. Like Paul, who learned to be content in his situation, whether he had much or little, we can find that same peace and contentment.
Notice that Paul speaks of having learned to be content. He went through many difficult things in his life, including shipwreck, prison, and being whipped and stoned. He learned to develop the resources within himself to be thankful for God’s grace, care, and supply no matter what his state. Likewise, no matter what our situation may be, by His grace, we can be grateful for God’s provision. Our contentment doesn’t have to depend on circumstances or things; our joy comes from something that transcends poverty or prosperity—it comes primarily from faith in God, from trust in His love and care.
We find discontentment at the beginning of humanity, in the book of Genesis. God gave Adam and Eve all they needed, placing them in a garden where out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food.7 They were told they could eat of every tree in the garden except one. They had all they needed, but were tempted with discontentment when the serpent pointed out that they couldn’t eat from the one tree. They were tempted to question the goodness of God, which is the root of discontentment.
Believers living in today’s consumer society face challenges with being content; it’s easy to adopt the materialistic attitude that more, bigger, and better things will make us happy. Advertisements come at us constantly, projecting the message that buying this or that product will bring fulfillment. The underlying inference is that if we don’t have these things, we will be unhappy and unfulfilled. If we buy into that message, we can become dissatisfied with what we have, wanting more or better. We can develop the attitude that what God has blessed us with is insufficient, and become discontent. Of course, it’s not only the feeling that we don’t have sufficient material goods that causes us to be discontent. We can find ourselves thinking that if we just get that job, or that raise, or that degree, or a boyfriend or girlfriend, husband or wife, then we’ll be happy.
Sometimes the cause of our discontentment can be traced to our social or workplace standing. For example, we may be unhappy that we have to work for others and take orders, that we’re not in charge, that others advance faster than we do. When we are discontented, we tend to look to what’s ahead—what’s over the next hill, the next achievement, the next goal—to make us feel fulfilled, all the while losing sight of the blessings of our present situation.
When we are content with the blessings God has brought into our life and thankful for what He provides for us, then we are freed from the love of money, the fixation of gathering wealth, the never-ending craving to accumulate more and more. Of course, contentment doesn’t mean you never buy anything new or never progress financially. Things wear out, families grow and so do needs, and what sufficed before is sometimes no longer sufficient for present circumstances and it’s necessary to upgrade. In such instances, the upgrade meets a legitimate need, and if God has supplied the means for you to make that upgrade, then that is God’s blessing.
On the other hand, sometimes circumstances change in a way that would be considered a downgrade. It’s difficult to face situations where income drops and we are no longer able to maintain our lifestyle, whatever that may be. Once a certain level of income and spending is attained, many people go into debt by borrowing money in order to maintain a lifestyle they can no longer afford, instead of adjusting to living within their means. Learning to be content challenges us to put aside anxiety, to not fear the loss of things, but rather to positively adjust to our present situation, with trust in and thankfulness toward God. The apostle Paul, who experienced many changes in circumstances, and even many hardships, wrote:
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.8 … as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.9
Contentment is freedom from feeling that we are lacking, that we should have more or should be in a better situation. When our lacks become the center of our attention, we risk becoming disgruntled, less able to recognize what is good in our lives, and constantly feeling that things should be better. However, when we focus on the good that we experience right now, on the many blessings the Lord has given us, we become more appreciative, satisfied, and content. We move from feeling anxious and unhappy to having inner peace and thankfulness in our heart. We become content not only regarding what we have, but also what we don’t have.
So how do we foster contentment? One way is to remind ourselves that what we possess, we do not own; all that we have has been placed under our stewardship, and we are responsible to use it wisely. Whether we have much or little, it all belongs to God.10 As stewards of God’s possessions, we should be thankful for what He has provided and look to Him for guidance about how best to use what He has entrusted to us. It’s also helpful to remember that all we have comes to us as a result of His love and grace.
Both riches and honor come from you … and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all.11
When we realize that whatever we have is a gift and blessing from the Lord, we are more likely to be thankful toward Him and grateful for what He has given us.
Scripture puts a significant emphasis on having the right relationship with material things. Almost half of Jesus’ parables touched on handling possessions, and more than two hundred verses in the Gospels refer to money.12 It can be helpful to familiarize ourselves with verses that help us to align our thinking with scriptural teaching, or even to memorize a few, such as:
Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.13
There is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.14
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”15
When meditating on these verses, we may want to ask the Lord to point out any areas where we are discontent, and work toward changing our attitude and to help us be content through the working of the Holy Spirit within us.
Another way to develop contentment is to focus on what God’s Word tells us are true values.
For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?16
Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her.17
In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways. The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces.18
Verses like these tell us what God considers important and what He wants us to value more than material things.
God’s blessings are given by God in a manner that is beyond our understanding. He owns everything, and how He chooses to dispense His blessings is His right; our responsibility is to trust that He knows best, and to not question His judgment or be envious of what He has given to others.
One further way to develop contentment is to recognize that if the Lord has blessed us materially, then we bear responsibility for how we use what He’s given us, and we are expected to be generous. (More on generosity in an upcoming article.)
As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share.19
Nothing of this world will permanently satisfy us, as we are made for God. Our ultimate satisfaction, joy, and fulfillment is found in the Lord—who loves us, made us, and sustains us. While we can enjoy the material blessings God has bestowed upon us, they aren’t what define us, fulfill us, or bring us lasting joy. If our overall goal is Christlikeness, then we should show our gratitude for God’s blessings in our lives by learning to be content with what blessings He’s given us, whether many or few.
(More on Gratitude in Part Three and Four)
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Philippians 4:11–13 NAS.
2 1 Timothy 6:8.
3 Hebrews 13:5.
4 2 Corinthians 9:8.
5 2 Corinthians 12:9.
6 Jerry Bridges, The Practice of Godliness (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2010), 95.
7 Genesis 2:8–9.
8 Philippians 4:11.
9 2 Corinthians 6:10.
11 1 Chronicles 29:12.
12 Randy Frazee, Think, Act, Be Like Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014), 146.
13 Luke 12:15.
14 1 Timothy 6:6–8.
15 Hebrews 13:5.
16 Mark 8:36.
17 Proverbs 3:13–15.
18 Psalm 119:14, 37, 72.
19 1 Timothy 6:17–18.