In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content.
– Paul the apostle in Philippians 4:12
In the later years of his life, the apostle Paul evidently thought a lot about the power of contentment. He wrote the quotation about “the secret of being content” while being held for two years as a prisoner in Rome, essentially on the charge of doing the Lord’s work. To Paul, the secret was not some meditation mantra or stoic attitude that generates a feeling of contentment. The secret was contentment itself—the reality of being content with the Lord’s indwelling presence and empowerment in any and all situations.
Paul penned his first letter to Timothy probably after being released from that lengthy, unjust Roman imprisonment. His younger missionary coworker Timothy was in Ephesus, trying to help the church there fend off the destructive effects of heretical teachers. Paul evidently still had “the secret” on his mind when he reminded Timothy that “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6). Timothy could be content with Christ’s indwelling presence and power in Ephesus just as Paul had been in Rome. Or Timothy could lose that contentment if he wasn’t careful to keep his eyes on Jesus.
In 1 Timothy 6:6-19, we can see three ways that believers lose their contentment if they take their eyes (and confidence) off of Jesus.
Believers can lose true contentment in Christ by fixating on money. Money itself is not the problem. As stewards, we believers are called to manage our possessions wisely—as gifts from God. To do so, we must remember that money is a tool, a medium of exchange whereby we buy and sell goods and services. The problem comes when we lose control of our money and it takes control of us. This is why Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, “You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:24b).
Paul previously had reminded Timothy that devoted church pastors were worthy of being financially supported by their congregations (1 Tim. 5:17-18). Many of the false teachers, however—and some of the wealthy church members too—were fixated on money. They were more devoted to money than to the Lord. Thus, Paul warned that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Tim. 6:10). Loving money more than Christ is one sure way for a believer to lose contentment.
Believers can lose contentment in Christ by surrendering to the tyranny of the present. The Christian life is no game, but sometimes we think about life in those terms. In this regard, we can imagine two approaches to life: one, a “pinball approach” and the second, a “chess approach.” In the “pinball approach,” life is little more than being ricocheted from one event to another with little thought of direction or meaning. By contrast, the “chess approach” takes the long view about life, thinks strategically, and keeps the end goal in mind while dealing with day-to-day successes and setbacks.
Paul urged Timothy not to let ministry setbacks in Ephesus define his life and work in that city. He exhorted Timothy instead to “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness” (1 Tim. 6:11). These are qualities of eternal life that may not seem flashy in the present but will endure both in this life and the life to come. As believers, we can be content in any and all circumstances—plentiful times or painful times—because we have assurance about how life turns out for us in the end. We win! We win because Christ has already defeated the enemy. One day He will come again to usher His church into the victory of eternal life (1 Tim. 6:14-16). Losing sight of that future victory in Christ is a second sure way of losing contentment.
Believers can lose contentment in Christ by turning inward and shutting out all concern for others. Returning to the danger of losing contentment by fixating on money, Paul instructed Timothy to warn wealthy church members in Ephesus not to put their hope in the size of their bank accounts (1 Tim. 6:17-19). Believers who put their hope in God consider their wealth as a gift from Him to be used “to do what is good, to be rich in good works, [and] to be generous and willing to share” (1 Tim. 6:18). In contrast, those who are in love with their bank accounts often turn inward, become greedy for more, and ignore the needs of others. In the process, these lovers of money lose their grasp of what is truly life. They fall victim to the third sure way of losing contentment.
What about you? Have you learned the secret of being content in Christ? Or are you in danger of losing your contentment?
David Briscoe is a content editor at Lifeway for Explore the Bible resources.