The Apostle Paul indicates that contentment is the state of mind in which a Christian should operate. After God denied his prayer to have his “thorn in the flesh” taken away, Paul writes to the Corinthians:
“Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:10, NASB)
In Philippians 4:11, Paul indicates that contentment is a learned behavior. No matter what his circumstances, Paul would be content in the knowledge that God is in control and working things out for the advantage of his mission to preach the Gospel. Paul encourages his protégé Timothy to similar behavior when he writes:
“But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment. For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content.” (1 Timothy 6:6–8, NASB)
But not satisfied
On the other hand, Paul expresses a desire to advance, to change, to make things better. In Philippians 3 he speaks of “pressing on” to describe his lack of satisfaction. Paul describes his desire to climb higher in his spiritual life:
“Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13–14, NASB)
We can also see Paul’s dissatisfaction with his progress in his spiritual life when we read Romans 7. At one point in the chapter Paul cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24, NASB) We do not get any sense that Paul had arrived at a place where he should be satisfied in his spiritual state.
Was Paul content or was his dissatisfied? From the verses cited above the answer to this question has to be “both.” Paul was content but dissatisfied.
Is Paul conflicted or is there some other way of understanding what is going on? I believe it is the latter and this understanding can be applied it to our own lives.
With regard to his physical circumstances (who he was with, his food, his clothing, his travel schedule, the rigors of fulfilling his mission) Paul was content that God was in control. The oft quoted Romans 8:28 is an indication of this. Nothing about his circumstances would deter Paul from the completion of his mission. Paul did not get bogged down in self-pity when things were difficult.
On the other hand, with regard to the things of God, Paul was discontent or dissatisfied. He was not satisfied with his own progress in true holiness. Paul was not satisfied that he had done enough for the spread of the Gospel. Paul was not content to allow people to go into eternity without having heard the good news of Jesus Christ.
Too often, I have this backward. I am often dissatisfied in my physical circumstances and complacent regarding my holiness and mission. My dissatisfaction stems from being self-absorbed and focused on the wrong things.
By God’s grace and through his power, I choose to realign my contentment and dissatisfaction to follow the example of Paul.