When the Apostle Paul wrote about his personal contentment he used a word that could be problematic if understood apart from the context of his situation. It is the Greek compound transliterated "autarkes". Two words come together to describe the ideal of contentment. First is "auto" meaning "self". The second is "arkeo", meaning "to assist or suffice". In the secular world this term could be interpreted to mean being "self-sufficient". But, the Apostle's understanding of being "autarkes" must be translated according to his spiritual discipline and the final verse that brings completion to the thought. Note the full phrasing of his sentences about contentment and the final verse that establishes the context---
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to
be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every
circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and
need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Philippians 4: 11-13, ESV
Paul certainly wouldn't have declared "self-sufficiency" as a spiritual virtue. His Epistles are laced with the strands of his absolute dependence on God through Jesus Christ the Lord. To the Corinthians he had written "By the grace of God I am what I am"
(1 Corinthians 15: 10, ESV). He knew and confessed the worthlessness of his own personal accomplishments when he wrote, "What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ" (Philippians 3: 8, ESV). In his encouragement about being content, he made it abundantly clear that this sense of personal calm and peace about life was the result of what Christ had accomplished in him. He closed the section on personal contentment with the phrase most of us know, "I can do all things through him who strengthens me". This inner strength and sufficiency was the presence "of Christ in you, the hope of glory" (Colossians 1:27, ESV). He wasn't self-sufficient in the trendy pop-psycho version. He was sufficient because of what was in him.
And, that thought in the central meaning of contentment, the sufficiency of what resides in us. Extended, it means that we are content with what derives from our personal communion with Christ. That contentment or sufficiency means further that we are not dependent on our circumstances---whether good or bad---for our approach to life. Nothing outside of us can erode, diminish or even multiply the fullness that is ours in Christ. We are content because of what is in us. Circumstances can't improve or worsen the state of a contented person's life. As a result, more isn't necessary. And, less isn't distracting. It's contentment.
This contentment seems so un-American these days. Just as often the believing community appears to be uncomfortable with people who live basically satisfied lives. The quest for more, more, more, as mentioned in Wednesdays post, is suddenly the generally accepted norm in our connected consumer culture whether in the office, at home, or at church. Genuinely content people appear to have little ambition, few goals and objectives in life, and an uncommon familiarity with giving, missions, others, and service, which are commonly life leftovers in the mainstream. Sadly, in many situations these content people are labeled as extreme elements of a more fanatical belief system. In many ways they are oddities in the prevailing consumer church culture. More isn't their primary life trigger. Contentment stifles those natural urges.
The real oddity is that contentment is so rare in the larger contemporary believing community. And, of course, this truth takes us back to the original question. That is the degree to which the church and believers are connected to this consumer world. Does engaging this world require the level of connection that enables reverse influence as well? There's also the reality that this connected consumer culture has anti-Christian sentiments intent on minimizing Christian influence in culture, government, education, social media, and other relational dimensions of society. How can these cultural lures be further minimized?
Today I am reminded of what John wrote in his first Epistle.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the
Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of
the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the
world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides
1 John 2: 15-17, ESV
This connected consumer culture is so attractive and appealing. You know, lovable. And, contentment is more difficult when we love the things of this world.
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