The Hidden Life
J. R. Miller, 1895
Secrets of Contentment
"I am glad to think
I am not bound to make the world go right,
But only to discover, and to do with cheerful heart,
The work which God appoints."
Someone has said, that if men were to be saved by
contentment, instead of faith in Christ, most people would be lost. Yet
contentment is a duty. It is also possible. There was one man at least who
said, and said it very honestly, "I have learned in whatever state I am in,
therein to be content." His words have special value, too, when we remember
in what circumstances they were written. They were dated in a prison, when
the writer was wearing a chain in prison. It is easy enough to say such
things in the summer days of prosperity; but to say them amid trials and
adversities, requires a real experience of victorious living.
But what did Paul mean when he said, "I am content"? He
certainly did not mean that he was satisfied. Contentment is not an
indolent giving up to circumstances. It does not come through the dying out
of desire and aspiration in the heart. There is a condition of mind which
some people suppose to be devout submission to God's will, which is anything
but Christlike. We are to make the most of our life. We are not to yield
irresolutely and weakly to everything which opposes us. Ofttimes we are to
resist and conquer what seem to be impossibilities. We are never to be
satisfied with our attainments, or our achievements, however fine they may
be. Satisfaction is undivine; it is a mark of death, not of life. Paul never
was satisfied. He lived to the very last day of his life—looking forward and
not back—forgetting things which behind—and stretching forward to things yet
before, eager to do more and achieve more. When he said he had learned to be
content, he did not mean that he had ceased to aspire and strive.
The original word, scholars tells us, contains a fine
sense which does not come out in the English translation. It means
self-sufficing. Paul, as a Christian man, had in himself all that he
needed to give him tranquility and peace, and therefore he was not dependent
upon any external circumstances. Wherever he went, there was in him a
competence, a fountain of supply, a self-sufficing. This is the true secret
of Christian contentment, wherever it is found. We cannot make our own
circumstances; we cannot keep away the sickness, the pain, the sorrow, the
misfortune from our life; yet as Christians we are meant to live in any and
all experiences in unbroken peace, in sweet restfulness of soul.
How may this unbroken contentment be obtained? Paul's
description of his own life, gives us a hint as to the way he reached it. He
says, "I have learned to be content." It is no small comfort to us
common people—to get this from such a man. It tells us that even with him it
was not always thus; that at first he probably chafed amid discomforts, and
had to "learn" to be contented in trial. It did not come naturally to him,
any more than it does to the rest of us, to have peace in the heart, in the
time of external strife.
Nor did this beautiful way of living come to him at once,
as a divine gift, when he became a Christian. He was not miraculously helped
to acquire contentment. It was not a special power or grace granted to him
as an apostle. He tells us plainly in his old age—that he had "learned" it.
This means that he was not always able to say, "I am content in any state."
This was an attainment of his later years; and he reached it by struggle and
by discipline, by learning in the school of Christ, by experience, just as
all of us have to learn it, if we ever do, and as any of us may learn it if
Surely everyone who desires to grow into spiritual beauty
should seek to learn this lesson. Discontent is a miserable fault. It
grieves God, for it springs from a lack of faith in him. It destroys one's
own heart-peace— discontented people are always unhappy. It disfigures
beauty of character. It sours the temper, ruffles the calm of sweet life,
and tarnishes the loveliness of the spirit. It even works out through the
flesh, and spoils the beauty of the fairest face. To have a transfigured
face, one must have heaven in one's heart. Just in proportion as the lesson
is learned, are the features brightened by the outshining of the indwelling
peace. Besides all this, discontent casts shadows on the lives of others.
One discontented person in a family, often makes a whole household wretched.
If not for our own sake, then, we ought at least for the sake of our
friends—to learn to be contented. We have no right to cast shadows on other
lives—by our miserable complainings and discontents.
But how can we learn contentment? One step toward it is
patient submission to unavoidable ills and hardships. No earthly lot
is perfect. No mortal ever yet in this world found a set of circumstances
without some drawback. Sometimes, however, it lies in our power to remove
the discomfort. Much of our hardship is of our own making. Much of it would
require but a little energy on our own part to cure it. We surely are very
foolish, if day after day we live on amid ills and frets—which we might
change for comforts if we would. All removable troubles we ought therefore
to remove. Too many people are indolent in resisting hard circumstances and
conditions. They give up too readily to what they miscall divine
providences. Obstacles are not always meant to block our way; ofttimes
they are intended to inspire us to courage and effort, and thus to bring out
our hidden strength. We must not be too quick in submitting to hardness, nor
too limp in yielding to circumstances. Some of the things which we find in
our way—we are to lift out of our way.
But there are trials which we cannot change into
pleasures, burdens which we cannot lay down, crosses which we must continue
to carry, thorns in the flesh which must remain with their rankling pain.
When we have such trials, why should we not sweetly accept them as part of
God's best way with us? Discontent never made a rough path smoother, a heavy
burden lighter, a bitter cup less bitter, a dark way brighter, a sore sorrow
less sore. It only makes matters worse. One who accepts with patience that
which he cannot change—has learned one secret of victorious living.
Another part of the lesson, is that we can learn to
moderate our desires. "Having food and clothing," says Paul again, "let
us be content with these." Very much of our discontent arises from envy of
those who seem to be more favored than ourselves. Many people lose most of
the comfort out of their own lot—in coveting the finer, more luxurious
things which some neighbor has. Yet if they knew the whole story of the life
they envy for its greater prosperity, they probably would not exchange for
it their own lowlier life, with its more humble circumstances. Or if they
could make the exchange, it is not likely they would find half so much real
happiness in the other position as they would have enjoyed in their own.
Contentment does not dwell so often in palaces—as in the
homes of the humble. The tall peaks rise higher, and are more
conspicuous—but the winds smite them more fiercely than they do the quiet
valleys. And surely the lot in life which God makes for us—is always the
best which could be made for us for the time. He knows better than we
do—what our true needs are. The real cause of our discontent is not in our
circumstances; if it were, a change of circumstances might cure it. It is in
ourselves, and wherever we go we shall carry our discontent heart with us.
The only cure which will affect anything—must be the curing of the fever
of discontent in us.
Envious desires for other people's places which seem
finer than our own—prevent our getting the best blessings and good out of
our own. Trying to grasp the things which are beyond our reach—we leave
unseen, unappreciated, untouched, and despised—the many sweet bits of
happiness which lie close about us. Someone says, "Stretching his hand to
catch the stars—man forgets the flowers at his feet, so beautiful, so
fragrant, so multitudinous, and so various." A fine secret of contentment,
lies in finding and extracting all the pleasure we can get from the things
we have—the common, everyday things, while we enter upon no mad, vain chase
after impossible dreams. In whatever state we are in—we may find therein
enough for our need.
If we would learn the lesson of contentment, we must also
train ourselves to live for the higher things of life. One of the ancient
wise men, having learned that a storm had destroyed his merchant ships, thus
sweeping away all his fortune, said, "It is just as well, for now I can give
up my mind more fully to study." He had other and higher sources of
enjoyment than his merchandise, and felt the loss of his ships no more than
manhood feels the loss of childhood's toys. He was but a
heathen philosopher; we are Christians. He had only his studies to occupy
his thought when his property was gone; we have all the blessed things of
God's love. No earthly misfortune can touch the wealth which a Christian
holds in the divine promises and hopes.
Just in the measure, therefore, in which we learn to live
for spiritual and unseen eternal realities—do we find contentment amid
earth's trials and losses. If we would live to please God, to build up
Christlike character in ourselves, and to lay up treasure in heaven—we shall
not depend for happiness, on the way things go with us here, nor on the
measure of temporal goods we have. The earthly desires are crowded out by
the higher and spiritual desires. We can do without childhood's toys—when
we have manhood's better possessions. We need the toys of this world
less—as we get more of God and heaven into our hearts.
There is a modern story of a merchant who was devoted to
noble purposes in life, who was determined to be a man free from bondage to
the baser things. One day a ship of his, which was coming homeward was
delayed. He became anxious, and the next day was yet more troubled, and the
third day still more. Then he came to himself, awaking to his true condition
of bondage to earthly things, and said, "Is it possible that I have come to
love money for itself, and not for its nobler uses?" Taking the value of the
ship and its cargo, he gave it to charities, not because he wished to be rid
of the money—but because only thus could he get the conquest over himself,
holding his love of money under his feet. He was learning well one secret of
Paul knew this secret. He cheerfully gave up all that
this world had for him. Money had no power over him. He knew how to live in
plenty; but he did not fret when poverty came instead. He was content in any
trial, because earth meant so little—and Christ meant so much to him. He did
not need the things he did not have. He was not made poor by the things he
lost. He was not vexed by the sufferings he had to endure, because the
sources of his life were in heaven, and could not be touched by earthly
experiences of pain or loss.
These are hints of the way we may learn in whatever state
we are, therein to be content. Surely the lesson is worth learning! One year
of sweet contentment, amid earth's troublous scenes is better than a whole
lifetime of vexed, restless discontent. The lesson can be learned, too, by
anyone who is truly Christ's disciple; for did not the Master say, "Peace I
leave with you; my peace I give unto you"?
The artist painted life as a dark, storm-swept sea,
covered with wrecks. Then out of the midst of the wild waves, he made to
rise a great rock, in a cleft of which, high up, amid herbage and flowers,
he painted a dove sitting quietly on her nest. It is a picture of Christian
peace in the midst of this world's strifes and storms. In the cleft of the
Rock, is the home of contentment.