Contentment, pagan and Christian

For the great teachers of paganism, contentment rests on the idea that expecting nothing is the only way to avoid disappointment. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus taught his followers that the events of life are beyond our control. Trouble, pain, and suffering may or may not come, but when they do, we cannot do anything about it. All we control, Epictetus said, is our response. Therefore, the secret to contentment is to discipline ourselves to accept the inevitable with calmness.

In Buddhism Plain and Simple, Zen teacher Steve Hagen tells an old story about the Buddha. A farmer came to him with a long list of concerns and complaints about his health, his family, his work, on and on. He asked the Buddha for advice. The teacher’s response was simple: “I can’t help you.”

“Everybody’s got problems,” the Buddha responded. “In fact, we’ve all got eighty-three problems, each one of us. Eighty-three problems, and there’s nothing you can do about it. If you work really hard on one of them, maybe you can fix it—but if you do, another one will pop right into its place. For example, you’re going to lose your loved ones eventually. And you’re going to die some day. Now there’s a problem, and there’s nothing you, or I, or anyone else can do about it.”

The man became furious. “I thought you were a great teacher!” he shouted. “I thought you could help me! What good is your teaching, then?”

The Buddha said, “Well, maybe it will help you with the eighty-fourth problem.”

“The eighty-fourth problem?” said the man. “What’s the eighty-fourth problem?”

Said the Buddha, “You want to not have any problems.”

That is the voice of pagan contentment; the contentment of resignation, of embracing the way things are simply because it is the way things are. Reality isn’t going to change, so shave off unrealistic desires until you want only what the world can actually offer, and so be content.

Such an uncompromisingly realistic view of life has a certain hard nobility. In fact, it may even seem like a rather Christian perspective on suffering. After all, didn’t Paul write, “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”? On the surface, Paul’s contentment looks much like the Buddha’s, but, in fact, Philippians 4 paints a picture of Christian contentment which is radically different from the contentment of paganism.

Pagan contentment grows out of a calm recognition and acceptance of the fact that I can change nothing. Christian contentment, on the other hand, springs from a confidence that God could change everything.

Earlier in Philippians 4, Paul wrote, “The Lord is near. Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” For the Christian, replacing anxiety with the incomprehensible peace of God means praying with thanksgiving to the God who is near. Because God is near, we can be content.

But why? How does the nearness of God yield contentment? In contrast to the pagan who is content because he accepts the inevitability of suffering, Paul, who a few verses earlier spoke of being at peace while “going hungry… and suffering need,” ends the chapter by assuring his Philippian readers, “And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” Plainly, Paul’s contentment in the midst of need did not come from a Stoic acceptance of irresistible fate, because he was confident that his God was capable of supplying all needs, including those which he sometimes allowed Paul to experience.

If God was able to end Paul’s suffering, but didn’t, how in the world could that give the apostle a feeling of contentment and peace?

Precisely because God was able to end his suffering, yet didn’t.

Suppose I see someone in pain and I know I can help them, but I don’t. If that happens, there are two possibilities. Perhaps I am callous or cruel, but perhaps I know something about the situation which tells me the pain will ultimately turn out for good. Maybe my child is at the dentist having a cavity pulled, or a friend is suffering withdrawals while getting clean from a drug addiction. I could “help,” but taking away the pain would actually make things worse. In some cases, love means allowing someone to hurt.

If my God who died for me, who has numbered the hairs of my head, allows me to suffer when he could easily prevent it, I can only conclude that this suffering has filtered down to me through hands of love. Despite his lengthy resume of trials, Paul declared, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). If we can learn to really believe what that verse promises, it holds a contentment far more hopeful than the mere resignation of the Stoic or the Buddhist.

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