I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. (Phil. 4:11–13; NIV)
I am not content. I’m not even content with that sentence. I should’ve written: “I am discontent.” But that’s not really perfect either, since I’m not always discontent. Perhaps I needed to write: “I am almost never content.” Although why would I use two words, “almost never” when one simple adverb – such as “seldom” – would have sufficed? Let’s start over, then.
I am rarely content.
(Yeah, still not quite right.)
Anyways, I guess on a positive note, I’m so bad with contentment that I’m not content with my discontent. I’m dissatisfied with my lack of satisfaction.
As a biblical scholar, I probably should not say this, but I sometimes get a bit perturbed when I read Paul boast to his friends about how he has learned the secret of contentment. I’m sure it’s not, but it can come across in my mind as a humble brag:
“I’m content in all things. La da da da da!”
I’m frustrated, of course, because I’m not in on the secret. I mean, why can’t I learn the hidden formula?
Don’t get me wrong. I understand what Paul is saying. I can parse the bejesus out of that passage, discuss the first-century (Stoic) parallels to it, and recount its history of interpretation. I can deliberate on the aspect of its Greek verbs and the etymology of its juicy words. For instance, a fun fact is that the mu in the verb memuemai (translated “I have learned”) is the same mu in musterion (where we derive our word “mystery”). I get it. Paul has solved the great musterion. And to be sure, I too “know” the solution to the riddle. It is . . . “through Christ who strengthens me.” I understand that, to borrow from Philippians 3, the key to Christian contentment is knowing Christ sufficiently enough that everything else is cow-plop in comparison. Yet while I know the answer, I have to admit that I have not learned the lesson. Certainly I pursue the Lord, but I am discontent with how often and how passionately I do so.
Nevertheless, by the grace of God, I dare to say that – though I have far to go and I only inch along – I am growing in contentment. While Paul’s testimony in Philippians has been crucial for my success in this area, his is not the only one that has helped me on this way. When I was living in beautiful Ammerbuch-Entringen, Deutschland, an old German man told me something one day that often comes back to me when I think of finding contentment. On my walk from my flat to the train, I struck up a conversation with the old veteran working in his yard. In the course of our conversation, with my dreadfully limited German vocabulary and thick southern Arkansas accent, I tried to ask him if he ever got tired of living in such a tiny village. He looked at me, shook his head and said, “Nein, ich habe einen Garten gepflanzt,” which translates (I think!): “No, I planted a garden.” In retrospect, I’m wondering if the old man just misunderstood what I asked, but I took his answer as a profound metaphor. I understood it as him saying that he actually loved his tiny little village because he planted (pun intended) some meaning in it. Too often, I look beyond my tiny village, in search of meaning elsewhere, instead of discovering the meaning that’s growing up between my feet. Right there, right now, in the sacred space God has allotted me.
Nonetheless, between him and Paul, I’m realizing that although I do not have all that I have desired, I desired more than I deserved. And everything that I have now is –thanks be to God – bounteously more than I should have. So, here’s to pursuing Christ and planting “gardens” in 2017!