The secret to finding contentment

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Phil. 4:13).  

These victorious words ring like they were spoken by a true champion. I can imagine them being uttered by the likes of William Wallace in the movie “Braveheart” immediately before he was about to engage in a seemingly impossible battle. Or perhaps a declaration made by Martin Luther, after he faced the ominous consequences that resulted from him nailing his 95 theses to the door of All Saints Church. Indeed, many remarkable people throughout the centuries have exclaimed these very words as they faced impossible odds. It’s no wonder that the person who first coined this phrase was the ultimate poster child of faith: Paul the Apostle.

Paul was a remarkable person. Not only did he write two thirds of the New Testament, but his ministry has influenced countless individuals throughout history. His life is truly inspiring, but his dedication was not without difficulty. One needs only to read a few short verses in 2 Corinthians 11:23-28 to get a sense of the extreme suffering Paul endured for the sake of the gospel.  The list includes imprisonment, floggings, beatings, stoning and lashings to name but a few.

The nature of Paul’s suffering was so severe at times that it may leave one wondering how he ever endured it so faithfully. What was it that kept Paul going through such difficulties? Fortunately, Paul provides several keys in his writings that indicate how we can withstand similar difficulties in our own lives. 

One of these keys can be found immediately before the opening quote from Philippians 4:13 when Paul states, “… 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” (Phil. 4:11-12).  

Given what we know about Paul’s intense sufferings, it is noteworthy that he learned to be content in every situation. Not only that, but according to these verses, apparently there is a secret to Paul’s contentment. So, what is that secret?

The power of Thanksgiving

If you look at the entire context of Philippians 4:4-13, I believe we can find the mysterious secret that Paul was referring to. In particular, Paul urges in Philippians 4:6-7: Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

Remember, in verse 12, Paul says that he learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, and in verse 6 and 7 he exhorts us all to be thankful in every situation. I don’t believe that this similarity in language is merely a coincidence. Rather, the context suggests that when thanksgiving is combined with a regular prayer life, it ultimately leads to contentment in all circumstances. Not only does Paul connect the giving of thanks in every situation with the peace of God, but he also implies that it is an antidote to anxiety.  

Guarding your mind and heart

Although many of us may already believe the promises stated in Philippians 4:6-7 because of our Christian faith, interestingly, there is mounting scientific evidence that verifies the truth of it as well. Over the past couple of decades, several researchers have shown the benefits that thanksgiving has on both the mind and the heart. 

Psychologists have found gratitude has a positive influence on life satisfaction, subjective well-being, prosocial behaviors, religiosity, positive appraisals, perceived social support, hopefulness, and even personality, among others. Several studies have also found that thankfulness can guard our mind from experiencing negative psychological states like stress and depression.

In addition to the impressive psychological benefits that thanksgiving has on the mind, a regular practice of gratitude has been shown to have tremendous physical health benefits. Researchers from the University of California San Diego found that gratitude is related to heart health by decreasing inflammatory biomarkers that are associated with heart disease. Other research has shown that gratitude is associated with indirect benefits—like decreasing blood pressure—that are related to heart health as well. In other words, thanksgiving has literally been shown to “guard the heart” as stated in Philippians 4:6-7.

In addition to its role in guarding the heart and mind, gratitude has immune-boosting effects, which protects people from contracting various illnesses and disease. Thanksgiving also decreases the stress hormone cortisol, which has been shown to result in negative long-term health consequences by suppressing the immune system. These positive effects that thanksgiving has on the immune system are particularly relevant given the current pandemic that we find ourselves in. 

With all these benefits, it’s no wonder that Paul exhorts us all to “Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:18).

Thanksgiving challenge

Scripture tells us that it is God’s will for us to be thankful in all circumstances, and, when combined with a regular prayer life, thanksgiving has powerful promises attached to it. Are you thankful in all circumstances? If not, then where should you begin? Fortunately, initiating a lifestyle of gratitude is simple and does not require much time or effort. We can all start being more thankful on a regular basis.

The following scientifically based strategies of gratitude are taken from Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky’s book “The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want.” I challenge you to choose one or more of these strategies to implement in your own life. As you do, you will find that it will benefit your physical, spiritual and psychological well-being.

First, keep a gratitude journal or diary. Many psychologists have shown that keeping a gratitude journal can have tremendous effects on well being. For example, researchers from the Hong Kong Institute of Education found that health-care practitioners who kept a simple gratitude diary just two times a week over the period of four weeks showed a reduction in perceived stress and depression for three months. If this practice is something that interests you, Lyubomirsky suggests, “Ponder the three to five things for which you are currently grateful, from the mundane (your dryer is fixed, your flowers are finally in bloom, your husband remembered to stop by the store) to the magnificent (your child’s first steps, the beauty of the sky at night). One way to do this is to focus on all the things that you know to be true—for example, something you’re good at, what you like about where you live, goals you have achieved, and your advantages and opportunities. Don’t forget specific individuals who care for you, have made contributions to or sacrifices for you, or somehow touch your life.” 

Lyubomirsky’s research shows that people can benefit from this journal exercise by completing a journal entry just once a week. However, some people may reap more benefits by doing it more regularly—even daily.

If writing is not your thing, then there are several other options at your disposal. For example, Lyubomirsky suggests that, “Instead of writing, some of you may choose a fixed time simply to contemplate each of your objects of gratitude and perhaps also to reflect on why you are grateful and how your life has been enriched. Others may choose to identify just one thing each day that they usually take for granted and that ordinarily goes unappreciated.” 

Ultimately, there are no limits to what you can be grateful for or how you can express it. The key is to find what strategy works best for you so that you are more likely to stick with it on a regular basis.

Whether you decide to write a journal, contemplate, or personally thank someone who has blessed your life, Lyubomirsky suggests variety is important. As soon as you find yourself becoming bored with a certain practice of gratitude, mix it up by adopting other practices to “keep it fresh.” By finding new ways of being thankful or thinking of new things or people to be thankful for, you will be more likely to reap the tremendous benefits that gratitude has to offer. Not only will you be more happy, healthy, and satisfied with your life, like Paul, you will learn the secret to being content in every situation. 

So, whatever it is you might be facing, let’s remember Paul’s exhortation: Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thess. 5:18).

Do Good:

  • The Bible tells us gratitude is key to healthy living. Science tells us gratitude is key to healthy living. But what does it really mean to be grateful? Why is it important? And how does it improve your daily life? Listen in as Commissioners Doug and Colleen Riley share 25 years of worth of pastoral leadership to help us find gratitude on the Do Gooders Podcast.
  • Read  “The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want” by Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky.
  • Did you know The Salvation Army served more than 23 million Americans last year fighting hunger, homelessness, substance abuse and more—all in a fight for good? Where can you help? Take our quiz to find your cause and learn how you can join in today. 
  •  Give today to assist the Fight for Good in your community with The Salvation Army.
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