When you ask people what they really want in life I expect many people would answer, "To be happy." This desire has been so central to the western mindset that the founders of America decided that "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" was an "unalienable right."
This pursuit has been the deciding factor of so many choices in our life. We have gotten married and divorced looking for happiness. Had children and given them up looking for happiness. Devoted ourselves to careers and quit careers looking for happiness. Gone on strict no-carb, no-sugar, no-meat, no-identifiable food diets as well as binge-eaten ice cream sandwiches wrapped in bacon dipped in chocolate looking for happiness.
And for a brief time we seem to find what we are looking for. But it is temporary at best and too often unsatisfying. So we try to get more or do something else. We might change our hair-styles, clothes, houses, relationships or just dream about what life might look like a year or two away when the kids are older, the job has changed, the difficulties pass, or the finances have improved.
But the happiness we seek remains unattainable. Why do you suppose this is so?
First off, I think we have confused happiness with contentment. We believe that when we are happy then we will be content so we seek to be happy. But ultimately what we are all looking for is contentment. That deep sense of satisfaction and fulfillment. We will only rest when we find it.
But we have made the grave mistake of believing that this world can ever truly offer it. King Solomon's book Ecclesiastics is a prime example of this. He sought contentment through riches, fame, property, beauty, freedom, power, relationships, entertainment only to come to the realisation that it is futile, like trying to capture the wind in a jar.
But where Solomon failed, the Apostle Paul however succeeded because he had a very different approach. In his letter to the Philippians, a letter he wrote while imprisoned in Rome, Paul writes,
"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." (Philippians 4:11-13)
Paul had learned the secret to being content, regardless of the situation, the circumstances, the trouble, the pressures around him. That secret was in looking to Jesus to provide the contentment he, and we, need.
Let's explain it another way. Think of contentment being a function of your reality minus your expectations. We could write it out as 'Reality - Expectations = Contentment.'
Think of it in terms of a movie you might have seen, a book that you read, or a dinner that you may have tried. If you go in with high expectations, and it fails to deliver, meaning the reality was below what you expected, then you will be disappointed, or discontent, with the movie, book or dinner. But if the reality is greater than the expectations, then we rave at how good it was because we were content in what we found.
We might even write it as 'What you got - What you think you need = Contentment.'
So how does this apply to what Paul wrote to the Philippians? I believe Paul saw what was real and what he had better than most because he knew where to look. Paul realised that his reality, what he had, was based on his relationship to Jesus. Paul was loved, accepted, safe, belonged, protected, provided and cared for by the single most important person in or out of the universe - Jesus Christ. That this same Jesus lived in him and was with him every moment of every day, providing for him the grace and strength for every task Paul was called to face.
When Paul held onto the truth of who he was in Christ and who Christ was in him, he discovered that what he had, his reality, was everything he needed. Thus his reality was much greater than what he might have thought he needed.
So let us learn from Paul, and remember that Jesus is better and greater than anything else. He is greater than your despair, greater than your fears, greater than your failures, greater than your disappointments, greater than your hurts.
The hard part is remembering to focus on our reality and not get distracted by the empty promises from the world of the latest flashy trinkets that guarantees instant, pain free happiness instead. Remember, they are like trying to catch the wind in a jar.
In Christ who is our Life,