Contentment vs. Complacency

Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi is an interesting read. He’s nearing the end of his life and he’s in jail in Rome. There are all sorts of discussions out there about “how do you want to be remembered?” or “at the end what will you say was most important to you?”  These are Paul’s last recorded words that we have. And while the letter as a whole is fascinating it’s what he says at the end that really stands out to me.

Philippians 4:8-13

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you. I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 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.

Over the years I’ve struggled with his statements about being content. Seriously, Paul, couldn’t you have given us a bit more info about what you mean when you say you are content?

So let’s look at these verses again using some synonyms as provided by Merriam-Webster: 

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be satisfied 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 satisfied in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

Merriam-Webster also says we could use gratified, delighted, or even happy.

That’s all fine and dandy. But what I often find in my own life is that I substitute contentment with complacency.  What’s the difference, you may ask?

It really is a heart issue about who you give credit to in your circumstances.

Let’s look at the same passage with some synonyms to complacency:

I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be proud 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 proud in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

Vain, self-satisfied, and smug can also be used. And this says everything about complacency. Complacency shouts, “Look at what I’ve achieved! Look at who I am!” And it’s in the midst of this self-glorification that the real danger of complacency lurks.

Merriam-Webster defines complacency as: self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies.

I love the outdoors and rock climbing in particular. Every year the American Alpine Club releases a publication on climbing accidents in North America. The number one cause is? You may have guessed it: complacency.  

Why does this lead to so many accidents? Because when I am self-satisfied and feel like I’ve got it all figured out, I am far more prone to take shortcuts. The thinking may look like this: “My skill can overcome issues with the gear.” Or “Wish I had planned better but my abilities will allow me to get through this.” The number one cause of death in rappelling or lowering on the ropes is simply forgetting to tie a knot in the end of the rope. Little things can make a huge difference.

And we have all at some point in life said, “I’ve got this” and powered through relying on our skills and abilities or sheer stubbornness. But in doing so we find ourselves tired, bitter, and wishing things had gone differently. But it also can lead to a further danger. In climbing we teach that success can reinforce bad habits and practices. Life is the same way. Successfully getting through tough circumstances can reinforce self-reliance. Which leads to greater sense of pride in one’s own abilities. 

Then what happens when we come into a set of circumstances where our own self-reliance isn’t enough? What happens when our shortcuts in life lead to failure instead of success? What happens when everything falls apart? I know tons of people that have said things like “If I’d only done…” They are filled with regret and pain.

This is not what God desires for us. The reality is, is that He places us in circumstances that require us to trust in His provision. He wants us to find rest in Him. Paul starts out this passage with these words:

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”

In the midst of trying circumstances, Paul does not focus on himself but on his Creator. It is this faith in his Savior that allows him to say that he is content. He’s content because he is satisfied that God is providing. He is satisfied because God has the strength to handle any circumstances and still provide rest for our souls. He is content because he knows that no matter how things may appear, God is present. Just as success can reinforce bad behavior, it can reinforce good behavior as well. The more we trust in God, in even the smallest of troubles, the easier it becomes when things get really tough.

Just as complacency screams “look at what I’ve done” contentment screams “look at what God has done.”

Someday I hope that I will be able to say the same as Paul, that I’ve learned to be content in all circumstances. I’m not there yet, but I have hope because I’ve already seen what God can do.