Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. Philippians 4:11
There is a classic Yiddish folktale of a poor man living in a crowded one room hut with his wife and five children. Against his will his mother-in-law comes to live with them. He tries to cope but the noise and cramped conditions wear him down to the point where he goes to the local rabbi seeking counsel. The rabbi, upon listening intently and pausing to reflect for a moment asks “Do you have a rooster?” “Yes,” replies man. “Then bring the rooster into the hut with you and come and see me in a week.”
A week later, after enduring even worse conditions, the man returns complaining to the rabbi. “Do you have a cow?” the rabbi asks.”Yes” the man replies hesitantly. “Then take your cow into the hut as well, and come see me in a week.”
Over the next several weeks, the man, on the discomfiting advice of the rabbi, adds into his increasingly chaotic little hut his goat, pig, two dogs and his brother’s children. Finally, at wits end, when he can take it no longer, he goes to the rabbi. “This is crazy! It’s not working, things are only getting worse!” “Good then,” said the rabbi. “Now kick all the animals out and send the guests home – come back and see me in a week.”
Upon doing this the man reported back to the rabbi. “It’s wonderful, Rabbi, my home is so spacious and quiet – why I don’t even mind having my mother-in-law live with us now. I can’t believe it.”
I was first introduced to this delightful story as retold by Margot Zemach in her beautifully illustrated children’s book entitled “It Could Always Be Worse” when my children were little. It became one of my favorite books and I loved reading it over and over to them. The tale’s message about contentment is so simple and yet so profound.
Contentment is basically a matter of perspective and therefore something that can be learned.
Not surprisingly this is exactly what the Apostle Paul says about his quest for contentment in the midst of difficult circumstances in his own life. “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content” he says. (Philippians 4:11)
Paul’s ability to praise God in all things despite his dire and mercurial circumstances offers us hope in being content in our own it-could-be-worse trials. (1 Thessalonians 5:18) He learned to be content through frequent beatings and imprisonment, three shipwrecks, a night and a day in the sea, being constantly on the move, facing danger daily, sleepless nights, days on end of hunger and thirst, freezing temperatures and near death experiences. (1 Corinthians 11:23-28) Paul reckoned with the fact that no matter what he was facing, it could always be worse. Because of that, like the man in the folktale, he learned how to choose to be content.
Some say experience is the best teacher, but the reality is, only evaluated experience imparts wisdom. With Godly wisdom our perspective and its resultant contentment will always improve. (1 Timothy 6:6)
But here is the kicker. The underlying secret to choosing contentment is seeking grace and strength from God. Paul writes regarding contentment “I have learned the secret of being content . . . I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:12-13)
With Christ’s help and strength, we can choose to be content as well.
How can your present contentment level improve using the “it could be always worse” strategy? What about asking God for His strength? Are there other strategies that have worked for you?
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