the shape of leadership

Content in All Circumstances

Maintaining a biblical perspective in ministry

Contentment is the quality that all of us long to have but few of us have the patience to develop. And yet, without contentment, we can find ourselves in an unhealthy rat race for bigger, better, faster.

The same is true in ministry. Without contentment, our noble desires to see God’s kingdom advanced through the ministry He has entrusted to us can quickly spiral into selfish ambition driven by an appetite for self-promotion. At the same time, we feel an odd tug of war between being content and being driven, between being satisfied with ministry and having an urgency to accomplish more for God.

So, that raises an important question: How do you find contentment in the ups and downs of ministry? In other words, how do you cultivate contentment when your ministry is thriving and when it feels like you’re on a permanent plateau — or worse, a steep decline?

To be content when ministry is good can feel like we’re settling. It’s as if success gives us permission to coast, and for leaders who are driven, coasting sounds like sin. On the other hand, to be content when ministry is hard feels like we’re surrendering. It’s as if we’re throwing in the towel, calling it quits, and assuming things will never improve.

But settling and surrendering are not the essence of contentment. In fact, settling when ministry is going well is a violation of our call to be good stewards. And surrendering when ministry is a struggle is a violation of our call to persevere. Contentment is neither extreme. Instead, contentment is understanding where our enough is found.

The apostle Paul described his perspective on contentment to the Philippians. He said, “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” (Philippians 4:10–13).

The word translated “content” in this passage means “self-sufficient.” Why would Paul choose that word? In Paul’s day, a group of Greek philosophers known as Stoics believed a person’s peace and happiness could be found within themselves.

Based on that reality, it would be easy to think Paul was saying, “I’m content because I’m self-sufficient. I’m enough.” But that’s not what he was saying at all. In verse 13, Paul said, “I can do all this through [Christ] who gives me strength.”

Paul’s sufficiency was found in Christ. He learned to be content because Christ is enough. The Amplified Bible captures this idea well: “Not that I speak from [any personal] need, for I have learned to be content [and self-sufficient through Christ, satisfied to the point where I am not disturbed or uneasy] regardless of my circumstances” (verse 11).

The fact that Christ is enough is even clearer in the context of Paul’s entire letter, which the apostle wrote from prison. Author Max Lucado observed that there are 104 verses in Philippians, and Jesus is mentioned 40 times in the letter. That’s an average of once every 2.5 verses.

Paul not only practiced what he preached, but Paul also preached what he practiced. Christ truly was enough for hm. Therefore, Paul experienced contentment when things were going smoothly in his ministry, and when the journey was hard.

Settling and surrendering are
not the essence
of contentment.

When we understand contentment as “Christ is enough,” it allows us to put the ups and downs of ministry in perspective. When we’re thriving and enjoying seasons of success, contentment gives us the humility to see Christ as the source of our success.

Humility — a trait most of us love to see in others but hate to cultivate in ourselves — is essential in life and leadership. In fact, next time you read through the Gospels, pay attention to how often Jesus talked about the destructive nature of pride, and the essential nature of humility.

One way to develop that humility is to learn to be content with whatever level of success God brings your way. That contentment will not only help you offer all credit and praise to God, but it will also give you a sense of peace that Christ is enough.

More success will not create more peace. More success will not satisfy an uncontrolled ambition for more. In fact, contentment with what you have may be the very thing God looks for prior to entrusting you with more.

What about the opposite side of the spectrum? When we’re struggling with hurts and hardships, contentment refocuses our eyes on Christ, the source of strength to persevere through the hardship. Contentment reframes our hardships and gives us confidence that God is faithful and will see us through.

On May 27, 1943, Louis Zamperini’s plane crashed 800 miles south of Hawaii during a rescue mission in World War II. For the next 47 days, he and two other crew members — Francis McNamara and Russell Phillips — floated 2,000 miles on life rafts toward the Marshall Islands. McNamara died during the journey.

When they were finally found, Zamperini weighed only 65 pounds. His ordeal was far from over, however. He was taken captive and tortured and humiliated at prison camps for more than two years.

After the war ended, Zamperini returned home, but he struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. Zamperini drank too much, constantly got into fights, and had repeated nightmares about his time in the prison camps. Although Zamperini married the woman he loved, his life spiraled downward.

But all of that changed in 1949 when Zamperini attended a Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles and accepted Christ as Savior. Zamperini stopped drinking, smoking, and fighting, and he never had another one of those awful nightmares. In fact, because of the work Christ did in his heart, Zamperini went back to Japan in 1950 to extend forgiveness to the prison guards who tortured him.

In Don’t Give Up, Don’t Give In, Zamperini said this about his ability to find contentment:

I’m often asked if, given the chance, I’d live my life the same way again. I have wondered about that as well — for about five seconds. When I think of the juvenile delinquency, injuries, torture, and many near-death experiences, the answer is a definite no. That would be crazy. Of course, enduring and surviving those challenges led to many years of positive influence which helped neutralize the catastrophes and eventually delivered great rewards. I’ve been honored and blessed with impossible adventures and opportunities, a wonderful family, friends, and fans all over the world. That I’d gladly repeat. It’s obvious that one part of the story can’t happen without the other. And so I accept it. I am content.

Zamperini’s insight demonstrates an extraordinary level of maturity. He experienced immense hardship, and he experienced success when it was all over, but Zamperini’s total perspective allowed him to find contentment for the rest of his life.

Your life and circumstances might look bad, but contentment is still possible through Christ. He is enough. Contentment is possible when ministry is good, and when ministry is hard. It’s all a matter of perspective. It’s all a matter of knowing where your enough is found.

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