What was the most inspirational moment in the history of missions? For me, it’s not the triumphant success of a large people group in Irian Jaya turning en masse to Christ, or the spectacular conversion of a warlike Viking ruler, or the courage of a missionary explorer intrepidly probing deeper and deeper into the “dark continent.” These are inspirational enough and will be celebrated eternally in heaven. But for years, I’ve been in awe of Paul and Silas singing at midnight in the Philippian jail, with backs bleeding, stomachs empty, feet in stocks (Acts 16:25–34). I think of it daily and speak of it often.
I yearn to learn the secret of Christian contentment that they displayed in this account and to experience the fruit that so evidently came from it: the eternal salvation of the Philippian jailer and his family. The supernatural independence Paul and Silas displayed from earthly comforts is the essence of Christian contentment and a secret powerhouse for the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Christian Contentment Defined
In Philippians 4:10–19, Paul wrote to thank the Philippian church for the money they had sent to support him while he was in prison. But he wanted them to know he was content before the money arrived, and he’d be content after it was spent. He had learned the secret of being content in any and every condition, whether well-fed or hungry, living in plenty or in want. The secret was the inner strengthening that God did in his heart (vv. 11–13).
“Christian contentment serves as a platform for the gospel, for it puts the superiority of Christ to every earthly pleasure on display.”
The word Paul used for “content” is literally “self-sufficient,” an odd word for someone who was learning not to rely on himself but on God who raises the dead (2 Cor. 1:9). But I think it means that Paul was independent from favorable earthly circumstances and from created things, much like God himself is “God-sufficient.” God doesn’t need created things. So Christian contentment is to be joyful and peaceful in Christ independent of circumstances, freely submitting to God’s wise and loving purposes in all these circumstances.
Contentment Is Not Complacency
One missionary leader I spoke with said, “I never thought contentment was a good thing. How can I be content when so many people are dying and going to hell?!” But we need to make a clear distinction between Christian contentment and complacency.
Contentment has to do with temporal circumstances—food, clothing, shelter, health, worldly success, accolades from people, jobs, possessions, etc. It doesn’t have to do with placidly accepting things that God is commanding us to be active in changing. The spiritual sluggard folds his hands and ruins himself and others (Eccl. 4:5). He cares little about the temporal suffering of the poor or the eternal suffering of the lost. That is complacency.
“If understood properly, Christian contentment is a powerful force for missions.”
But missions is fueled by a passion for the glory of God through the alleviation of suffering, both temporal and especially eternal. Paul in “unceasing anguish” was willing to trade his own salvation for the lost among his people, the Jews (Rom. 9:2–3 ESV).
In 1865, Hudson Taylor was exercised in his soul by the complacency of thousands of English Christians he saw while on furlough from his mission to China: “Unable to bear the sight of a congregation of a thousand or more Christian people rejoicing in their own security while millions were perishing for lack of knowledge, I wandered out on the sands alone, in great spiritual agony, and there the Lord conquered my unbelief, and I surrendered myself to God for this service.”
The Holy Spirit moves like a fire in our souls against complacency. But the same Spirit works Christian contentment in the hearts of both the missionaries and those who send them.
If understood properly, Christian contentment is a powerful force for missions.
How Christian Contentment Strengthens Missionaries
There are two primary ways Christian contentment functions in the lives of missionaries: (1) as protection to sustain them in their calling, and (2) as a platform to put the all-sufficiency of Christ on display.
A missionary has been transplanted by the call of God to an entirely new world with unfamiliar sights and sounds. The culture of the people will initially be thrilling: exotic flavors and aromas, intriguing designs, fascinating architecture, beguiling customs, a daily adventure of discovery. But these will wear off and the missionary will be tempted toward discontented complaining. If the missionary hasn’t learned the secret of being content in any and every circumstance, he or she will eventually grow cynical, bitter, jaded, and sick of the whole enterprise. All of the resources the mission agency invested in language training, inoculations, air travel, and other supports will not be repaid as yet another missionary leaves the field.
“Discontent missionaries are restless and susceptible to sins of the flesh that could disqualify them from service.”
In addition, Christian contentment protects the holiness of the missionary. To paraphrase Jeremiah Burroughs, “Tempting a content man is like shooting flaming arrows at an iron wall.” Conversely, discontent missionaries are restless and susceptible to sins of the flesh that could disqualify them from service.
Christian contentment serves as a platform for the gospel, for it puts the superiority of Christ to every earthly pleasure on display.
Paul and Silas’s singing in the night was powerful pre-evangelism. They were supernaturally happy in Jesus, free from earthly focus. Is it any wonder that the jailer asked them, “What must I do to be saved?” Christians who sing while bitterly afflicted are powerful weapons in the hand of the Spirit to advance God’s kingdom. The people watching them will be moved to ask them to give a reason for the hope in their hearts (1 Pet. 3:15). But if that missionary is murmuring against God, what does he have to offer the unsaved audience who already know how to complain?
How Christian Contentment Mobilizes Churches
One final word is to the senders, local church members whose responsibility it is to make sacrifices of their money and their people to the missionary cause. Paul learned the secret of contentment while “well-fed” and “living in plenty.” If those who are called to “hold the ropes” for the missionaries are discontent, relentlessly seeking earthly satisfaction through sensual pleasures, they will sacrifice less money and seek to persuade our sons and daughters, our pastors, and our fellow church members to stay off the mission field to keep us happy. But if we hold onto all things loosely as Christian contentment teaches us to do, we will be far more sacrificial with our money and our people.
Christian contentment is a quiet powerhouse for endurance in whatever calling God has for his children in taking the gospel to the ends of the earth. Seek to know the secret Paul discovered, and watch what God will do through you.
Andrew M. Davis is pastor of First Baptist Church of Durham, North Carolina, author of The Power of Christian Contentment (Baker, 2019), and a trustee of the International Mission Board.