This year as I’ve wished people ‘Happy New Year’ I’ve thought of the things they would need to be happy. A husband for one, health for another, a better job for this one and a kinder boss for that one – all sorts of things! Because by and large, happiness depends on our circumstances.
But there’s a mental state better than happiness that doesn’t ebb and flow when circumstances change. The apostle Paul referred to it in his letter to the Christians at Philippi, when he wrote that he had learnt ‘in all circumstances’ to be content. (Philippians 4: 11-13). His contentment didn’t change with his circumstances, rather it held him steady through them all. And goodness knows Paul had had more than his fair share of life changing circumstances.
Paul didn’t give the Philippians a lesson plan for learning how to be content, rather he lists the things that they should do. First – to rejoice in the Lord. He emphasizes this by saying it twice. Then, ‘don’t be anxious, but give everything to God in prayer with thanksgiving’. Then he tells them to pay attention to their thoughts, and to think about the things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of ‘good report’ and virtue. (Philippians 4: 4-8).
Most of us don’t realise the power of our thoughts. It’s so easy to let our minds race with depressing thoughts: even a quick glance at a newspaper has more than a day’s supply. Negative thoughts give rise to negative feelings, and influences our choices in life. Proverbs 3:24 says, ‘Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.’
The key to contentment is thanksgiving. A Harvard Health Bulletin said, ‘… Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.’ Harvard has caught up with the sense the Bible has been teaching for centuries. ‘Praying with thanksgiving…’ is our handing over everything to God, of letting it all go to Him. It’s giving Him our negative, worrying thoughts, but at the same time thanking Him for taking them.
Also, it reminds of things He has done. All too often life rushes us forward and we forget them, yet remembering God’s faithfulness in the past steadies us in the present. Giving thanks is so important for our wellbeing. God knows our vulnerabilities and weaknesses, which is why He inspired the Scripture – ‘ Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’ (1 Thessalonians 5:18.) ‘All circumstances’ sounds impossible, but in one of the darkest times in my life, coping with a grievous bereavement, I was thanking God for His very existence. Knowing Him changed my perspective altogether.
So this year I’m determined to find that level of contentment that Paul knew. Yes, I’ll delight in those times of happiness, like those we’ve just had over Christmas and New Year, with family and friends around. But first and foremost, I’m keeping an eye on my thinking, and upping my ‘thanksgiving’. And praying that you, too, will find 2022 a truly contented year.