Being Content in Christ

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:10-13)

Today we are going to look at some of the most quoted and fascinating passages in this book of Philippians. When we started studying this book together several months ago, we talked about the many passages in this book that are so familiar to many of us. Today we get to see two such verses together. These verses are referred to so often because of desire, I think, that most believers have to get to a place of living out these verses in our lives. They are fascinating in that sense. It is like they are right here, they are for us, and yet we may read them and think, “If only, if only I could get to this place, if only I could read these verses personally with as much conviction and passion and belief as Paul did. If only I could be where he is in this passage. If only I could walk in his shoes regarding these profound statements that he makes and apparently lives by.” We may say, “I want what he has, I so desire to have what he has.” In this sense, in these verses we may say that Paul had it made. He had reached a level of Christian living that many of us would love to reach. A state of maturity that many of us are striving for and would love to obtain. What is it he had gotten? What had he gotten to? What am I talking about? Contentment in all things, in all situations contentment. And along with that, this statement of, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Are these not two statements that we would love to read with great conviction and live in consistently? Contentment in all things and this understanding and belief that we can do that through Christ who strengthens us. These are no doubt great places to be. I want that personally, I want to be there.

However, we need to be careful in how we think of Paul’s bold statements here and his life situation. Paul didn’t get to this place in life of being content by winning the lottery and finding contentment in riches. He didn’t get to a place of contentment by hanging out with people who catered to his wants and desires, those who would serve him. He didn’t get to a place of contentment because of his external circumstances, some kind of circumstances that lined up beautifully with his preferred plan for life. And yet, not having any of those things, he still said he had learned to be content.

In Kevin DeYoung’s new book, Crazy Busy, he takes a shot at describing much of Paul’s life, and I think it’s helpful for us. Here is the the real life of Paul summarized.

“I’m not surprised that Paul felt daily pressure. His work never seemed to let up. He had letters to write, visits to make, a collection to gather for the church in Jerusalem. He had to send people here and there and manage the affairs of his churches from a distance. He had to respond to a myriad of criticisms, often conflicting criticisms. Some people thought he was too harsh. Others said he was too weak. Some people in his churches were ascetics and thought Paul was worldly. Others were licentious and thought Paul was too ethically demanding. They complained about his teaching. They questioned his credentials. They compared him negatively to the original apostles. They thought him lame compared to the false apostles. They didn’t like the way he handled money. They didn’t like his preaching style. They didn’t like the way he arranged his travel plans. They didn’t like his discipline. On some days they just didn’t like Paul anymore. All this for the man who led them to Christ, loved them like a father, planted their church, refused their money, and risked his neck for their spiritual good. There was no weight for Paul like the weight of caring for God’s people.”

And so when we say something like, “I want to be where Paul is,” we may be saying that rather selectively! “Give me the unceasing contentment and the reality of doing all things through Christ who gives me strength, but without the realities of his daily difficult circumstances!” Paul’s situation, his life story should be encouraging to us because what we see is contentment that he has even while enduring such difficulties. That stuff didn’t matter when it came to contentment. It is comforting, should be comforting, and yet it is still often a mystery to us. 

It’s a mystery because we can’t seem to think about contentment outside of whatever our current desires are. I think that’s where we get hung up. We have certain desires, lusts, things we think we must have. We tie this idea of contentment with those things, those wants and desires. We think they go hand in hand together. We think we know the keys to contentment, but we so often get it wrong. Steady income, say at a level about double whatever yours is right now. An abundance of your favorite foods that will not put fat on your body. Talk about contentment! That would include ice cream. Aches, pains, disease to disappear. Neat, tidy, relationships with family, friends, co-workers, neighbors, and ministry partners. A clear view of the future that is exactly the way we would plan it. How about saved children? We think we know the keys to contentment. But think about this with me. What was the last thing you really wanted that you thought would bring you contentment? What was that for you? What did you want so badly that if you got it, you believed it would change your outlook on life, change your world for the best? What was that thing that you were sure would deliver contentment? And what happened when you got it? Did it last? When I was 15 it was a 1976 Camaro that was going to change my world. Everyone knew that a 1976 Camaro would do that. But it didn’t deliver.

How many people can you look at, even in this room this morning, and say, “If I only had what he had, if I only had what she had. If I were in their shoes I would have it made – their money, education, peaceful home, health, good looks, people skills, power, position, prestige, respect, a loving spouse, parents who understand”? When we do this we are fooling ourselves and believing lies. Because those things are not meant to bring contentment. If so, Paul would have had the most discontented life ever. 

Judas apparently thought thirty pieces of silver would bring him contentment. Jonah thought running from God would bring him contentment. The rich young ruler believed his money would deliver contentment. Paul, prior to his salvation, thought persecuting Christians and receiving more political power would lead to contentment. What is it for you? What do you most often dream about? What do you imagine would change your life for the better? What do you really want? What is your 1976 Camaro? What do you think would bring contentment to your life?

Paul had none of these things, none of the things we may lust after and that we believe will deliver contentment, and yet he says, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” We will see that contentment, godly contentment, is not dependent on varying, changing, fleeting, out of control circumstances.

What is contentment? Good question, we’re going to talk about that. As I said, it is not based on circumstances or material goods. Paul wants to be clear about that. As we saw last time, he had just received a gift from the Philippian church, so if he now, without additional comment, starts talking about contentment, the natural assumption would be that his contentment was derived from the gift, caused by this generous gift he has just received from the Philippian church. Like if you just gave me a very generous gift and I say, “Well, now I am content.” Paul does not want to mislead the church people or us, so he says clearly that he is not nor was he in “need,” and he wants us to see that his contentment is stable, present in all circumstances, whether he had received the gift or not. He did not have to get this or that, to labor for things to be content. That is his point.

6 But godliness with contentment is great gain, 7 for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. 8 But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. 9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:6-10)

If we are not content in Christ, we will, or at least we will be prone to, falling into all sorts of sin. If we are not content in Christ, we are setting ourselves up as idol worshipers, we will be going after the wrong things. We will fall for a false god that promises contentment but that cannot deliver it. If our hope is placed in things, or other people, if that is the case for us, then we need to be prepared to face great disappointment.

The Psalmist speaks of such foolishness, the foolishness of trusting in things that cannot deliver on what we think they can give to us.

15 The idols of the nations are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
16 They have mouths, but do not speak;
they have eyes, but do not see;
17 they have ears, but do not hear,
nor is there any breath in their mouths.
18 Those who make them become like them,
so do all who trust in them. (Psalm 135:15-18)

So how do we put away all the junk, all that we think will deliver contentment to us, and put away our foolish hopes of contentment in things and people? Let’s look at this word contentment. It was not used much in the Scriptures, but it was very common in Paul’s day. In fact this word we translate as “content” was considered the highest virtue in Stoic ethics. This is how we primarily see it used in history. For the Stoics, non-Christians, it described an attitude of the wisest of people who had gotten to a place of independence from all things and all people. In ancient philosophy this would be one who would rely fully on himself and his own resources that he thought were given to him by the gods.

One who had gotten to this place in life would have been, from the Stoic viewpoint, the model of independence. M.R. Vincent said of Stoic doctrine, “that man should be sufficient unto himself for all things, and able, by the power of his own will, to resist the force of circumstances.” So for many in Paul’s day, as they began reading what we have in verse 11, they may have thought, “Wow, this sounds familiar. Is Paul agreeing with the Stoic doctrines here? Is Paul now touting this idea of total independence of a disconnect between man and his circumstances? Is this is how we are to understand contentment?”

Well, if Paul was borrowing this term contentment from the Stoics of his day, then he quickly transforms it from a total independence of all things and self-sufficiency, he changes it to a total and complete dependence of Christ because he says in verse 13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Paul is not encouraging a dogged, determined self-reliance like the Stoics were promoting, but instead a determined reliance on Christ for strength. He was not encouraging independence, but dependence on our Savior. He is tying contentment with dependence on Christ, that is the relationship we need to see.

Though we don’t talk much about Stoics today, we are inundated with talk of independence and self-reliance. The Stoics, or even perhaps our modern day fascination with independence, is often a planned or attempted disconnect from undesired emotion. It is an attempt to control emotion, to beat our emotions down to submission or to simply disregard them, to disconnect from them. It is like to attempt to place ourselves in a bubble and say, “You can’t touch me emotionally, you can’t get to me, you can’t affect me, you can’t hurt me or knock me off track, nor can any external circumstances.” It’s to try building those walls around ourselves. It is often to really try to disconnect with people. And while this to some may seem admirable or strong, it is most often I think driven by fear. 

Paul does none of that here, nor any other place in his writings does he promote a distance in relationships. He does not promote an independence that says, “I will not connect with you emotionally.” He is not saying here nor does he elsewhere that he will not be affected by other people and what they do or don’t do. He is not a Stoic in that sense. In fact, though he confesses to be content in all things in all circumstances, we see him of all people in the New Testament giving himself to people, and also being deeply affected by others in his life.

28 Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. 29 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. (Acts 20:28-31)

For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you. (2 Corinthians 2:4)

We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians; our heart is wide open…widen your hearts also. (2 Corinthians 6:11, 13)

You see that Paul is not describing contentment as the Stoics. These are not words of one who is distancing himself from people or circumstances. Paul purposefully dove in with people, he systematically got involved with sinners and with saints, he devoted his life to minister to many who would want to bring him harm, who would not cooperate with his plans. He chose in many cases poverty, refusing support. He kept speaking when it meant imprisonment, or a beating, or other hostility. He did not shrink back from people or a hostile environment in order to gain a false contentment in solitude, either physically or emotionally. No, he opened himself up, and walked into great abuse, more than anyone else I have read about, he opened himself up to that. And even in doing this he says, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” For Paul, contentment was not defined as the Stoics, but he understood that “contentment comes from God, and enables believers to be satisfied and at ease in the midst of any problem” (MacArthur). It is not creating a world with no problems around us. It is being satisfied and at ease in the midst of any problem.

It is being satisfied with material things God has given us. Having a thankful attitude, not envious of others, satisfied with God’s provision, satisfied with God’s wisdom in how He distributes what we have and what others have. Not restless regarding desires, or possessions, or God’s provision for our needs. It’s being humble in our evaluation of even what our needs are. Do you want that? Don’t you want that? 

The key is not to avoid all things that might bring discontentment, that we think may disrupt such a pursuit, or to try with all our might to surround ourselves with people or things that will deliver it. Paul did not avoid nor did he go after contentment per se; he went after Christ. And going after Christ he discovered contentment in all circumstances. He says that he learned this. It didn’t just come at once, but was a lesson learned over time.

I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. (Philippians 4:12)

Paul was not dependent on human resources, he was dependent on Christ. He didn’t learn contentment in a classroom, from a book, or in a theory lecture. He had been brought low, he had experienced that, and he had lived in abundance. He has been hungry and he has been full. His life was like a roller coaster.

Some of you have been on such a roller coaster too, I’m sure. From poverty to wealth and maybe back again. From plenty to hunger, from abundance and need in a variety of ways. If you have, what have you learned? Contentment? Maybe? How is this even possible? When your world seems to be caving in on you, when you are hurting with emotional loss and pain, when others have given up on you and have affirmed their disgust with you as a person, when no one is listening to you, when fear has taken you over. Do we just begin to build walls of solitude, fortresses of protection, do we shut each other out to try gaining contentment that way? Or do we focus on the true source of contentment, Jesus Christ?

Paul affirms with a personal confession, with assurance, and with humility that he is able to live in contentment in all things because of his deep and abiding relationship with Christ who gives him strength.

In 2 Corinthians 12, after Paul details many of his trials, he then confesses his personal weakness. These are not the words of a Stoic. He relates to us these famous words…

For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:10)

His weaknesses drove him to Christ. And in Christ he became strong. 

Paul’s point contextually is that in Christ, because of Christ in Him, he can live a contented life of dependence on Christ. In other words, he can live in obedient trust in God, live faithfully for God’s glory, because the strength comes to him from Christ and is not simply by his own will or power.

When is the last time you have said, “I can’t do this, I can’t handle these circumstances”? Maybe it was the trial of your life and you said, or thought, “I can’t do this, it is too much for me to bear, it is too much.” I have said that before. But can I tell you this morning that you can, because of Christ who strengthens you, that you can handle whatever that is? I’m not making that statement lightly, nor am I pretending to know the severity of your trial, or the pain you feel, I am simply testifying truthfully regarding the power and the strength of Christ’s Spirit in you as a believer.

There is ample evidence in Paul’s life that Christ really does give strength. There is ample evidence in other people’s lives in the Bible of the same thing. And you know, there is also incredible evidence in people’s lives around you of this truth, who have been strengthened by Christ in what seemed to be unbearable circumstances. If you’ve been saved very long, there is probably ample evidence in your own life when you’ve been in that situation, you thought it was too much, and Christ gave you strength. Aren’t you glad about that? We have the Scripture as examples, people around us, and our own lives. We can remind ourselves of His faithfulness in us and be encouraged. Read of His faithfulness in Christians’ lives in the Bible. Seek people around you to share with you their stories of God’s great faithfulness and be encouraged by them. Recall your past steps of faith and God’s walk through darkness with you in days past.

Christ is present, He is by your side, He is for you, He is faithful, He is your strength!

As we ready ourselves for Thanksgiving this week, remember to give thanks to the Father for His Son who gives us strength. We can and should also be thankful for many other things that He has given us. But as we do, let’s not forget that contentment comes to us in Christ, not in the things we have. The things we have today may be gone tomorrow, and yet we can be content because of Christ, who will never leave us nor forsake us.

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:10-13)