The Secret of Contentment

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Philippians 4:10-13

INTRODUCTION: We are winding down the clock on our Philippians series and we are down to the last two messages. Throughout this series we have been looking at the various ways that God has called us to be partners in the gospel together. What a blessing! God does not call you to do this Christian life alone. Instead he places you in a community of believers where we can worship, fellowship, minister and serve together.

As we come to these final two sections of the letter, we are introduced to a new aspect of partnership in the gospel, that is supporting the work of the gospel with our finances. One of the main reasons Paul wrote this whole letter to begin with was because the church at Philippi had sent him a financial gift to support him while he was preaching the gospel in prison. He was writing to acknowledge their gift and to encourage them in their partnership in the gospel with him.

We will learn more about this financial partnership in the gospel in next week’s message, because in this week’s passage Paul concentrates on a different but related theme. He shares with us about Christian contentment, and the secret of being content in all circumstances. (Read Philippians 4:10-13 and pray.)

Want to know a secret? We all love hearing secrets, don’t we? There’s something about knowing a secret that makes us feel special, privileged to have this information that other people don’t know. Some people can’t keep a secret. You know, someone comes up to them and says, “Do you want to know a secret? I can only tell you if you promise me one thing – you won’t tell anyone else!” And so they promise, and then they immediately go to someone else and say, “I’ve got a secret, but I can only tell you if you promise me one thing – you won’t tell anyone else!” Ever done that? It’s okay, you don’t need to raise your hand – it’s a secret!

Well Paul shares with us a secret today that is okay to share with anyone and everyone you want. So if you’re not good at keeping secrets, then this is a great secret to pass along. It’s not a secret because it is privileged information, it’s a secret because so many people don’t know it and even if you told them, many would not believe it. It is the secret of contentment, the secret of being content no matter what your circumstances. That’s a pretty good secret, wouldn’t you say?

So, do you want to know a secret? Here we go!

I. Rejoice in God’s provision

If you want to learn the secret of contentment in all circumstances, the first step is to rejoice in God’s provision. Look at the first part of verse 10 with me: “I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me.” (Philippians 4:10)

Joy has been a common theme throughout this entire letter, and here Paul sounds the note of joy again, this time in response to the gift that the Philippians had sent him in prison. In fact he says, “I rejoice greatly.” This is the first time in this letter and the only time in all his letters that Paul adds the word “greatly” to his rejoicing. The Philippians’ gift of financial support lifted his heart and filled him with great joy.

But notice that Paul is rejoicing not simply in the gift itself, but he is rejoicing in the Lord. “I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me.” The gift represented their friendship with him and their partnership in the gospel with him. Paul was glad to receive the gift, and he was thankful to the Philippians, but he recognized that this was God’s provision in his life. And so he rejoiced greatly in the Lord.

Your first step to learning the secret of contentment is to rejoice in God’s provision. This starts by acknowledging that everything you have comes from God. Yes, you work hard for your paycheck, but who provides you with your health, the skills, and the opportunity for work? It all comes from the Lord. Everything you have comes from God. And those times when you are in need, and either your church or family or friends come through for you, yes, thank those who help you out, but also recognize that whatever you receive, you receive from the Lord.

Now you may be wondering about Paul’s phrase in verse 10 where he says “at last you have renewed your concern for me.” At first it almost sounds like he is scolding the Philippians that they didn’t help him sooner, as if he were saying, “Finally you sent me something. It’s about time!” Now there had actually been about a ten-year gap since they had last helped Paul financially, and I think Paul realized they might take it the wrong way, and so he clarifies what he means with the rest of verse 10: “Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.” (Philippians 4:10)

Paul is not upset with them. He is not implying that they should heave helped him sooner. And he makes it clear that he knows they have been concerned for him all along. Their heart was there for him, they just did not have the opportunity to show it. They would have loved to help him, but it was out of their control and therefore not their fault. And so Paul reassures them so they will not feel bad about the past, and he rejoices greatly in the Lord because they have met his needs in the present.

That is one of the wonderful things about Christian giving. There is a blessing to the giver as we reach out in love and care to someone else. There is a blessing to the one who receives as they receive help in their time of need. And then there is praise to God because he is the one who ultimately provides for all our needs. That is the first step to learning the secret of contentment – rejoice in God’s provision for you.

II. Be content whatever your circumstances

The second step to learning the secret of contentment is this: Be content whatever your circumstances. Look at verse 11 where Paul writes: “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” (Philippians 4:11)

Paul is careful once again to clarify his motives in bringing up their gift to him. This whole area of giving can be tricky at times, and sometimes people can be sneaky in their motives when it comes to expressing thanks for certain gifts. For example Grandma comes to visit and her grandchild tells her, “Thank you Grandma so much for getting us ice cream last time you were here. That was great ice cream! I really, really love ice cream.” You don’t need a psychology degree to figure out where that conversation is going.

Paul wants the Philippians to know that he appreciates their gift, but he also doesn’t want them to get the wrong idea, so he qualifies his first statement of joy. He tells them he is not bringing this up because he is in need. He is in need, but that is not the reason he is bringing it up. (We will learn more about the reasons why he is bringing it up in next week’s passage.)

The reason Paul can say this is because he has learned to be content whatever the circumstances. The word translated “content” here is a word that speaks of self-sufficiency. It was a very important word for a group called the Stoics in that time. The Stoics took, well, a stoical view of life, where they were determined to let nothing affect their emotions. They were fiercely independent and refused to be disturbed no matter what their circumstances. The Stoic philosopher Seneca summed up stoicism well when he wrote: “The happy man is content with his present lot, no matter what it is, and is reconciled to his circumstances.”

So is that what Paul is talking about here? Is he telling us we should all be Stoics? Far from it! Christian contentment might look like Stoicism from a distance, but get a little closer and you can see that they are miles apart. Stoicism is marked by indifference; Christian contentment is marked by joy. Stoicism is fatalistic; Christian contentment trusts in a wise and loving God. The Stoic seeks to be independent and self-sufficient; the Christian seeks to be dependent on God.

Christian contentment does not mean that you simply accept your lot whatever the circumstances. You can certainly work to change a bad situation, and you should always seek to improve yourself. A good example of this is found in 1 Corinthians 7 where Paul is instructing slaves who have become Christians. He writes: “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you (there’s the Christian contentment side) – although if you can gain your freedom, do so. (there’s the permission to work to improve your circumstances)” (1 Corinthians 7:21)

We need to make sure we don’t mistake Christian contentment for personal laziness or lack of godly ambition. Are you in a bad situation? Then pray about it, and work to change it! Are you lacking in Christian character? Ask God to help you become more like Christ! Are you struggling with finances or illness? Do what you can to change your circumstances. But in the interim, while you are waiting for the desired change, trust God with your circumstances and seek to honor him in your circumstances. God has good things to teach you in the difficult times, and you want to make sure you don’t miss his lessons for you.

So does Paul really mean that he is content whatever the circumstances, or is he exaggerating here? Just in case you think he might not really mean what he says, Paul goes on to describe his own experience. Look at verse 12: “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.” (Philippians 4:12)

Paul had lived on both ends of the spectrum. He experienced times of excruciating need, and he experienced times of plenty. And he had learned the secret of being content in both situations. Paul didn’t seek satisfaction in material things when he didn’t have them, and he didn’t find his satisfaction in material things when he had them.

We are all familiar with being discontent when we have little, but discontentment is also a problem for people who have much. Here are some of the temptations you face during seasons when you have plenty: 1) the temptation to find your satisfaction in things rather than God; 2) the temptation to take pride in your possessions; 3) the temptation to be greedy for more; 4) the temptation to worry about losing the things you have gained. As Stephen Fowl puts it: “Abundance simply shifts one’s focus from getting things to keeping the things one has.”

Paul had learned to be content in all circumstances because his contentment was not dependent on circumstances. We talked a few weeks ago about living above the circumstances instead of under the circumstances. Paul told the Philippians not to worry about anything, and now he models that for them with his attitude of Christian contentment.

Contentment doesn’t come naturally to any of us, and this is why Paul says it is something we need to learn. It’s a wonderful secret, but most of are not ready for it. It takes time, maturity and wisdom to come to the place where we can say with Paul, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” That is the second step to learning the secret of contentment: Be content whatever your circumstances.

III. Look to Christ for your strength

So far we have looked at two steps: 1) Rejoice in God’s provision. 2) Be content whatever your circumstances. And then the third step to learning the secret of contentment is this: 3) Look to Christ for your strength. We see this in verse 13: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (Philippians 4:13)

This is one of the most popular verses in the Bible. You see it on posters and t-shirts and coffee mugs. It consistently ranks in the top ten of people’s favorite Bible verses. And it should be. This is a wonderful verse, and one I often turn to for encouragement and strength.

Unfortunately, it is also one of the most misapplied verses in the Bible. Many people read this verse apart from its context and apart from the full scope of Scripture and misinterpret it to mean, “I can do anything I want through him who gives me strength.” And so the person who wants a new car but can’t afford the payments goes ahead and buys something they really can’t afford saying, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength!” Or the student who never studied tries to cover for their negligence by going into the test saying, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength!” Sometimes prosperity preachers will quote this verse to tell you that you can do or get anything you want because, “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

Fortunately this verse does not say I can do or get anything I want, because we are all pretty selfish people, and that would create a nightmare of a world. No, it is a far better promise in its context which is simply this: no matter what my circumstances, no matter what trials I may face, no matter how difficult the road ahead, God will give me the strength to make it through. Whether in need or in plenty, whether hungry or well-fed, I can handle everything through him who gives me strength.

And so the promise is not I can do anything I want but rather I can do everything God calls me to do through him who gives me strength. The secret to contentment is not self-sufficiency, but Christ-sufficiency. The strength I need does not come from within but from without. When I am weak, then I am strong. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. That’s the third step to learning the secret of contentment: Look to Christ for your strength.

CONCLUSION: And so Philippians 4 teaches us three very important steps to learning the secret of contentment. 1) Rejoice in God’s provision. 2) Be content whatever your circumstances. And 3) Look to Christ for your strength.

Because when it comes right down to it, the secret of contentment is Christ. You cannot be happy without Christ, and if you are not happy with Christ, nothing will make you happy. You were made to be in relationship with Christ. If you do not have Christ, you will try and fill your life with things that cannot satisfy. (e.g. Ecclesiastes) And if you are a Christian and you are not happy with Christ, then I don’t know anything that will make you happy.

Do you want to know a secret? I’ll tell you, but you have to promise me one thing … you will tell everyone! Tell everyone that the secret of contentment is Christ and Christ alone.

© Ray Fowler

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