As Paul concludes his letter to the Philippians he turns his attention to addressing a gift that the Philippian Church sent to him. As Paul expresses his gratitude for that gift he also teaches us some great truths.
I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been 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 everything through him who gives me strength. (Philippians 4:10-13)
On the one hand he wants the Philippians to know that he is very grateful for their gift and the love that was behind the gift. On the other hand Paul wants the church to know that he has not been pining away waiting for people to send him money. Paul is grateful but he wants the church to know that he has learned how to be content in every circumstance. He wants them to understand that his sufficiency is in the Lord and not in their ability to provide.
Contentment is an illusive commodity today. In fact, much of the business world works hard to breed dis-content so that we will buy their product and keep the economy healthy. They tell us something is “new and improved” so we will feel that we have less than the best and are somehow “behind the times.” Gambling institutions (including lottery officials) show us pictures of what we could do with the winnings of the lottery. They are deliberately trying to make us feel dis-satisfied with life by playing to our greed. They want us to believe that we are not significant if we don’t have the best and the newest.
Let me give you a prominent example. In sports your contract is no longer a matter of making a sufficient living. Contracts are no longer about needs . . . .they are about how much you get compared to the other guy. The athlete who gets a multi-million long term contract this year will want to re-negotiate in a couple of years because others are getting so much more than he/she. It’s not about money, it is significance.
The problem with this mentality is that you are never satisfied. And if you are never satisfied, then you are able to enjoy life fully because you feel deprived. Let me give you my definition of what the Bible means by contentment: Contentment is a state of satisfaction that is anchored to our confidence in God that results in a joyful celebration of life.
I hope this definition makes you yearn to find contentment. I must admit that the idea of preaching on contentment seems silly since I am still looking for contentment in my own life. But I really think that Paul’s words can help us all as we seek to find contentment. Three simple truths.
Contentment is a Learned State
Contentment is not something that comes naturally. Paul said that he had to “learn to be content”. Naturally, we are prone to,
- compare ourselves with others
- to always want more than we have (remember Adam and Eve?)
- to interpret someone else’s good fortune as coming at our expense
- to complain
You don’t have to teach any of these things. they come naturally to us. Not so with contentment. Contentment is not natural. It is something that we must learn over time. Paul moved from a state of not being content to a state of knowing contentment. You and I can do that too. I suspect that Paul learned contentment gradually. In the same way we will not just wake up one day feeling content.
We don’t DO something to be content. We must learn some things in order to be content. We need to have a new perspective, a new attitude, a deepened faith. These things must be developed . . . they cannot be bought.
Contentment is not about Possessions or Circumstances
Paul says that he had learned how to be content in good times as well as hard times. His contentment was not anchored to the circumstances of life. Steve Brown tells the story,
“Someone tells of a king who was discontented. In fact he was so anxious, he couldn’t sleep, rest, or think. He called his wise men and asked them what he could do.
One very old and very wise man said, “Find a man in your kingdom who is content, then wear his shirt for a day and a night, and you will be content.”
That sounded like a good idea to the king, so he ordered some of his servants to search for such a person.
Days blended into weeks before his servants returned. “Well,” said the king, “did you find a contented man?”
“Yes, sire,” his servant replied.
“Where is his shirt?” asked the king.
“Your majesty, he didn’t have one.” [hurdles, glitches p. 162]
Contentment is not about what you have. It is an attitude. Paul told Timothy,
godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. [1 Timothy 6:6-11 (NIV)]
Paul gives wise instruction to Timothy. He tells Timothy that we start with nothing and we end with nothing. So, contentment is not about what we accumulate, it is about living with satisfaction one day after another.
Paul also warns Timothy. When we focus on “stuff”, all kinds of things happen. First, we become more susceptible to temptation. Then we find we more are willing to compromise our principles to get what we think will make us happy. Eventually, our appetite begins to dictate our values rather than the other way around. Discontent inevitably leads us away from God.
But let’s be honest. It is hard to be content in the difficult times. We look around and see others who seem to be doing better than we are and we feel “cheated”. It is hard to feel satisfied, confident and joyful when,
- others ridicule us
- when we are falsely accused
- when the medical test results are not encouraging
- when someone gets promoted to the position that we wanted (and felt we deserved)
- when our plans are suddenly changed
- when loss comes barging into our life
- when a loved one tells you they are walking away
- when a financial investment falls on it’s face
It’s tough to feel content when life is not going the way you want it to be going.
But we also need to learn contentment in the times of plenty. When a person is going through tough times they cherish their friends, they dig deeper in their faith, and sometimes can find contentment because all the pretense and pretend is stripped away.
Not so with abundance. When things are going well it is easy to become tied to our possessions. We begin to feel that what we have is an indication of who we are. We begin to think that the reason we are happy is because of what we have and the stuff becomes our idol. When the exalted times come we turn to friends on the basis of what they “can do for us” because we begin to believe that we don’t “need anyone”. We may become arrogant and start to look down on others.
Paul knew what it was like to be content when he had much and when he had little. When he was in the Penthouse and when he was in the Outhouse. When he had little he appreciated every little gift. When he had much he worked to be generous and to use his good fortune for the glory of God.
Contentment Comes from Learning to Appreciate What you Have in Christ
There is a great account in 2 Samuel about the Grandson of King Saul. His name was Mephibosheth. (Maybe his friends called him “Buck” for short!) He was crippled and instead of being killed by David (it was common practice to kill anyone from the former King’s family who might be considered a rival to the throne) he was invited to David’s table to eat and was given the lands that belonged to his grandfather.
When David’s son, Absalom, led a coup on the throne, David had to go into exile. Mephibosheth, Saul’s grandson stayed in Jerusalem and Ziba, the manager of Mephibosheth’s household came to David with supplies and gifts and played up to the King.
Ziba said that Mephibosheth stayed in Jerusalem because he believed he would be given the Kingship of his Grandfather Saul. (We don’t know why Mephibosheth stayed in Jerusalem but it is likely that he thought he would slow David down.) David, hearing the words of Ziba was angry. He Mephibosheth’s attitude as an act of treason and told Ziba that everything that belonged to Mephibosheth would now belong to him. When the coup had ended and David had returned to Jerusalem we read,
Now Mephibosheth, Saul’s grandson, arrived from Jerusalem to meet the king. He had not washed his feet or clothes nor trimmed his beard since the day the king left Jerusalem. “Why didn’t you come with me, Mephibosheth?” the king asked him.
Mephibosheth replied, “My lord the king, my servant Ziba deceived me. I told him, ‘saddle my donkey so that I can go with the king.’ For as you know I am crippled. Ziba has slandered me by saying that I refused to come. But I know that you are like an angel of God, so do what you think is best. All my relatives and I could expect only death from you, my lord, but instead you have honored me among those who eat at your own table! So how can I complain?”
“All right,” David replied. “My decision is that you and Ziba will divide your land equally between you.” “Give him all of it,” Mephibosheth said. “I am content just to have you back again, my lord!” [2 Samuel 19: 24-30]
Mephibosheth has been slandered. He has lost all of his land to the one who did the slandering. And rather than be bitter, he says, “I don’t care about the land. I only care about you.” He understood that the greatest treasure he had was his relationship with the King. It reminds us of the words of the Psalmist,
Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. [Psalm 73:25-26]
It really seems that contentment begins to grow when we come to understand that our greatest treasure is our relationship with the Savior. Discontent comes from feeling that we have been deprived. But when we understand what we truly “deserve” and compare it to what we have received in Christ, then we will be able to say with Mephibosheth, nothing else matters other than having Christ.
Our contentment is anchored in relationship. Paul says, “I can do everything through Christ who gives me strength.” I believe Paul is saying that he can face and know joy in any and every circumstance because of the strength he finds in Christ.
We find contentment in the Grace of God
Our contentment is anchored to our relationship with Christ. No matter what the circumstance we know that we are getting better than we deserve. We deserve eternal punishment but are given eternal life in Christ. We deserve to be cast from God’s presence but we are declared to be part of His family. Do you understand what a treasure this is? There is nothing . . . . nothing . . . that compares in value to what we have been given by God’s grace. We are the richest of people because of His mercy.
Malcolm Muggeridge one of England’s most articulate journalists summed up his pursuit of pleasure.
I may, I suppose, regard myself, or pass for being, as a relatively successful man. People occasionally stare at me in the streets–that’s fame. I can fairly easily earn enough to qualify for admission to the higher slopes of the Internal Revenue–that’s success. Furnished with money and a little fame even the elderly, if they care to, may partake of trendy diversions– that’s pleasure. It might happen once in a while that something I said or wrote was sufficiently heeded for me to persuade myself that it represented a serious impact on our time–that’s fulfillment. Yet I say to you — and I beg you to believe me–multiply these tine triumphs by a million, add them all together, and they are nothing–less than nothing, a positive impediment–measured against one draught of that living water Christ offers to the spiritually thirsty, irrespective of who or what they are. [Malcom Muggeridge JESUS REDISCOVERED (Garden City, NY Doubleday, 1969) p. 77,78
When we realize the value of grace we will begin to also find contentment.
We find contentment in the Providence of God
We draw our sense of satisfaction from the providence of God. Our comfort comes form the fact that God is in charge. He is overseeing the events of our life and using them to deepen and develop us. God’s hands our sure like a master craftsman. His chisel will not slip.
Imagine a sculptor. He begins with a block of marble. To us it seems like nothing. Then the artist who seems to see something that we don’t begins the process of chipping away at the marble. From our perspective the chips are random and meaningless. But soon the marble is beginning to take form. The artist continues to chip away and before long there is a masterpiece that stuns us.
Imagine if you were the marble. You would resent the intrusion of the chisel and feel the one who held the chisel was a cruel tyrant. But you would be wrong.
We can have contentment in the good and bad, the easy and hard, the enjoyable and painful times of life because we trust the one who guides the chisel of circumstances in our life. Paul believed that God was using and building him in the hard times and putting him in a position to bless others in the good times.
We find contentment in the Promises of God
We also anchor our contentment to the promises of God. Think about some of the promises that steady our hearts and give us perspective.
- There is a place in Heaven he is preparing for us . . . this world is not all there is
- He will never leave us or forsake us, we never have to face a battle alone
- He will provide for our needs . . .we are never without the resources we need
- He will guide us into the truth. When we need guidance we know that God will lead the way.
- He will do in our life exceeding abundantly beyond all we ask or imagine. So we don’t trust what we see but we trust the One who is unseen.
We find contentment in the fact that God has promised that He would take care of us. No matter what the circumstance of life, the promises hold. He will protect, defend, guide, strengthen everyone who is willing to follow Him.
Let me give you some final suggestions on how you and I can more toward contented living.
First, we need to realize that contentment is predicated on being completely present in the present. Discontent comes from focusing on what might have been or on what could be. Contentment comes when we look for that which is enjoyable in the present. We will become content as we enjoy each day for what it is rather than moan about what we imagine it could have been.
Do you see how practical this is. Instead of moaning about the fact that you don’t live in a bigger home, have fun with your current home. Instead of moaning about how active your children are, enjoy being able to share those times with them. Don’t miss the joy of the present by whining about what might have been. Instead of staying awake dreaming about that new car, enjoy the fact that the present one is paid for. Instead of yearning for the “new and improved” celebrate the fact that the “old and deficient” does the job. Stop looking beyond the moment and enjoy the moment!
Second, contentment comes when we understand that material things are given as tools and not as an end in themselves. Discontent or coveting makes us selfish. We hoard and hide because we believe we have to have more to be happy. The contented person is generous and willing (and eager) to share because they have come to realize that honoring God is where satisfaction comes from. They use what they have to honor the Lord and in return they find contentment.
Finally, contentment comes as we grow to love Christ more completely. Too many people believe that happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction is found in power, possessions, promotions and pleasure. But these are roads that lead to dead ends. There is only one road to contentment and it goes through Jesus.
Do you really want to know contentment? If so, you must start by turning to the Ruler of life, Jesus. Receive His grace, believe His promises and trust His providence in your life. And as you turn your eyes upon Jesus, you will find “that the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.” And when that happens you will begin to enjoy the “moments of life”. You will leave worries about tomorrow with the Lord and you will accept every situation as God’s wise classroom for your growth and development. And when this happens you will find that in good time or bad, pleasant or painful . .. . you will be content.