The Secret of Contentment | Philippians 4:10-13
Brian Hedges | August 16, 2020
Let’s turn together in God’s word to Philippians 4. We have now been in a study of Paul’s letter to the Philippians for about four months, and we’re coming near to the end. We have today and one more Sunday before we end our study of this magnificent letter. Today we’re looking at a passage that has one of the most famous verses from this letter, verse 13. This is one of those verses that we have on plaques on our living room walls, but maybe a verse that we don’t always read in its context.
Paul is here bringing the letter to a conclusion, and he wants to thank the Philippian church for their gift. They have remembered him, they have sent a gift to him through their messenger, Epaphroditus. But as soon as he begins to thank them for the gift, he’s very careful to clarify that he was content without it, and he goes on to talk about contentment in a way that lets us in on the secret, what he calls the secret of contentment. So that’s our study this morning, is to try to understand what this contentment is and how we live contented, satisfied, peaceful lives in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:10-13; let me read the text, and then we’re going to ask three questions to try to unpack it this morning. Philippians 4, beginning in verse 10. Paul says,
“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. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 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. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
This is God’s word.
I. What Is Contentment?
II. Why Do We Need It?
III. How Do We Get It?
Simple message; let’s just dig in.
I. What Is Contentment?
I want to give you a couple of definitions. Here’s the definition from a spiritual formation author, Gary Thomas, from a wonderful little book by Thomas called Authentic Faith. There’s a chapter on contentment, and he defines contentment this way. He says, “Contentment is nothing more than soul rest. It is satisfaction, peace, assurance, and a sense of wellbeing cultivated by pursuing the right things.”
That’s a pretty good definition. Soul rest. You remember it was Augustine who said, “Lord, you made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” That’s what we’re after this morning. We want to find our souls at rest in Christ, a sense of wellbeing and satisfaction and peace in Jesus Christ.
The word that Paul actually uses here in the text is a word borrowed from Stoicism. The Stoics were that ancient school of Greek philosophy that emphasized detachment from desire and indifference towards outward circumstances, whether pain or pleasure. The key for them was self-sufficiency. That’s what this word actually means; it means self-sufficiency.
Gordon Fee, in his commentary, says that Paul’s explanation looks like “a meteor fallen from the Stoic sky into his epistle.” The word translated “content” expresses the ultimate goal of Stoicism, to live above need and abundance in such a way as to be self-sufficient, but then Fee goes on to show that Paul Christianizes this word. He transforms these Stoic-sounding sentences from self-sufficiency to Christ-sufficiency. The idea here is to live above circumstances, to be independent from circumstances, but to do so in the sufficiency that comes through Jesus Christ. Of course, the key verse here is verse 13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Perhaps the best treatment of contentment that I’ve read is the old Puritan book by Jeremiah Burroughs, called The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. It’s one of the great classics of Puritan literature, written in the 17th century, and Jeremiah Burroughs defines contentment in this way. He says, “Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.”
That’s a beautiful definition and very helpful, because it emphasizes the inward quality of contentment and the gracious quality of it. That is, contentment is given to us by the grace of God, and is given to us by the Spirit of God. It’s this spiritual, this inward work of the Spirit that produces this satisfaction in our lives.
Yet, at the same time, we can say that contentment is a learned skill, a practice for the Christian, because Paul in this passage says, “I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”
It’s both of those things. We rely on the Spirit of God, and it is the work of the Spirit to produce contentment in our hearts, but at the same time, it’s something that we have to learn, it’s something we have to grow into. It’s something that we develop over time by living through the situations, the circumstances, and by doing so in dependence on God and his grace. That’s what we’re after here, a sense of wellbeing and satisfaction, peace and contentment that comes through Jesus Christ.
II. Why Do We Need It?
Second question, then. Why do we need it? Why do we need contentment? I think the basic answer is that we all long for satisfaction and a sense of wellbeing. Again, Augustine, “Our hearts are restless…” Do you have a restless heart? Do you know what it is to long for satisfaction in life, to want a sense of wellbeing and peace in your life? Go to any bookstore, and you’ll find the shelves lined, in the self-help and psychology sections, with books on wellbeing and living the best possible life.
I read a book about a year ago that was very helpful, by Tom Rath, called Wellbeing: The Five Essential Elements. Rath, who is a secular author, looks at five components or five ingredients to wellbeing. He looks at your career, he looks at your social wellbeing (that has to do with your relationships), your financial wellbeing, your physical wellbeing, and your community wellbeing. It was a great book, it was helpful in lots of ways, lots of helpful advice, and Scripture, of course, rightly interpreted, would encourage us to pay attention to all of those different dimensions in our lives. But the big missing ingredient from Tom Rath’s book was the whole spiritual dimension. There was nothing really about spiritual wellbeing. In fact, everything depended on getting circumstances right, on getting all these outward things in your life right.
My question is, what do you do when the relationship is no longer there? What do you do when someone you love dies? What do you do when you lose a job? What do you do when you get diagnosed with cancer? Is there any hope for rest then? Is there any hope for contentment and for wellbeing in those circumstances? We long for satisfaction and wellbeing, but circumstances can’t ultimately provide this for us.
What we need is this grace of contentment. If we depend on outward things, external things—riches, material things, relationships, anything else—those things will ultimately fail us.
Ecclesiastes 5:10-11 says, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income. This also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes?” How many people have tragically experienced this?
I’m reminded of a story told by the apologist Ravi Zacharias, who just recently went home to be with the Lord. He told a story about a French author, a short story author named Maupassant, who was the envy of the people of his day. He was so successful, this creative genius. His material possessions spoke a life of affluence; he had a yacht in the Mediterranean, he had a large home on the Norman coast, he had a luxurious flat in Paris. It was said of him that the critics praised him, the men admired him, and the women worshipped him.
But at the height of his fame, he lost his stability. He went insane, tried to commit suicide, and spent weeks and months in mindless utterances, debilitating pain, dying at the age of 42.
After his death, a sentence was found written in his diary that became the epitaph of his life. He said, “I have coveted everything, taken pleasure in nothing.”
There are modern stories that are the equivalent. Just read about people who have won the lottery, and how much misery it brought into their lives. The stories are easy to find.
The reality is that if we try to depend on money or any other kind of outward circumstances for our sense of wellbeing in life, ultimately it will fail us. Greg Easterbrook has written a book called The Progress Paradox, and the paradox he explores is essentially this, that we have more of everything in the 21st century—we have more wealth, we have better medical care, we have more prosperity, we have more opportunity, we have multiple times more than almost any generation in the history of the world—and yet we’re not any happier.
The book is written to explore what he calls “the contemporary overlap of sanguine social circumstances and personal unhappiness.” Great circumstances—people are still unhappy. One quote in his book comes from a group of psychologists who say, “Isolation, sorrow, bitterness, anxiety, loneliness, and despair are in today’s United States and European union greater concerns than supply of any material item.” Isn’t it interesting that with the increase of wealth in the 20th and 21st centuries we also have the rise of mental illness? We have more problems internally than perhaps ever before, at least better documented.
It just goes to show that you can’t rely on outward circumstances to give you this sense of wellbeing. Contentment is not to be found there. Paul says, in contrast, “I’ve learned the secret.” He says, “I’ve found the secret to contentment.” In any circumstance, I have learned to be content.”
III. How Do We Get It?
What’s the secret, Paul? He’s going to tell us, and it will answer for us this third question, How do we get it? How do we get this contentment? I want to give you four truths, four things that I think Paul learned that if we learn will also lead us to this experience of contentment, of satisfaction, of wellbeing, of rest in Jesus Christ.
(1) Confidence in the Lord’s Providence.
That’s first, confidence in the Lord’s providence. I think that confidence underlies verses 10-11, where Paul says that he “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. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”
How can he be content in any situation? Here’s why: because Paul was confident that God was the great disposer of events in human history and in his own life. He believed, as that old catechism says (I’m paraphrasing) that nothing comes to us except by the fatherly hand of God. He believed that; he trusted in that.
Romans 8:28, “We know that God works all things together for good for those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” Over and again in Paul’s letters you see this confidence as he expresses his trust in the Lord, his confidence in the Lord, his belief that the Lord would take care of him, his belief that the Lord was with him.
Maybe you’ve heard the words of this old hymn (I think of these words fairly often):
“Day by day, and with each passing moment,
Strength I find to meet my trials here.
Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment,
I’ve no cause for worry or for fear.
He whose heart is kind beyond all measure
Gives unto each day what he deems best;
Lovingly, its part of pain and pleasure,
Mingling toil with peace and rest.”
Where does that confidence come from? It comes from trust in the Father’s wise bestowment, that he gives to each day its measure of toil as well as peace and rest. Everything comes to us from the hand of the loving God. Paul believed that, and his confidence in God’s providence was one of the sources of his contentment.
(2) Satisfaction with the Lord’s Provision
Confidence in the Lord’s providence and satisfaction in the Lord’s provision. Again, look at the text, verses 11-12. “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 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.”
Now, Paul is not denying that we have basic needs, but he is saying that “even in the face of need, I have learned how to be content.” A parallel passage is 1 Timothy 6:6-8. There Paul tells Timothy that “godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” He was content with the Lord’s provision for his basic needs. That’s where his satisfaction came from.
Do you remember the words of Jesus in Matthew 6, the Sermon on the Mount, where he is urging his disciples to not be anxious about circumstances, to give no anxious care for tomorrow, what you’re going to eat or drink, what you’re going to put on? He says, “Look at the birds of the air, look at the flowers of the field; look at how your Father takes care of them, and can’t you trust your Father? ‘Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.’”
I think Paul understood that principle. He trusted in the Lord’s provision, and that was a source of his contentment. He was able even in difficult circumstances to say, “The Lord has given me what I need for faithfulness in this moment.” The Lord has given you what you need for faithfulness and for contentment in this moment. Whatever the needs are, whatever the want is, God is faithful, and we trust in his faithfulness. Satisfaction with the Lord’s provision.
(3) Strength through the Lord's Power
Then, number three, strength through the Lord’s power. Again, verse 13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Do you remember how Paul in 2 Corinthians 12 talks about his thorn in the flesh? We don’t know exactly what the thorn was. It could have been some kind of health problem; some scholars believe that Paul had some kind of eye disease or eye condition, and maybe that was the thorn in the flesh. Maybe it was persecution, maybe it was some kind of suffering. Maybe it was the false apostles who were hurting his ministry there in the Corinthian church.
Whatever it was, do you remember what Paul did? He took it to the Lord. Three times he asked for the Lord to remove the thorn, and do you remember what God said? He said, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” “My grace is sufficient.” In fact, the word “sufficient” is the same root as the word “content” here. Sufficiency in the Lord. Why? Because his power is made perfect in our weakness. It’s because God gives us strength in our weakness.
Paul goes on to say, therefore, in 2 Corinthians 12, “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 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.”
You might think of it as a pair of scales. The scales have to be balanced, and every time our circumstances seem to have more weight of trials, suffering, difficulty on one side of the scale, the Lord promises to give the equal amount of grace and strength and power on the other side of the scale.
Here’s the key thing, friends. You get the strength for contentment from outside of yourself. It’s not something you find in yourself! You have to look outside of yourself to Christ, but Christ will give you real power, he’ll give you real strength. His strength will be made perfect in your weakness.
Here’s what Jeremiah Burroughs said in that great Puritan book. He said, “A Christian finds satisfaction in every circumstance by getting strength from another, by going out of himself to Jesus Christ, his faith acting upon Christ and bringing the strength of Jesus Christ into his own soul. He is thereby enabled to bear whatever God lays on him by the strength that he finds from Jesus Christ. There is strength in Christ not only to sanctify and save us but strength to support us under all our burdens and afflictions.” Christ expects that when we are under any burden, we should act our faith upon him to draw virtue and strength from him. It’s looking to Christ, it’s finding Christ himself to be our strength in weakness.
You know, when I read the stories of the great martyrs of the church, I’m amazed by their courage. Here are men and women who would face the stake, who would go to the flames, and they would do so singing and rejoicing. You remember the words of Latimer to Ridley, those English Reformers in the 16th century? They’re back to back, being burned at the stake, and Latimer says, “Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man, for by God’s grace today we will light such a candle in England as shall never be put out.”
How could they do that? They could do that because they got strength from outside of themselves, they got strength from Jesus Christ. They looked to Christ, and he was strong in their weakness.
That’s how Paul got it. “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Confidence in the Lord’s providence, satisfaction with the Lord’s provision, strength through the Lord’s power.
Here’s one more thing, number four...
(4) Comfort in the Lord’s Presence
Think about Paul’s letter. He’s already said that his great ambition is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, the fellowship of his sufferings, being made like him in his death. The fellowship of his sufferings—what is that? Its partnership, its friendship, its communion with Christ, even in the pain, even in the suffering. Paul says that “for me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” His confidence in life was that Christ was with him all the way to the end.
There’s another parallel passage in Hebrews 13. We don’t know who wrote these words, but they ring true to what Paul himself would have said. Hebrews 13:5-6, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper, I will not fear. What can man do to me?’”
Do you see the connection there? The writer says, “Be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” The reason you can be content with what you have is because of the confidence that the Lord will never leave you, he will never forsake you. Comfort that comes from the Lord’s presence, to know that he is with us.
John Newton said it well, and I’ve quoted these words many times. Many of you have heard these before, from an old, obscure hymn. Nobody pretty much sings this anymore, but I remember when these words first landed on me, they just hit me, what John Newton was saying in this song. The words go like this,
“Content with beholding his face,
My all to his pleasure resigned;
No changes of season or place
Would make any change in my mind.
While blest with a sense of his love
A palace a toy would appear,
And prisons would palaces prove
If Jesus would dwell with me there.”
Here’s the idea: if I am blessed with a sense of the love of Christ, if Christ is dwelling with me, I could be in a palace and it’s just a trifling matter, it’s just a toy. If Christ is with me, if I have the sense of Christ’s love with me, I could be in prison, and that prison becomes a palace to me because Jesus is there.
Listen, if we could just boil it all down, here’s the secret to contentment, here’s the key to contentment: Jesus. It’s getting Jesus! It’s knowing Jesus! It’s trusting Jesus! It’s strength from Jesus! It’s partnership with Jesus! It’s the fellowship of knowing Christ Jesus as Lord.
Paul knew that, and he was so satisfied in Jesus and with Jesus that he was willing to forsake all things, count all things as loss, in order to know Christ and serve Christ, and he could be content in any circumstances, any difficulty. Why? “Because I have Jesus, and if I have Jesus, I have enough.”
Can you say that this morning? Listen, that is possible for you. You can know this person, Jesus Christ, in such real, personal, present experience that you can endure anything—nothing will shake you—go through any storm, and you know you have a foundation, you have a rock under you, because you have Christ, you have Jesus. That’s what we need: it’s to know him and to trust him, to love him. Confidence in his providence, satisfaction with his provision, strength through his power, and comfort from his presence. That’s the secret to contentment. Let’s pray.
Gracious Father, these words are so challenging to us, and yet they are so inspiring and encouraging. Here was a man who knew you so well that, even as he’s writing from a jail cell in Rome, he can say, “I am satisfied. I am content.” Whatever our adverse circumstances may be in this moment, this day, our prayer is that we would so know Christ and the sufficiency of his grace that we would be able to say the same thing, that we would find our sense of wellbeing not in our circumstances, and not in ourselves, but in Jesus Christ. Would you make that true in our lives? Would you help us, even in this moment, to look outside of ourselves and to look to our Lord, to look to our Savior, to look to the one who can meet our needs in this moment?
As we come to the Lord’s table, Lord, I pray that we would see in the emblems of the bread and the juice the sufficiency of Jesus Christ for every need, and that we would come with faith in our hearts, feeding on Christ, looking to him. So draw near to us in these moments, we pray in Jesus’ name and for his sake, Amen.