Pursuing the Secret of Contentment

A few months ago, my family and I had a fun filled day walking the grounds of the Ft. Worth Zoo. During our outing, we learned that visitors to the zoo have a unique opportunity to behold something truly rare, and right here in DFW! In captivity for spectators to observe is an extraordinary white tiger named, Neela. When I was gawking at Neela through the glass of the observation area, I knew that I was viewing something awesome and distinct; foreign to my senses. Liberal estimates suggest only 200 of these rare white tigers are still in existence today–making the spectacle all the more exceptional. If you have not ever seen Neela, go see her!

Unfortunately, if we were to give an honest assessment of the inventory of people we know and do life with, and a thorough investigation of our own hearts in the matter, we might admit that it is a similar rarity to find a person who is truly content with the reality that Jesus Christ is enough to please us. That He, and He alone, is able to satisfy our affections, hopes, fears, and circumstances. Puritan writer and theologian, Jeremiah Burroughs, referred to this marvel as the rare jewel of Christian contentment. And he was right, contentment is rare… but it is a jewel worth digging for.

Just like in our day and Jeremiah Burroughs’ day, so too was contentment rare in the Apostle Paul’s day. As we consider Paul’s words in Philippians 4, we see that contentment is not only possible for the redeemed Christian, but it is actually essential to our lives and ministry–just like it was for Paul’s.

"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” - Philippians 4:10-13

There are three aspects of contentment that we ought to consider from this text. If we believe these aspects to be true, let’s begin to trust the Lord in bringing them to completion within us.

Contentment is Not Rooted in Our Circumstances

Before we can determine where contentment can be found, Paul explains where contentment cannot be found, despite our constant searching. Notice in vv. 11-12, Paul’s contentment does not increase or decrease based on his current circumstance. Paul is in prison as he writes this letter. He has been blessed by the Philippians, who cared for him and provided helpful gifts for his needs (Phil 4:16, 17). Yet, despite their care for him, Paul wants the Philippians to know that his contentment (or joy) is not based on their gifts… but in Christ. Paul knows that the gifts cannot bring ultimately contentment, but all satisfactory provision is found in Christ alone (Phil 4:19). Paul is overjoyed, however, at the Philippians provisional kindness– not because of the gifts– but because he knows the Spirit is working in and through them and fruit is increasing to their credit (Phil 4:17). Thus Paul is content and joyful at the Spirit’s work in them… and not necessarily what he received from the Spirit’s work. Paul knows that “more stuff” won’t bring satisfaction… any more than having “less stuff” can. Contentment cannot find its home in circumstances because circumstances are always changing.

The world’s formula for finding contentment is one that even the most faithful Christians can sometimes buy into. Our fleshly mindset says that… “if only I had this new job”… or “if my boss would be this way”… or “if this circumstance would change for me”… “then I would find contentment…”. Diagnostically, think about how we pray. How often are we seeking the Lord to change something for us… rather than merely seeking the Lord and rejoicing in his promises? We are to pray about everything, which involves asking for things, as Paul mentions earlier in this chapter (vv. 6-7), but notice the outcome of our prayers… “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” God’s peace for us is found in Christ alone; not in what Christ gives us.

If we are seeking contentment in the world, realistically its because we are discontent with Christ Jesus. He simply is not enough for us. We are grateful that He has saved us, but something else seems to benefit us greater. As believers, we need to ask if we are seeking contentment in the world. We need to ask ourselves, are we discontent in Christ?

Contentment is Found in Christ Alone

Do we believe that Jesus Christ is enough to bring us joy, enough to make our hearts satisfied, enough to bring us to contentment? Grasp with me what Paul finishes with in v.13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Perhaps a more helpful explanation of the text would read, “I can do all “these” things through him who strengthens me.” This verse is grossly misused today, whether it’s referring to an athlete’s physical motivation, or a test takers mental approach… “I can do all things…” has turned into a “me” centered approach to handling challenging tasks– an excuse to serve the self. But in the context of Paul’s words, he has just said that “I know what it is 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 (Phil 4:12).” Paul is simply saying that no matter the situation, whether he’s feasting with the wealthy (Acts 16) or in prison as he writes this letter, he has learned that he can be content in both situations because Christ gives him the strength… Christ is enough for Paul.

Which means, if we are to find that rare jewel of being content in Christ as Paul did, we must be fully discontent with this world as Paul was. Look back with me one chapter in Philippians. Paul describes all the things the world provided him: his longstanding Jewish heritage, his identity as a member of the House of Benjamin, his vocational success as a rising Pharisee, favor amongst his peers, and a zeal to serve God that was unmatched (Phil 3:4-6). However, after Paul came to know Christ as Savior and King, he considered everything he had… his whole world… his public identity… his future potential… everything, a loss… total garbage, compared to knowing Jesus the Lord. What a completely provocative thought. Everything in life is as valuable as trash compared to knowing the riches of Jesus Christ the Lord. Paul’s discontentment with his sin and the offerings of the world push him to pursue the full hope and joy one can have in Christ (3:12-14). Paul says of his aim for his life and ministry is, “that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection (3:10).” For Paul, Christ is more glorious than all gifts, Christ is preeminent in all things (Col 1:18). One cannot love Christ until he recognizes that the world does not satisfy. And learning that the world cannot satisfy is the mercy of God to His people.

Discontentment in the world leads to one recognizing the treasures we have in Christ. Perhaps we are not in awe of Christ because we have not stopped pursuing the world. Perhaps we seek the things of the world because Christ is not enough for us. Perhaps we have accepted Christ as Lord, but we still seek the satisfaction offered through circumstances, or options, or comforts. What an empty road that is as Paul teaches us.

Contentment is Learned Through Our Situations and Circumstances

See with me in 4:11-12 that the verb learned appears twice. In whatever situation Paul found himself in, he learned to be content. He learned what it was to have a lot, he learned what it was to have nothing. In both situations, he learned that contentment was possible. In fact, the only way Paul could learn contentment was to experience a range of situations and circumstances. Contentment is not learned through one single event or crisis. Contentment is learned through seasons of plenty and seasons of little. Through hard floors and soft pillows. Feasts and famines. In Acts 16, Paul stayed in the home of Lydia, a wealthy seller of purple goods. He had tasted and experienced the delicacies that life offers as Lydia and others served Paul during his ministry (not to mention all the privileges of being an aspiring Pharisee in previous days). Paul also knew the deepest forms of hardship as he rattles off the physical toll the gospel had on him; five times
he received 39 lashes with a whip, three times beaten with rods, he was stoned, shipwrecked three times, adrift at sea, in danger from rivers-robbers- his own people-Gentiles- in the city-in the wilderness-at sea-and from false brothers; he was cold, thirsty, sleepless, and often without food (2 Cor 11:24-28). And in all of these things, the good and the bad, Paul learned that Christ is enough. But he had to learn it. It took time. A process is God’s teaching method for his people.

What are the Implications?

Why do we want to be content? Contentment in Christ makes us flexible to serve, give, go, worship, suffer, proclaim, hope, live out faith, and love our God and brother and sister. Paul says, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13). Doing “all things through Him” means by His grace, for His glory, and for our sanctification and satisfaction. This is the abundant life that Christ speaks of in John 10:10. It does not mean for our glory or for what we believe is best for us. This does not give man the freedom to depend upon God in whatever the man wishes, but rather to depend upon God according to His will. When we do “all things through Him” it gives testimony to the gospel. Read through these lenses, when Paul says, “for me to live is Christ and to die is gain”, it actually starts to make sense in our Western mindsets. Whether he is living, or dying, he is doing so with God’s glory and will as his intent. We are called to do the same. And it is in this, that we will be content. It is here, that Christ will be our all. We must learn this, and it does take time. So we should endure in our sanctification, and be patient with our brothers in sisters who are also learning as well. But in all we do, let us press on to make it our own… because Christ Jesus has made us his own. Let’s follow Paul’s example…as he followed the example of Jesus Christ.

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