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Philippians 4:10-13: The Secret of Contentment Print E-mail
Sunday, 24 August 2008


Let me put a couple of scenarios before you this morning and ask how you would respond to each one.  First, let’s say that some distant relative of yours starts a successful business and decides to give everyone in his family a million bucks.  How would you respond to such news?  What would be your first thoughts?  How would that make you feel?  Alright, now let’s change the scenario a bit.  Second, let’s say that Christianity becomes illegal in the US and all practicing Christians will lose their jobs, their homes, and all their stuff.  How would you respond to this news?  What would be your first thoughts?  How would that make you feel?  Obviously the two scenarios are quite different.  The first involves great abundance (at least, monetarily), while the second involves great poverty and difficulty.  So then we will respond accordingly right?  We will welcome the first and scorn the second.  My question for us this morning is this: should our responses to these two scenarios be so varied?  Granted, they are the extremes and probably seem a little ridiculous to us.  Yet, what I am driving at is what we have talked about over and over again in the book of Philippians, namely how our circumstances often determine our joy and peace.  It is this thought that Paul’s teaching in this book attacks

In our passage this morning Paul is offering thanksgiving to the Philippians for how they had provided for him while he was in prison.  Look at verse 10.  Paul once again speaks of rejoicing in the Lord.  This time he is rejoicing over the concern that the church in Philippi has shown towards him.  For whatever reason, they were unable to help him for a while, but they had recently sent Epaphroditus to help Paul.  We should note at this point that such provision was important for prisoners because they were dependent upon outside help.  Paul will continue his thanksgiving until the end of verse 20, which we finish looking at next week.  But in verses 11-13, he breaks a bit to talk about contentment.  As always, what he says is staggering and as applicable for us today as it was for the Philippians who first read it.  It is what he says here that will help us to consider how we respond to different scenarios (like the extreme ones we mentioned above).  I want to answer two specific questions from the text this morning: what is the secret of true contentment and how do we put this into practice?  So then, what is the secret to true contentment?

True contentment is not based upon our circumstances (v. 11-12).

As we have already mentioned, this theme comes up over and over again in the book of Philippians.  So how does Paul teach it here?  Look at verses 11.  Paul says that he has learned in whatever situation to be content.  This is not Paul being ungrateful for their gift, but making sure that they understand the importance of contentment in all circumstances.  Paul had learned to be content in any situation.  He gets more specific in verse 12.  Look at that with me.  Paul knew how to be brought low, how to be humbled.  Likewise, he also knew how to be lifted up, how to abound.  Like the scenarios that we used above, Paul knew how to face the extremes and if he knew how to face them with contentment, then he could face everything in between.  Paul’s contentment was not based upon being brought low or abounding.  It was not based on being hungry or having plenty.  It was not based upon abundance or need.  No, he knew what it was like to face all of these situations and many in between.  Yet, in all of these he had learned the secret of being of content.  Thus, true contentment rises above our circumstances.  Well then, if it is not based upon our circumstances, then what is it based on?

True contentment is facing all circumstances in, with, and through Christ (v. 13).

Verse 13 is one of the most well-known verses in this book (and even in the New Testament).  It is also one of the most misunderstood and misapplied verses.  So what does it mean?  Look at it with me.  In order to understand it correctly, we must first ask: what does Paul mean by I can do all things?  Many have taken Paul to mean ‘all things without exception.’  Now, on the one hand I understand such an interpretation and the desire to see it here.  Yet, is that faithful to the context of the passage?  In other words, is Paul talking about weight-lifting (‘I can bench press 300 pounds through Christ who strengthens me’) or career success (‘I can get this raise through Christ who strengthens me’) or test scores (‘I can ace this final through Christ who strengthens me’)?  No, I don’t think so. 

Listen to the misapplication that D. A. Carson describes: “By the same token, the verse should not be deployed by well-meaning but ill-informed church leaders who are trying to manipulate church members into doing something they really do not think they should do: ‘But Mrs. Jones, you can’t say no to our invitation to teach ten-year-old boys, just because you’ve never taught a Sunday School class before or just because you feel you have no gifts or calling or interest in this area.  After all, Paul teaches us that we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength.’  That is horrible.”   Rather, in particular, he is talking about being in want of food or in excess of food, and in general, he is talking about situations of abundance and need.  I don’t think that he is just referring to financial situations, but I would caution us against applying the ‘all things’ to ‘all things without exception.’  Rather, he is saying that we can face all types of circumstances (from extremely good to extremely bad) with contentment.

How do we do this?  The same way that Paul did, namely through him who strengthens me.  Our contentment is found in facing all of our circumstances, all of our need and want, and all of our plenty and abundance, in, with, and through Christ.  The fact is that Christ will give us the strength to face all of life.  Notice that Paul does not say that Christ will take away all of life’s difficulty.  He does not say that followers of Christ will be kept from the hardships of life.  No, but he tells us that we will not face these alone.  The worldly philosophers of Paul’s day valued contentment and taught people to look to themselves and be content in all things.  We hear the same things being taught by those who encourage us to ‘find your inner peace’ and ‘look to yourselves for strength.’  Paul would have none of that.  His strength is not from within but from Christ.  He is the source of his constant contentment.  As one of my commentators states it: “(Paul) turns ‘self-sufficiency’ into ‘contentment’ because of his ‘Christ-sufficiency.’”   We are not to be self-sufficient, we are to be Christ-sufficient. 

And I should note, He gets us through the times of abundance as well as times of need.  During times of need, we can say with Paul: And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.  And when we are in abundance we can say: our God has blessed us that we might indeed be a blessing to others.  By the strength of Christ we can say both.  And do you see how this works?  Sometimes our needs are met through the abundance of others in Christ and sometimes we get the privilege of meeting the needs of others (see 2 Corinthians 8:13-15).  In our need we know that He will supply for us and in our abundance we know that He is supplying through us.  Thus, in and through Him we can face plenty and abundance faithfully.

Yet, how do we learn such contentment?  How do we put this into practice?

First, we learn this by meditating on the glories of being in Christ!

In one sense, this simple secret of contentment in Christ should not surprise us if we have been paying attention to what Paul has been saying throughout this letter.  The promise of our salvation being made complete points us to the day of Jesus Christ (1:6).  The proclamation of Christ, even by those who do it out of rivalry, is a reason to rejoice (1:15-18).  Paul sums his life up with these words: For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain (1:21). 

Christ is the one who humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross and at His name every knee should bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (2:8, 10-11).  There is surpassing worth in knowing Him and Paul gladly sacrificed all to gain Christ (3:8).  He is our Savior…who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him to subject all things to himself (3:20-21).  With Paul and the many saints who have gone before us, may we discipline ourselves to meditate on and hope in such glorious truths.  As we do this, through Bible study, memorization, prayer, and the other spiritual disciplines, we will be feasting upon the Living Bread (John 6) and learning how to face want and plenty with contentment through Christ.

Second, we learn this by living out our faith in our daily circumstances.

In addition to the disciplines listed above, we must also discipline ourselves in our daily walk with Christ.  Indeed, learning true contentment in Christ will happen as we face the various circumstances of our lives.  This is part of what Paul means when he talks about the fact that he had learned in whatever situation I am to be content.  As he faced the various circumstances of his own life, the Lord taught him to be content.  Yet, we must be intentional about the lesson.  We must not miss any opportunities to learn such contentment.  How do we do this?  We must face every situation with this question: ‘How is Christ teaching me contentment through this circumstance?’  When you are brought low, look to Christ and trust in His supply.  When you abound, look to Christ that you might freely use His blessings to bless others. 

The best example of this in my own life is our longing for children.  Glenna and I (as well as all others who have battled this) would freely admit that infertility was a great struggle.  Yet, I believe that the Lord was teaching us both how to be brought low.  He was (and is) teaching us contentment in Christ.  Likewise, with the adoption of Isaiah, he is teaching us how to abound.  Hopefully our blessing (which was brought about through the blessings of so many) will be a blessing to others.  I will never forget sitting in Panera Bread the Sunday we were waiting to find out if the adoption would go through.  I had read this passage the day before and I said to Glenna: ‘Today the Lord will be teaching us how to be content in Christ.  He will either teach us more about being brought low or more about abounding, but either way, He will be with us.’  I want to face every situation with these truths.  I want to learn true contentment, rock-solid contentment, contentment that cannot be stolen.  I want to do all things through him who strengthens me.  Don’t you?  May we learn to be content in, with, and through Christ, for His great glory.  Amen.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Monday, 08 September 2008 )

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