Introduction: Paul's great joy Philippians 4.10-23. In my more wise moments I do not believe that Peter Davis, The Man From the Pru, has in his policies the secret of true happiness. The claims of the advertisers are very often preposterous. But our own search for happiness can sometimes be quite as ridiculous. We imagine that one more chocolate, one more friend, one higher grade in an exam, a bit more money, an extra hour of time, or a new car will bring that elusive peace. And we very easily find ugly resentments popping up when things don't work out according to our masterplan. We fail that exam. Our husband has one too many irritating habits. The mortgage goes up. The car breaks down. And there are harder knocks as well. Losing a job. Not getting a job. Bereavement. The person you thought you might one day marry decides to end your relationship. Or suddenly you find yourself seriously ill. For whatever reason, the happiness that we crave can seem always around the next corner. Not so with the apostle Paul. One of the things that has been evident to us as we have worked through this letter to the Philippians is that Paul is a deeply happy man. He is not superficially happy. He is not having a ball. He is as good as on death row. And he does not hide the fact that he is struggling. His suffering is real. When his friend Epaphroditus recovers from illness he thanks God that he has been spared sorrow upon sorrow (2.28). But at the same time, there is a great deep down joy which shines through this whole letter. He rejoices as he prays (1.4); he rejoices as he sees Christ preached (1.18); he rejoices as he looks to the future (1.4 again); he anticipates that the Philippians will rejoice despite their own struggle and suffering (1.25-26); even looking the possibility of execution full in the face he rejoices and encourages the Philippians to be glad and rejoice (2.18); indeed he repeatedly commands them to rejoice (3.1 and 4.4). Then at the beginning of our passage Paul is rejoicing in the concern that the Philippians have shown him. For all his struggles and suffering and sorrow, Paul is a deeply happy man. Which raises a question. As Des Lynam might say: "How does he do that?" What is the secret of true happiness that Paul so evidently knows? Well, as he draws his letter to a close he gives the secret away. The key to Paul's great joy is to be found in a three part lesson that he has learned. Part One is this: First, BE CONTENT WHATEVER THE CIRCUMSTANCES That is my first heading. In 4.11 Paul says:
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
He means it. He is not trying to pull the wool over our eyes. He has found the secret of contentment. How we need to learn this lesson! We are so inclined to suffer as the Israelites did from the plague of complaint. Maybe we could even turn what Paul says on its head and say: "I have learned to complain whatever the circumstances". It brings me up sharp when I read about the reaction of the Israelites to what the Lord did for them. It is almost frightening because it rings so true to our own behaviour. In the most miraculous way the Lord had rescued them from abject slavery in Egypt, and brought them into the wilderness on the way to the promised land. In one place they found the water was bitter and they murmured and grumbled. God promised them health and gave them fresh water. They moved on, and got hungry, and moaned again. The Lord gave them manna and quails to eat. Again they move on and get thirsty. And they complain faithlessly yet again: "Is the Lord among us or not?" And the Lord provided water from a rock. They are fine at meal times - but between meals all they do is grumble and complain. How like us! So how can we break out of that awful cycle of ungrateful and faithless resentment? Let's begin by understanding the nature of contentment. The word Paul uses for contentment was a word used by the Stoics of his day. They were a philosophical school for whom contentment was the supreme virtue. But they saw it as self-sufficiency. Their ideal was the man who was above suffering because of his complete detachment from all that happened to him. "The man of emotionless, wooden impassivity, the man whom nothing could touch because in himself he had found a completely satisfying world." One of the great Stoics, Cato, is reported to have expressed regret that he kissed his wife in a moment of danger. That is nothing to do with Christian contentment. Christian contentment is not self-sufficiency. It is Christ-sufficiency. There is another mistake that we can easily make that might lead us to despair that we will ever know contentment. The fact is that we have widely differing personalities. Some are more inclined to a sunny disposition. Others are inclined to be down in the dumps. But we are wrong if we conclude that we are powerless in the face of our personality, and that all our complaining is really just the fault of our parents or our nature, and not our responsibility. We cannot pass the buck like that. The onus is on us to get our attitudes sorted out. But that gives hope. If we feel trapped in a complaining rut, we need to know that there is a way out. Paul says that his contentment is something that he has learned. 4.11:
I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
The sense is of a once for all lesson learned in the past that there is no going back from. He has done with complaining. Then in v12 he says:
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.
There he uses a different word for 'learned' that carries a sense of gradual upward progression, like a step by step training leading to graduation. At every hurdle in his life he has trusted the Lord and always he has found the Lord to be there with him, taking him over and onwards. "Contentment did not come easily. He purchased it at the price of exacting discipline" says Alec Motyer. But it was a lesson learned for life. Be content whatever the circumstances. That is the first part of the lesson. The second part, and my second heading, is this: Secondly, DO EVERYTHING IN GOD'S STRENGTH How can Paul be content whatever happens? It was not that Stoic stiff upper lip. His secret is in verse 13:
I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
There are three things there. First of all, contentment is to be found in him, in Jesus. It is our personal relationship with Christ that is at the heart of it. The learning of contentment flows from getting to know Christ and submitting to his Lordship. It comes through faith in his death for us which brings forgiveness and a place in his family. It is not a virtue that can be learned in an impersonal, abstract way like learning to play chess. It is Christ himself who is our shelter and we need to be in him. At the bottom of our garden where I grew up was a little door sunk into the ground. It lead into a concrete construction with an immense thick roof. It was built during the war as a shelter from bombs. Well, Jesus is our bomb shelter when life is dangerous and uncertain. We find contentment in him. Secondly Paul says that Christ is the one who strengthens him. Being content is not weakly capitulating. It is being powerful to cope. And that empowering comes through Jesus. We are weak and he is strong. Think of a manned space rocket like Apollo. Men who on their own could jump a few feet at most were empowered by those rockets to go all the way to the moon. Jesus makes his limitless strength available to us. He infuses us with it so that we can do all things. In him and through him we find that we have the ability not to complain. We do not get thrown by the bucking bronco of circumstances. Thirdly, "doing all things" does not mean we can suddenly fly like superman. It does not mean that our every whim and desire will be satisfied. It means that the Lord strengthens us to do everything that he calls us to do, and he strengthens us to handle every situation that he lands us in. "I can do everything through him who gives me strength" - that is the secret of contentment, and the heart of the lesson that we need to learn. Part One: Be content whatever the circumstances. Part two: Do everything in God's strength. Then the third and final part of the lesson is this: Thirdly, GOD WILL MEET YOUR NEEDS In response to all that he has received from God through the Philippians, Paul spells out to them the promise that he himself relies upon. Verse 19:
my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus
Everything that the apostle Paul says is suffused with the sense that it is God who is behind all that he receives and experiences. That applies whether it is money from the church in Philippi or indeed any other circumstance of his life. This is a fundamental lesson of the life of faith. If Paul is a great example of one who learned this lesson from the New Testament, King David is a great example from the Old Testament. Do you remember how he gathered all the materials that were needed for the building of the temple? He and the people pour out their wealth so that the temple could be built. And David prays. He doesn't just say "Here you are Lord. I hope you are grateful." 1 Chronicles 29.13-14:
Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name. But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand.
David acknowledges gladly that everything he has comes from the hand of God. This is the third part of the lesson of contentment. It is the third number of the combination lock that opens the door to true happiness. All the resources that we have come from God, and he will make sure that we have all we need. Paul is so confident of that as he sits in a Roman jail with the executioner's sword hanging over his life. He knows that his God can be trusted. He knows that his very life belongs to God. And he is ready to receive whatever God has in store for him. If that means poverty, fine. If it means wealth, that's fine too. 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.
If what God has in store for him is death, that's fine. If it is life, that's fine too. 1.21:
I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
Whether it is cash or courage that he needs, Paul knows that God will supply it. In these closing verses of the letter Paul gives two different scenarios that he has learned to meet with contentment, without his spiritual equilibrium being destroyed. One of them is having only a little. A bit like going short in the wilderness. He says "I know what it is to be in need" (verse 12). He has been through lean times. We have to learn like him to draw on Christ's strength at such times. I think of one Christian woman whose non-Christian husband had abandoned her. She was very hard up. but she depended on the Lord. She took her opportunities to serve him. When a chance came for her to earn a much better wage but with longer hours she declined it. She felt her Christian work would have suffered. She was content to remain poor so that she could go on having the time to share Christ with other women. She did not find her circumstances easy. But she knew the Lord is reliable, and I do not ever remember hearing her complain. Paul knew what he was talking about as well. He coveted nothing. He says in 1 Corinthians 4.11-13:
To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our hands. When we are cursed we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.
He was content with that, for the sake of Christ. But he says in Philippians that he knows about the other extreme as well. He has learned to meet the second scenario. He knows how to have plenty. That's not too difficult, you may say. But plenty is in many ways just as likely to destroy our spiritual equilibrium as having only a little. Plenty and abundance are seductive. They may come your way. You may find yourself earning a very large salary for instance. You may be overwhelmed with exciting and wonderful spiritual experiences. Can you rest content, not in the abundance, but in Christ? Again I remember someone who was a faithful Christian who went on a conference and in the course of the conference found himself overwhelmed by joy and a sense of the Lord's presence and love and blessing. Like manna from heaven after being hungry. But it was as if he took his eyes off the Lord and fixed them instead on the experience. What had been a blessing turned very sour when he settled back into life at home. He became far too concerned with such experiences, and he became critical and complaining about others. He couldn't handle plenty. Money, or success, or popularity can have the same seductive effect. Well just as the Lord was testing the Israelites in the wilderness by moving them on from hunger to plenty and back again, so the Lord does the same with us. The good news is that in Christ we can be detached from these things. He will strengthen us to cope if we turn to him in faith and repent of our complaining. We can learn to be content, because we are safe in him. The story is told of a man who made his sons work in the cornfields while other boys were out swimming and playing in the fields and doing other things that they wanted to do. Someone remonstrated with the man and said: "Why do you make those boys work so hard in your cornfields? You don't need all that corn." The man answered: "Sir, I am not raising corn, I am raising boys." What we think we need is not necessarily the same as what God knows we need. His purpose is to raise his children to maturity. True happiness is knowing that by the grace of God we are on that path to maturity. It is happiness and contentment that is centred not in ourselves but in Christ. God will meet all our needs "according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus". Such happiness is the mark of one, like Paul, whose supreme joy is to see God honoured. Verse 20:
To our God and Father by glory for ever and ever. Amen.
So the message is this: as you face your future, whatever pressures and uncertainties there are, whatever decisions have to be made, whatever happens to you and wherever you are - learn contentment from Christ. Don't fall into the trap of complaint and resentment. Trust God to meet your needs. And let the Holy Spirit teach you so that you will be able to say, like the apostle Paul: "I can do everything through him who gives me strength." A final prayer:
Lord we pray for ourselves what your servant Paul prayed for our brothers and sisters in Christ there in Philippi two thousand years ago. Our need is the same. So we pray that our love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that we may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ - to your glory, and to your praise. Amen.