Father help us to understand your Word and to put into practice in the power of your Spirit, for Jesus’ sake Amen.
We’re looking at Philippians 4.10-13 under the heading ‘Finding Joy: Resolve to Learn the Secret of Real Contentment’. And by contentment Paul doesn’t here mean an easy life with your feet up when all is well but rather Christian contentment, trusting in and rejoicing in the Lord despite your circumstances, making the most of where the Lord has put you to serve him and those around you, a contentment in Christ that leads to generosity as it did for the Philippians in their support of Paul Philippians 4.10.
So let me ask you this question. What do you feel you need to be content? Some might say of me you need Leeds United to be winning to be content, which this season would mean contentment just 50% of the time! But what is it for you? What’s the one thing you feel you lack? And you think to yourself if I just had that then I’d be happy and could handle anything - if I just had that one thing? Perhaps it’s what you’ve particularly missed during lockdown despite knowing that actually that never used to bring you true contentment. I might say the new Sony 50mm 1.2 camera lens. That would be incredible to photograph my son’s upcoming wedding with this summer. But then the 85mm 1.2 camera lens would come along! And thinking of weddings some of you might say marriage - everything I struggle with loneliness, depression etc would be fixed by marriage. Now marriage is a very good gift of God and my wife is amazing. But can it meet our deepest longings for lasting wholeness?
You see many of us think that the secret of contentment will be found by changing our present circumstances in some way. Get more approval. Get more stuff. Live in a nicer home. Surround myself with people who love me more and understand me better. And then I’ll be content. But how much is enough? How much stuff, approval and comfort is enough to feel content? Apparently, according to surveys, our contentment requires about twice as much as we currently have! But in Philippians Paul turns all that upside down. He says that he’s learned to be content whatever the situation – even if you’re chained to a Roman guard on Death Row as he was. In and through Christ he could see how the whole Roman guard and indeed the whole of Caesar’s palace could hear the gospel through that situation which brought him perspective and joy! You see he sees and has learned that real contentment isn’t anything to do with how much you have or how little. He says Philippians 4.11-12:
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.
His circumstances might vary and his earthly future might be uncertain as he writes from prison, but he says Philippians 4.11:
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.
I wonder what your secret was to getting through lockdown? But what is the secret of contentment Paul has learned? What is the secret of being content whatever our situation he wants us to learn? Well look on to Philippians 4.13. Now this is one of the most abused verses in Scripture. It’s often translated like this - I can do all things/everything through him [Christ] who strengthens me. It’s the verse some Christian sports stars have tattooed on themselves as if it means they can do everything better, higher and faster if they’re in Christ. But perhaps a better translation is this, I can do all this [this meaning contentment in every situation] through Christ who strengthens me. Paul’s saying that he can, in other words, meet all circumstances with contentment through Christ. Who needs to hear and learn that secret?
You can do this through Christ who gives you strength. In fact that is what God wants you to learn through the situations you’re facing right now. Perhaps you’re not yet a believer. You know you don’t have true contentment. Well why not come to Jesus Christ this evening and begin to learn the secret of being content in him, in any and every situation. Paul is testimony to the contentment Christ brings. So whatever support the Philippian church send him contents him and leads to him rejoicing in the Lord (Philippians 4.10). In Philippians 4.17 he even says that he wasn't seeking a gift. Not that he didn't want it or that he was ungrateful but that he was just content to accept whatever circumstances the Lord had appointed for him. He was content in Christ, even in chains. Yes, union with the living Christ is the secret of being content and the source of our abiding strength.
You and I can find joy and contentment, real, deep and lasting contentment,
whatever our circumstances, but it can only be found in Christ. The Philippians seem to get this, that real contentment can only be found in
Christ. It’s clear that they’re not looking for true contentment in money or possessions. How is it clear you say - because they’ve been so generous with Paul. Even though they were very young followers of Christ Paul tells us that they were the only church (Philippians 4.15) who supported him in every way as he set out from Macedonia to plant more churches. They believed Jesus when he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20.35). Do you? Do I? Have a think for a moment before you answer to yourself. Perhaps your answer will reveal just how content you really are.
You see the world wants to grab our attention and drum into our heads and hearts that one of the secrets of being content lies in having more things; that things make you happy and content. The easings of lockdown tell us that we need to go back to the High Street for some ‘retail therapy’. Go on treat yourself, the adverts say. But that secret is ultimately a lie. Going after more with an insatiable yearning for more and more things that others may have but that you don’t need or that actually belong to someone else is covetousness, which is idolatrous (Ephesians 5.5) and is actually the opposite of contentment. Paul tells us in Romans 7.8 that he’d struggled with covetousness but now he was content in Christ. You can buy all the things you’ve ever wanted and still feel desperately empty. The Apostle Paul learned that the secret of being content was not things but rather a relationship with Jesus Christ, through whom we can have the strength to be content whatever the circumstances (Philippians 4.13). In the previous chapter of Philippians Paul’s own testimony was that he’d lost all things in order to know Christ (Philippians 3.8). He considered them rubbish compared with the surpassing greatness of knowing the Lord Jesus Christ.
Notice importantly that in Christ Paul says he’d learned to be content. Christian contentment is not something we have overnight. He’d learned the secret test by test, circumstance by circumstance in Christ’s strength. It’s the mark of a mature Christian who wants to grow in Jesus Christ, who had nowhere to lay his head. Contentment does not come easily but through Christ who strengthens us. As I’ve already mentioned covetousness had been a problem for Paul but in Christ his heart was weaned away from 'things' and became wholly and solely God's. The person who’s in Christ has everything. The fact is that Paul is content both in need and in plenty and indeed in all circumstances because his contentment is utterly independent of circumstances. His contentment is focused on all that he enjoys of Jesus Christ. That means he’s learned, by hard experience, a relaxed contentment whatever his circumstances. As Nehemiah 8.10 says:
The joy of the Lord is your strength.
So the secret of Christian contentment is quite unlike stoical self sufficiency. Paul isn’t claiming to be so strong that nothing can move him. Nor is he simply resolving to be independent of circumstances by a superlative act of will. Far from it. He immediately confesses that if he’s reached this stage of contentment he owes everything to God, which brings us back again to Philippians 4.13:
I can do all this through Christ who strengthens me.
You see the myth the world puts out is that all you need is within yourself. In the western world self-centredness is a boom industry. In fact, Paul was no stranger to such ideas. His use of the word translated content is a deliberate choice. Some philosophers of his day used that word to teach self-sufficiency and claimed it was the highest goal a person could reach. Through the pathway of the mind an individual could reach this inner state of contentment and self-sufficiency. But Paul is clear and we need to be clear. We’re not self-sufficient but Christ sufficient. No matter what challenges lie ahead, Jesus Christ is big enough to meet them. To be content in need or in plenty, in whatever situation we face is not the product of human skill. The secret isn’t us, it is Jesus in us! The strength that Christ gives is sufficient for anything we face in life. Philippians 4.13:
I can do all this through Christ who strengthens me.
But don’t take Philippians 4.13 out of context and so misapply it. Paul isn’t claiming to be a kind of superman because he’s a Christian and God’s on his side. Neither should this verse be deployed by well meaning but ill informed church leaders who are trying to manipulate church members into ministry they really don’t think they should be involved in. “But Mike and Liz, you can’t say no to our invitation to teach 7-11 year olds just because you’ve never taught in children’s groups before, or just because you feel you have no gifts or interest in this area of ministry. After all Paul says here in the ESV we can do all things or everything through Christ who strengthens us, Mike and Liz”! Isn’t that awful? But Paul’s all things in the ESV is constrained by the context. His point is that whatever the circumstances in which he finds himself, whether with the rich and the powerful or with the poor and the powerless, whether preaching to substantial crowds or incarcerated in a filthy prison, he has learned to cast himself on God and be content. As we saw earlier a better translation is:
He can do all this, everything that God assigns him to do, through the one who gives him strength. Let the gospel advance; let God’s will be done in me and through me.
Paul’s saying ‘I’m content, for I can trust the one who strengthens me to do what he assigns to me’. It takes the strength and resolution and perspective that only God can provide to live above changing, difficult circumstances. But to live above circumstances, rejoicing in the Lord in spite of circumstances, utterly content in Christ, is to ensure that you’ll joyfully never give up the Christian walk. Resolve to learn the secret of contentment. I’m still learning – are you?
So what is the secret of Paul’s contentment? Yes it’s here in Philippians 4 but it’s also on every page of Philippians. It can be your secret too as I’ve been learning. Whatever your circumstances whether rich or poor, single or married, in prison or free, even in depression and loneliness the reality is that your Father is with you. He’s in the tears, he’s in the hardship and yes he’s in control. Your God is with you. His fingerprints are all over your chains whatever they may be. Remember how God dashed Paul’s plans and brought him to Philippi so that the Philippians could be saved. Remember how God made Paul’s chains the very means that the gospel reached the most powerful places on earth. Remember how God ordained that the Cross, an instrument of torture, would become the instrument of salvation.
In my most troubled moments as I think about what I’ve lost or what I’ve never had, and believe me I’ve had those troubled moments and still have them, yes it’s right to grieve but there’s something Paul is saying to me and you in those moments – forget what’s behind, remember who your Father is and remember who you are – you’re in Christ. I’m in Christ. I’m unimaginably rich in him and even if the wheels have almost fallen off I’m nearly home. Let’s pray.
Paul wrote, 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 this through Christ who strengthens me. Father, help us, in Christ, to learn this too. For your glory, Amen