Learning Contentment (Philippians 4:10-13)

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When one thinks of “contentment,” Johannesburg probably does not immediately spring to mind.  The countenance of Johannesburg drivers on the highways do not display an attitude of contentment. Complaints are rife in the marketplace, and the editorial sections of newspapers display obvious discontentment. It is no exaggeration to say that our malls stay solvent due to the discontentment of consumers; we make constant purchases to fill the void. Citizens are discontent and so they leave the country. Marriage partners are discontent, as is evident in rocketing divorce rates, and even church members are discontent, as evidenced by the ease with which professing believers change churches. It appears that people, generally speaking, are unhappy with their lot in life—or at least their lot for the moment—and so they grumble. The result is a sense of frustration, anger and bitterness, and a critical spirit is soon developed.

Let’s be honest: We all like our comfort zones. And when this cherished turf is invaded or disrupted, then we are tempted to discontentedness. This can be nothing more than a temporary, sinful attitude, but sadly such isolated incidences of discontentedness can easily develop into a lifestyle. We can become chronic complainers: never happy. The result of this of course is alienation, for no one enjoys spending time with a complainer. This often leads to cynicism, and a venomous spirit soon takes over. This leads to joyless living. And even if things do not end as badly as I have just described, discontentedness almost always tends toward stress as an everything-must-go-a-certain-way mentality takes over.

Once we have given into the temptation to discontentedness, we soon begin seeking to shelter ourselves from any possible further discontent, and the result is that we evade our responsibilities and relationships with others. The question then becomes, how do we deal with this problem? How do we live contentedly? What is the key to learning contentedness? Is it something that can be discovered?

The advice of the world is simply to keep a stiff upper lip. We are told to “chill out” and are thus advised not to think about our problems. We must simply roll with the punches, just grin and bear it. In other words, we must respond with a form of stoicism. There are many such stoics in the world who appear to enjoy a form of contentedness, but this so-called contentedness is far removed from biblical Christianity. The contentedness that Paul learned (Philippians 4:10-13) was supernatural. It was a contentment that could only come “through Christ” (v. 13).

The wonderful truth is that the contentment that Paul enjoyed is in fact the birthright of every child of God. We can learn in distressing times to be content. When Greek philosopher Aristotle was asked who is the wealthiest person, he replied, “The one who is content with least, for contentment is nature’s wealth.” With all due respect to Aristotle, he was completely wrong. The truth is, the richest person in the world—materially speaking—can enjoy biblical contentment just as easily as the poorest person in the world. Wealth, or lack thereof, has nothing to do with contentment, for biblical contentment is the gift of God.

Some interpreters believe that Paul is finished with the main message of his letter in v. 9, and that vv. 10-20 are simply his conclusion. I am of the persuasion that vv. 10-13 are in fact closely related to his message in vv. 4-9. Let us examine these verses and consider how their message enables us to enjoy good, biblical mental health.

The Context

As Paul moves from v. 9 into v. 10, he does not really change subjects, but he does return to the initial intended theme of the message: thanking the Philippians for their love shown to him. He “rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at the last [their] care of [him had] flourished again.” The term “flourished again” means “to sprout up,” and was the term used of plants and flowers blooming afresh at the beginning of a new spring.

Some ten years earlier, Paul had enjoyed support from the Philippians. They had sent support to him on at least two occasions, and now during this time of imprisonment they were once again supporting him.

By the use of the phrase “at the last,” Paul does not intend to be critical. He is by no means suggesting that it is about time they did something for him. As you study the record in Acts it becomes apparent that this church was in one of the poorest regions of the New Testament world: Macedonia (2 Corinthians 8:1-5). Paul is simply acknowledging that God had finally granted them the providential opportunity to be in a position to help him, and he was grateful that they grabbed that opportunity with both hands. He acknowledges that they had desired to help him (“wherein ye were also careful”) but realised that they “lacked opportunity.”

But not only is Paul not being critical; he is also not hinting that he is in need. Hudson Taylor, the great missionary to China, once stated that “God’s work done God’s way will never lack God’s supply.” He himself lived by faith, but he acknowledged with some sadness that many missionaries lived by “faith plus hints.” Paul, however, does not drop any hints; instead, he speaks of his contentedness in Christ.

Paul’s Confession of Faith

Paul’s confession of faith in vv. 11-13 is nothing short of amazing. He does not complain; he does not drop any hints. He admits that he has experienced both depths and heights, but states boldly that, in every situation, he had prevailed in Christ.

Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.

(Philippians 4:11-13)

The word “content” has the idea of being independent of one’s circumstances. This is one of the few times that this word is used in the New Testament, and it seems that Paul, as he often did, has borrowed the word from the Graeco-Roman world in which he lived, but has filled it with a heightened meaning. Homer Kent has offered the followed explanation of how the word was classically used in Paul’s day:

In stoic philosophy, “content” described a person who accepted impassively whatever came. Circumstances that he could not change were regarded as the will of the gods and fretting was useless. This philosophy fostered a self-sufficiency in which all the resources for coping with life were located within man himself.

Paul’s use of the word in these verses does not indicate independence from Christ or His church, but independence from self and self-reliance. In other words, his joy was independent from his circumstances. Whether he had everything he needed materially, or whether he lacked gravely in some area, he was satisfied in Christ. Certainly this was supernatural. No man, apart from divine intervention, would claim to be content despite his circumstances.

Note also that Paul had “learned” to be content. This is a word which means “to discover.” It is the same word used in John 11:29 when Jesus said, “Learn of me.” It is closely connected to the New Testament word for “disciple.” Paul had thus been discipled by Christ into contentedness. It was not something that happened overnight, but something that he had learned over time. It was a process: The more he learned about Christ, the more he trusted Christ, and the more he learned to be content despite his adverse circumstances, for Christ was as satisfying in his darkest time as He was in his brightest time. And the implication is that the Philippians could learn this just as surely as Paul had. We also learn in our path of discipleship to find our satisfaction in Christ alone.

Having stated the fact that he had learned to be content in any given situation, Paul goes on to explain. He knew how to be “abased.” This word carries the idea of humiliation, of grave lack. On the other hand, he also knew what it meant to “abound.” This is a strong word, which literally means to super-abound, to overflow. It is the same word used to described the overflow—“remained”—after Jesus had fed the 5,000 in John 6:13. Paul thus knew what it meant to be destitute, as well as what it meant to have abundant blessings. But none of that mattered, because whether he lacked or abounded, his joy was in Christ alone.

The apostle continues: “Every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer.” The word translated “instructed” was used of the mystery religions. In the same way that there are certain secrets to learn in order to enter the inner fold of the Free Masons today, so there were secrets in which you had to be “instructed” in Paul’s time in order to gain entrance into the mystery religions of the day. Paul again uses a pagan word in a Christian way to indicate that he had been instructed into the secret of contentment. And what is the secret of contentment? “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”

Do you wish to live a life ever growing in contentment? The only way that that dream can become a reality is by the enabling power of Jesus Christ. Not all English translations of the Bible use Christ’s name in this verse, but it clearly Him who is in view. There is no true contentment apart from a relationship with Christ. Contentment is not the same as stoic, stiff-upper-lip living. True contentment is something that the world cannot copy.

It is strange that the more we have the less content we often are. My brother-in-law once noted to me, with some sadness, that we who are so blessed materially often buy things, and then we buy something in which to store our things, and then pay a security company to protect our things inside the container, and an insurance company to insure those things! The more we acquire, the more concerns we have, and the easier it is to become discontent.

But, like Paul, if we find our true joy in Christ alone, we will maintain our contentedness despite our circumstances. Philippians 4:13 is a favourite verse for many—for example, athletes who want to claim God’s power to do well in a race—but perhaps we often miss its context. Contextually, Paul is saying that he can remain content in any circumstance because Christ enables him to do so.

There is a sense in which Christians ought to be ambitious. God has given us certain abilities, and we ought to do our very best with those abilities in order to bring glory to Him. And so, if you are a Christian businessman, you may find yourself climbing the corporate ladder as you strive to do your best for the glory of God. But as you do so, bear in mind an overriding principle: Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness (Matthew 6:33). The danger in our ambitions is that we become so focused on achieving our goals that we lose sight of Christ.

Now, keep in mind that Paul is not saying that believers should never seek to better their situation. There is such a thing as “divine discontent.” Ambition is not wrong. But at the end of the day, whether we achieve or not, we must learn to be content. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

In my travels to various countries and thus various cultures, I encounter certain things that I am not accustomed to. On several occasions I am tempted to grumble, but then I am struck with the truth of this passage and I find myself learning contentment. I am learning to be content with a cold shower, strange foods and uncomfortable customs. At the end of the day, the water temperature does not matter; my sufficiency is in Christ alone.

After a recent trip, I arrived in Johannesburg, I found myself waiting at the luggage carousel for somewhat longer than I would have liked. There was a man standing next to me displaying a grave lack of contentedness. He was on his cell phone at least four times to (I assume) his wife, complaining over and over about the carousel that was failing to deliver his luggage. I knew how he felt, but in a moment of self-righteousness I thought to myself, “This man is so discontent!” I, of course, believed in the sovereignty of God, and thus I was able to wait quite contentedly. Because of some problems with my luggage when I left Lusaka, I even considered the possibility that my bag had never made it onto the plane, but I kept telling myself to be content in all circumstances. How proud I was of my humble contentedness!

After 35 minutes of smiling and helping others to retrieve their luggage off the carousel, a fellow passenger informed me that the airport officials had pointed us to the wrong carousel. I followed him to a different one, and there was my luggage, making its lonely way round and round the luggage delivery area. I must admit that, at that point, I lost my contentedness. I was angry that the officials could make such an infuriating mistake, and I soon found myself repenting of my ungodly attitude.

As I sat in the airport waiting for my wife to arrive, my fellow, discontented passenger came up to me and asked if I would watch his bags for a while. I agreed to do so, and when he came back we began to talk. Before my wife came to collect me, I handed this young man a copy of the gospel tract Ultimate Questions by John Blanchard. He was waiting for a connecting flight, and so I encouraged him to read the booklet during his wait. He was obviously uncomfortable as I walked away, but then I realised that I might be able to give him some information about the airport that might help him, and as I walked back to him, I found him reading that booklet.

It was then that I was reminded powerfully about the sovereignty of God. Had my baggage arrived on time, I might never have had the opportunity to sit with this man and give him that booklet. As I was reminded that Christ is sovereign over all things, my contentedness returned to me. If we will be content in this life, then we must grasp the reality of the sovereignty of Christ.

I recently spoke to a pastor from another church who has suffered tremendous heartache from an individual in his church. He told me that the situation was visibly eating at him, until his eldest daughter one day approached him and, with great respect, said, “Dad, what about the sovereignty of God that you keep teaching us about on Sundays?” That was all he needed. The reminder that Jesus Christ is Lord of all enabled him to be content despite his terribly adverse circumstances.

Do you believe in the sovereignty of God? Do you believe that Jesus Christ is sovereign when your luggage arrives on time as well as when it arrives late? Do you believe that He is sovereign both when the officials get it right and when they make mistakes? Do you believe that He is sovereign both when people mistreat you and when they love you? He is sovereign when we abound and when we are abased. And when we understand His sovereignty, we can indeed do all things—suffer abasement and enjoy abundance—through Christ who strengthens us.

The Bible exhorts us to examine our profession of faith, and to do so often. One way in which we can examine our profession is to ask ourselves whether we are learning contentment. Paul did not assume that he was different from other saints; indeed, he expected that all believers would learn contentment. If we persist in displaying worldly discontentedness, perhaps it is because we do not have Christ in us. But if we belong to Christ, then He will convict us of our discontentedness, and this conviction, coupled with a developing sense of contentment, is a positive sign that we belong to Him.

As Sinclair Ferguson so accurately puts it, our contentment comes from Christ, for He was content. Our contentment is for Christ, for we must be prepared, if necessary, to lose all for His sake. Our contentment is with Christ, for there is nothing we need apart from Him. Therefore, let us be completely dependent on Him alone. We are fully satisfied when Christ means more to us than life. Let us know Him, and be content with Him for His glory.