LEARNING TO BE CONTENT
We now close this series by focusing on our most essential weapon. The Christian’s Excalibur against the dragon Anxiety is named Contentment. It likewise is the banner under which Christ’s troops advance to personal victory.
As we saw earlier, the Bible speaks of contentment not only as a virtue but also as a command. Nowhere is that clearer than in Paul’s closing comments to the Philippian church. He had just told them never to succumb to anxiety (Phil. 4:6) and then went on to illustrate how with a glimpse from his own life:
“I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that … you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. Nevertheless, you have done well to share with me in my affliction.
You yourselves also know, Philippians, that at the first preaching of the gospel, after I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving but you alone; for even in Thessalonica you sent a gift more than once for my needs. Not that I seek the gift itself, but I seek for the profit which increases to your account. But I have received everything in full and have an abundance; I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God. And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (vv. 10–19)
In the context of this inspired thank-you note, it is clear Paul knew what it was to be content. At the time of this writing Paul was a prisoner under house arrest in Rome. He was chained to a Roman soldier twenty-four hours a day. He had little of what this life considers benefits, but still he was content. “The peace of God” (Phil. 4:7) and “the God of peace” (v. 9) were obvious realities in Paul’s life. They can likewise be in ours as we learn how to be content.
The Greek word translated “content” (autark∑s [ ]) means “to be self-sufficient,” “to be satisfied,” “to have enough.” It indicates a certain independence and lack of need for help. Sometimes it was used to refer to a person who supported himself or herself without anyone’s aid.
Paul was saying, “I have learned to be sufficient in myself—yet not in myself as myself, but as indwelt by Christ.” He elsewhere expressed that subtle distinction: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me” (Gal. 2:20). Christ and contentment go together.
SECRETS TO CONTENTMENT
Notice that Paul said, “I have learned to be content.… I have learned the secret” (Phil. 4:11–12). Paul became privy to the secret of contentment, and it’s one he passed on to all who have been initiated by faith in Jesus Christ. Here are its key facets:
Confidence in God’s Providence
Paul said, “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that … you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity” (Phil. 4:10). About ten years had passed since Paul was last in Philippi. Acts 16 relates what happened during his first visit.
Paul and his traveling companions met a businesswoman named Lydia and preached the gospel to her and her companions. Their conversion resulted in the formation of a church. During the early days of that church, Paul cast out a spirit of divination from a slave girl. The girl’s owners—livid over the loss of the income they had derived from her fortunetelling abilities—had Paul flogged, thrown into prison, and locked in stocks. Instead of complaining about the miserable situation in which he found himself, he praised God through thankful prayer and song far into the night.
God responded in an amazing way: He shook the foundations of the prison so violently that all its doors opened wide and the chains fell off the prisoners’ feet and wrists. That incredible experience, plus Paul’s incredible response to his dismal circumstances, led to the salvation of the jailer—and the jailer’s entire household. As the church at Philippi grew, it’s apparent that they helped fund Paul for further missionary outreach.
Our text in Philippians makes it clear, however, that it had been a while since they last were able to help support him in that endeavor. But that was fine with Paul. He knew it wasn’t that they lacked concern, but that they lacked “opportunity” (Gk., kairos). That’s a reference to a season or window of opportunity, not to chronological time.
The point is that Paul had a patient confidence in God’s sovereign providence. He was content to do without and wait on the Lord’s timing. He didn’t resort to panic or manipulation of others. Those things are never called for. Paul was certain that in due time God would order the circumstances so that his needs would be met. We can have that same certainty today.
Until we truly learn that God is sovereign, ordering everything for His own holy purposes and the ultimate good of those who love Him, we can’t help but be discontent. That’s because in taking on the responsibility of ordering our lives, we will be frustrated in repeatedly discovering that we can’t control everything. Everything already is under control however, by Someone far greater than ourselves.
A synonym for God’s providence is divine provision, but that’s a skimpy label for a complex theological reality. Providence is how God orchestrates everything to accomplish His purposes.
There are two ways God can act in the world: by miracle and by providence. A miracle has no natural explanation. In the flow of normal life, God suddenly stems the tide and injects a miracle. Think, for example, of how God providentially ordered the lives of Joseph, Ruth, and Esther. Today He does the same for us.
Contentment comes from learning that God is sovereign not only by supernatural intervention but also by natural orchestration. Appreciate the complexity of what God is doing every moment just to keep us alive. When we look at things from that perspective, we see what folly it is to think we can control our lives. When we give up that vain pursuit, we give up a major source of anxiety.
Paul was content because he had confidence in the providence of God. That confidence, however, never led him to a fatalistic “It doesn’t matter what I do” attitude. The example of Paul’s life throughout the New Testament is this: Work as hard as you can and be content that God is in control of the results.
Satisfaction with Little
Here is another secret to contentment from Paul’s life: “Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity” (Phil. 4:11–12). He appreciated the revived generosity of the Philippian church but wanted them to know he hadn’t been coveting it. He kept his wants or desires in check, not confusing them with his needs.
“Not that I speak from want” is another way of saying “I really don’t have any needs that aren’t being met.” Our needs as human beings are simple: food, clothing, shelter, and godliness with contentment. Scripture says to be content with the bare necessities of life.
That attitude is in marked contrast to the attitude of our culture. People today aren’t content—with little or much. The more people have, the more discontent they’re apt to be. Often, the most unhappy people you’ll meet are very wealthy. They seem to believe their needs can never be met. Unlike Paul, they assume their wants are needs. They’ve followed our materialistic culture’s lead in redefining human needs.
You’ll never come across a commercial or ad that tells you to eat food, drink water, or go to sleep. Mass media advertise items that are far more optional and discretionary, but you’d never know it from the sales pitch. The appeal isn’t “Wouldn’t you like to have this?” but “You need this!” If you expose yourself to such appeals without thinking, you’ll find yourself needing things you don’t even want! The goal of this kind of advertising is to produce discontent and make a sale.
To protect yourself, pay careful attention to whenever you attach the word need to something in your thoughts or speech. Edit any use of it that goes beyond life’s bare essentials. Paul did, and you can too. Thankfully regard any surplus as a blessing from God. You will be satisfied with little when you refuse to depend on luxuries the world redefines as needs.
Detachment from Circumstances
The one thing that steals our contentment more than anything else is trying circumstances. We crumble and lose our sense of satisfaction and peace when we allow our circumstances to victimize us. No doubt Paul was human and suffered that way too, but then he learned a different way: remaining content no matter what his circumstances were. “I have learned to be content,” he said, “in whatever circumstances I am” (Phil. 4:11). And he really meant whatever circumstances, for in the next verse he ran the gamut of extremes from great poverty to great wealth.
It’s possible for us as Christians to learn to be content in facing any situation in life. And we don’t have to wait for the next life to be able to do this. We do need to keep one foot in the next life, however. Paul said it this way: “Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2). “Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor. 4:17–18 NIV). Paul endured many horrific circumstances (note his summary in 2 Cor. 11:23–33), but through them he learned to be content by having an eternal perspective. Realize any circumstance you face is only temporary. The energy you’re tempted to expend on it by getting anxious isn’t worth being compared to your eternal reward. Learn to be content by not taking your earthly circumstances too seriously. This is not always that easy to do, but worth practicing.
Being Sustained by Divine Power
Paul could face any earthly circumstance with this confident assurance: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). He had learned that no matter how difficult things get in this material world, every Christian has a spiritual undergirding.
In saying he could do all things through Christ, Paul was referring to endurance, not miraculous provision. He didn’t mean he could go on forever without eating or drinking. He couldn’t be battered five thousand times and still survive. There’s a limit to the physical hardships any human being can endure. Instead Paul was saying, “When I have come to the end of my own resources, then I experience the power of Christ to sustain me until a provision is made.” He believed in the promise of Isaiah 40:31: “Those who wait for the LORD will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.”
Contentment is a by-product of distress. It comes when you experience the sustaining power of Christ when you simply have run out of steam: “To him who lacks might He increases power” (Isa. 40:29). We do well to experience enough difficulty in our lives to see Christ’s power on display in us.
Do you know how a pacemaker works? It kicks in when the heart it’s attached to doesn’t work right. It’s a sustaining power. We as believers have a reservoir of spiritual power that moves into action when we have come to the end of our resources. Therefore we can “do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us” (Eph. 3:20).
You’ll learn contentment when you’ve stood in the valley of the shadow of death, when you’ve been at the brink, when you can’t resolve your problems, when you can’t eliminate the conflict, when you can’t fix your marriage, when you can’t do anything about the kids, when you can’t change your work environment, when you’re unable to fight the disease that’s wracking your body. That’s when you’ll turn to God and find the strength to get through the situation.
To add an important qualifier, however, if you’ve been living a life of sin and you’re now at the bottom of the pit where sin has led you, don’t expect the Lord to step in, put on a dazzling display of His power, and make you feel content. What He’s more apt to do is add corrective discipline to the pain that your circumstances have naturally produced. There’s no quick fix for a sinful pattern of living.
Preoccupation with the Well-Being of Others
If you live for yourself, you will never be content. Many of us don’t experience contentment because we demand our world to be exactly the way we want it to be. We want our spouse to fulfill our expectations and agenda. We want our children to conform to a prewritten plan we have ordained for them to fulfill. And we want everything else to fall into its perfect niche in the little cupboard where we compartmentalize every element of existence.
Paul prayed for the Philippians to have a different perspective. He began his letter to them with a prayer that their love for one another might be abundant (Phil. 1:9) and went on to give this practical advice: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves” (Phil. 2:3). He wanted them to lose themselves by being preoccupied with the well-being of others. This was the example he gave to them and us:
“Nevertheless, you have done well to share with me in my affliction.
You yourselves also know, Philippians, that at the first preaching of the gospel, after I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving but you alone; for even in Thessalonica you sent a gift more than once for my needs. Not that I seek the gift itself, but I seek for the profit which increases to your account. But I have received everything in full, and have an abundance; I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God. And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:14–19)
Even though Paul was assured of God’s providence, independent of his circumstances, and strengthened by divine power, he knew how to write a gracious thank-you note. He wanted the Philippians to know they had done a noble thing in caring for his needs. They were a poor church from Macedonia (an area whose poverty is described in 2 Cor. 8—9) that had apparently sent food, clothing, and money to Paul in Rome through Epaphroditus. Their generosity impressed Paul.
Notice what made him happiest of all about the gift: “Not that I seek the gift itself, but I seek for the profit which increases to your account” (Phil. 4:17). He was more interested in their spiritual benefit than his material gain. Being comfortable, well fed, and satisfied weren’t Paul’s main concerns in life. Rather, he was interested in accruing eternal dividends to the lives of the people he loved. Here are the timeless scriptural principles that apply:
- Proverbs 11:24–25: “There is one who scatters, yet increases all the more, and there is one who withholds what is justly due, and yet it results only in want. The generous man will be prosperous, and he who waters will himself be watered.”
- Proverbs 19:17: “One who is gracious to a poor man lends to the LORD, and He will repay him for his good deed.”
- Luke 6:38: “Give, and it will be given to you.”
- 2 Corinthians 9:6: “He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.”
Paul described the gift he had received as “a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God” (Phil. 4:18). He was using Old Testament imagery to say, “Not only did you give it to me, but you also gave it to God.” At the beginning of our passage, in verse 10, we noted how happy Paul was to receive the gift. His joy came not because he finally received what he had been wanting (as we saw in verse 11, he politely mentioned that he didn’t need it) but because the Philippians had given him something that honored God and would accrue to their spiritual benefit.
Their acts led Paul to say in closing, “My God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). That is one of the most often-quoted verses of Scripture, but it needs to be set in its context. Paul was saying, “You gave to me in a way that left you in need. I want to assure you that God will not remain in your debt. He will supply all your needs.” It refers to material, earthly needs sacrificed by the Philippians that God in response to their sacrifice would amply replenish.
If you likewise “honor the LORD from your wealth … your barns will be filled with plenty and your vats will overflow with new wine” (Prov. 3:9–10). God’s not going to give you back spiritual blessings only and let you die of hunger. If you’re in Christ, the riches of God in glory are yours. That is why, as we learned in the first part of the series, we are not to be preoccupied with what we eat, drink, or wear. Instead we are to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and … not [to] worry” (Matt. 6:33–34).
Attack anxiety in your life by applying what you have learned about contentment. Be confident in God’s sovereign providence, and don’t allow your circumstances to trouble you. Instead of giving in to panic, cling to the promise of Romans 8:28: “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God.” Regard that verse as a spiritual lifeline for the rest of your life. Also, buck the tide of our materialistic, selfish society by being satisfied with little and being more concerned about the spiritual welfare of others than your material needs. Be obedient to God’s Word and confident in His power to meet all your needs. May our Lord keep all these principles in the forefront of our minds that we might be content—and free from anxiety!