“I have great joy in the Lord because now at last you have again expressed your concern for me. (Now I know you were concerned before but had no opportunity to do anything.) I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content in any circumstance. I have experienced times of need and times of abundance. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of contentment, whether I go satisfied or hungry, have plenty or nothing.” – Philippians 4:10-12 (NET)
If we quickly scan over these verses from the Apostle Paul we’ll likely overlook the depth of what he’s trying to convey. But as Christians we must endeavor to dig into them and discover what he’s teaching both the members of the church in Philippi and those of us in the 21st century. Since the 9th verse ended with “And the God of peace will be with you” one might surmise that he’d said all he intended to but obviously he hadn’t. He goes on to express his gratitude to the Philippians for their gift delivered to him in prison. What the gift was is never specified but he was extremely thankful for it and he wanted them to know. One thing about Paul, he always put a lot of forethought into everything he wrote and this is no exception. In fact, if you read between the lines you’ll discern that this message presented a problem for him. You wouldn’t think simply saying “gracias” would be difficult but it actually takes him 10 verses to do it. He almost sounds apologetic at times. It appears that he was eager to tell them how grateful he was but just as eager to assure them that he wasn’t dependent on their generosity in the least. Doing both in a tactful way made for a dilemma. He wanted to communicate how much their kindness meant to him personally but at the same time he felt compelled to reaffirm his total dependence on God. He took being a role model very seriously. Only a sensitive Christian gentleman would take the time to be that careful in making himself crystal clear. It’s yet another of the admirable characteristics that endears Paul to his readers.
He wants us to understand and grasp that our faith in Jesus Christ should not only govern but dominate every aspect of our life. In verse 8 he says it should control our thoughts, in verse 9 he tells us it should rule our actions and in verses 10-20 he emphasizes that even in something as basic as showing gratitude a Christian should strive to do it differently from a non-believer. Setting the example, Paul not only expresses his indebtedness to his supporters but goes to even greater lengths to express his indebtedness to the Lord. He didn’t want to give anyone the impression that his Savior wasn’t constantly supplying him with everything he needed. That he loved his fellow believers was never in doubt but his love for Christ was always greater. So in these verses he was straddling the fence between instructing them on one hand that God always comes first and on the other letting them know just how much he cherished their gift. In the process Paul presents us with a profound doctrine: “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content in any circumstance. I have experienced times of need and times of abundance. In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of contentment, whether I go satisfied or hungry, have plenty or nothing.” There are two principles involved. The first concerns the remarkable state of mind the Apostle was in and the second concerns how he arrived there. Thus we have much to digest.
We start with where Paul’s head was at and he describes it in one word. He is “content.” But what, exactly, does that mean? Other definitions would be “self-sufficient” or “independent of circumstances” or “not guided by external conditions.” Paul is avowing that he’s arrived at a place spiritually where his situation, good or bad, has no bearing on his total reliance on God. And this is no idle claim. In Acts 16 we read that during his initial visit to Philippi he and his co-preacher Silas were apprehended, beaten and then tossed into a dungeon. They were inarguably in dire straits yet around midnight they were heard “praying and singing hymns to God.” In 2 Corinthians Paul speaks of how he learned how not to be at the mercy of his painful “thorn in the flesh.” And later, in 1 Timothy 6, he encourages his friend by advising him that “godliness combined with contentment brings great profit.” He’s saying that if you have contentment you have it all. Therefore every believer should make acquiring it a goal. Jesus urged us in Matthew 6 to rely on our Father in heaven for all our needs. In this context self-sufficiency is an asset but we must be careful in this matter because it can easily become fuel for more criticism of Christianity from the secular humanists. Contentment with what God provides can be manipulated to justify their charge that Christianity is nothing more than an “opiate for the masses.” They’ll say leaning solely on God’s graces results in people coldly accepting intolerable conditions such as poverty, disease and war as “God’s will” and doing nothing to bring them to an end. Ignorant dolts who spew such garbage have never bothered to try to understand what Paul was teaching. Nowhere in the Bible does it advocate that men and women shouldn’t seek a better life for themselves, their families or society at large. The Holy Word never disputes the equality of all humans in the sight of God while it affirms that everyone is entitled to a fair shake from their neighbors.
No way does Paul intimate that we’re to be apathetic about what happens around us. Christians aren’t to be stoics. What he stresses is that we can’t let circumstances master or control us. But if we can improve our lot via legitimate and worthwhile means it’s not a sin to do so. Since that’s settled let’s refocus on his main point. If we find ourselves in turmoil that can’t be remedied immediately we mustn’t let it beat us down, make us depressed or steal our joy in the Lord. Paul exhorts us to attain a frame of mind where we remain on top of our emotions, where we can resist the downward pull of the world and where we don’t measure the sufficiency of God’s love by our “happiness.” Recall that the Apostle was locked in chains when he dictated this letter to the Philippians yet he didn’t portray himself as an innocent victim. His identity was in Jesus Christ and that gave him the strength to say “In any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of contentment, whether I go satisfied or hungry, have plenty or nothing.” The all-inclusiveness of his statement is evidenced by the words any and every. He’s known both starvation and a full belly and it makes no difference to him. So the question arises: What’s harder, relying on God in times of plenty or in times of need? The answer is that both present unique difficulties. Can I go through periods of hardship without becoming anxious or resentful of God? Can I endure rejection, hurt or persecution and still show others the love of Christ? Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “One of the greatest tasks in life is to discover how to suffer any or all of those things without feeling a sense of grudge, without complaint or annoyance or bitterness of spirit, to discover how not to be worried or anxious.” Paul’s indicating that it is possible because he’s done it himself!
On the other side of the coin he says it was just as difficult for him to maintain perspective when everything was coming up roses. It’s very hard for rich folks to cling to God because when they’ve got the world by a string God doesn’t seem as vital to their wellbeing. So neither being destitute nor opulent is necessarily an easier path to a closer walk with God. The good news is that we can live in a way that allows us to be content regardless. Being broke didn’t break Paul down and abundance didn’t make him lose sight of Christ. He says he’s content “in any and every circumstance” which means precisely that. He’s no longer dependent on anything pertaining to this world as regards his inner joy. That, according to Paul, is genuine Christian living and his words have never been more relevant than they are today. The truth is that we’ve all become so dependent on our myriad of modern devices and conveniences that it’s nearly impossible to rely solely on God for our daily sustenance. We have our smart phones, our laptops, our televisions, our microwaves, etc. to keep us functioning as we think we must and without them we feel lost. Don’t believe it applies to you? Think of the last time a power outage lasted for more than a few hours. You didn’t know what to do with yourself. You felt like a feeble Neanderthal without a fire. Paul’s telling us we shouldn’t live like that. There’s a better way. And it’s not just reliance on gadgets. Christians can become overly dependent on their church activities. Say what? An illustration would be a teen who’s been raised in the church, went to all the camps and retreats and rarely interacted with others who weren’t connected in some way to their congregation. Then they go away to college or take a job out in the “real world” where they’re no longer in the company of believers and they drift from their faith in no time. They were relying on their church, not God. That’s why Paul goads us to develop a strong, one-on-one connection to our Heavenly Father that can’t be severed by a change in our surroundings. Someone said “Religion is what a man does with his own solitude.” In the final analysis we’re who we really are when we’re by ourselves. It’s easy to feel we’re in the presence of the Holy Spirit when we’re surrounded by Christians. It’s much harder when we’re alone. Paul wants us to have what he had, a link to the Lord independent of all that was going or not going on around him. He possessed the “secret of contentment.”
Now that we know what Paul had we can take a good look at the 2nd principle, how he acquired it. Notice that in our featured passage he says twice, “I have learned.” I so respect his honesty because he’s admitting that he wasn’t always “content” any more than you or I. He, like everyone else, had to be taught and that’s not always a simple task. Paul, by all accounts, was a proud man who preferred staying busy and active so being bound in a jail cell had to be excruciatingly frustrating for him. He was a Roman citizen yet he was wasting away in a filthy rat hole so how did he deal with it? He tells us he’d “learned the secret of contentment.” The Holy Spirit had led him into the mysterious realm where total dependence on God is an undeniable reality. How did that happen? Initially it came through sheer experience. Remember his “thorn in the flesh?” It was no picnic. He was tormented by it so much that he prayed three times for it to be removed but God didn’t because it was His way of teaching him that “My grace is sufficient.” It was a tough lesson for Paul to learn but the thorn did the trick. God often does the same for us because He loves us and sometimes there’s no other way we can be taught what we must know. Yet it’s not experience alone that instructs us. We must use the mind God gave us, as did Paul. I venture that the Apostle is making several points:
- Conditions vary so if we plan on them to stay the same we’re fools.
- God and our relationship to Him is more important than anything else.
- God is our “Heavenly Daddy” who loves us more than we can possibly fathom.
- God’s will and ways of getting things done are beyond our comprehension so we must trust that whatever happens is necessary to further our salvation.
- Therefore, in every situation we find ourselves in, we should look around to see God’s love, grace and goodness at work. The thorn in our side may be there to teach us that when we think we’re at our weakest we’re actually at our strongest.
- The solving of our circumstantial problems isn’t nearly as crucial as our viewing them as teaching tools designed to perfect our souls in the long run.
- Whatever is going on in our lives at any given moment is temporary and in the process of fading into the past. It has no power to alter the fact that Christ is preparing a place for us in heaven where we’ll live and breathe in His marvelous light forevermore.
It’s not far-fetched to imagine Paul coming to these conclusions. While his feet were clamped in ankle-chafing stocks his mind was still free to receive the eternal truths imparted to him by the Holy Spirit so that he could share them with not just the church but all of mankind. And his message is, in essence, “No matter what earthbound powers do to me I will not budge from my unwavering trust in Jesus. I have everything I need because my satisfaction lies in Christ alone and it always will.” If Paul’s attitude doesn’t inspire us then nothing can. We’re able to depend on God inasmuch as we know Him, commune with Him and train ourselves to derive our joy from Him. Reading our Bibles daily and joining fellow believers in worship several times a week are worthy activities but a personal relationship with God Almighty is indispensable. There may come a time when you can no longer read or even leave your bed. Will you still be content? Will your tie to the Heavenly Father be so strong that your circumstances cannot come between you and Him? Will all be “well with your soul” because you learned to depend on God and no one else? That’s where the Apostle was at spiritually. As Lloyd-Jones wrote, “His intimacy with Christ was so deep and so great that he had become independent of everything else.” Imagine that! In the clutch Paul did his best to imitate our Lord by “keeping his eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2) Paul followed Christ’s courageous example and applied it to his own life. As he wrote in 2 Corinthians 4, “…we are not looking at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. For what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” All of which gives even more credence to his statement of “I have learned to be content in any circumstance.” Paul wasn’t bragging, he was becoming more like Christ. May we all aspire to share his mindset. Let that be our ambition. I look at it this way. All this material stuff swirling around me will someday come to nothing and it’ll be just me facing mortal death. And as I peer into eternity I’ll take great comfort in knowing that my Master has already been there. Jesus said to his Disciples in John 16:32 “Look, a time is coming – and has come – when you will be scattered, each one to his own home, and I will be left alone. Yet I am not alone, because my Father is with me.” My hope is that I and all Christians come to learn and know firsthand that kind of contentment.
(Inspired by the sermons of Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book “Spiritual Depression.”)