Phil Cox

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The secret of contentment

Paul's in a Roman jail, and the Philippian church has just sent him aid. The epistle to the Phillipians is fundamentally a "thank you" note for the aid he has received. Of course, a "thank you " note from Paul is going to contain a lot more than a simple expression of gratitude. After some of the most sublime teaching in the Bible, Paul starts to say "thank you" half way through the last chapter:

Philippians 4, verses 10-14
I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 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. I can do everything through him who gives me strength. Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles.

In verse 11, Paul explains that the reason he's saying "thank you" is not because he's in need. He is in need. It's just that he wants them to know that this isn't why he’s saying "thank you". I can see two reasons why he goes to the trouble of spelling this out:

  1. "Thank you" should be said to celebrate and encourage the people being thanked, not to manipulate them into giving you more.
  2. Paul is OK, even when he's in need. As he says, he’s learned the secret of being content.

What is the secret of contentment? Paul doesn’t exactly say but perhaps it's this:

It is possible to be content whatever the circumstances

Most people don't know this secret.

People tend to think that they'll be content when their circumstances improve – when they’ve got more money, or better health, or nicer friends, or when the church starts doing things their way, or when their marriage partner or children are more respectful towards them. But if we wait for the circumstances to be right, I think we’ll never be content.

Many of us are really good at complaining. We complain about the weather, the government, our parents, our children, our leaders, our followers, our neighbours... but when we complain, we are sort of telling ourselves that we have a right to be discontent. But who wants to be discontent?

We need to understand that choosing to be content makes a lot more sense than choosing to be discontent.

So maybe the secret of contentment is:

You’re much happier – and your relationship with God is much
stronger – when you choose to be content

In 1 Timothy 6:6-9, Paul says:

...godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.

This shows that we need contentment as well as godliness to live the kind of loving, peaceful, productive lives that God has for us.

Verse 12 says:

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.

Paul more or less repeats himself here. But he makes it clear that he’s not just talking theory – he’s “been there and done that and got the T-shirt”:

  • He's known times of great need – indeed he was in need at the time of writing, but when you’ve been there before and got the victory before, it’s that much easier to get the victory again.
  • And he’s known times of plenty.

He can handle both – he can live off scraps and he can dine at the Ritz – and he's proved that he can handle both. He can receive whatever the Lord gives him. If it’s bread and water – fine. If it’s a banquet – that’s fine too. He’s comfortable with poverty and he’s comfortable with riches. This is because he’s learnt that it’s both possible and wise to choose contentment in ANY circumstances.

Perhaps the secret that underlies my first two suggested versions of the secret of contentment is this:

Have a high view of the sovereignty of God

If we really believe that God is in control of His universe, then we can also believe that:

  • The circumstances in which we find ourselves at this moment are exactly the circumstances that God wants us to be in.
  • God is quite capable of changing our circumstances any time He likes – in any way He likes.

Are these ideas new to you? Do they seem to suggest that God is more powerful than He really is? He is ABSOLUTELY powerful! Rest in the confidence that He knows what He's doing. He's totally in control of your life.

Verse 13 says:

I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

This must be one of the best known verses in the book of Philippians. But what does Paul mean when he writes it? Here's a tautology that might help:

God wants us to succeed at whatever He wants us to succeed at

Thus:

  • Since God has put us in the circumstances that we are in, He is both willing and able to help us to be content in them.
  • When God wants to change our circumstances, and if there is a part for us to play in changing them, then He is quite capable of strengthening us sufficiently for us to do what we need to do as part of that process.

And understanding these things makes it so much easier to be content.

Let God give you his peace, dear child of God. Chose to believe that God loves every one of His chosen people, and that He will make sure that's what is best for you is what happens. We can't always see that what's happening is God's best, but we can trust Him that it is. Choose to be content.