The Secret of Contentment (Phil 4:10-13)

The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.

*Originally preached in June 12, 2022*

Sermon Audio: The Secret of Contentment (Phil 4:10-13)

How much money does someone need to make to be satisfied? How much time off from work, how many new gadgets, how extravagant do their vacations need to be? Perhaps you are familiar with the parable of the gold-miner? This prospector noticed a few flecks of gold around the base of an enormous cliff. He began to dig into the side of the cliff and found, to his joy, more gold. The only problem was that about a foot up the side of the cliff, the rocks crumbled away easily. He was left only to hollow out a small, flat space level with the ground to unearth the treasure. If he attempted to cut away with his pick axe any higher, the entire cliff face would begin to erode down, and bury the gold (and possibly himself). So the man began to chip away at the bottom of the cliff, creating a tiny pocket of space that he could squeeze a few wooden blocks and, if he laid flat on the ground, himself. 

The deeper into the cliffside the man dug, the richer, thicker, and more plentiful the vein of gold became. Soon, the man was not bringing out mere flecks, but knobs and lumps of gold. But consequently, the deeper the man dug into the base of the cliff, the more perilous it became—he could hear the patter of rocks slide down every time he shuffled inside, felt the dust of the ceiling cover his face with ever hammer blow. At any moment, any strike of his axe would bring the entire cliffside down upon him. Every day, he promised himself that it was his last time going in, but every morning he awoke tormented by the possibility of just a little more, and he would wind up scrambling into the little crack at the base of the cliff, in the throes of terror and elation. And, of course, eventually he found an enormous tumor of gold buried in the rock, larger than anything he had ever seen and, in removing it, was immediately crushed.

The story is a parable that illustrates the seductive power of “just a little bit more.” It is easy to spot the foolishness of someone caught in a cycle of diminishing returns, an addiction that only grants a fleeting whiff of satisfaction before driving the victim to a deeper indulgence than before. It is easy to see the problem out there in others who are struggling with sins we don’t struggle with—the stock broker working 80 hours a week, the heroin addict, the celebrity carving up their body with plastic surgery—but it is harder for us to see the problem in ourselves. We know that we want to be content, we know that we should be content, we know we have no good reason not to be, and yet like the anxious prospector, we look at what we currently have and think: “Not enough.” Which brings us to our text today where Paul shows us the secret of contentment:

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 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. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Phil 4:10-13

Here, we now get to the main purpose of Paul’s letter to the Philippians in the first place. He wants to thank the Philippian church for the financial gift they have given to support his ministry. He rejoices that they now have an opportunity to demonstrate their concern for him. We aren’t sure what prohibited them from supporting him financially thus far: perhaps they lacked the money, perhaps they weren’t able to get support to Paul because of how far away he was, perhaps Paul didn’t need any financial support till now. Either way, their faithfulness in giving causes Paul to rejoice in the Lord. But, Paul turns in verses 11-13 to correct a potential misunderstanding the Philippians might have about supporting Paul: he explains, in a way, that he doesn’t ultimately need their gift. Why? Because he has learned a secret.

Paul’s Need

“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content,” (Phil 4:11). Now here is the strange thing—Paul is in need. Remember that Paul is writing this letter from prison (cf. Phil 1:7). Roman prisons were not comfortable places—they were often overcrowded, dark, dingy, places of squalor and filth. The daily allotment of food given to you barely kept you alive, so prisoners were dependent on the generosity of outsiders to supplement them with food and clean water. Unfortunately, however, similar to today, prisoners bore a serious social stigma and there was a great pressure to sever ties with the individual put into prison. This is why the New Testament puts such an emphasis on Christians caring for those in prison (Heb 13:3; Matt 25:36). And yet, in this position of vulnerability, Paul says “I don’t need anything.” 

Or, at least, Paul doesn’t need anything in the way we typically think we need things. Of course, there are things we do need. Last week we reflected on Jesus’ statement about prayer and anxiety, where Jesus commands us to not be worried about food or clothing because, “your heavenly Father knows that you need them all,” (Matt 6:32). Paul warns Timothy, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever,” (1 Tim 5:8). Paul, therefore, isn’t advocating a strange kind of self-denial where we never labor to care for ourselves or our families.

Yet, suffering produces a strange clarity on what one really needs. Anyone in this room who has received painful news—the death of a loved one, the serious injury of a child, the business failing—knows how it suddenly grants an entirely new perspective on life. But it is not just deprivation itself that leads Paul to claim that he isn’t in need, it is rather seeing how the Lord provides for us in the midst of suffering that gives confidence. When Paul explained to Timothy that certain individuals began attacking him, he explained, “At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” (2 Tim 4:16-18).

It was in the midst of being utterly abandoned by all his companions that Paul experienced the Lord’s sustaining and strengthening presence and granted him this invincible confidence: God will deliver me from everything and bring me safely into his kingdom. Of course, to enter the “heavenly kingdom” means that you die—so Paul sees the Lord’s oversight and protection of his life as something that does not mean physical safety, alone, but a safe oversight of his soul, a safe oversight of his earthly life till Paul’s time is complete.

So, Paul is grateful for the money the Philippians have sent him, but he is confident that if they didn’t, God would find some other way to provide for what he needs. The psalms tell us that no good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly (Ps 84:11). God has never held back on us.

“Nothing is needed that he withholds, everything is needed that he sends.” – John Newton

What do you feel like you need most?

Paul’s Contentment

So, Paul isn’t in need, rather, he has learned in whatever situation he is in 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,” (Phil 4:12). Here Paul shows us that Christian contentment does not come through favorable circumstances. It is in abundance and need, plenty and hunger that Paul is content. Which is so foreign to the natural way of thinking, is it not?  We tend to think that contentment comes when we abound, not when we are brought low; when we have plenty, not when we hunger. But Paul has contentment regardless of his circumstance. He is similar to the psalmist, “You have put more joy in my heart than they have when their grain and wine abound,” (Ps 4:7). More joy? Not just the same, but more?  How could that be? 

This is because the contentment that comes from God is of an entirely different species than worldly contentment. Apples and oranges. Jesus promised His disciples, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you,” (John 14:27). How does the world give contentment? It is contentment with an expiration date, contentment that lasts until the new piece of technology comes out that makes your current one obsolete, contentment that lasts till someone else comes along and does something at your job better than you, contentment that lasts until your children embarrass you out in public. It is a fragile and temporary contentment that is wholly dependent on your circumstances. It has often been said, “comparison is the thief of joy.” And how true that is. You may have a season where you feel a great deal of contentment with the lot the Lord has given you, but then you spy someone else whose life seems to be operating at just a better frequency with yours, and suddenly life feels dull, dreary, and disappointing. And you start to think I just need more.

Jeremiah Burroughs, in his classic The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, writes: “Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.” Notice how that definition lacks any mention of outward circumstance and focuses instead entirely on the disposition of our heart: glad submission to the Father’s will. 

We live at a time where we have more material wealth than ever, and yet satisfaction, peace, joy, and contentment seem so rare. The Greek myth of Tantalus serves as a fitting illustration of our time. Tantalus, a friend of the gods, commits a heinous crime and so, as a punishment, he is forced to stand waist deep in a pool of water in the underworld for all eternity. Above him is a fruit tree with ripe fruit easily within reach. Yet whenever he reaches his hand up to grab the fruit, the tree branch raises just out of reach; whenever he bends down to scoop some water to drink, the water recedes away. So, he is left forever tantalized by what is just out of reach. And friend, I wonder if life feels like that for you. Just a little more money…just a little more attention from that girl…just a few more vacations, then I’ll be happy. And yet, when we reach our hand down and take a drink, we find no water there.  

“My brethren, the reason why you do not have contentment in the things of the world is not that you do not have enough of them. The reason is that they are not things proportional to that immortal soul of yours that is capable of God Himself.” – Burroughs. It would be easier to scoop water out of the ocean with a net than find lasting contentment in the things of the world. Yahweh, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, illuminates this truth:

Be appalled, O heavens, at this;

be shocked, be utterly desolate,

declares the LORD,

13 for my people have committed two evils:

they have forsaken me,

the fountain of living waters,

and hewed out cisterns for themselves,

broken cisterns that can hold no water.

–       Jer 2:12-13

Notice what Paul says, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound.” In other words, there is a particular Christian way to orient ourselves to our changing circumstances. Do you know how to experience financial ruin? Do you know how to experience financial success? We may think that those things just happen and we respond. But Paul says, No, you need to know how to walk through those things. Notice that Paul said that he has “learned the secret of contentment.” In other words, this is something you have to learn. It does not come naturally to you. And what is it? It’s a secret, Paul says.

Paul’s Secret

So a secret is something that is not obvious, but Paul quickly explains what it is: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” (Phil 4:13). Now, this may be the most popular and most misunderstood passage of Scripture in the whole Bible. Perhaps you have seen the meme, I can do all things through a Bible verse taken out of context. Often this passage is used by people as a way of thinking about achieving goals—you want to lose some weight, want to hit your quarterly goals at work, want to buy a house, etc. It is a particular favorite of athletes who use it as a way to, I assume, draw encouragement to win the game. So, in this thinking, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me,” understands the “all things” in an exclusively positive sense: I can do anything! 

But, of course, Paul already specified what the “all things” were back in verses 11-12. He can abound, or he can be brought low, he can win, or he can lose, he can have a lot, or a little. So, two opposing quarterbacks go into a game with “Phil 4:13” painted under their eyes—one of them will win, and one will lose. That doesn’t mean that “Phil 4:13” only applied to the winner of the game, but to the loser as well. I can do all things—like lose—through Christ who strengthens me. So this isn’t a blank check for whatever goals or dreams we have, some kind of ‘name it and claim it” promise that whatever we want will happen. It is much, much more profound than that. Three things we see from Phil 4:13

1.     You can walk through anything with contentment.

“I can do all things.” This is an astounding promise. There is no set of circumstances that can come into your life that has the ability to rob you of your contentment. No suffering, no weakness, no failure, no deprivation. You may think those things rob you of your contentment, but that is a willful surrender, not an inevitable conclusion. How?

2.     You do this through Christ.

“I can do all things through Christ”. Christ has pledged Himself to us. We have been enveloped into Him. We are made for God, and Christ has come as a way to have us be reconciled to God. He has so pledged Himself to us, that our debts become his own, and His resources become our own. The great ailment of our discontentment is that we are made for God but are alienated from Him. Through Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection from the dead, He has made a way through which we can receive the very thing our soul longs for most: God. So, we can be content in any situation.

In 1851 a group of British missionaries to Tierra del Fuego was forced to winter in the bitter cold while they waited for their supply ship to arrive. It came too late. They all died of cold and starvation. On Good Friday, April 18th, Richard Williams, a surgeon and Methodist lay preacher, wrote in his journal, “Poor and weak though we are, our abode is a very Bethel to our souls [Genesis 28:10-19], and God we feel and know is here.” On Wednesday, May 7th, he wrote, “Should anything prevent my ever adding to this, let all my beloved ones at home rest assured that I was happy beyond description when I wrote these lines and would not have changed situations with any man living.”

Okay, but perhaps that sounds so fantastical and extreme you are left thinking: “I could never do anything like that.” That brings us to our last point:

3.     He strengthens you.

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Jesus is offering you His own strength. Jesus’ relationship to is not the relationship of a celebrity to a fan, or a politician to a constituent: someone who is appreciative of your support, glad to have you, but remains fundamentally separate from you. No, our Lord bleeds His own strength into us to do what we cannot do on our own. As the great hymn tells us, “I will strengthen you, help you, and cause you to stand, upheld by my righteous omnipotent hand.”

Martin Luther’s friend, Philip Melanchthon, was overwhelmed with anxieties about the cause of the Reformation, uncertain about what the future held. Luther wrote him a letter as a way to encourage his friend to stop “sucking up cares like a leech” and to be encouraged in God’s promises to them:

“Christ knows whether it is stupidity or bravery, but I am not much disturbed, rather of better courage than I had hoped.

God who is able to raise the dead is also able to uphold a falling cause, or to raise a fallen one and make it strong.

If we are not worthy instruments to accomplish his purpose, he will find others.

If we are not strengthened by his promises, to whom else in all the world can they pertain?”

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