“Christian Contentment” (Philippians 4:10-14 sermon)

In Victor Hugo’s classic, Les Miserables, one of the early heroes in the story, whom the Lord uses to help turn around the life of the convict Jean Valjean, is Bishop Myriel. Unlike many churchmen in France at that time who were debauched and lived in luxury, this bishop was truly a man of God. When he arrived at the parish, he discovered that the “parsonage” they had for him was a luxurious stone palace with arched walks, a garden, and a huge dining hall. After seeing his new home, he went to visit the parish hospital, which was run by the church. There he found dozens of patients crammed into a little one story building. He asked the director of the hospital, “How many patients do you have?” He told them they had 26. The bishop said, it is very crowded. Yes, the doctor said, but “We must be resigned. What can we do?”  Bishop Myriel thought for a moment and said, “There is evidently a mistake here. There are 26 of you in 5 or 6 small rooms; there are only 3 of us, and space for 60. (My dining hall alone will hold 20 beds!) There is a mistake, I tell you. You have my house and I have yours.” And Bishop Myriel switched with the hospital, and lived in the one-story home, while the former parsonage mansion became the hospital. (Les Miserables, pp. 5-6)   Here was a man of God, who was content with much less than what the world said he had to have.  

Godly contentment with our circumstances a sign of spiritual maturity. And it is a RARE quality today, especially in the materialistic society in which we live today, in which we are constantly encouraged to want “more, more, more.”  But this attitude is not limited to our day. It was the same in Paul’s time in the Roman empire, which was known for luxury and excess. But in the midst of all that excess, Paul could write: “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.” This is God’s goal for US as Christians too, as we mature: to learn to have a godly, Christian contentment with what we have. If we have it, we will definitely be different than those around us — but it is a difference that God wants to see in our lives.

I. WHAT CHRISTIAN CONTENTMENT IS NOT

The concept of Christian contentment does NOT mean that we are content with everything in our lives — especially spiritually. There is a sense in which we are NEVER to be satisfied with where we are in our Christian life and progress.  Remember we just saw in Chapter 3, how the Apostle Paul showed us that we should always be moving forward: 

— “I press on” he said in :12,

— In :13 he said “forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead.”

— He said in :14, “I press ON toward the goal …”.

Paul made it very clear that he was NOT content with where he was with the Lord. He was always pressing on to grow; never content with where he was spiritually.

And we should be the same way. Christian contentment does NOT mean that we are just happy where we are, and don’t care to be challenged, or to grow spiritually. Like Paul, NONE of us has “arrived” yet, and we should always be “pressing on” for more.  We are NOT to be content with where we are spiritually; that is one of the best recipes for apathy and decline in your walk with God.

Last week, in the video I did for Sunday School teachers, I shared an interview someone had done with coach Nick Saban, who has now won more major college football championships than any other coach. This reporter asked him if he found satisfaction in the championships he had won. He said an emphatic NO!  Saban said: ”It’s a slippery pole from the penthouse to the outhouse in this business, and satisfaction is the slippery pole”!  He said you can’t be “satisfied” with where you are, or you are going to slide down. 

That is true for the Christian as well. We should NEVER be content with where we are spiritually:

— You can’t be content with saying, “Well, I’m saved; I’m going to heaven, so I can just coast now.” That’s a recipe for disaster in your Christian life.

— You can’t be content with your level of holiness; every day when you read your Bible, you have to ask God to show you sin in your life, and confess it. Never be content remaining in the same old sins. Be continually repenting; continually purifying your life. The old Puritans said, “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.” If you are not purposefully killing off sin in your life, sin will be actively working to destroy you. You can’t be content where you are in regard to holiness and the sin in your life.

— We should never be content with your level of prayer and walk with God. We should always be drawing nearer, nearer, nearer to Him in worship, until like the old chorus says: “I want to get so close to You, that it’s no big change, on the day that Jesus calls my name.” 

— We should never be content with the people we are witnessing to. There are so many lost people in the world; and they are going to hell. How can we just be content with that? We need an urgency to share the gospel. We can never be content with our evangelism. 

— And we’ve got a great church here; but the best way to kill this church is for us to become content and complacent with what we have. We’ve got to continually seek to be better in worship, in reaching out to more people; in growing people spiritually, in caring for people; growing in giving and committed to unity. If we get complacent about these things we will begin a long slow decline — and eventually death as a church. Ask any of the thousands of churches in our country — some of them in THIS TOWN — who are slowly dying — if that won’t happen! Complacency with where you are, will kill a church. 

There are SO many things that we just must NOT be content with, in our Christian life. Contentment with where we are spiritually will KILL our personal walk with God, and will send our church into decline and death. So being content with where we are spiritually is NOT what he is talking about here.  

II. WHAT CHRISTIAN CONTENTMENT IS:

So what IS genuine Christian contentment? Paul specifically says here, “I have learned to be content in whatever CIRCUMSTANCES I am.” That word “circumstances” here is a key. Some versions translate it “condition,” or “state,”, or “circumstances.” The point is, Paul is not speaking about his spiritual growth, or ministry. He’s never content with those. What he’s saying is, I am always content in my “circumstances” — in his financial condition; the physical circumstances attending his life. He does not allow those things to determine his spiritual happiness and well-being. His spiritual well-being is always greater than his circumstances. 

And Paul had some difficult circumstances to wrestle with. First of all — and we should always keep this in mind in this book — is that Paul was writing this letter from PRISON. That fact should be imprinted on the front of our minds as we read this book. It was from PRISON that Paul kept talking about “joy” and saying “rejoice in the Lord always,” and so on. This is a man who was content in his circumstances. 

And then he gives some more specific examples in this series of verses:

He talks in :10 about how the Philippians had “revived your concern for me.” So evidently they had been taking care of him, maybe visiting him, or sending him gifts in prison of food, or money, or other special needs. 

When we were in Romania a few years ago, they sneaked me in to a hospital there, to show me what their conditions were like.  They told me that the family of the person in the hospital was responsible to bring them food, or extra bedding, or whatever they needed. We’re not used to that in hospitals here, but that is what they had to do there. And it was very similar in Roman times too, in their prisons. They sure didn’t have luxuries like cable tv — or often, even basic necessities — in prison. Prisoners depended on loved ones to bring them food, clothing, medicine, and any other special needs they might have. And evidently the Philippians had done that — AND evidently there was at least some period of time in which they did NOT do that — because Paul writes, “I am glad that you REVIVED your concern for me” — so apparently they had let their care for him, slack at some point.

But notice what he says in :11, “Not that I speak from want” — and then he gives us what may be THE key words in this section: “FOR I HAVE LEARNED TO BE CONTENT IN WHATEVER CIRCUMSTANCES I AM.” 

He says, “I’m content.” This is the only time this Greek word (autarkes) is used in the New Testament, but it means to be “self-sufficient; satisfied;  content.” 

And then he spells out exactly what he means by that in :12:

— “I know how to get along with humble means”

— “and I also know how to live in prosperity

He elaborates: “in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.” 

So he is speaking about his physical condition. He says he is content with whatever condition he finds himself in (or that God has allowed him to be placed him in!)  He says I know how to enjoy things in this world when I have them — but he says I also know how to do without them. He says, I know how to eat until I’m full — and I also know how to go hungry. He says, I can do either one, and I’ll be content; I’ll be satisfied. THAT is Christian contentment. It means that our circumstances do not determine our spiritual outlook. Our spiritual well-being is always good as Christians, no matter what our outward, physical circumstances. 

There’s several lessons we can learn here as we think about Christian Contentment:

— ONE is that our circumstances don’t make us happy. Some of us think, “Man, if I just had more money, or a bigger house, or a better job; different circumstances, or some particular thing THEN I’d be happy.” (My daughter just told me yesterday that she had bought a new coloring/activity book for one of her kids, and the child said, “Now I’ll be content!”  No she won’t! Only until she wants the next thing.  We THINK that if we “just had this or that person or thing, THEN we’d be happy” — but the truth is, you wouldn’t.  Most likely you’d be just about as happy as you are in your present circumstances. Because it is not your circumstances that make the difference; it is your spiritual outlook that determines your well-being — and the Jesus who is with you in your circumstances.

Remember Psalm 4, one of my favorites, where David tells the Lord: “You have put gladness in my heart MORE than when their grain and new wine abound.” In other words, God can give you joy in your heart that is greater than the temporary happiness that people experience when everything is going their way, and they have all they want to eat and drink. A Christian who is really walking with Jesus can be content without all the “good stuff,” because he HAS “the good stuff” — Jesus! — in his heart! (More on that in just a minute.)

— ANOTHER lesson here is beware of the “prosperity gospel.” The “prosperity gospel” is a false version of Christianity going around that teaches that Christians who have faith will be rich, and will be healed of every disease, in this world. That is a very attractive teaching, and you can see why people would be drawn to it; but it is NOT the teaching of the Bible. It is a false gospel, and many people have been harmed by it; because when they do NOT get healed, or become rich — then they wonder why they don’t have enough faith, or what they did wrong, and this does a great deal of damage to people spiritually. This is a false gospel.

The true gospel is that we have all sinned against God, and deserve to be separated from Him forever. But God in His mercy came to earth in the Person of Jesus Christ, and died on the cross to pay for our sins; so that if we would repent of our sins, He would forgive us, and come into our life with His Holy Spirit, and help us change our ugly attitude so that we are content whatever we are or whatever we have in this world. And yes, He will make us rich and whole — in HEAVEN. Not here. This life on earth is NOT “your best life” for a Christian. It’s the best life a LOST person will ever know; but it’s not the best life a Christian will ever know. A Christian’s best life is not now; A Christian’s best life is in heaven with Jesus forever. Don’t be taken in by the false prosperity gospel. Be a Biblical Christian, who is content with your circumstances here, and waiting for your best life in glory. 

— THIRD: if you have are going to have this attitude of contentment in this world as a Christian, you will have to learn to continually “swim against the stream” in our society today. Because the media and many businesses have made it their goal to make you DIS-content with what you have, so that you will buy whatever it is they have to sell.  

In “The Glory & The Dream,” a classic history of America from 1932-1972 by William Manchester, he writes how after the Second World War there was a BOOM of spending in America, led by the Madison Avenue advertising firms, that drove people to spend, spend, spend — and part of their strategy was to make people dissatisfied with what they had, so they would buy more.  Manchester wrote that “One radio station recorded a five-voice choir singing a jingle which ended, ‘buy, buy something that you need today’ and played that jingle 70 times a day!  Saving money was reported to be “disturbing” the economy, because you should be SPENDING it in something!  Madison Avenue quoted Samuel Butler: ‘All progress is based upon a universal desire on the part of every organism to live beyond its income.’”

That push for “more, more, more” started just after World War II, but the same dissatisfaction; that same desire to “live beyond our income” continues to this day: 

— many American families typically spend more than they take in, every month

— we’re not happy with the house we have; though it fully meets our needs

— we don’t like the car we’ve got any more – it won’t parallel park by itself!

— we’ve GOT to have the newest phone because it is will really revolutionize our lives (as if the last phone did?!)

But you see, it NEVER ENDS. There’s ALWAYS something else that the advertising agencies will tell you that you just HAVE to buy! 

We have to realize that a whole segment of business in America is built around the goal of making you DISSATISFIED with what you have, because they want you to buy something else. 

There is a LOT of media power behind all that, coming at you 24/7. So if we as Christians in America are going to go against it, we can’t just “float along with the current;” because that current will naturally carry us to dissatisfaction and “more” spending. If we’re going to be different, we’ve got to purposefully say NO!; I am NOT going to get caught up in this endless race for “more.” We’ve got to purposefully swim against the current of the advertising agencies, and all the sales pitches, and the planned obsolescence, and say, NO! This is enough. I am going to be content with what I have.  

Now, that doesn’t mean you never buy anything, or that you never replace anything when it breaks down. 

— It just means that you’re not always looking for the next thing to buy.

— It means that you’re not looking for a “shopper’s high” to make you happy in life. You’ve got something deeper that’s making you happy.

— It means you aren’t looking for your satisfaction and fulfillment to come from your next purchase — because you know that that the LAST thing you purchased didn’t bring it to you either!  

Christian contentment means that you are going to purposefully decide that in Christ, you will be content WHERE you are, and with WHAT you have. THAT is what Christian contentment is.  

III.  THE SECRET TO CHRISTIAN CONTENTMENT?

So that is what Christian contentment IS; but how can you have it? The “secret,” or the answer to that is found right here. Here is where CONTEXT is so important again. It seems like almost each week we talk about the importance of context — and here we are again. You CAN’T just pluck out a verse out in isolation. You HAVE to look at it in its total context. 

And the key verse here is one that must be seen in context: Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” I would venture to say that most of us have heard this verse, or even have it memorized. But how many of us realize that God gave us Philippians 4:13 in the context of Christian contentment?! And that context is a HUGE consideration! 

In context, as we saw, Paul is saying, “I can be content in whatever physical circumstances God places me in — and it is THEN that he says those famous words: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”! THAT is the context of this verse.

Do you see how that is different from the way that many people have taken this verse over the years? We’ve just “plucked” verse 13 out of its context in Philippians 4, and used it for whatever we wanted to claim it to mean:

— We want be class valedictorian? We claim “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”!

— We want to win the company sales contest? We say “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!”

— We’re 5’4” high and can’t jump 6 inches off the ground, but we want to play in the NBA, so we say “By golly, Philippians 4:13 says ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’ — so I can DO IT!”

So many times we’ll use that verse in a well-meaning, but wrong way. I remember when I was in college, I used to run the square mile section around our house, one mile each way, for 4 miles total. One summer it got up to 110 degrees, and I would go out after work and run that mile section, and when it got tough, and I was running uphill in the 110 degree heat, I would gasp this verse with every breath: “I can do … all things through Christ …”. Now, I was trying to rely on the Lord; that was a good thing — but I was off-base in the way I was applying that scripture — and maybe you are too. 

GOD IS NOT SAYING HERE THAT YOU CAN PICK OUT ANYTHING IN THE WORLD THAT YOU WANT TO DO, AND CLAIM THAT YOU CAN DO IT, BECAUSE “YOU CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH CHRIST.” That is how this verse is commonly applied, but it is NOT what it is saying. Paul is saying here, I can be content in any circumstance God places me in for HIS Kingdom and purposes:  So he’s in prison for the sake of the gospel? That’s ok; he can still be content, because he can do all things that God needs him to do, through Christ who strengthens him. Can you see how this is totally different than just picking out anything you want to do, and claiming that Christ will help you do it? These are two different things entirely.

— In one, YOU are picking out whatever YOU want to do, and God’s your “personal genie in the sky” who’s gonna help YOU to accomplish YOUR will. 

— in the other, God is giving you the power in Christ Jesus to endure whatever HE needs you do to accomplish HIS kingdom and HIS will.

Philippians 4:13 does NOT mean Christ will help you do anything YOU want to do; it means He will help you do anything HE needs you to do! 

And those are two entirely different things.

So let’s be sure that we don’t take this verse out of context, and use it in the wrong way.

But taken IN context, this IS an amazing promise: God says He will give you the power and the ability to do whatever He asks you to do for His kingdom and glory. When you are doing His work; you can always claim this promise: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” 

— It doesn’t mean He’s gonna help you win the Olympic championship.

— It DOES mean He’ll give you the power to do everything He asks you to do! It means you will never lack the power to do God’s will!   

And in specific context here, it means that CHRIST will give us the power to be content in our physical circumstances:

— JESUS is the One who makes the difference. 

— Jesus is the One who has saved us. 

— Jesus is the One whose Spirit is in our heart. 

— Jesus is the One who gives us a home in heaven to look forward to, so that we can be content for a short while with any inconvenience here on earth. 

We CAN be content in any situation here on earth — “through Christ who strengthens us.” It is Jesus who makes the difference. 

In November of 1960, Mary Willis Shelburne wrote C.S. Lewis, concerned about the fear of possibly having to go to an “old peoples home,” as she called it. Lewis wrote back and said, “Just as some of the things we have longed and hoped for turn out to be dust and ashes when we get them, so the things we have most dreaded sometimes turn out to be quite nice.” But then he added: “If you ever do have to go to a Home, Christ will be there just as much as in any other place.” (C.S. Lewis, Yours, Jack, p. 337)

That’s the whole thing, right there. THAT is our hope; THAT is our consolation; THAT is how we will overcome, in any situation: “Christ will be there.” I can go anywhere; I can do any thing, that God needs me to do, and I can be CONTENT. How? Because “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” THAT is what this verse means. We can be content anywhere, because we have Christ.  (It’s all about Christ — I love that choir song this morning: “My Jesus” — HE is what it’s all about!)

A good slogan for the Christian would be:  If I have JESUS I am content!

If we have Christ, we don’t have to have all the stuff here on this earth; we know this world and everything in it is temporary; and we know we have something far better waiting for us in heaven. But only Jesus gives us that perspective.  We can do this through Christ.

It’s just like the old gospel song says: “I’m satisfied with just a cottage below; a little silver; a little gold …”.  HOW can we be satisfied with “just a cottage … with just a ‘little’ silver; and a ‘little’ gold”?  Because through Christ we know that “In that city, where the ransomed will shine; we’ll have a gold one, that’s silver-lined”!  Knowing what Jesus has waiting for us in glory, gives us the ability to be content with whatever we have now. 

So no matter where we are, or what we have (or DON’T have!), as Christians, we can always be content: “We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.”

INVITATION:

Lots of ways God may be speaking to you today:

— maybe you’re a Christian, but you’ve been caught up in the “more, more, more” attitude of this world.  Maybe you’d say you’ve been trying to get your happiness from your purchases, from “retail therapy”; instead of from the Lord. And God’s telling you today, you need to STOP, and say NO! I am NOT going to be caught up in that any more. I am going to find my contentment in the Lord.

— maybe it’s that you need to take the time to FIND your contentment in the Lord, in daily worship …

— maybe there’s some specific purchase, or decision God is speaking to you about today, that He’s re-directing you in.

— maybe there’s been a goal for your life, materially, that God is saying, getting THAT does not need to be your goal. Thats not going to last; invest your life in eternal things

— Maybe you’ve gotten caught up in the prosperity gospel, or been using “I can do all things thru Christ” in the wrong way … 

— Or maybe you you don’t really HAVE Christ in your life, who can give you that contentment we’ve been talking about today, and right now, the first step you need to take is to ask Him to be YOUR personal Lord & Savior. Do that right now, and then take the next step of confessing Him publicly and being baptized.

About Shawn Thomas

My blog, shawnethomas.com, provides brief devotions from own personal daily Bible reading, as well as some of my sermons, book reviews, and family life experiences.
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