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Learning Contentment | Part 2

Discontentment can settle in my heart with such ease. The grass really does seem greener in my neighbor’s yard. No matter what model car I drive or phone I own, there’s a glitzy ad for something better and faster. Even the favorable circumstances that I see in someone else’s life can cause me to lose my contentment.

As we read last time, when we looked at Philippians 4:11, contentment is a heart attitude that must be learned. It doesn’t come naturally.

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.

But now, look at verse 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.

We’re tempted to assume that verse 12 must be an exaggeration. Paul couldn’t possibly have experienced contentment “in any and every circumstance,” could he? That means even in prison, when he was stripped down to nothing, Paul still was able to possess contentment.

But that’s what it says. God’s Word is teaching that contentment is durable.

The attitude of contentment accompanied Paul no matter where he was in life: Up, down, high, low, with plenty, with nothing, full, or hungry, in any and every circumstance.

I know what it is to be humbled, to be broken down. I know the experience of excelling and possessing riches, but I’ve also been in poverty. My stomach has ached with hunger, and I know what it’s like to leave the table full.

Through it all, Paul wrote, the contentment I feel is just as real through the good as it is in the bad.

There’s an interesting word in verse 12, where Paul wrote, “I have learned the secret.” This is different from the kind of learning he spoke of back in verse 11. This phrase in verse 12 is actually a single word in the Greek – it’s a verb that means to be initiated into a mystery.

Paul was using language of the day to illustrate what he meant when he said that he had learned to be content in whatever situation he faced. Verse 12 is saying, “I mean anysituation. This attitude that God graciously taught me, has accompanied me as I’ve faced plenty, hunger, abundance and need.”

Here’s the point: Circumstances will change; but contentment doesn’t have to.

Contentment is a heart attitude that God designed, and He’s teaching us to experience and enjoy it as a constant throughout all of life, in every circumstance. It is durable.

At this point, we desperately need verse 13. God’s Word has described to us a learned attitude of sufficiency, of feeling complete and not in need, that can be present in any and every circumstance. So, where do we find this attitude? How is it acquired?

I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Biblical contentment is learned. It is a heart attitude. It is durable through life’s circumstance, and finally, real contentment is sufficiency in Christ.

Here’s what all of this is getting at: Jesus Christ must be your sufficiency. Jesus Christ must become the center of your joy and peace and satisfaction and contentment. Knowing Christ must be enough in any and every circumstance. So, when things aren’t going well, and you don’t feel like you’re being treated well, contentment is being able to say, “But I have Christ. What more do I really need?”

Most of us have either quoted Philippians 4:13 or heard it quoted at some point, apart from its context. “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.” When lifted out of the larger message of Philippians, it sounds like magic.

But, what defines “all things”? In the Greek, all is the first word in this phrase, because Paul is using all to connect back to the same Greek word for all that he just used in verse 12 when he spoke of any and every kind of circumstance. In other words, in every moment, high and low. Through the best and worst circumstances of life, the joys and heartbreaks, believers in Jesus Christ are being uniquely trained to experience a heart attitude of contentment.

And the Greek verb at the start of v. 13 is not just “I do,” as in I do all things. It speaks of ability or strength or competency to do something. And it’s present tense. It’s not just the promise of a future experience of contentment, as if I, potentially, may find sufficiency in Christ. No. Paul is saying that as a result of Him who is empowering, he was constantly being enabled for all of these different circumstances. That ability is being ministered to me through all of the different situations I face, by the one who strengthens me.

To put it another way, Paul’s sufficiency was entirely due to the abundant sufficiency of Jesus Christ. And so is ours.

It is God’s design that our union with Jesus Christ provide the sufficient source of contentment in any and every circumstance.

Think about it this way: The king over creation, existing as God in heaven, gave up His place in heaven to become a servant in order to die for my sin. I deserve nothing but the judgment and wrath of God, but instead, I have been delivered from that forever, into a new kingdom, by Jesus dying in my place, rising over death, and now joining my life to His.

Contentment rests on who Jesus Christ is and what He’s done. The Son of God demonstrated the exact opposite of circumstance-based contentment, when He emptied himself, took the form of a servant, was born in the likeness of men, and humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. That’s the message of the book of Philippians.

That’s why, in chapter 1, Paul wrote, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” If my mood and my behavior rest on how I feel about my looks, or my job, or my spouse, or where I live, or my paycheck, or any of the circumstances of my day… if those things are determining my contentment, I will never be content. Because my heart will be like Adam and Eve in the garden thinking, “I still need one more thing.”

But if my heart comes to grip with the fact that I have nothing of any eternal value apart from Christ, and that I have everything I need for this life and the one to come in Christ, then God, by His grace, is teaching me to be content. He’s empowering me to trust that Jesus is sufficient.

Think about Paul, writing this letter. He had preached in so many cities and planted so many churches, now sitting in prison, his only audience being the handful of guards who watched him.

He must’ve been tempted to think, “God, why have you left me here? I could be out preaching. Instead I’m stuck here.” But, the truth Paul had learned, that God’s Spirit longs to teach you and I, is that Paul, like you and I, didn’t deserve any more than He had. God had been abundantly gracious, and, even in prison, Paul was being fully strengthened from within by His union with Christ.

And, as if to prove Paul’s point, God was using Paul, while he was in prison, to communicate truth that is still serving and teaching us more than 2,000 years later. What looked like the worst of circumstances, was actually being used by God to teach generations to come for thousands of years.

We must see our circumstances as ordained by a loving and gracious God, and then we must rest in His goodness and power, and trust that He knows best, and give thanks for exactly where He has us. We don’t deserve abundance and full bellies. We don’t have a right to live comfortably.

One lesson of Philippians is to hold what we have loosely, and to know that if and when God takes it all away, we will still have Christ.

Hebrews 13:5 says, "Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, 'I will never leave you nor forsake you.'"

There it is again. Don’t get dragged into discontentment. Whatever you have is a gift from the kindness of God. Thank Him for it. Praise Him for His grace.

And whatever you don’t have is a reminder that Jesus will never leave you or forsake you. And He is enough.

in Life

Learning Contentment | Part 1

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A preacher once said, “Discontentment is a disease of the soul that is almost an epidemic.” Pretty true words, right? But you may be surprised to know that the preacher who said those words lived in England in the 1600s. Even in the days before fancy cars and technical gadgets, people had major struggles with feelings of discontentment.

The truth is, man’s battle with discontentment goes all the way back to our first parents, Adam and Eve. Placed by God in the midst of a lush garden with every provision they could have needed, in a state of sweet innocence like you and I have never known, Satan provoked a new feeling within them – the feeling of discontentment. “You’re missing out. It could be better. God is keeping something from you.”

In fact, God’s care for Adam and Eve was lavish. He told them to enjoy the fruit of every tree in the garden, except for one. And, every indication is that for a period of time, they did just that. They enjoyed the bounty God had made. And then Satan baited the first couple with discontentment: Don’t you know that the fruit of that forbidden tree will make you wise

Suddenly, everything that was luscious and beautiful and perfect about life in the garden, paled in comparison to the fruit on that one tree. Perfect peace was gone and replaced with the nagging sense that: If only I could taste the fruit of that tree, then I’d know more than I know now, and that would have to be good, right?

The dictionary defines discontentment as a restless desire or craving for something one does not have. It is the “if only’s” of life. Finish this thought in your mind: I know what I have, but I would be a better spouse or parent or worshipper or worker or whatever, if only I had…” And you can fill in the blank.

Discontentment is a disease of the soul. It is a longing that expresses our distrust in the kindness and providence of God. In fact, discontentment is my heart saying, “If I was the loving God of the universe, I would probably give me this thing, or change my circumstances, or remove that pressure, or fix my spouse, child, parent, etc. That would be the loving thing.” That’s why discontentment is a form of idolatry. God, and His good and wise provision, are just not enough.

In Philippians 4:10-13, Paul expressed deep gratitude for how the believers in Philippi had cared for him and showed their love.

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.

Paul wrote those words from prison, where he was being persecuted. He wanted the Philippians to know how much he appreciated their generosity, but he also wanted to make it clear that he had not been feeling neglected. In fact, he used the opportunity to give us God’s wisdom on the subject of contentment.

And here’s the heart of the message: Contentment is a learned heart attitude of sufficiency in Christ that can endure through every circumstance.

There are four elements to contentment in that description. Let’s think about two of them in this blogpost, and the other two next time.

First, contentment must be learned. Discontentment is our natural state, and if you’re struggling with it, take heart. Contentment can and should be learned.

In verse 11, Paul used a verb to describe learning by instruction and experience. And he wrote it in a way that doesn’t indicate an instantaneous type of learning. There was not a magical moment in Paul’s life when he got contentment. Rather, his whole life as a believer brought him to this place. As Paul experienced life, God taught him contentment.

In other words, God’s Word is telling us thru Paul’s experience that contentment probably won’t just show up one day, like a gift. It is, rather, something God teaches us over time, as we learn to depend on Him and trust Him through the course of our lives, and experience the various circumstances that God ordains for us. Through those things, we learn contentment.

After all, Paul wrote this from prison. And it was not a good place. Some of the earlier language in Philippians makes it clear that Paul knew that this imprisonment could end with his death. In Philippians 1:20, he said his hope was to honor Christ in His body, whether by life or by death. In 2:17 he indicated that his life could be on the verge of being sacrificed for Christ.

Roman imprisonment was not comfortable, but Paul had already been in training to learn contentment.

The implication for you and I is that we must be teachable and seek to learn contentment. You won’t wake up tomorrow and say, “Got it.” But you should wake up and pray, “Lord, teach me today to be content. Help me to understand and live with contentment.”

Contentment is learned, and second, contentment is a heart attitude.

In verse 11, the Greek word for content might seem odd to us, but it would’ve been very familiar to his readers. Autarkous was from the Greek words autos, meaning self, and arkeo, meaning to suffice. It could literally translate as self-sufficient or self-satisfied.

The idea it’s trying to convey is, “I’ve learned to be satisfied with my lot in life. Here’s where I am and it’s good.” That’s the word for content in verse 11.

It was familiar language in that day. One of the main schools of ancient Greek philosophy that flourished in the Roman Empire was stoicism. It was sort of an early version of mind-over-matter thinking. “Regardless of what happens, I must stand firm and not be shaken. When troubles come, I should bite my tongue and push through.” There’s a whole American form of this that we know as self-reliance or rugged individualism.

Herbert Hoover, campaigning for the presidency in 1928, argued for what he called “the American system of rugged individualism.” In other words, give people opportunity and freedom, and it’s up to them to press forward for success.

Regardless of how you see that as a governing philosophy, the word autarkous reminded the Philippians of the stoic approach to life, that essentially celebrated self-sufficiency: “I can do this. I am independent. I don’t need help.” That is obviously not how Paul used this word, and we’ll see how he repurposed it in our next blog post.

But, this is clear: contentment is an attitude, just like discontentment is. Both arise out of your heart. Discontentment is our natural bent. We feel a lack of sufficiency. “I don’t have everything I think I should have or deserve.” We can easily gravitate toward being discontent with life and people and circumstances, unless, by God’s grace, we make the learning of the attitude of contentment a discipline that we pursue.

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When Self-Pity Raids Fellowship

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Woe is me.

I don’t say it as I walk through the doors of our lovely church and greet our fellow saints every Sunday morning. But—if I got the kids out the door and the limping dog fed and the home group meal made while my husband was off at another drill weekend—it’s likely I’m thinking it. 

Woe is me. I am only trying to get to church.

For years, I thought the problem with this scenario was that the God of the universe didn’t swoop down to help everything go perfectly on Sunday morning. There was the morning I got entirely ready before fetching my toddler, thankful we might be on time—for once!—only to find she had discovered some paint supplies while wearing a soiled diaper and redecorated the nursery in a certain shade of brown.

Other mornings, it’s a 102-degree fever discovered when we’re already on our way or the car doors that seem to, almost providentially, auto-lock every time I’m headed toward them with my hands full of piping-hot casserole for a potluck lunch. Sometimes it doesn’t take much at all—a bad hair day, a botched breakfast—to send the woman who woke ready to praise the Lord careening down a cliff of “why me”s.

Rather than entering the house of the Lord with a smile befitting my salvation, I rush to my seat with clenched teeth. Tell the story of Jesus and his glory? I can’t wait to tell the tale of my terrible morning. I have more than a chip on my shoulder; I am bearing a silent grudge against a God who didn’t orchestrate my circumstances to my liking. Rather than a garment of praise, I walk in wearing something that feels more comfortable than putting on Christ: self-pity.

Woe is me.

Somewhere between the barking dog that woke the baby and the closet filled with “nothing to wear,” I bought in to the lie that the God who gave me his own Son didn’t give me enough this morning. I believed the whisper that, above all, the Savior who says he gives peace that surpasses understanding still owes me a peaceful Sunday morning.

But do you know what God says about my pity party? “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:19).

Oh, the slippery slope that hope becomes when we place it in lesser things than the one who promises to be “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul” (Hebrews 6:18–19). How quickly pity rises when I fixate my meager hopes on a tranquil morning rather than the lasting source that springs eternal. But how did I get here?

How is it that, even as I prepare to enter the sanctuary to celebrate this shared eternal hope, I find my own hope placed in so many trappings of the Sunday morning experience instead? Like a piece of driftwood, these hopes of on-time arrivals and family-feud-free drives are dashed to pieces on the rocky shores of circumstances that are out of my control.

But here’s the thing: I think that’s exactly what God wants.

When I place my hopes and mood and focus for a Sunday morning in things other than the only one who’s worthy of them—it is a mercy for them to be shattered.

In the early days of my first baby’s arrival, I told a friend that it often felt like God was opposing me when a series of these little things went wrong—especially if it was while I was on my way to do a good thing, such as get to church on time.

“Why would he do that?” I asked out loud.

“Well,” she said, wincing before delivering the blow, “God does oppose the proud.”


“But gives grace to the humble,” I said, remembering the rest of 1 Peter 5:5.

It took days for the truth of that phrase to settle in. This, too, is a mercy, I thought. It is a mercy that God allows blow after blow to my thoughts of self-sufficiency on a Sunday morning, that he delivers me utterly humbled and limping across the threshold.

“We’re here!” I should say, as I throw my children across the finish line into the church foyer. “By the grace of God, we’re here.”

And what if I did that? What if I did high-five the mother of five who makes it to church (with a smile!) without the help of her worship-leading husband? What if I silenced the voice of Self-Pity 2.0 that says when I see her, “Look, even she made it to church on time. You only have two kids. She has five!” and offered instead a knowing glance, a reassuring hug. You’ve arrived. We’ve arrived.

I shudder to think about the half-truths that marinate in my mind and keep me from doing just that, that keep me rooted in thoughts about myself rather than reaching out to others. Because, if there’s one thing self-pity does on a Sunday morning—with the help of its friends comparison and envy—it’s suffocate fellowship. It is the tip of an iceberg of ingratitude, looming large beneath the surface. It is a symptom of a heart that fails to receive what God has delivered to us that morning and, instead, looks longingly on the lots of others.

We can chip away at self-pity with a little self-talk, sure. But it can do very little to cure us of our condition. This iceberg must be swallowed up by something larger, melted by the glory of a God who is worthy of the hopes we have placed in lesser things, able to bear them fully, able to fulfill them fully. Worthy of our Sunday mornings.

When I meditate on the upside-down arch of Christ’s life and coming kingdom, I see that we should not be surprised by the “fiery trial” of another Sunday morning. I see that, in Christ, we have both the example and the ability to receive it humbly, even to fellowship in it.

Philippians 2:1–8 (NIV): “Therefore, if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others."

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”

I see that Christ—the only one untainted by the sin that threatens to sink me every Sunday—did not shake his fist at a God who ordained circumstances he alone did not deserve. He asked for the cup to pass from him, yes, but then received it fully. “Not as I will,” he said, “but as you will” (Matthew 26:39).

Lord, let us remember that whatever passes into our Sunday mornings passed first through the fingers of a suffering Savior. Even the most unwelcome of circumstances—especially those—can be used to humble us, to sanctify us, to lift our eyes from the burning eggs to remember the Bread of Life. Let us fix our gaze on the object of Sunday morning worship and find self-pity—find our very selves—swallowed up by Him.

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