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.