This morning we are looking at the secret of contentment. The secret of contentment is not about changing your circumstances. Paul tells us that he has learned to be content in every circumstance (Philippians 4:11), and his circumstances were far from easy. In fact, I have looked through this short letter and identified seven reasons Paul could be discontent with his circumstances and then asked why he is not discontent with his circumstances.
1. Paul’s chains
Paul is under house arrest in Rome. He is chained to a guard on either side. Not only must he be enduring physical discomfort, but this man was ambitious to spread the gospel all over the world. He is not getting things the way he would have planned them.
So why is Paul content with his chains? Paul is content with his chains because he is getting opportunities to witness to his faith. Every time there is a change in guards, he gets another captive audience. Then there is the fact that his suffering is an inspiration to his fellow Christians. Just like we are inspired when Asialink or Church in Chains come and tell us about our faithful brothers and sisters in Christ who stand firm under pressure, the Christian heard of Pauls faithfulness and were ‘encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly’ (1:14).
A woman in Australia inspired her non-Christian neighbour with the way that she trusted God in the midst of terrible arthritis. Her neighbour wanted to know the secret to her contentment and so started to go to the suffering woman’s church. Both herself and her son became Christians. Indeed, that son is now a leading evangelical Bible commentator. May God give us the strength to lean on him when life is weighing us down.
2. Paul’s rivals
As Paul sat there in chains there were preachers who were taking advantage of his situation to stir up trouble for him. Perhaps they said, ‘if only he was not so blunt, he would not be in prison’ or ‘if God was really blessing him, he would not be in pain’. So why is Paul rejoicing when there are people trying to destroy his reputation? He is rejoicing because Christ is being preached (1:18).
How excited are we about what God is doing in his world? I tend to be concerned about what God is doing in my little world. Pack a good Christian biography for you holidays and rejoicing in the fact that Jesus is fulfilling his promise to build his church all over the world. Our God is not dead, he is alive!
3. Paul would prefer to be with Jesus
Paul talks about life and death. Those are very real thoughts when you are imprisoned and when you could be executed at any moment. He would prefer if it was his time to pass on because then he would get to be with Christ. But he is convinced that he is going to remain for the sake of the churches he serves. He is content with this because ‘to live is Christ’ (1:21).
He is content because he loves to serve God’s people. Contentment comes not through getting others to serve us but through serving them. Is that really true? I think so! We were made to get joy through serving. As we allow God’s love flow through us our hearts are enlarged. Don’t be a resentful servant. Don’t be bitter when no one notices or says, ‘thank you’. Be privileged to serve others because you love Jesus.
4. There were false teachers that could ruin the church
Paul warns the Philippians about false teachers who wanted to deny the gospel of grace. They wanted to rob Christ of his glory by saying that becoming a Christian depended in part on rituals that we perform. They were saying that Christ was not enough. The threat of false teaching is a very real one. Churches do fall into error. In the early centuries after Jesus the church was strong in North Africa. Then in the middle ages it was decimated by the spread of Islam. In our own time we have the threat of prosperity gospel preachers who use gospel as a means of person gain (see 1 Timothy 6:5).
How can we be content when the church is in danger? We have to trust God that even if some churches fall and some Christians depart from the truth, Jesus will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). Trusting God is a secret to contentment.
But trusting God is so difficult! How can we trust God when our prayers aren’t answered as we had hoped? How Can we trust God when our life is filled with sorrow? God’s trustworthiness is not measured by our current circumstances. His trustworthiness is measured by the cross. He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things (Romans 8:32)? The cross teaches us that he can be trusted to supply all our needs.
5. Epaphroditus had got ill
Don’t ever believe those who tell you that it is not God’s will for you to get sick. Faithful Christians get sick, and we all are on our way to the grave. Timothy had to take wine for his stomach. Paul ended up in the hill country of Galatia because of an illness. Trophimus had to remain behind in Miletus because he was unwell. Epaphroditus, who the Philippians had sent to help Paul in Rome, had become so ill that he almost died. Paul returned Epaphroditus as a hero not a failure.
But Paul could have done with the help of Epaphroditus. So how can he be content when he has just lost a valuable helper? Again, Paul has to trust God. ‘And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus’ (4:19).
Paul teaches us to present our requests with thanksgiving. Thankful praying is a way in which we learn that God has indeed being faithful to all our needs. When times are difficult, we can remember that God has brought us through before. When we don’t have all that we want, see that God has given us all that we need. Thanksgiving is a part of the secret of contentment.
6. Paul is spiritually and physically imperfect
A famous preacher pointed out that he has never met a truly godly person who thinks they are. Paul certainly knew his failings. Not that I have already attained this or have already being made perfect (3:12). If you think that you are on a spiritually higher plane than others, it is probably a sign that you are warped in pride.
Not only is the apostle Paul not spiritually perfect, he is not physically perfect. We have to wait until Christ’s return before we see our lowly bodies being transformed into the likeness of Christ’s resurrected and glorious body (3:21). How do we deal with spiritual and physical imperfection? We look forward to the day when our battle with sin will be over and we receive our glorious resurrection bodies.
There is a discontent that is right in the face of our moral imperfection. We should be straining ahead to become more like Jesus. But we must not expect perfection. The person who believes that they are without sin is deceived, and the truth is not in them (1 John 1:8). We battle with the sinful nature, but we also rejoice that there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). When thoughts of past sin and present struggle cause us to feel insecure, remember that God does not treat us as our sins deserve but according to his loving kindness (Psalm 103:10).
7. Euodia and Synthyche were dividing the church
Surely the argument between two of the church’s leading lights could cause him to despair. Indeed, it seems that their personal falling out has damaged the whole congregation because he needs to address them about issues like rivalry and arguing. Paul pleads with these two women, but what if they ignore him? How can Paul be content when things are not going well in the church? He has to trust that this is Christ’s church not his church, and that Christ can build his church even when people threaten to get in the way.
How good are we at leaving things in God’s hands? How good are we in situations that we can’t control? Are we able to present our petitions to God and then depend on him for peace? May God give us the strength to leave our anxieties in his capable hands.
A theological student went to a psychologist because he was struggling with depression. The psychologist was a Christian. The student explained that his life had not turned out as he had wanted. He had grand visions for his future, and when he realised that they weren’t coming to fruition his world was shattered.
‘Chris,’ exclaimed the psychologist, ‘it sounds like you want happiness to be the goal of your life.’ ‘Have you ever considered that God might not want the goal of your life to be happiness but maturity?’
‘I can do all things through him who gives me strength’ (Philippians 4:13). Obviously, that doesn’t mean that I can jump over my house if I try hard enough. But neither does it mean I can make million, never have any pain, never get sick and not die. Look and the context of this verse and you will see that it means that I can be content in all circumstances. You can grow in all circumstances. You can remain faithful in all circumstances. You can only through him who gives you strength. The result might not be happiness, but it will be joy.