The Secret of Contentment in God's Service

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“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. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am 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. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

“Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.” [1]

It is easier to be a Christian at some times than at others. At least most of us appear to think that to be true. When life is going well, when there is no illness in our family, when difficulties are absent and when all our debts are paid and we have sufficient income to secure those things necessary to insure a comfortable life, surely it is easier to profess the Faith of Christ than when these things are not true. Prolonged illness, unjust persecution, marital stress, crushing financial obligations—each takes a toll on the vibrancy of our Christian life and testimony. But is it easier to be a Christian when everything is going well then when life turns sour? I am not so certain that such is true. Let's explore the issue together.

In the days immediately preceding his death, Moses recited a song for Israel. What I find interesting is that in the midst of that song Moses included some sobering words for all who worship the Living God, especially when life is going well.

“Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked;

you grew fat, stout and sleek;

then he forsook God who made him

and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.”


When Israel was blessed, they turned from God. Wandering in the wilderness—committed to God. Fighting for survival—committed to God. Prosperity—not so much.

Far more of us suffer injury resulting from prosperity then are ever destroyed by poverty. Poverty, whether poverty of soul or poverty of possessions, forces one to resort to the Lord. We know what it is to be in need; and when difficulties do come, we immediately run to the Lord. However, sufficiency seems somehow to cause us to imagine that we have no need for the Lord. In times of prosperity we imagine that we are able in our own strength to care for our needs.

A famous U. S. labour leader, engaged in prolonged contract negotiations, was asked what would make him satisfied. His reply was revealing—given, in fact, for the whole of the race, I suspect—he answered, “A little more.” His answer echoed that which Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote concerning contentment:

I care not much for gold or land—

Give me a mortgage here and there—

Some good bank stock, some note of hand,

Or trifling railroad share—

I only ask that Fortune send

A little more than I shall spend.

No matter what we have, the desire for “a little more” is always present. Paul has pleaded with his readers, “Do not be anxious about anything” [4:6], extending the promise of “the peace of God” [4:7]. His plea is not that we be unconscious of needs, but that we be content with what God has provided. How can we be content? How can we fulfil this apostolic dictum? What is the secret of being content the apostle mentions in our text?

CONTENTMENT – WHAT IT IS NOT, AND WHAT IT IS. The stunning words which the Apostle penned seem somehow to mock modern Christians. Paul expressed personal contentment through the words, “I have learned … to be content” [4:11] and “I have learned the secret” [4:12]. When he used these words, we are each confronted with our own failure to achieve contentment. In these statements, the Apostle employed some words would have been common to the vocabulary of the Stoics and of the initiates into the rites of the mystery religions, words which his first century readership would have immediately recognised as common in that day.

When Paul said he had learned to be content, he used the Greek word autárkās. In Stoic philosophy, the term autárkās (“content” or “self sufficient”) described an individual who impassively accepted whatever came. In stoic philosophy, circumstances were seen as unchangeable and were thus regarded as the will of the gods. Therefore, fretting was useless. Such a burdensome philosophy fostered a self sufficiency in which all the resources for coping with life were located within man himself.

This selfsame philosophical approach to life is even today witnessed among those impoverished souls who have embraced Islam. The will of Allah must not be tampered with, and therefore the impoverished and the hurting within Islamic society are ignored and neglected. Unfortunately, far too many who call themselves by the Name of Christ the Lord adopt a similar philosophical expression for life.

While hurt and injury may come into the life of the believer, it is not necessarily the will of God that such harm exists. Further, the believer who recognises the impact of God's grace is conscious that his sufficiency is found in Christ and not within himself.

The second concept of import for us is found in the statement in VERSE TWELVE. The Apostle states, “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret.” This is a translation of the Greek, en pantì kaì pâsin memúemai—“in everything and in all things I have been initiated” [literally]. Paul employs the language of the mystery religions, using the term which speaks of initiation into the secret rites of those particular and peculiar practises. Because he uses the language of the mystery religion does not mean that Paul approved of them, or than he was willing to credit them as being worthy of discussion.

These words provide scant comfort for the neo-gnostic who imagines the existence of some secret knowledge or of some esoteric formula of faith eventuating in external evidence that God is either pleased with man or that the Holy One is compelled to do the will of that man. Here the Apostle is employing the strongest possible language to clarify all that God has done for him. Incidentally, he addresses the situation that results when God has done everything possible for any believer who is willing to accept what is done for his or her benefit.

Contentment is not stoic acceptance of our particular situation. Christians are not called to persevere stoically simply in order to say they have persevered. While it may be admirable to move blindly through the varied vicissitudes of life, such unheeding movement is not contentment. Likewise, passive acceptance of injustice or of unfair conditions does not indicate contentment. We can receive without complaint the blows and beatings of life and yet be consumed with discontent. Ulcers plague the uncomplaining as readily as they do to grumblers and whiners. Neither are blind and unsupported claims of blessing regardless of circumstance evidence of contentment; ignorance of reality is not contentment! I note that many times those who are most discontented speak the loudest about their faith.

What is contentment, then? Contentment must be identified as that satisfaction that grows out of knowledge and confidence—knowledge that one’s needs are fulfilled and confidence that one is not a victim of caprice, whether caprice arising from life itself or from unseen powers. Contentment is the extreme opposite of covetousness; and in the text, the Apostle’s cup is full of Christ.

Clearly, the apostle relates his words concerning contentment to his state in life. Whether in terms of material possessions or whether in respect to physical condition or personal state, the apostle is satisfied with his position. This is no mere passing reference to an otherwise meaningless situation, for the apostle makes repeated references to the need for personal contentment with our situation in other missives.

Listen to the Apostle’s teaching revealed in instructions delivered to the faithful. “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Without us you have become kings! And would that you did reign, so that we might share the rule with you! For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honour, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labour, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things” [1 CORINTHIANS 4:8 13].

Again, in the same letter he reveals the principle of contentment. “Let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God [1 CORINTHIANS 7:17 24].

In yet another letter to these same Corinthians Paul wrote of his contentment in Christ. After detailing the cost of apostleship—dangers and toils and emotional stress—he speaks of God’s rich promise that divine grace is sufficient. “[The Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong [2 CORINTHIANS 12:9, 10].

The classic statement teaching Christian contentment must assuredly be that which the Apostle penned to Timothy. “There is great gain in godliness with contentment” [1 TIMOTHY 6:6]. I would urge each worshipper to underscore this particular verse in his or her Bible and to meditate on this verse frequently—weigh the meaning of what Paul has written in your life. Consider the implications of the verse. Think on it. Contentment is less a matter of what we possess then it is of who we are. If I believe that God knows who I am and that He knows where I am, I can be content. To say you will be satisfied is something quite different from being satisfied, for satisfaction grows out of confidence.

CONTENTMENT – ITS SOURCE. Contentment and confidence are intimately related, the former growing out of the latter. The contented individual is a confident individual. By this statement, I do not mean to suggest that confidence in our own possessions leads to contentment, but rather I mean that confidence in our position and in our relationship leads to contentment.

When you came to Christ, you exercised faith in a Person, not in a position. Unlike the doctrine which some teach, we have faith in Christ—not faith in a creed or faith in a church. This is an important truth for each believer. Since we exercise confidence in a Person who is Himself very God, we are confident of the power of our Lord Jesus Christ to save; and such confidence is sure for all eternity. The relationship to God—knowledge that we are accepted in the Beloved—leads to confidence and contentment.

Since we have believed in a living, vibrant Person, our faith is likewise living and vibrant. This confidence toward Christ, living and vibrant as it is, is the beginning of contentment for us as Christians. Notice that I did not say that confidence is contentment, but rather it is the beginning of contentment. The One in whom we have trusted is ultimately the fountainhead—the source and the means—of our contentment.

Go back in your memory to that time when you had newly entered into the living relationship with the Father through Christ Jesus the Son. You trusted the Lord fully. His will reigned supreme in your mind, and you were prepared to go to any length to please Him. That condition has not changed; but with the passage of years the intrusion of cares has insured that His will becomes harder to discern clearly. We grow more conscious of responsibilities and we become more cautious in performing the will of God. Nevertheless, the fact remains that at one time we were committed to serving God with what may only be described as reckless abandon. The overt confidence we demonstrated in the first blush of new faith brought us contentment with our situation. It was not that our needs were less pressing at that time, but we were prepared to sacrifice our personal desires for the Master's will. As new believers we knew we could be content whatever our situation.

In fact, you see something of this exuberant youthful contentment demonstrated in the life of the apostle. When confronted on the road to Damascus, he spoke with the Risen Lord of Glory. Listen again to the account of his conversion as recorded in ACTS 9:1 12.

“Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ And he said, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’”

Saul, struck down by the brilliance of that light that shone about him and arrested by the voice that addressed him, inquired, “Who are you, Lord?” Ordered to go into Damascus, though blinded by the light which characterised this theophany, he is obedient, trusting that God shall care for him if he will but be obedient. There, in the city, though he has no further communication either with the Lord or with his emissary except for a vision sent by the Lord, the blinded man spends his days fasting and praying to know the will of God.

As soon as Ananias came in obedience to the Lord's command, Saul was baptised, openly identifying with those he previously persecuted. Regaining his strength, he began to preach in the synagogues where previously he had been welcomed as a learned rabbi. The message that had once enraged him is the message that he now proclaims boldly. Though fearful for his life, and though young in the Faith, he is content to identify openly as a disciple of the Nazarene. For Saul, as for us, confidence is expressed in contentment.

For all that, there is another aspect to contentment which the apostle addresses in our text. Don’t hurry over the Word so fast that you miss what is being said. The Apostle says, “I have learned” [v. 11]. These words are a curious and delightful admission that should encourage each of us; the Apostle tells us of the necessity for instruction, for being discipled by the Master.

The Greek is instructive—egò gàr émathon—“I, for my part, have been instructed” [literal translation]. Several truths are evident in this statement. First, the pronoun is emphatic, as though the apostle wants to ensure that he speaks of the need for personal experience in this matter. We are not being invited to accept blindly what he says, but rather he is affirming that what he has to say came through divine instruction. Also, the verb employed is somewhat rare in the New Testament, though its appearances would indicate it was a favourite of the Apostle. It speaks of discipleship to a person. Paul used it in VERSE 9 to encourage the Philippians in emulating his life, and in the same way, he is learning from Christ in this matter of contentment. All this is reminiscent of the Apostle's command issued in a previous letter to the Corinthian saints, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” [1 CORINTHIANS 11:1].

If you are confident in Christ, you will be content with what you have and with where you are. I do not mean that you will lack ambition or that you will not wish to better yourself if you can; but I do mean that you will rest secure in the knowledge that God knows you—He knows what is best for you. You will be content that He is using you to His glory and that He will be glorified in you.

CONTENTMENT – ITS PRACTISE. Contentment is the state of satisfaction arising out of knowledge and confidence. The source of contentment, regardless of conditions in which we find ourselves, is the eternal God. Now, I would speak more pointedly of the practise of contentment, and to this, I ask your closest attention. What I now say may well prove to be of inestimable value to you in days to come.

Whatever may come into your life—and conditions would make it seem that hurt may attend all of us in coming days—you can be content. Whether economic conditions worsen and finances become increasingly scarce; whether war should finally engulf the whole of the Middle East, dragging us into such an obscene conflict with Arab states; whether unsettled political conditions should destabilise government, making us susceptible to outside influence as a nation—you and I, as Christians, can know contentment. Contentment is unrelated to conditions.

Contentment is learned [V. 11]. We have already alluded to this fact, but now I must emphasise the point. While it is true that contentment arises out of the instantaneous change which accompanies salvation, the settled condition of which I now speak is that which is learned. The apostle appears almost hesitant to speak of his joy at the Philippians’ gift because he does not want to seem to be speaking of money. Though they had previously supported his missionary labours, they had seemingly terminated their support for a period. Now after an extended time, they had spontaneously and unexpectedly sent a gift. This is the basis of the apostle's statement in VERSE TEN, “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have renewed your concern for me.” Preachers shrink from speaking about money for fear of being misunderstood. Twice Paul provides the same caveat: “Not that I am speaking of being in need” [V. 11] and “not that I seek the gift” [V. 17]. He is sensitive on the point of financial independence.

Nevertheless, he had learned a lesson for himself, a lesson each of us must learn. Rather than resulting from some particular event, the instruction grew out of his life experiences up to the present moment. Our responses to the experiences of life combine to provide character training. Paul had learned the lesson; he had been discipled to Christ, learning contentment in His appointments. Secure in the depths of Christ's love, Paul is undisturbed by the rise and fall of the sea of fortune. Want and plenty are only surface disturbances which contribute nothing to and subtract nothing from the sufficiency found in Christ. Paul has learned that the richest man is he who wants nothing; and he wants nothing but Christ, for a man may be content only when he has reached the goal of his desire.

Benjamin Franklin said that were it not for our eyes, we could be content with what we had. He spoke biblical truth at this point, echoing in a strange way the words of the Disciple whom Jesus loved: “All that is in the world—the desires of the flesh, the desire of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever” [1 JOHN 2:16, 17].

Among the Proverbs is a telling indictment of the human race. Read this particular proverb with me.

“Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied,

and never satisfied are the eyes of man.”

[PROVERBS 27:20]

By nature, we are discontent. Infants wail out their discontent from birth and we each continue our wails of discontent until the day we die, except for the grace of God teaching us to be content with who we are and to be content with what we have and especially to be content with His love.

Contentment is given [V. 12]. If only we could learn from our experiences to desire nothing but the will of God in our lives and nothing save the presence of God with us, we would no doubt be content. But there is an aspect of contentment which lies beyond us. There is an interesting statement recorded in the 81st PSALM. God says,

“I tested you at the waters of Meribah.”

[PSALM 81:7b]

Perhaps you will remember that Israel had been freed from Egyptian bondage and servitude. They were led into the desert as they journeyed toward the Promised Land. In that wilderness they grew thirsty; and in their distress they quarrelled with Moses and resisted following God. Therefore, Moses called the place Massah and Meribah, Hebrew names meaning “Testing” and “Quarrelling.” Massah and Meribah were not accidents on the way to God’s blessing, but they were purposeful acts of God to “test” the faith of His people. The people tried to force the hand of God, rather than resting confidently in His continued leadership. Here is what I would have you see from this incident. It is not so much that we go out seeking opportunities to learn contentment, but that God, guiding us with His great hand, directs our paths into those avenues which are best for us.

When Paul writes, “I have learned the secret,” he is, as I have previously demonstrated, using the language of the mystery religions. He speaks of “being initiated” [literally]. Paul seizes upon that word, using it to speak of mystic initiation into the life of Christ and into the knowledge of God that makes him superior to all supposed accidents of life. The Wisdom of Solomon speaks of our being initiated into the knowledge of God. [2] Ignatius speaks of those who are “fellow initiates with Paul, the sanctified.” [3]

In time, baptised Christians came to be called “the initiated ones.” Unlike the mystery religions, however, the knowledge which the Christians possessed was open. The mysteries of Christ are not hidden except from those who are willingly ignorant. Paul's statement concerning his initiation is a tacit admission of God's direction in his life. Reviewing the course of his life, he concludes that there were no accidents, but rather he sees a succession of acts permitted by a God who was in control of the outcome and guiding the process from start to finish.

It is true that contentment is learned; but overarching the life of the contented individual is the hand of a gracious God who has directed events so that contentment might be granted. Our God is too good to injure us needlessly and too wise to make a mistake; and He is always guiding His child to ensure contentment at last.

Contentment is powerful [V. 13]. It requires a deep experience of grace to be content with the bare necessities of life; but when the necessities are bare, what then? Paul is confident in Christ, therefore he is able not only to do what he was called on to do in VERSE 12, but he is also able to meet all similar situations he may be called on to face. When he writes, “I am empowered for all things in Him” [literally], he is saying that his strength resides in Christ who furnishes the power. Christ empowered Paul, just as He empowers each believer.

“I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” This should become the guiding principle for each of us who name the Name of Christ. Closely associated with this life statement should be the statement, “I have learned the secret.”

I am indebted to an old book written by a pioneer Baptist here in British Columbia. Rev. J. H. Pickford, in “Paul's Spiritual Autobiography” provides a marvellous outline of this verse, turning it as a multi faceted diamond for all to view. Of the strength which is spoken of in this verse reflecting Paul's contentment, Pickford notes that this is a practical strength, for the Apostle says, “I can do all things.” It is a perpetual strength, with Paul noting the character of Christ “who strengthens me.” The supply of strength is uninterrupted as witnessed by the use of the present active participle. Further, this is a proportionate strength, for Christ's unabating flow is greater than our need. This is a personal strength, since it is Christ the Lord Himself “who strengthens me”; this experience is for me. Finally, this is positional strength, since it is “through Him.” [4] Our Lord is both the Cause and the Channel of strength. Christ is power that is practical, perpetual, proportionate, personal and positional. What a glorious thought!

Here is a beautiful thought for us, then. Contentment is found, not in our way, but in Christ's way. It is that which is learned as we gain confidence in Christ—in His concern for us and in His ability to care for us. Contentment is given to us as we walk with Him through the paths of life. Walking with Him, we learn that this contentment is powerful, able to compete effectively with all desires we may have imagined that we would ever experience. Have you learned to be content? Are you content? It is time that you and I became content!

Contentment begins with Christ and concludes with Christ. Asaph, an otherwise unknown author of Psalms, wrote a most marvellous Psalm. Listen to this 73rd PSALM.

“Truly God is good to Israel,

to those who are pure in heart.

But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,

my steps had nearly slipped.

For I was envious of the arrogant

when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.”

The Psalmist describes them as they appear—powerful, wealthy, seemingly unhindered in pursuit of evil. They are the bane of those who endeavour to honour God. The Psalmist struggled with what he witnessed, until in the presence of God, he made a marvellous discovery.

“Truly you set them in slippery places;

you make them fall to ruin.

How they are destroyed in a moment,

swept away utterly by terrors!

Like a dream when one awakes,

O Lord, when you rouse yourself, you despise them as phantoms.

When my soul was embittered,

when I was pricked in heart,

I was brutish and ignorant;

I was like a beast toward you.”

Having confessed his ignorance, the Psalmist looks once more toward Heaven. He sees the true wealth of contentment. Listen as he concludes this marvellous Psalm.

“Nevertheless, I am continually with you;

you hold my right hand.

You guide me with your counsel,

and afterward you will receive me to glory.

Whom have I in heaven but you?

And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.

My flesh and my heart may fail,

but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

“For behold, those who are far from you shall perish;

you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.

But for me it is good to be near God;

I have made the Lord God my refuge,

that I may tell of all your works.”

[PSALM 73:1-3, 18-28]

Make God your refuge. Find contentment in Him. Rest secure in His love. This is the way of life. Truly, contentment is not possible until we rest in Him. Long centuries past, Augustine of Hippo wrote of our need for rest, “Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee.” [5] That rest for which we long is found in Christ the Lord.

Are you a Christian? Do you rest in Him? Surely, you have heard the promise of God that is extended to all who are willing to receive it. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. For the Scripture says, ‘Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” [ROMANS 10:9-13]. Amen.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[2] “Wisdom of Solomon 8:4,” Apocrypha: Authorized Version (Oxford University Press, London, n.d.) 115

[3] “The Letters of Ignatius of Antioch,” “Ephesians 12,” in Jack Sparks (ed.), The Apostolic Fathers (Thomas Nelson Inc., Nashville, TN, 1978) 81

[4] J. H. Pickford, Paul’s Spiritual Autobiography (Evangelical Publishers, Toronto, 1949) 118-120

[5] Augustine of Hippo, “The Confessions of Augustin,” in The Confessions and Letters of St. Augustin with a Sketch of His Life and Work, Philip Schaff (ed.), J. G. Pilkington (trans.), vol. 1, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (Christian Literature Company, Buffalo, NY 1886) 45

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