True, biblical contentment is at a nadir in our day. Advertisers rely on it to entice shoppers to their wares, only to be left discontented shortly thereafter. Lot in life—single or married, children or no children, job or no job—is a major cause for discontentment. While the affections and desires of many worldly people are small enough (to allude to C.S. Lewis) to be satisfied with ungodly things, only to be in for a terrible shock at the judgment seat, for many of us discontentment is a constant plague. Indeed, Christians can be just as discontent as worldly people. Yet our risen Lord calls us to a distinctive lifestyle of utter, God-centered contentment.
Paul is writing this final chapter of Philippians to demonstrate the beauty of spiritual stability. In verses 10-20, he explicitly thanks them for their most recent financial gift—and uses that as a springboard for a beautiful discussion of true Christian contentment. We will look at it under three headings.
A. True Contentment is Found as You Patiently Trust in the Sovereign Providence of God (v. 10)
Jeremiah Burroughs, the great Puritan author, defined contentment as “that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.” It is an inner satisfaction and sufficiency of soul that says “I have enough. I have all I need.” This is not to say, of course, that there isn’t also a holy discontent with our progress in sanctification or the sinful or difficult things in the world and in our lives that go against God’s will that we want Him to change. But it is to say that your soul is looking above your circumstances, including your own flesh, and trusting in the Lord’s sufficiency and plan for you.
Indeed, apart from confidence in that meticulous plan, contentment is essentially impossible. And it was Paul’s personal faith in the Lord’s personal interest and superintending of him that gave him contentment. You see, the Philippians were major financial supporters of Paul’s ministry. They were one of the first churches to support him and over the longest term. But it has been a while since their last gift—until the one Epaphroditus has brought with him on the 40-day journey from Philippi to Rome. Paul does not question the long gap, does not ascribe ungodly motives to it. His trust is in the care of God, who can make ravens give food to a beleaguered prophet or create a coin in a fish’s mouth to pay a temple tax. God can use any means He likes to meet Paul’s needs.
We have insight into Paul’s perspective through the words he uses. “Opportunity” is the word for a season. It isn’t chronological time, but what we might call “circumstantial” time. It refers to something that requires the right conditions to be effective. And it fits with what he says earlier: “at last you have revived your concern for me.” “Revived” is a horticultural term that was used to describe plants that only bloomed in season. When it wasn’t the right time, they stayed shut. But the life was always there—it was just dormant until the appointed time. And so Paul says in God’s sovereign providence their love and concern bloomed again—he explicitly says it was always there, but only now did they have the season for it to bloom in actual expression.
He rejoices “in the Lord” because he knows it is only the Lord who can orchestrate all things. Only the Lord is sovereign over time. Only the Lord can control a thousand distinct moments and happenings to get the support to Paul exactly when he needs it. And Paul did need the money, because during this imprisonment he was living in rented quarters for two years. If a prisoner under house arrest could not afford lodging, the Romans would simply shackle them outside to be exposed to the elements.
Paul is grateful for the Philippians’ well-timed support because it is how the Lord chose to meet his very real needs. But Paul still would have been content if the need was met a different way, or not at all. It is to that we now turn.
B. True Contentment is Independent of Your Circumstances (vv. 11-12)
The great preacher of the last century, Dr. Harry Ironside, famously recalled an experience where our Lord personally taught him the meaning of contentment. Going as he often did on faith to preach a series of crusades in California, he quickly found he was entirely out of money and even had to leave his hotel because he couldn’t pay. He wondered with not a little bitterness why, if Philippians 4:19 was true, the Lord was not somehow providing for him. As he sat down underneath a tree on the courthouse lawn, he felt the Lord illuminate his mind as to why this was happening. Soon after, food and lodging began to be offered from long-silent friends; one of the churches put together a love offering for his return journey.
As he was gathering mail at the post office before leaving Fresno, he noticed a letter from his father. In the postscript, the elder Mr. Ironside wrote, “God spoke to me through Philippians 4:19 today. He has promised to supply all our need. Some day he may see that I need a starving! If he does, he will supply that.” This only confirmed his experience on the courthouse lawn: Harry knew the Lord was meeting a deeper need than his finances or shelter. He saw Harry needed to be taught to trust Him, to be drawn closer to Him, and to experientially know the Lord knows better than we do.
I do not doubt Paul would have felt exactly the same as Harry Ironside. He is grateful beyond words that the Philippians have sent him a financial gift—who wouldn’t be, if the alternative was being chained outside like a dog—but he knows that the Lord could have easily met his needs a different way…or a deeper need that required him to lack, suffer, and lose. He writes that he knows how to live in prosperity and in humble means, of being filled and going hungry, having more than enough and suffering need. He says what the secret is in verse 13, but I want to point something out here: Notice he says twice that he knows this and also twice that he learned it. (Indeed, he also says he does not thank them out of want—a shocking statement given that he did in fact need the money—because he has “learned” the secret.) “Know” is a word that means to have insight or perception into something and to be skilled in something. Likely both shades of meaning are intended here. “Learned,” of course, means to be fully taught something and to have intimate acquaintance with it.
The point is that this contentment does not come naturally. It has to be learned. It has to come through supernatural perception and insight into the nature of our circumstances (the sovereign appointments of a holy God for our good) and into the character of God (a sovereign, loving Being who knows and plans far more than we can begin to imagine). If we know this, if we have been taught this lesson, then we can be content in the best and worst of circumstances. Not because we are indifferent to a fatalistic, uncontrollable world, but because we trust our God in all things to do what is best for us and to accomplish His program. If God chooses to demonstrate His power in sovereignly moving the hearts of people to give money to meet our desperate financial need, then we rejoice. If He does not, then we trust that there is a deeper need or reason why He has not provided for this surface one. (He always sees and knows more than we do. That reason alone is more than sufficient to trust Him, as our perception and sight is so deeply compromised and fallible.) God’s plan for the ages involves every microscopic movement of every atom that has ever existed—and every moment and choice of your life and the thousands of people who preceded you. You matter. Your circumstances matter. God is at work in them to bring you and the world to the pinnacle of glory—the day when “all things are summed up in Christ” (Eph. 1:11). The good and the bad alike happens because it needs to, because God is meeting needs in your life and in others’ to accomplish His program. Look at Him, at His glory and sovereignty and promises, and be content.
C. True Contentment is Fueled by the Strength of Christ (v. 13)
Why can Paul get along in such radically different circumstances? Why can he be mightily used of God in even his deathly depression (cf. 2 Cor. 1:3-11)? Because Christ personally empowers him to look to Him and His promises, and at the hope they produce, not at Paul’s flesh or his trials. The personal resurrection power of the Lord Jesus Christ enables him—in a way that demands divine power, for only it can reverse the death and curse that have infected Paul’s thinking, emotions, and perception—to see the glorified Christ in every detail of life—at work, living, acting, moving, orchestrating; as John Piper says, closer than Paul’s own breathing and full of mercy and might.
This verse is one of the most misapplied and misunderstood in all the Bible. It has nothing to do with winning the Super Bowl or passing your SATs. Indeed, the Greek text is so sweet it seems trivial to apply it to footballs and test answers: Literally, it’s “All things I am strong for because of the One who gives me strength.” The “all things” cannot be extended ad infinitum. Contextually, it refers to anything and everything within the will of God and in the legitimate application of the Word of God. If God calls you to starve, He will give you the grace to obey Him by trusting Him—not murmuring against Him—and bring Him glory thereby. If you are meant to plant a church, or counsel and disciple, or even create a lovely home to be used as a consecrated base for kingdom work—if these things are the will of God for you, then God will use His personal, resurrection power to help you do them.
The power is not available to the fleshly or disobedient believer. Only as we trust the Lord and obey His revealed will cam we be assured of His enablement. But for the Spirit-filled Christian, God’s own power is at your disposal to move mountains for Him.
Contentment is your birthright as a Christian. The One who calls you has made many promises to win your heart and steady your soul. Resolve to bring Him much honor and glory by trusting His goodness, sovereignty, and divine power to meet your every need.