By Rosie Moore.
How often have you given yourself a pep talk ending with Paul’s words, “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength?” I know I have, especially when I’m running on a steep incline, with a rasping sound in my throat and my legs wobbling like jelly!
Surprisingly, Paul pens these words of victory as an old, battle-worn apostle languishing in a Roman prison cell. He is talking about a lasting kind of contentment that doesn’t disappear in the face of deprivation, loss, suffering, persecution and insecurity. Paul is not saying that he can do anything that he sets his mind to. He is saying that by Christ’s strength, he can be peaceful in adversity and humble in prosperity. Surely this is one of the greatest challenges of the Christian life!
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 (Phil 4:11-13 ESV).
I have learned the secret of contentment.
What I love about Scripture is its real life biographies. Paul, like all of us, wasn’t born contented. He had to learn to be content.
Many years ago, out of sheer desperation, I bought a cute sounding book called The Contented Little Baby. Written by a know-it-all expert on childrearing, its pages were stuffed with a host of feeding, sleeping, bathing and playing routines that I was supposed to be teaching my four babies, but quite obviously wasn’t.
Far from being contented, my brood spent a high percentage of their days yelling their heads off and grabbing each other’s toys, and to this day I still can’t be sure what restored the peace and what triggered World War 3. Mysteriously, they are now very contented little adults, but that’s only by the grace of God, not my parenting skills!
By the end of reading that book, the only secret I learned was that I was incapable of raising a single contented baby. The author’s advice felt more like boot camp than baby care! I learned the secret of being a mother under pressure, through hands-on practice, not through a childrearing formula. However, in some basic assumptions, the book was absolutely correct:
We are not born content! What we need and what we want are often mismatched, so we learn contentment by not always getting what we want, demand, ask for, or ‘claim’ as our birthright. This training in contentment is sometimes painful and counter-intuitive, but the fruit is wonderful for everyone in the family, including the contented child.
Paul’s contentment was independent of his personality type and didn’t descend upon him like a dove on the Damascus road. He learned contentment by having a relationship with Christ through the pressures of life. This is good news for us, because it means that we too can learn the secret of true contentment if we stick close to Jesus in any and every situation.
Paul affirms confidently, “I can do all this through Christ who strengthens me.” It’s not as if God wants us to grope about in the winter of our discontent. He wants us to learn to be content by Christ’s strength. On our own, contentment will always remain elusive.
Can you think of any good reason why you and I should not also grasp the truth of contentment and live it out practically, in both abundance and adversity? (Phil 4:12)
The key to contentment.
Knowing Christ is the key to contentment, because it is Jesus who shed his blood to rescue us from the helpless condition of sin, which includes our habitual discontentment.
If we follow Christ, it is He who gives meaning to every step of our life journey. We can be content with what we have, because Christ will never leave us or forsake us (Heb 13:5-6). His grace is always sufficient in our weaknesses. That is why Paul’s heart cry in Philippians 3:10 comes first: “I want to know Christ!”
Paul learned to be content in abundance and adversity, finding lasting joy in knowing Christ and pouring out his energy to serve and obey him (Phil 3:12-13). That’s where our true contentment will come from, regardless of our circumstances.
It’s interesting that Paul uses two words for ‘learn’ in this text:
The first ‘learn’ implies learning by practice, as opposed to intellectual knowledge. It’s the same word used in Hebrews to describe Christ’s experiential learning: “Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered” (Heb 5:8).
We too can learn to withstand Satan and trials, but only if we trust and obey our heavenly Father moment-by-moment, like Jesus did. Contentment requires deliberate commitment, especially when we find ourselves in the furnace of suffering. Contentment is the fruit of trusting that our Father always works for our ‘good’, which is to make us more like Christ (Rom 8:28-29), not necessarily to give us whatever we want.
The second ‘learn’ is a more unusual verb which refers to an initiation into a mystery society in first century Greco-Roman culture. There is something mysteriously contradictory about learning to be content when trouble opposes our happiness. Lasting contentment is only possible when we have a personal relationship with the Lord Jesus and realize what He suffered on our behalf, when our minds are re-calibrated by gospel truths instead of our circumstances.
And so, we may know every verse and formula about contentment in our heads, but it’s only when we practice our knowledge of Christ and prioritize his kingdom that we learn the secret of contentment.
Well fed or hungry, in plenty or in want.
Paul’s expansive claim of contentment is extraordinary, given his life story.
Some people like to think of contentment as a Buddha, sitting smug and stoical, detached from life, his chubby face empty of ambition and drive. Or perhaps ‘contentment’ is the happy stare of a retiree or millionaire, absorbing an endless stream of little pleasures and treasures from the comfort of their deckchair!
But these images are far removed from Paul’s contented life. He was the proverbial “Man in the Arena” of Theodore Roosevelt’s poem.
Man in the Arena.
Paul’s contentment wasn’t theoretical because he didn’t sit on the sidelines of the Christian life. He knew that even God’s faithful children are not exempt from the common distresses of life and he learned to lean on the Lord Jesus in any and every situation:
Financially, Paul had been well off and needy in his life (Phil 4:11-12), experiencing real hunger, thirst, cold and nakedness (2 Tim 4:13; 21; 2 Cor 11:27), as well as abundant wealth.
Yet he encouraged other believers with full assurance, “My God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:19).
Physically, Paul bore on his body the marks of Christ (Gal 6:17). Five times the Apostle was beaten with whips and three times with rods. He was shipwrecked, mobbed and stoned so badly that he was left for dead (Acts 14:19; 2 Cor 11:23-29). Severe physical illness often thwarted his ministry plans and he described his body as a fragile clay jar, wasting away (Gal 4:13-14; 2 Cor 4:7-8.). One can hardly imagine Paul’s physical state by the time he wrote this letter in 61AD.
But through all of this, Paul spurred on the Macedonian believers, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near” (Phil 4:4-5).
Emotionally, Paul was haunted by regrets of a past as a murderer and persecutor of Christians (1 Tim 1:12-17). Numerous times he was neglected, deserted and undermined by fellow believers (Phil 4:15; Acts 15:38; 2 Tim 1:15; 4:10).
Yet, in his distress, Paul trained himself to press on towards the goal of Christ: “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead.” Rather than fixating on his anxieties, Paul learned to dwell on his righteousness in Christ (Phil 3:9) and to redirect his thoughts to God’s goodness: “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil 3:13-14; 4:5).
Spiritually, Paul was stripped of the benefits of being a respected Pharisee, expelled from his place of worship and treated as an outcast by his own people, who plotted to take his life (Acts 13:45, 50; Acts 17:5-7, Acts 18:6, Acts 20:3).
But through all this rejection and humiliation, Paul didn’t avoid preaching the gospel to his fellow Jews. He continued to pray with a thankful heart, allowing the peace of God which transcends understanding, to guard his heart and mind in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:7). Although he lost much for the sake of Christ, he remained grateful and gracious to others (Phil 4:10-18).
None of these hardships robbed Paul of his contentment, as he rested in Christ as his refuge and provider. Even when he was severely flogged and thrown in prison, he spent the night “praying and singing hymns to God” (Acts 16:25).
I’m sure this wasn’t the Apostle’s instinctive response to pain and exhaustion, but he had developed a habit of praying with thanksgiving and rejoicing when he felt like complaining (Phil 4:4, 6). Over years, Paul had learned the secret of contentment in any and every situation.
The paradox of contentment.
True contentment is learned in the arena of life, not in Bible college or in the pages of a book. Paul’s secret was that he found meaning in his adversity and considered it a privilege to share in the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings (Phil 3:8-10). Paul’s response is a mysterious paradox if ever there was one!
In his own words, Paul describes the incongruous joy of knowing Christ in and through his suffering: “dying, and yet we live on; beaten, and yet not killed; sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; poor, yet making many rich; having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Corinthians 6:9-10).
Likewise, in the life of every Christian, the secret to lasting contentment lies in our deep union with the Lord Jesus who ultimately works all things for our good and will turn every tragedy into triumph, every grief into growth and every offense into an opportunity for the gospel. True contentment is learned by trusting and obeying Christ in the arena of life.
And so, we can say confidently, with Paul: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Father, shift our perspective to see everything as a loss compared to the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus as our Lord. Help us to trust you rather than avoiding hard things which we know you want us to do. Show us if we are hoarding our resources of time, money and love. Keep our lives free from the love of money and help us to be content with whatever you have given us, because you have said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5-6) Amen.
Listen prayerfully to Horatio Spafford’s hymn, “When peace like a river…”. It directs our hearts to the gospel and how God teaches us contentment in any and every circumstance. Spafford’s words are the authentic cries of his own heart, since he’d recently lost his entire fortune in a fire and his four daughters in a storm at sea. Only his wife survived.