Text: Philippians 4:10-13
I want you to open your Bibles again tonight to the letter to the Philippians, chapter 4, and I want to read verses 10 through 13:
But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. (He is referring to the gift that they sent to Paul by Epaphroditus.) Not that I speak from want; for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.
Now, Americans especially, are intoxicated by the word secret. Our ears really perk up when somebody says, I have a secret I want to share with you. Of course, you know what a secret is? It is something you tell everybody, one person at a time. The advertising world and the media world capitalize on this. All the tabloids at the grocery store checkout are advertising or proclaiming some secret–the secret diet of the stars or a secret pill that will cure cancer. Of course, I never would buy one of those things, you understand. But I do read pretty quickly while I’m in the checkout line. And I’ve heard sermons on the secret of power, the secret of prayer, and the secret of building a great church. It has been overused and abused so I never use the word secret in the titles of my sermons—except tonight, because Paul used it. He said, I have learned the secret, to be content whatever my circumstances.
I want to speak to you tonight on this subject, The Secret of Contentment. Contentment is a very interesting word. It means to be satisfied, to be at peace with your self. I think one of the characteristic marks of our day is the discontent of people. Of course, discontent goes along with covetousness. The truth of the matter is that everybody here tonight is either covetous or content. When I use the word covetous, and the Bible uses the word, it doesn’t simply apply to money. That is how we apply it most of the time. Being covetous means simply that you are not satisfied with what you have, and you are trying your best to get more. Most people I know and come in contact with are discontented with their lot in life, —maybe in their home or in their job. Discontent in a home can cause strife and anger and hostility, and bring about separation and divorce. Discontent in a person’s life can create such strife within, and such tension and disharmony within, that it can almost give you ulcers.
Discontent is a curse upon man. Adam lost paradise because he was discontented. God had given him everything. He and Eve had everything there was to have. Well, there was one tree that they couldn’t eat of, but they didn’t need to. But they weren’t content with what God had given them. So because of discontent, Adam and Eve lost paradise and plunged the human race into sin. Angels who sinned fell from their first estate because they were discontented—not satisfied. Lucifer fell because he was discontented.
I have to say, honestly, that about half the pastors in the churches where I go are discontented and looking for something else. You can tell it in the way they talk, and in the way they comport themselves, and in the conversations we share. I’m not joking when I say that I have arrived on the scene and the first thing the pastor has done is given me a resume, asking me to pass it on. Now, that is a discontented man; therefore, he is not doing his best for the Lord, or for the church.
So the great pearl is contentment. I believe every person, whether they call it that or not, long and yearn for contentment. Well, Paul is a man who found it. He said, I have learned to be content whatever my circumstances. I have three simple things I want to share with you tonight.
1) There really is a secret of contentment.
There really is a secret of contentment, and Paul found it. He said, I have learned to be content whatever my circumstances. That word content is a very picturesque word. It literally means to be self sufficient, or self contained, needing no outside assistance. I want you to notice how he states it. In verse 10, he is saying, I rejoice in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. I am rejoicing in the Lord for the gift that Epaphroditus brought from you. Then he immediately says, not that I speak from want. In other words, he doesn’t want any misunderstanding. He is rejoicing that these Philippians have given him a gift, but he wants them to know that the joy comes from his contentment, not from the gift. He doesn’t want them to misunderstand when he says he rejoices at their gift and think he was worried and going to the mailbox three times a day to see if the check was in the mail. He said, not that I speak in respect of want. Why? For I have learned whatever my circumstances to be self contained, self sufficient, needing no outside assistance.
In the ancient world, that word was used for cities that were self contained; in other words, they had their own water and food supplies. In the ancient days, when an army went to war against a city, they would surround that city to cut off every supply route. They would wait and starve them out. If that city was a contented city, that had its own food and water supply, they couldn’t be starved out. They were independent of outside circumstances. That is what Paul means. He says, I have learned that I am self contained, that I have within me everything that I need to make life livable, and I am not dependent upon outside circumstances. Whatever the circumstances, whatever the situation, it doesn’t affect me one way or the other. I maintain my equilibrium through any kind of circumstance. Now, wouldn’t that be a good thing for all of us to be able to say? Are we as quick to praise the Lord in bad times as we are in good times?
One night I was sitting on the front pew waiting to preach. There were two women talking behind me, and I couldn’t help but hear what they were saying. Evidently, one of the mother’s boys had been in a terrible car wreck, and another boy in that car had been killed. This one woman said to the mother, oh, I’m so glad your boy is all right. She said, yes, God is so good. Well, he is, but I couldn’t help wondering what that other mother was saying at the same time. Do you think the mother of that dead boy was saying, God is so good. I couldn’t help wondering if that mother’s son had been the one killed, if she would have been saying, God is so good. You see, there is something about maintaining your equilibrium no matter what the circumstance—that you are the same in bad times and in good times.
This is what Paul is saying, the outward circumstances have no effect upon me. The world can say to me, Paul, if you don’t bow down and worship us and go our way, we are going to take away all your possessions. Paul said, oh, no, you can’t do that because I am self contained. I have within me everything I need to make my life worth living. So, he can say no to the world, and no to those temptations. Why? Because everything I need is within me. I am self contained. What a tremendous thing to be that way, to not be dependent upon favorable circumstances, and to be independent of unfavorable circumstances–maintaining that equilibrium. Paul had learned that secret.
Now, I say this carefully, and I’ve thought a lot about it. If your joy depends upon how your kids are doing, you’ve not learned to be content It is hard for you to have joy when your teenage son has run off, or when there is rebellion. You let that circumstance rule your life, dominate your every thought. You can’t be happy, and you can’t experience joy unless everything is perfect in your life. If your joy depends upon the conditions of your job, then you have not learned to be content. As a pastor, if my joy depends upon what my church is doing, I have not yet learned to be content. Contentment is discovering the sufficiency within yourself so that you have all that you need within yourself.
2) Not only is there a secret of contentment, but it is a secret that must be learned.
I was afraid you were going to say that. Notice, Paul didn’t say, I have heard the secret, or somebody told me the secret. He said, I have learned the secret. Now, he uses two words here, one in verse 11, and one in verse 12, and they are different words. In verse 11, he says, I have learned to be content, and the word learn there is the ordinary word for learn. But when he comes to verse 12, he says, I have learned the secret, and he uses a different word, an unusual word that was used by the mystery religions of that day. It meant to be initiated into some great mystery. It reminds me of the Masons. They have secrets. If you are a Mason, you cannot divulge the secrets of Masonry to anybody else. But when you join the Masons, there are certain degrees. As you learn and move up the ladder, you are initiated into certain secrets. That’s the word Paul is using. It always implied a long, difficult process. You don’t get contentment by saying, Lord, give me contentment, and then God zaps you with it. I wish it were that way, but that’s not it. It is a secret that must be learned, and it is a slow and difficult process. You don’t learn it overnight, and you can’t cram for the final exam.
Now, what school did Paul attend? Let’s look at the curriculum of this school. Notice in verse 12, he says, I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. Notice the opposites, the extremes. Paul says there had been times when he had been abased, had nothing; and there had been times when he had everything, when he had lived in abundance. There had been times when he had been hungry, and times when he had been so stuffed he thought he would never eat another bite of food. He said he had gone to the extremes.
He learned that having nothing didn’t diminish him, and having everything did not enhance him. You could take away everything from Paul, but you didn’t take away from him. You could give everything to Paul, but you didn’t add a single thing to him. Do you understand what I’m saying? I don’t think that you and I can learn to be content until we have gone through the extremes of life. All of us have had those good times. And all of us have had those “hit bottom” times, the dry times, the hard times. We’ve gone to the extremes in our lives. We’ve known joy, and we’ve know heartache. We’ve laughed, and we have cried. It is in the extremities of life, you see, that God is teaching us.
You and I need to understand that for the believer nothing is incidental and nothing is accidental. God has a purpose for everything that he is doing in your life. Right now you may be going through a hard time. God is trying to teach you something. You may be going through a prosperous time, a boom period in your life. God is trying to teach you something. In other words, he is trying to say to us that if we are self contained, if we are content, that having everything doesn’t add anything to us, and losing everything doesn’t take anything away from us.
Now, of course, this is exactly opposite of how the world believes. The world believes the more you have, the more you are. They believe that having is being, that what you have constitutes who you are. It is hard to get away from this. You judge a person by the car that he drives, the house he lives in, which side of the tracks he lives on.
When I was a teenager, I worked in a men’s clothing store. I was told by those who had been there for 40 years, that the last thing a man takes care of in his dress is his shoes. He may go out and buy an expensive suit, a silk shirt, a silk tie, and wear old scuffed brown shoes. So I fell into the habit of looking at the shoes of everybody I met. Half the time I didn’t get their name because I was busy looking at their shoes. I found myself judging a man by his shoes. If he was wearing brown shoes with a black suit, or a blue suit, and they were scuffed up or anything–and especially if he was wearing white socks–I knew that man really didn’t know how to dress.
You know, we judge people by simple things, don’t we? We judge them by what they have and what they do not have. When you go to apply for a job, you don’t go in blue jean cut-offs and a tank top, do you? When you go to apply for a job, you try to look as prosperous as you can because they are going to judge you by how well dressed you are. The problem is that the church has fallen into that, and we think the same thing. I go to churches, and the pastor will brag about how many millionaires he has in his church. He will say we’ve got five millionaires in our church. I was in one church where the pastor said, we have twelve doctors in our church. I don’t know how many bricklayers he had. He didn’t seem to mention it. I don’t know how many bag ladies he had in his church. That would not enhance his church in any way. So we have adopted the way of the world. It is a secret that must be learned, and you learn it through the extremities of life. You see the world’s way to contentment is increasing your possessions; God’s way of contentment is decreasing your desires.
3) The secret of contentment is Christ.
I love Paul because he always comes back to Jesus, doesn’t he? He was a Christ-focused man. Notice in verse 13 that he says, I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. I think at times we have perhaps misunderstood that and taken it out of context. We’ve used that sometimes to mean I can do anything. I can do any job. I can move mountains. I can cause miracles to come to pass. I can do all things through Christ strengthens me.
If you take it out of its context, then you are going to be sorely disappointed. What Paul is talking about is the extremities of life. He says, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. The word do is a very interesting word. It means to be in full health, or to be vigorous. I like the Phillips translation best of all here: I am ready for anything through Christ who pours his strength in me. Paul says, bring it on. I’m ready for anything that the world throws at me. I am ready for anything that the devil throws at me. Why? Christ is constantly infusing me with his power, his strength. So through Christ I am ready for anything. Christ is the secret. You say, oh, I’m disappointed. I was hoping there would be some formula you were going to give us, some twelve step program you were going to give us. But, you see, it’s not a formula. We have to keep coming back to this again and again in the Christian life. It’s not a formula; it is a person. That person is Jesus Christ. Paul says, the Christ who dwells within me is continuously and constantly (and that is the idea of the word) pouring strength into me like a dynamo—so I am ready for anything.
I thank you for your gift, but the truth of the matter is that I would have been all right without it. I appreciate it, but you see I have learned to be self contained, requiring no outside assistance. The secret of this is that Christ who lives in me, by His strength, makes me ready for anything.
Dr. George Duncan, a great British preacher who is now in heaven, told me a story. When he finished, I asked him if it was the truth or just a preacher story. He said it was the truth. He knew this man personally. He told of an old man who had one son. That son was a pilot and was killed in World War II. Eventually, this wealthy old man died. He had no heirs so his estate was to be auctioned off. A part of this wealthy man’s estate was a fabulous art collection. One of the auction houses in London undertook the task of auctioning off these paintings, many of them by masters. On the day of the auction, people had gathered there from all over the United Kingdom because they wanted a chance to buy into this great art collection. The auctioneer came up and put a portrait on an easel that was there. It was a portrait of somebody they didn’t know, painted by someone they didn’t know. Actually, it was a portrait of the old man’s son. The buyers thought it was valueless because nobody knows the artist who painted it, so it is of no worth. So no one would bid on it. But there happened to be in the audience one of the old man’s lifetime servants, and he had known that son from the time he was born until the time he died. He thought to himself that it would be nice to have the portrait. Nobody else is bidding so I can probably get it cheap. So he bid. Now, the auctioneer had said that the will stated that before any of the other pieces of art could be sold, this one had to be sold first. So it stood as a barrier because you couldn’t auction off the other great masterpieces until this simple portrait was sold. The old servant bid and got it. Everybody was relieved as they could now get on to the good stuff. Then the auctioneer got up and said that the auction was over. Everyone was stunned. The auctioneer said, the will further stipulates that whoever gets the picture of the son gets the whole lot. I asked Dr. Duncan, is that true? He said I know the man. And then he said, remember, son, whoever gets Jesus gets the whole lot. The secret of living a contented life is Christ as he is constantly infusing us with his strength.
© Ron Dunn, LifeStyle Ministries, 2006