Our passage this morning is about something everyone in the world is seeking, and I think many times, Christians, unfortunately, sell it woefully short. If you grew up in the church, you have probably known Philippians 4:13 since you were a little kid. I still have a little jingle of this verse stuck in my head from decades ago. This is a foundational verse for many believers, and for good reason. But, too often, we rob it of its power and deeper meaning by making it about something it was not written about, namely being able to accomplish physical feats.
For example, there was a Major League pitcher named Phil Hughes. He pitched most of his career for the New York Yankees, so there is problem number one. He had stitched on the outside of his glove, “Phil 4:13.” Now, without knowing the man, I don’t know if he understood this verse in context, but on the surface, and from my own experience and thinking throughout much of life, I can assume what the purpose of having this verse there was. It was to remember that through Christ, I can accomplish great things; I can do anything. I can throw more strikes, and win more baseball games through Christ’s strength. I can do anything through Christ who gives me strength. And while that has a sliver of truth in it, I don’t think this is what Philippians 4:13 is meant to teach us.
Paul wrote this verse in the context of facing everyday life, with all of its ups and downs, all of its hardships, all of its uncertainties and yet having what everyone craves and chases after, which is to be content. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say everyone in the world wants contentment, to be truly satisfied in life. And we pursue it at all costs hoping it’s just around the next turn, it will come with the next big purchase, the next job, the next relationship, the next pay-day, the next sexual encounter, the next high, the next life experience, the next house, the next child, the next vacation, and on and on we go. We never find it, so we keep looking. All the while we have the secret to contentment right here in this passage, but we gloss over it because we have misapplied this verse and robbed it of its meaning and power.
What Paul is telling us here, is that:
Contentment can be found and enjoyed in any and every circumstance we face in life, we just have to know where to look and pursue it always.
So, let’s take a fresh look at Philippians 4:13 in its context, and try to understand what contentment is, what it means to learn it, and what the secret is all about.
- What is Contentment?
Paul, writing to his friends in Philippi who have sent him help in the form of a monetary gift, wants to thank them for all that they have provided for him. But he wants them to know that while he is thankful for their provision, he doesn’t need it, that is not what he is after from them and he is not dependent on financial assistance or stocking up on supplies. They didn’t have to send the gift because he has learned to be content in whatever situation he finds himself. What does that mean, what does it mean to be content? What is contentment?
Let’s look at a couple of things before we get a full definition of the word. If you can remember when we were last in Philippians, back in March, we looked at verses 6-9 and Paul’s teaching on anxiety. Now, he moves into the subject of contentment, and this isn’t a disjointed, unrelated section because I think we are meant to see, first, that contentment is the opposite of anxiety.
Anxiety is fretting and worrying about what is going to happen. It leads to striving to fill in all the what-ifs in life. Anxiety removes God from the picture and leaves it all up to us to make sure everything is done right and that we are taken care of. Anxiety leaves us with a bottomless heart. There is no contentment in an anxious, fearful, striving heart. Or to be put it another way: anxiety, fear, worry are all signs and symptoms of a discontented heart. Contentment is the opposite of anxiety.
Notice, too, that true contentment transcends circumstances. Paul says he has learned to be content in whatever situation he faces. And in verse 12 he lists all that he has been through and still finds contentment. He has been brought low, meaning to live in humble circumstances. And he is not just talking about physically humble circumstances but emotionally, spiritually, and socially. Paul has also been in abundance; he has had more than enough. He has had plenty to eat, and he has also been hungry and in need, lacking what is essential to life; he has been destitute and impoverished.
When it comes to the lows of life, this is really just a gloss over from Paul of some unbelievable things he has been through. Elsewhere he listed some of his experiences. He has been homeless, shipwrecked, beaten, imprisoned, left out in the cold, on the brink of death from starvation and thirst, stoned and left for dead. He has been brought low in every sense of the word.
And yet his contentment runs through it all.
Paul knows how to be content in having more than he wants and nothing that he needs. His contentment transcends all circumstances. Let’s be honest, it seems easier to feel happy and satisfied and say we are content when everything is going our way, right? But what happens when everything falls apart? When the money runs out, when the relationship ends, when we lose our job or become bored with it, when we are in poor health? Anxiety, fear, doubt, worry, anger, all of that comes rushing back in. Because what we had when things were going well in our eyes was not true contentment, it was a fool’s gold, fake, just a shadow of the real thing.
True, real and lasting contentment runs deeper than our circumstances, it is solidly rooted within us. It is more than just words, or outward appearances but deeply entrenched within our hearts; immovable in the storms of life, like a giant oak tree, firmly planted in rich soil.
So, contentment is the opposite of anxiety. It transcends all circumstances in life and is deeply rooted within us. With all of that said, we are ready for a definition of contentment. And here is my request: I would love for everyone to write this down, whether on your handout or in the margin of your Bible, or on the connection card for you to take with you. Write this definition down and come back to it, think about it, pray over it, meditate on it and really consider it in the future. Hearing it for this one and only time is going to do us no good, let’s be honest. We need help in remembering and we need to keep coming back to things in order to truly get them down deep in our hearts.
I am getting this definition from an English Pastor by the name of Jeremiah Burroughs, who preached in London in the 1600’s. This is a 400-year-old definition from his reflections on this passage in Philippians and is well worth our attention as it has stood the test of time, I believe.
“Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.”
And you can see in that definition things we have been talking about already, and we are going to pull some more out of it as we move ahead in our passage. True contentment is an inward frame of spirit, it is deep within us. It is quiet and gracious, meaning happy and joyful, the opposite of anxiety, worry, fretting and fear, and it transcends every condition.
- Contentment is Learned
Ok, good, we have a definition, but how do we get there? How do we find this contentment? Well, we can see from verse 11 and again in 12, that contentment is learned. Paul says he has had to learn to be content. This is not something natural to him or to us, this is something outside of us that we have to take in. And the word that Paul uses to describe learning means to come to know something through personal experience. This is experiential knowledge, not head knowledge, as in, you don’t simply read about contentment, or hear me give you a definition on it and you know it and have it nailed down. You have learned it in one sense, but you have not learned it experientially simply by hearing it.
And this is a hard truth to hear, at least it is for me. I want to just learn something by reading about it. Give me the answer so that when I face a difficult circumstance, I will be all set. And to a certain degree we can be better equipped to go through different things by learning about them, but what Paul is saying here is that truly learning this, truly knowing contentment, is a process. And it can be, and most likely will be, a slow process. It takes time, as we face, experience and walk through the vast spectrum of life’s circumstances. This is not about a quick fix, there are no shortcuts. This is not a sprint but an ultra-marathon. This is about growth throughout our lives as we learn and grow in contentment through what comes today, and what comes tomorrow, and the day after that and on and on and on.
Life is ever changing, each day brings its own troubles, its own worries, its own challenges and going through them gives us more and more opportunities to deeply entrench true contentment in our hearts.
Perhaps right now your contentment is surface level. Or maybe you don’t have it at all and it is based on only good experiences. Perhaps you feel pretty good where you are at. Wherever we fall, what we see here is that as we truly seek to learn contentment, as Paul did, it will grow deeper and deeper, the roots will continue to go down and become firmer, in our hearts as we walk through all that comes today and each day after that.
- The Secret of Contentment
So, you may be saying, now I know what contentment is, and that I have to learn it. The next question is, how do I do that? Because it seems like a daunting, overwhelming, discouraging, impossible task. Having to learn it over time by going through all the ups and downs of life doesn’t sound pleasant. It’s true, it is intimidating, impossible even, and that is why Paul says it is a secret in verse 12. How is finding contentment a secret?
True contentment is a secret because the world can’t have this, it can’t understand it because true contentment is only through Christ. To be content in every circumstance is only possible, as verse 13 says, through Christ, through him who strengthens us. The world, those who don’t know Christ as their Savior, as their intercessor, mediator, redeemer, and friend, can’t find this contentment. Without the strength, power and help of Jesus Christ, no one can have real contentment. No one can have a frame of spirit that is satisfied and peaceful in all of life’s conditions. Apart from Christ we try to find contentment in money, in food, in relationships, in the things of this world. And while those things can bring a measure of enjoyment and pleasure, since they are things God created for that purpose, they will never be able to bring deeply rooted contentment that transcends circumstances, that can weather the storms of life. That is only found in Christ and his strength. Everything else will be blown away, leaving us empty, endlessly searching for the next thing to satisfy us.
I love how John Newton put it when he wrote, “Natural fortitude, and cold reasonings, more conformable to the philosophies of the heathens, than to the spirit of the gospel, may stifle complaints; but to rejoice in tribulation, and in every thing give thanks, are privileges peculiar to those who can joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom they have obtained reconciliation.”
The world can have a surface-level, fake contentment, the fool’s gold, with their natural fortitude, stifling complaints, and putting on a stiff upper lip. But to rejoice in tribulation and in everything give thanks? That is only for those who know they have been saved by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The one who has reconciled us to the creator and sustainer of the universe. The one who has shown the love of the heart of God for us by giving up everything to bring us back to him. Contentment is a secret only found in Christ.
It is not within us; it is not an attitude we can muster. We can’t convince ourselves to be content, it is not within our strength. It is not found in our circumstances, whether easy or hard, good or bad. Contentment is fully outside of ourselves, and only through him who strengthens us.
Let’s drill down a little more on that. How does he strengthen us? What does this mean exactly that he strengthens us to be content in all things?
Christ gives us the strength to face every situation by helping us to believe more deeply, and see more clearly the goodness of God in all circumstances. Christ strengthens and upholds us through the ups and downs of life so that we can know experientially, truly, and deeply, that in all things, whether I have more than I want or nothing that I need, that God is right there with me and he is working all things together for good, right from his gracious and loving heart. Whatever he gives me, whether abundance or lowliness, is from him and his goodness.
I can’t see that on my own, I can’t believe that, I can’t rest in that truth without him helping me because that is hard to believe especially in the valleys of life. I can’t be satisfied in his goodness if left to my own thoughts and emotions because I see the storms of life and I get worried. I feel the pain of my broken body and I become dissatisfied. I see the abundance and blessings and I get distracted and prideful. I need him to strengthen me to be content in his hands, not my circumstances, whatever they may be.
As one author writes, “As God allows us to go through hard things, [and I would say all things, hard or not] we have an opportunity to trust him more deeply and know him more intimately. He desires to show us more of who he is and what he is capable of doing through our struggle.”
God wants to show us his heart. He wants to reveal to us who he is, he wants us to taste his goodness and he wants to do that through every circumstance of life. Whether abundance or need, plenty or hunger, health or pain, happiness or tears. God wants us to know him more deeply, more intimately through it all, and he has given us his Son to strengthen us, to empower us, to open our eyes to see him, to trust him, to know him, and to rest in him. There, and only there, is where we find true contentment.
That is where we find that “sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.” Not in the circumstances of life, but beyond them, when we look to the one who is upholding us through them all, who is strengthening us through each day. It is in him that we find rest and true contentment.
Another question that can come up in our hearts and minds: How do we know this is true? How do we know Christ will strengthen us to go through all the ups and downs in life, especially the down parts, those seem the hardest and scariest, right? How do we know? Some assurance would be nice!
We can be sure that Christ will strengthen us, help us, be right there with us, because he went through all of the ups and downs in life just like we do. He gave up his throne in heaven, came down to us, took on flesh, lived on this earth for around 33 years and experienced the highest highs, the lowest lows, and everything in between. Christ went through everything we do and more, and he did so in order to be able to walk right alongside us. He did so in order to sympathize with our weaknesses, our hurts, our fears, our pain and to take our burdens on himself. He suffered more than we could imagine in his life and death in order to bring us back to God, to bring us into a relationship and fellowship with him, so that he could show us the heart of the triune God in all of its fullness, all of its goodness and love in all things.
So, how do I know this is true? How can you know this is true, that he will be there for you in the darkest of nights to uphold you and strengthen you to be content in him? Look to the cross. If he was willing to face that, we can be sure that he is willing to help us, willing to strengthen us, willing to be there with us in everything we face. The cross is his very heart for us on display. Contentment in and through him is what he wants for us and he died to give it to us. He simply asks that we come to him as empty vessels willing to be filled with him, not ourselves, not our strength, not our circumstances, just faith in him. And he wants us to do that over and over, in any and every situation, to be re-strengthened, again and again.
If we try to go through life without him, or with just a little bit of him because we can handle the rest, we rob ourselves of the life he has for us. We will never be truly satisfied, we will never find lasting peace and rest, we will only be chasing shadows, hoping that the next thing brings contentment. But I can promise you it won’t. You are pouring water into a bucket full of holes. Look to him, rest in him, be content in him, the only one who can fill us up to overflowing.
I want to close on a personal note, a snapshot into my journey in experiencing and knowing this contentment. Again, this is a process, I freely admit I have a long way to go in this, it is lifelong growth to get roots of contentment deeper and deeper into our hearts in all circumstances, so this is just a small personal picture of those roots inching downwards.
As you know, I had back surgery in January to repair a herniated disc. I was having some back and leg pain so I needed to get it fixed. I had the same surgery in 2018 on another disc and since I have degenerating disc disease it wasn’t a huge surprise another disc came out this past fall. So, as you are probably well aware, that surgery in January failed. The same disc came out again, this time it was worse. The pain was to the point that standing for more than a minute or two was pretty unbearable. I basically spent my evenings at home laying on the couch trying to make it through the waves of pain that didn’t seem to stop coming. And if you have ever been in a similar situation you know that it can be scary. A lot of questions pop up. Why is this happening? Will I just need surgery after surgery? Will I hurt it severe enough that I could have permanent damage and be in this kind of pain forever? Is this my life from now on?
And I wrestled with God over these questions. But the amazing thing is that he strengthened and enabled me to get to a place where I could honestly say, “God I am willing for this to be the rest of my life if I can know you more through it. I trust you. If this is what you have for me every day from here on out, I am content if you would just give me more of you through it all.” Man, that is hard to say! That is hard to get there, and it will take a fight to stay there. It took a literal work of God in my heart to truly believe those words. And that’s the point. It is not my strength, but through him who strengthens me.
That is the secret of true contentment. That is how we can face every situation in life, whether we have everything we want, or nothing we need. We can rest, we can be truly content in the good and loving hands of Christ our Savior and friend.