Someone once sent an email with a picture of his face on it asking the recipients if they thought that he looked content. What is it to be content? Is it a surreal look that one has alongside the outward expressions of happiness? Is it when one’s primary relationships are going well? Is it when one is financially secure or independent of others? We often rely on other people and sets of circumstances to be just right in order to be “content”. This raises questions about the impulses of ambition and greed and whether they are healthy or unhealthy and able to achieve contentment. With all this and more floating in our minds we come to the most remarkable statement by Paul in Philippians 4:11, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” Is Paul for real? Is it ever possible to have “learned” contentment?

Every circumstance is an opportunity to learn contentment

Paul was in the uncomfortable and frustrating situation of imprisonment. And having received a gift from the Philippians over which he rejoices he also tells them how he did not need it. This was not Paul being rude or discontent with an insufficient gift but using his circumstances as a gospel and fellowship teaching opportunity. Paul was pleased that they had a practical way to show their concern for him but he was most pleased that they were “having fellowship” in his sufferings (4:14 & 1:7&29). Paul was called to suffer for the name of Jesus and anyone that shared in his ministry enjoyed the same privilege as he did in suffering for the sake of Christ. This is the source of Paul’s joy rather than in a gift per se. Paul knew and experienced that circumstances often dictate our mood and behaviour and reveal what is on our hearts as sin is exposed. Listen to C.J. Mahaney’s advice about counselling a husband who is struggling to lead his wife and thinks that his anger reactions are caused by his wife’s failure to submit:

“He must see that his sin is not created by his wife. She never, for example, “makes him angry.” She cannot for she has no ability to place anger within his heart. Anger already dwells in his heart! So does pride, lust, selfishness, fear and much more! When he is with his wife she does not cause him to sin but – he is sin revealed. God uses his wife to make him actively aware of his own sinfulness. This is an act of divine mercy.”

We can see that contentment is something to be learned in all circumstances. While we often think that wealth may solve all our struggles of discontentment where it’s purpose may be to expose greed so that we can repent of idolatry. Someone once said, “To be content with little is hard, but to be content with much is impossible.” This is not the Stoic idea of contentment whereby man should be sufficient unto himself for all things and by the power of his own will resist the force of circumstances. No! Paul’s secret of contentment is an open secret that he easily gives away in 4:13 and it is a God-sufficiency expressed in the fellowship of believers (4:14).

Contentment allows disciples to advance the gospel to the glory of God

Philippians is about embracing and modelling the way of the cross (2:4-11 & 3:17-4:1) and Paul wanted the Philippians to be enabled to live for Christ like he was. He was confident that this would be achieved and his confidence was in God (1:6; 4:13 & 19).

Paul saw their gift in commercial terms. It is fruit, like that of a harvest or a crop that increases to their credit. It is almost like a loan given out that earns interest. Basically Paul is saying that their gift is not only seen as credit of equal value to what was given kept in eternity but that their investment increases in eternity. An example of this is that their gift sent with Epaphroditus occasioned a letter that continues to produce fruit every time it is read and applied. That was an investment beyond what the Philippians could have ever imagined at the time. If a cost-benefit analysis was done on whether Paul was a worthwhile investment it is almost certain that the gift would not have been sent. Struggles with discontentment are unlikely to produce such faith investments. No wander Paul had to tell them in 1:12 that his circumstances were really advancing the gospel.

Their gift was also a fragrant offering and sacrifice acceptable to God. The Old Testament reminds us that God sees the heart and accepts or rejects sacrifices on that basis. Although sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins was made once for all by Jesus on the cross there are still sacrifices to be made for the completion of the gospel mission. John Piper says that Christ’s cross was for propitiation whereas our cross is for propagation. Paul says that God is pleased with such an aroma! A greedy, self-serving and discontent generation will not be free to offer such sacrifices.

God is no man’s debtor to His own glory

Paul may as well have put an “equal” sign between vs13 and vs19 saying, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”  Just as God has more grace to give so He has every resource in glory to finish the work that He started in every believer in all circumstances. This is not Paul saying, “Give so that you will receive more” and thereby stimulating greed off the back of discontentment. With Paul there is no ambiguity on the motivation for giving gospel gifts. It is a reminder that God’s provision for our needs is circumstance specific rather than circumstance dependant so that He is glorified as He supplies in excess to complete His work in us and through us in all circumstances.

God is our source of contentment

Proverbs 27:20 says, “Sheol and Abaddon are never satisfied, and never satisfied are the eyes of man”. In other words death will continue to consume and so it is in many situations with our unsatisfied thirst and hunger for what we don’t have. Augustine said, “For you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Only God will allow us to turn every range of circumstances into gospel opportunities. Only God can generate the level of contentment in one’s life that results in being generous out of one’s poverty and not merely out of one’s riches. To learn the secret of contentment is part of discipleship and critical to fellowship. It frees us to invest in eternity and to offer sacrifices that are pleasing to God knowing that all things come from God and are to be directed towards His glory.