The Secret of Christian Contentment, Part 1 (Philippians Sermon 21 of 24)
March 21, 2004 | Andrew Davis
The Plague of Discontentment
We were looking, this morning, at some magnificent versus in Philippians 4:10-13 and I have already decided there is no earthly way to get through this sermon and have you out at a reasonable hour and keep you content. So I'm thinking that I'm going to preach on this again, God willing, next week. I don't want to hurry through this, and I'll tell you why. I've come to the conclusion, just like it says in Isaiah 6, paraphrasing, in which the prophet says, "Woe to me, I am ruined." And then changing it slightly I would say, "For I am a man of a discontent heart, and I live among a people who are characterized by discontent hearts." And I want us all to see the Lord, the Almighty and be cured of this great ill. It's incredible how discontent we can be. Discontent while driving behind a truck that's going too slowly and there's another mirror truck in the next lane. Have you ever experienced that? And you just can't get by?
Discontent when the person at McDonald's is a trainee and takes an extra minute to find the button that corresponds to the meal you've chosen, so that you get out of there in six minutes, instead of five? Discontent when it comes time to pay the bills and you feel like you don't make enough money. Discontent when your boss doesn't recognize the stellar contributions you've made to the success of the company? Discontent within families, husbands discontent with their wives, wives discontent with their husbands, parents with their children and children with their parents. Discontent with the weather, maybe it's a little too hot, maybe it's a little too wet, a little too cold, a little too snowy, rainy, icy. Discontent.
And I'm thinking to myself that this is a great problem and therefore I run to this text and I embrace it because I want to know the secret that Paul learned. I want to know how to be content in any and every situation, well fed or hungry, living in plenty or in want, "I can do everything," he says, "through him who gives me strength." I want to know that. I want to know that secret, don't you? Wouldn't you rather have contentment than wealth? And if you wouldn't, I want to talk you out of it. I want you to set your heart on this rare jewel of Christian contentment; it's of great value.
Alexander Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo
One of my favorite stories from literature is The Count of Monte Cristo. Perhaps you've read that story by Alexandre Dumas. Two prisoners held for crimes against the French government are held at the Chateau d'If, of Rocky Island, and they get to become friends. What's ironic is that they... One of them was a rebel against Bonaparte and the other was suspected of being a Bonapartist and they're both in prison, because the times had changed and they were forgotten. And so Edmond Dantes, the younger man and Abbe Faria become good friends. And Abby Faria, an educated man taught Edmond Dantes everything that he knew about logic and history and languages and chemistry and other things. And the whole time he had a wooden cross around his neck with a leather thong around, and it held a secret. A secret, that the Abbe Faria was not really willing to tell him about until it became clear that he was not going to be able to escape, for he was old and sick and weak and it was impossible for him to make the perilous escape off the Chateau D'If.
And so as he was laying there, he took the cross from around his neck and slid the secret compartment and pulled out a treasure map, the secret to the treasure of the island of Monte Cristo. And as he showed him and explained the secret symbols on the map he said, "You're going to be a very wealthy man, Edmond Dantes, use the money well." So after the death of Abbe Faria, Edmond Dantas escaped from the Chateau D'If and made his way to the small island of Monte Cristo, off the coast of Italy, between Corsica and Elba; if you want to go there and try to find some treasure that's where it is. According to the story, he got it all, rare jewels, diamonds, coins, a thousand gold ingots each weighing two to three pounds, worth well over 13 million francs, and he was as the Abbe Faria had predicted instantly a wealthy man.
Now it all came from a secret coming from the cross. And I'll tell you what, as I look at it I think I would rather learn a different secret coming from the cross of Jesus Christ. My eyes really this morning aren't so much on the Apostle Paul, who resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I want to know how it is that Jesus went to the cross gladly and joyfully. I want to know that contentment of which Paul is a dim reflection, and we, almost no reflection at all. I would like to know the secret of Christ's contentment.
But I'm satisfied this morning to learn the secret of the Apostle Paul's contentment. Look at it again in verse 12, Philippians 4:12. "I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, living in plenty or in want." That's the secret he's talking about. Now, people all over the world can relate to a lust for treasure. That's why The Count of Monte Cristo kind of inflames our imagination; we think, "Wow, that would be something. Wouldn't it?" Riches beyond your wildest dream coming from a secret compartment in a wooden cross.
III. Paul’s Credentials: A Life of Extreme Suffering
But Paul, I believe as a Christian, I believe points to a far greater treasure in this text, the treasure of lasting, abiding contentment. Paul says that it's a secret to be learned; what I would call a part of advanced Christianity, not basic Christianity. Now in order to learn this, I think it would be well for us to ask what are Paul’s credentials. If you were going to send your son or daughter to a sports camp, let's say, a basketball camp, wouldn't it help to know that the coach that was going to be personally tutoring your child had won five National Championships and been to the Final 4 fourteen times? There's no coach like that, so don't wonder who I'm talking about.
Wouldn't it help to know if you are going to learn... Send your child to learn piano or violin that the mentor and tutor had won numerous prizes and had made many CDs and their work was known all over the world? Or if you were taking a course on creative writing you'd want to know the credentials and wouldn't it excite you to know that the writer had won three Pulitzer Prizes? And so we want to come to Paul and say, "What are your credentials in this matter of a lasting, abiding contentment? What are your credentials for teaching us on learning the secrets of being content in any and every situation?" Well, the Apostle Paul was rejected and even hated by his own countrymen. Once he came to faith in Christ, he began a life of great suffering, just as the Lord had said to Ananias who was going to lay hands on him and baptize him, he said, "I will show him how much he must suffer for my name."
And some of that suffering came right away at the hands of his own countrymen, culminating in this great moment in Acts 22 when the Jewish crowd listened to Paul until he mentioned his call to the Gentiles, and then they raised their voices and shouted, "Rid the earth of him, he's not fit to live." I mean, have you ever had a mob shout that about you? That's an extreme form of suffering. And then he lists his credentials in suffering, and that's exactly what he thinks of them as in 2 Corinthians 11, "My credentials in suffering." And he's showing that he has been more of an apostle of Christ than any of those pseudo-apostles that were coming with the successful life to teach the Corinthians. He said, "Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one." And then he begins to list his sufferings. Now, I matched up Paul's list of sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11 with his claim here in Philippians 4, and this is what I came up with, "I have worked much harder but been content the whole time. I've been in prison more frequently but always content. Been flogged more severely, but it never moved me from being content. I've been exposed to death again and again, but I had a lasting, abiding contentment the whole time.
"Five times, I received from the Jews the 40 lashes minus one… But none of those lashes moved me away from Christian contentment. Three times I was beaten with rods but content. And once, I was stoned. Three times shipwrecked but still content. Spent a night and a day in the open sea but content. I've been constantly on the move but content. Been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles, in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea, and in danger from false brothers, and yet I've learned the secret of being content in all of those kinds of situations. I have labored and toiled, and yet I've been content. I've often gone without food, and I've been content. I've known hunger and thirst… I've been cold and naked, and yet, I know the secret of being content in any and every situation."
Now, I believe this is a great overstatement. Frankly, I think that it was somewhere along the way, during all of this time that he learned the secret of being content. You see, I consider it to be part of advanced Christianity, and it's not learned primarily from reading the Scripture. I think it's helpful to prime the pump in reading Philippians 4, and it's not going to come from listening to this sermon today; although I hope that that will help too. It's going to come from living. It's going to come from being in these kinds of circumstances and learning, somehow, to thank God in the middle of it all; learning, somehow, to be content. And so these are Paul's credentials. And yet, for all of that trouble, he speaks lavishly of joy in this letter. Five times he says he rejoices, but three times he says he's laboring for their joy, and I think that's what's on his mind here in Philippians 4; he wants them to know it too. He wants them to be content as well.
And so five times he commands them to rejoice. Five times he says he rejoices; three times he says he's laboring for their joy, five times he commands them to rejoice. And so in the midst of his difficulties, which at that present time were in chains for Christ, going through more struggle and suffering again, he teaches them of lasting contentment. And finally, he has given them, before their very eyes, an unforgettable display of contentment in the midst of extreme circumstances. And we've talked about it before, but there he was in Philippi, rejected, screamed against, arrested, magistrates ordered that they would be stripped and beaten, how humiliating is that? And they were stripped and beaten, severely flogged; they were thrown in prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. And so the jailer put them in the inner cell, fastened their feet in the stocks, never imagining that that would be his last day as a non-Christian.
I've often thought about that. He didn't anticipate he was going to become a Christian when he locked these men up, shut the door. But about midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Let me ask you a question, is that you? Is that you? Are you like Paul and Silas? And if not, I think it would be good to sit at Paul's feet and learn his secret, don't you? I'm convinced he's got the credentials. Well, let's learn what he has to say.
IV. Immediate Context: Thanks for Their Gift
Well, the immediate context here in Philippians 4:10-4:13 is of a thank you letter that he's writing for the money. And now he's finally gotten to that. We've had three chapters of his attitudes toward all different kinds of things, but now, at last, he's getting to his immediate point of writing; he has received a financial gift to help him in his imprisonment. From that, he's going to be able to survive; he's going to be able to eat and have his needs met. And so like, I think, is reasonable to do, he sits down to write a thank-you note; he wants to thank the Philippians.
But his eyes are on more than just that he would kind of reach out to them and say, "Thank you," however good manners that is. He's a pastor, and he wants to minister to them and to strengthen them. And so he says, in verse 10, "I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you've renewed your concern for me. Indeed you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. But I'm not saying this because I'm in need. I'm not writing this right now so that you'll send me even more money, that's not what I'm at. My motives are different than that. I want you to know what I have discovered, the secret of being content. I want you to have that too." More than that, he's going to talk later in this little section about how he wants them to give more money, whether to him, to others, so that they can store up treasure in heaven, that he wants what may be credited to their account.
And so there's two messages here, a message of Christian contentment, abiding Christian contentment, and of lavish financial generosity so that we can store up treasure for the glory of God and for our own joy in heaven. These are things that are on Paul's mind as he sits down to write. It's an uncommon thank-you letter, wouldn't you think? And so he wants to share with them the secret.
V. Paul’s Spiritual Mindset: The Key to His Unshakeable Joy
He wants them to know this abiding contentment, and the key for him is his spiritual mindset. He's thinking spiritually; he's thinking like a subject of the Kingdom of Heaven. He's not thinking just like a regular person; his mind is always on Christ. And so, he says, "I rejoice greatly that your concern is renewed, not so that you'll send me more money, because it gives me evidence that Christ is still at work in your lives and that your conversion is genuine." It's never clear when a church planter leaves an area, whether the work that was done there was a genuine work or just a deception. We don't know for sure; we can't read people's hearts. We know that we were faithful in preaching the word, we have discharged our duty, we were faithful, we prayed, we labored, we cried, we planted, and we left.
But Paul's not sure what was left behind, was it genuine? And so, he is greatly encouraged when the money keeps coming, the prayers and all that, not because he needs the money, and he's very clear about that here. That's not it; it's because he's concerned about their spiritual welfare. That they are Christians now, genuine Christians, and even more, that they are storing up treasure in Heaven in an ongoing way that glorifies God. So that's what he's writing about, that's what he's concerned about here. It's a spiritual mindset. Paul is always operating at a higher level than we are. Do you notice that? "I'm writing you a thank you note for a different reason than anybody else would." And that's the level that he's working on. So he rehearses their history; he goes over it, in verse 15 and 16, "You Philippians know in the early days of your acquaintance with the Gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving except you only.
For even when I was in Thessalonica he says, you sent me aid again and again, when I was in need." And so he says, "This has been the way you've been, and now you're continuing and I'm so encouraged about that." And he says, "I have received the money. I want you to know that"; verse 18 and 19. "I got it. It wasn't stolen. I got it and I'm going to put it to good use, so mission accomplished, but think again about your souls." That's his whole approach.
Now, in the midst of this come these statements about Christian contentment. I've just set the context for you. And in the middle of that he says, "I want you to know, I'm not worried about me. I'm not. I'm not concerned about whether I'm gonna get enough, because I've learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, well-fed or hungry, living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength."
VI. The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment
Some time ago I came across one of the books... Do you know... There are occasional books that just change your life. And this book by a Puritan, 17th century Puritan, Jeremiah Burroughs changed my life. It was called The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. It's a timeless classic really, and I would urge you to get it. Jeremiah Burroughs, Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. He was a Puritan minister in the first half of the 17th century, and he'd seen his share of suffering and the persecution of Puritans under Archbishop Laud. And in the late 1640s, he wrote this classic meditation, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. And what do you think his focus verses were? Well, it was Philippians 4:12 and 13, the very ones we're looking at here, "I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I've learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well-fed or hungry, living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength."
And the central doctrine of Burroughs' book is the following, "To be well-skilled in the mystery of Christian contentment is the duty, glory, and excellence of a Christian." Let me read that again, "To be well-skilled in the mystery of Christian contentment is the duty, glory, and excellence of a Christian." Now, I want to make an initial observation about this whole topic. Based on Paul's statement, "I've learned the secret of being content in any and every situation," I'm going to say two things: Number one, Christian contentment is possible. Number two, Christian contentment is not guaranteed. Christian contentment is possible but not guaranteed. Now, Paul says it's a secret to be learned and therefore a Christian contentment is not guaranteed. I know many Christians who go through their whole life it seems, never having learned the secret. And I think you can go to Heaven that way. I just think you can go to Heaven more fruitfully and joyfully and in a way that glorifies God better if you learn this secret.
I wonder, if we had been the ones jailed there in Philippi and had reacted the way we usually react during hard times, if the Philippian jailer and his family would have been saved that night. I wonder about that. Just put yourself in the stocks based on your past performance. There you are in the chains, you're chained up, and you react the way you usually react when difficulties come in your life. Would the Philippian jailer have been saved that night? And you can say, "I really don't know." Well, hypothesize with me, think. It says all the other prisoners were listening to them, I would contend they'd be listening no matter what you did. And if you decided to complain and murmur and groan and whine and all that kind of thing, they'll hear that too. And then eventually, they're going to tell you to be quiet because they want to get some sleep.
But if on the other hand like Paul and Silas you are praying, out loud so everyone can hear you, and then singing praise songs to God, I don't read in the text that anybody asked them to be quiet. There was such a compelling witness, and the Philippian jailer was drawn in by it. And so therefore, Christian contentment is possible, but it's not guaranteed. It is a rare jewel. Now, what is the Christian contentment we're talking about? How do we define it? Well, Jeremiah Burroughs helps us very well. He gives us a good definition here, "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." Okay, give it back to me now, I've just given you the definition. Did you hear it? Alright, I'll repeat it again, I'll say it a little slower, "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.
Christian Contentment is Inward
It is inward, it's an internal thing, inside you. Burroughs says this, "If the attainment of true contentment were as easy as keeping quiet outwardly, it would not need much learning. Now, would it?" God is not calling on us to be actors and actresses. That's not it. We're talking about a heart work here, a gracious work of the Spirit in our hearts, an internal work.
Christian Contentment is Quiet
Secondly, Burroughs says it's quiet. What does that mean? Well, it's opposed to murmuring and repining at the hand of God; it's opposed to vexing and fretting and the tumultuousness of spirit that characterizes us. It's opposed to the unsettled, unstable spirit which distracts from spiritual duties. It's opposed to heart-consuming cares, sinking discouragement, sinful shirkings and shiftings to get relief. And it's opposed to rising against God in rebellion. It's a quiet spirit. It's a yielded spirit. It's not a fighting spirit.
Christian Contentment is a Frame of Spirit
And it is a frame of spirit. Contentment is a soul business. It's an inward quiet frame of spirit; therefore it's not merely an act or a flash or a mood. That's not what it is, it's a quiet frame of spirit.
Christian Contentment is Gracious
And, he says, it is gracious. What do we mean by that? It's got nothing to do with natural temperament. Have you ever seen the kind of even-keeled person, male or female, you look at 'em and say, "Boy, that's admirable," and all that? That's not what we're talking about here. We're not talking about a natural tendency. We're talking about something that is supernatural. It is an act of God's grace. Only God can enable somebody to do this.
Christian Contentment Freely Submits to God’s Disposal
And he says it freely submits to God's disposal. It is a matter of submission; submission to the king. It's a matter of us realizing, again, what Jesus said when he said, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me. Accept what I give you. Yield to my wisdom. Let me decide what's best in your life."
Burroughs writes this, "A contented heart looks to God, to God and to his disposal, and submit to God's disposal." That is he sees the wisdom of God in everything. In his submission, he sees God's sovereignty, but what makes him take pleasure is God's wisdom. The Lord knows how to order things better than I; the Lord sees further than I do. Therefore there's not a reluctance here; there's not a grudging, foot-dragging submission, but a glad submission. And not by constraint, it's not like we're forced to be content. Is anybody ever gonna put a gun to your head and say, "Be content"? It doesn't work that way. It's not by constraint, it's a glad thing of submission to God. "And it's not from stupidity or ignorance," says Burroughs, I like that. Paul says, "I know I'm in chains and I know that I don't have a lot, but God will meet my needs." It's not like Paul doesn't know where he is and that he doesn't know that he needs to keep on eating.
Christian Contentment Glady Submits to God’s Disposal
And it gladly submits to God's disposal. It's rejoicing. It's not irritable, angry, or frustrating. And it does so, it says, in any and every situation.
VII. Does This Describe You?
Now, my question to you as we close for today, does this characterize you? Is this who you are? I wrote down some diagnostic questions. Have you learned the secret of true contentment? Are you characterized by consistent joy in Christ, regardless of the circumstances? What does your reaction to trials and adversity reveal about what you consider to be your true treasure? Is it necessary for God to feed you constantly with good circumstances, or you will growl at him? Think about that. There is a verse in the Old Testament, in Jeremiah, in which God speaks of his people, "She growls at me, and therefore I hate her." It's in the Book of Jeremiah. Do you growl at God when hard things come?
If you are more characterized by discontent, by complaining and murmuring, are you willing to repent and begin a new life of contentment, submitting to Christ? Do you desire a mature Christian character in which this rare jewel of Christian contentment is a visible, radiant display of God's glory? Is this something you want? And are you willing to pay the price to learn the secret of true Christian contentment? Because I believe the secret is only taught through a coupling of a concept, "I can do everything through him who strengthens me," with a series of circumstances that God wisely measures out in your life, everybody gets their own, in which you learn the secret. Are you willing to pay that price and you're willing to ask God to do that work in you?