The Secret of Spiritual Contentment1
What could the Apostle Paul possibly mean when he says that he has “learned” to be “content” in whatever circumstance or situation he’s in? Continue reading . . .
What could the Apostle Paul possibly mean when he says that he has “learned” to be “content” in whatever circumstance or situation he’s in? Here is what he writes:
“I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 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. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:10-13).
First, he said in v. 11 that he had “learned” to be content, and again in v. 12 “I have learned the secret.” The point is that contentment is not natural to human nature. This isn’t something we are born with. In fact, we are born discontented and dissatisfied. Contentment must be learned. And there is only one way this happens. The only way you can learn contentment is by finding Jesus Christ to be enough. You have to grow and deepen in your knowledge of him before you will experience any degree of independence from the stuff of this world. You learn contentment in the school of human experience, only as you face hard times and discover how in the midst of them Christ is sufficient for everything you need.
If you and I always lived without need, if everything was given to us in abundance, if we never felt stretched or challenged, Christ would have little opportunity to be glorified in our lives.
Thus to “learn” this all-important lesson one must progress through life, facing, embracing, and enduring hardship along the way. Like a child who starts out in the first grade, learning her A, B, C’s, and then moving on to reading and writing and eventually the ability to research difficult topics and write persuasive position papers, so too we have to grow and mature from one stage to the next until we find Jesus sufficiently beautiful and sufficiently powerful and sufficiently sweet that the loss of everything else hardly registers in our hearts.
Second, he says he knows how “to be brought low” (v. 12a) and again he knows how to endure “hunger” and “need” (v. 12b).
When Paul says he knows “how to be brought low” he isn’t referring merely to financial poverty but to a way of life that was similar to the one Jesus embraced (see 2:8 for the same verb). To know what Paul has in mind we should consider 1 Cor. 4:11-13; 2 Cor. 6:4-5; 11:23-29.
He also has in view the dejection and oppression that comes from material lack. When you endure hunger and thirst and cold and physical suffering and persecution and opposition from your enemies, but remain constant and joyful through it all, rather than bitter and angry, you have “learned” the secret of being content in Christ.
Third, Paul also knows how to live in prosperity. You might say, “Whoop de doo! That’s no big deal; so do I! Living in prosperity is no problem!” Well, actually it is. It may well be easier to be a Christian when life is hard than when everything is going our way.
Paul is saying, “I know how to be abased and yet not crushed by it. I know what it’s like to thrive in abundance and yet not be unduly exalted.
Most people experience something altogether different. For them, when times are good, God is good and they’re happy. But when times are bad, God is bad, and they’re sad.
Paul says something entirely different: “I know how to be deprived of a lot of material things and how to face adversity without thinking that life has lost its purpose; and I know how to possess wealth and health without being deceived into thinking that such is really what makes life worth living. I suffer no excessive depression when I lack the essentials of life, far less the luxuries; but neither do I allow myself to be puffed up and negligent of spiritual zeal when I find myself in the midst of prosperity.”
Happiness or contentment or a deep sense of joy and satisfaction transcend bodily conditions and material possessions; genuine joy thrives independently of both turbulence and tranquility. Paul is saying, “I can go to bed poor and hungry and maintain my spiritual and emotional equilibrium; and I can go to bed filled and prosperous and remain unaffected by it all.”
Paul did not choose lack or loss or deprivation as a way of life. He simply says that he had learned to accept whatever came his way because the source and strength of his joy and contentment were not tied to stuff or physical comfort. His relationship with Jesus Christ made both lack and prosperity irrelevant to his daily existence.
Some of you have grown up in wealth and prosperity. There’s nothing wrong with that. Praise God for his abundant blessings. But the question is: would you be content and joyful in Jesus if you were suddenly forced to live in poverty. Have you become so dependent on the ever-present and always available stuff of life, the luxuries and the gadgets and the knowledge that you’ll never go without a meal when you’re hungry, that you assume you deserve it all, that God owes it to you, that he’s not worthy of your trust if he doesn’t continue to supply you with all good things?
Others of you have grown up suffering lack, perhaps in virtual poverty. Perhaps you learned along the way how to cope with loss and deprivation in a way that honors Christ. What would happen if you suddenly became wealthy? Would abundance and prosperity corrupt you, or would you find yourself struggling with guilt at having so many possessions?
The issue for us all is resting and rejoicing in Jesus to such an extent that neither poverty nor prosperity has any affect on us, whether for good or ill.
Paul said in v. 12 he had “learned” to be content in all circumstances. In v. 13 he “knows” and again “in any and every circumstance” he has “learned” the secret of how to thrive. So what specifically had he “learned” and what was his “secret”? The answer is in v. 13. It was through the intimacy of his relationship with Jesus, or more literally, “in union with the one who infuses me with strength.”
We’ll look closely at this in the next article.