Text: Philippians 4:10-13
This morning we come to one of the most misunderstood verses in the whole Bible. Philippians 4:13 is definitely the favorite verse of Christian athletes everywhere, and a quick Google search will reveal it is also a favorite script for tattooing. The verse has even made its way onto Tim Tebow’s famous eye-blacks. But there’s only one problem. It’s almost always taken out of context and misused.
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” does not actually mean that if Christians keep faith they will be able to win the basketball tournament, ace the final exam, or land that dream job. While it is true that God blesses hard work and faithful preparation, it is also true that He allows Christians to fail from time to time for their own sanctification. Suffering and chastisement is a somewhat ordinary aspect of the Christian life. So what does Philippians 4:13 really mean? If we read it in connection with the verses which come before it and with the argument Paul is making, we will see that he isn’t talking about great and fabulous achievements so much as he is talking about contentment. “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content… I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound… I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” When we read these verses together it becomes clear. The miraculous grace of Jesus Christ allows us to be content in whatever comes our way.
Contentment is a Mystery
In verse 12 Paul says, “Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.” The expression “I have learned” is interesting. In the Greek it literally says, “I have been initiated into the mystery.” This is a cultic reference, the kind of language you would use for a ritual initiation into a religious group, like baptism or a rite of passage. Paul is using this figuratively, but still self-consciously, to speak of contentment. Some translations render it “I have learned the secret.” He has been initiated into the mystery of contentment by going through all kinds of experiences. He has been abased, and he has abounded. He has been full and hungry. He has had more than he needed, and he has suffered want. And in all of this, he has learned to be content.
Contentment is a sort of mystery. The word itself doesn’t quite mean happy. No, happiness, at least in the way we commonly use it today, means the opposite of being sad. Yet a Christian can easily imagine a situation in which they are both sad and still content. After all, Jesus did say “Blessed are those who mourn.” Contentment means being internally stable and self-sufficient. It means not freaking out, not being on a constant wandering, not losing your bearings. It means being spiritually unshakeable.
Contentment usually appears in conversations about money or possessions. For instance, 1 Timothy 6:6-8 says, “Now godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content.” We are also told in Hebrews 13:5 to “keep [our] life be free from the love of money; be content with such things as you have.” This is an important check on our common aspirations. We must remember that whatever things we have in life are really given to us from God and they are ultimately temporary.
But contentment goes much further than money or possessions. It also goes to our lot in life. This is why Paul says that he has learned to be content in “whatever state he is in.” He can be content in the good times, and he can be content in the bad times. He is not moving from highs to lows, riding the waves of emotion or fortune, but is instead fully in control of his state of mind and state of heart, no matter what comes.
We Can Be Content in All Things
Indeed, we can be content in all things. We can be content when we abound and when we are full. As strange as it sounds, you do have to learn contentment during the good times. And that starts with seeing them as times of blessing rather than simply “just desserts.” When we are doing well in life, when we are making good money, when our bills are all in order and we have what we need—when things are all alright, these are times of spiritual danger. You see, we have a tendency to think of all this as “normal.” It’s the way things are supposed to be. But there’s the problem! Thinking this way leads to presumption and complacency. In the real world, good times of blessing are not “normal.” Ever since the fall of man into sin, the creation has been groaning in futility, producing thorns and thistles. What’s really normal is struggle and hardship. Times of refreshment are not normal at all. They are blessings, good gifts from God. And so contentment in the good times requires gratitude. We must give thanks for what we have, and we must never take our state in life for granted.
But we also need to learn contentment in difficult times. Paul says that he knows “how to be abased” and “to be hungry.” He knows how to “suffer need.” These are the conditions that most of us think of as times of discontent. We are unhappy, worried, and desperate because we don’t think our needs will be supplied. We can go hungry for a little while, but if we go hungry for too long we will starve. And so as lean seasons come, we fear that they will not leave. Still worse, in our culture of plenty, we view lean seasons as times when we cannot spend money on extras. If we are only feeding our families and paying our bills but are unable to afford a new car, then we tell ourselves that we are suffering want. If our clothes are a little worn or our house is a little cramped, we can be tempted to believe that we are “going hungry.” At these times we need a dose of humility and reality. Our problem is a love of luxury rather than thankfulness for provision. We should simply and quickly take this to the Lord in repentance.
But there is a subtler form of discontent which many of us also experience. This comes in the form of feeling “unfulfilled” in life. What do I mean by that? Well, as I was growing up, I was constantly told that I needed to discover my true self, find what I really loved, and realize my potential. I straddled the two groups which are now called “Generation X” and “Millennials,” and both were taught a common notion of sentimentality. Maybe you have heard it too. “We ought never to ‘settle’ but should instead discover our true selves, our full potential, and follow our dreams until we reach fulfillment. We are all special little snowflakes and should not be satisfied with merely getting by. We need to be able to ‘be ourselves’ and flourish on our own terms.”
Really this way of thinking is a sort of modern gospel. It takes on all kinds of forms. You see it in the gross self-help and New Age prosperity of Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra, and Joel Osteen. You also see it in Romantic comedies and ubiquitous notions of “true love.” You even see it in the rebellious counter-culture of authenticity, especially those movies written by and starring John Cusack. They all protest against settling for “the ordinary” and tell us to chase a dream that will bring us lasting happiness and fulfillment.
But the problem is that this chase is always after a false god. We think that if we can meet that special someone, then they will fill the longing inside of us; if we can get that special job—not the ordinary one that pays the bills, but the high profile one which brings energy and excitement—then we will be happy with our routine and won’t ever get bored; if we can have that happy family with the white-picket fence, then we won’t ever be overwhelmed by dark emotions or stress. If only, we say. But instead, all we have is this normal situation, enough to get by on but nothing “special.” So we are bored and sad.
This way of thinking is all a lie. No created thing can fill our souls and any attempt to make it do so is futile. This is because all creation is finite and reflects the greater glory of the infinite God. Whenever we make a god of anything other than the true God, whether it be a lover, an accomplishment, or just a dream, we have made an idol. And when we make these things our gods, they become our demons. It’s no accident that most classic romances end in tragedy. Whether we look all the way back to Helen of Troy, or the medieval Tristan and Iseult (or Lancelot and Guinevere), the classical literary trope of passion tends to end in death and the downfall of a kingdom. This is because something which may have been good in and of itself was allowed to be elevated to the highest position and given priority over all of the other good things and necessary responsibilities in life. And sometimes this pursuit of passion is actually used as a justification of outright evil, the violating of marital bonds or the requirements of political fidelity. All other commitments can be broken in the pursuit of passion.
This is the same thing which lies behind the current homosexual and pan-sexual revolution, by the way. The infamous Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church, was celebrated for “coming out” and being true to his self. Yet in order to do this he had to divorce his wife and break up a family. This is now justified and even celebrated because Robinson was being true to himself, following his inner desires. It then ought to have been no great surprise that his later gay marriage did not last either. His desires changed, it seemed, and he found it difficult to put the needs of another person over his own wants. His divorce was announced in May of this year. Thousands of similar stories are told as a part of this sexual revolution, and they are perversely celebrated. The message is clear: being true to yourself and following your desires is the single most important thing, more important than any and all other commitments.
Now, that sort of illustration might strike you as an extreme one. It’s “out there,” a different class of problem from ordinary discontentment. But it’s really not. The sexual revolution is not a different genus, but instead is a species of this same overall category of passionate desire. The man who quits his job or simply never gets a regular one in the first place, all because he finds the task boring, tiresome, and unfulfilling, is committing the same kind of sin. The wife who is constantly cold, critical, or depressed, all because she’s missing that special spark, is also committing this sin. They have all failed to learn contentment, mistakenly believing that they will find inner-satisfaction in other things or in other people, rather than in God and His gifts. And they remain spiritually covetous.
What is truly astounding is that, in 1st Corinthians, Paul applies this same message of contentment to the topic of social standing and upward mobility. There he writes:
…as God has distributed to each one, as the Lord has called each one, so let him walk… Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing, but keeping the commandments of God is what matters. Let each one remain in the same calling in which he was called. Were you called while a slave? Do not be concerned about it; but if you can be made free, rather use it. For he who is called in the Lord while a slave is the Lord’s freedman. Likewise he who is called while free is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of men. Brethren, let each one remain with God in that state in which he was called. (1 Cor. 7:17-24)
This is a striking passage because of the extremes with which Paul says we should be content. He mentions Jew and Gentile relations, but also slavery. He says that if you can achieve your freedom lawfully and responsibly, then by all means go for it. But if it would require some great revolt, scandal, or sin, to be “not be concerned about it.” His rationale is that we are all free in Christ, slaves to no men, and yet we are all slaves in Christ, sold to God and thus His servants to all. We must see our earthly condition as something “distributed to us” and to be “used” by us in the service of the One who gave it to us, God. And this means we must subordinate our wills to His. We must follow the path He makes for us.
Could you use slavery for God if He gave it to you? Can you even accept such a message as just and moral? If your answer is no, then you have some deeper soul searching to do. What is your true freedom? What is your true fulfillment? Do you really trust God? But if you are mentally able to accept this message, then the real struggle comes down to your will. You must contain your desires and bring them into line with what you believe. You can do all things because all things in your life ultimately come to you from God. And He works all things together for your good and His good pleasure. In Christ, He works all things together for world salvation.
This is Due to the Miraculous Grace of Christ
The final point we need to make about contentment is that it is not natural. Outside of Christ, contentment is impossible and seems crazy, even immoral. Why shouldn’t we pursue our own greatest good, we wonder. Even if we limit that good by other relative goods—the good of society, of our friends, or of our family—we are still doing so because doing so gives us more good. Not so in Christ. In Christ we supposed to sacrifice even our own perceived goods for the higher calling of the gospel. This is a sort of selflessness which will give us reward, but the reward it not the actual goal. Instead God’s glory is the highest concern.
Christian contentment is also unnatural in the sense that we cannot do it on our own. Paul is not calling for “self-sufficiency” but rather “Christ-sufficiency.” He writes, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” It is the power of Christ at work within us which enables us to be content. This means that it is a grace. It comes to us from somewhere else, and we cannot achieve it from our own hard work. It is given to us for free. When we are not content, the appropriate response is to renounce our false desires and to ask God for the grace of contentment in our lives. We must go to Him in prayer and ask Him to show us His calling and His purposes.
But if contentment is the power of Christ at work in us, this also means that it is Christ’s power. It is His, and it is a benefit of His saving work on the cross. It cannot fail. We must believe that we can be content in life because we must believe that Jesus’ work is effective. We are not believing in what we can bear but rather in what God can do. Do you believe the gospel? If so, then you must also believe that you can find contentment.
Your contentment, ultimately, is not your own. It isn’t something that you do or some great strength of mind or will that you can muster. It is a miraculous work of God. And so those times of stress and turmoil in your life are not actually times to test your resolve and see if you can suck it up. Instead they are opportunities for faith. Take your cares to Jesus and ask Him to fill your longings and desires.
The secret of contentment in the Christian life is the call to be at rest. It is the call to be still and know that the Lord is God. It is a call to cast our burdens on the Lord. The Lord is our inheritance. He maintains our lot. Set the Lord before you and you will not be moved. If you seek the kingdom first, then everything else will be added unto you.
The Apostle Paul was content because He kept the mission at the front of his thoughts. He knew that he needed money to follow the mission. And so he did ask for money from time to time. But he was never worried about money. He knew that the mission would bring him into danger, and so he prayed for safety. Yet he never feared for his livelihood. Paul knew how to be content because He knew Christ. He could do all of this because Christ could do it. And we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. We can even do that most miraculous and spectacularly difficult thing of all. We can be content. Let us pray.