The Lord's Day Morning
June 1, 2008
Fighting for Joy, Growing in Humility,
Knowing Christ and the Peace that Passes Understanding: A Study of Philippians
“Content in Every Situation”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
Now let me invite you to take your Bibles in hand and turn with me to Philippians 4, as we have drawn almost to the end of this great letter. The amazing passage that we are going to read today contains three of the most well-known and beloved phrases or sentences in the whole letter.
Look at Philippians 4:11, 13, and 19:
“I have learned to be content in whatever circumstance I am.” (Phil. 4:11.)
“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:13.)
“My God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:19.)
All of this in Paul's closing words; he's closing it down, and we get this. All three of these words focus in on one theme, the theme of contentment, and that's what we're going to be looking at together today.
Now, beautiful as those words are, if you have been reading this passage to yourself during the week in preparation to hear God's word today and you've been reading this final word to the Philippians, you might get the wrong impression from Paul's language. If you’re paying close attention to what Paul says to the Philippians about not needing what they have sent him, about waiting a long time since the last time he received something from them, you could get the idea that Paul is being downright rude to the Philippians, that he's being snarky and complaining about the fact that the Philippians have not sent him a gift in a long time; or that now, having received that gift, he doesn't really need it; or, really, it's more important that they gave the gift than that he got a gift. It could come across as ungrateful. If you’re reading the passage that way, you’re reading it wrongly! That's not what Paul is doing. Paul in this passage is doing three things simultaneously.
First of all, he's saying thank you, and we know how genuine he is about this because he started this letter all the way back in chapter 1, verse 5, saying thank you to the Philippians for their generosity. In fact, we said that Paul is almost embarrassed that the Philippians have been so generous with him.
Have you ever been getting ready to go on a short term mission work or engage in some form of ministry, and somebody who you know makes less than you gives you a gift to do that ministry? You know, they pull out that ten dollar bill, or that ten dollar bill and that five dollar bill, or that twenty dollar bill, and they give you a gift, and you’re sitting there knowing ‘This person is not in as good shape to give this kind of gift as I am, and yet this person is giving me this gift.’ It's a humbling thing to receive that kind of gift, and that's the kind of situation that Paul is in here. It's not that Paul's rolling in the dough — he's not! But he does know that this congregation is exceedingly poor and exceedingly generous at the same time, and it's almost embarrassing to receive a gift from them.
So you can be sure that when the Apostle Paul thanks them he really means it, because he knows this congregation. They are less able than any other congregation in Macedonia to give him support, and yet he's going to say later on in this passage they have been the only congregation to stick by him throughout his ministry. Even when he was in Thessalonica with people that could have supported him more easily than the Philippians, it was the Philippians that were supporting his ministry in Thessalonica. My friends, on Judgment Day don't you want to be standing in the midst of a congregation that has supported its ministers and missionaries that way? So that they can say, ‘Let me tell you what…these folks stuck with me through thick and thin, when everybody else forgot me, to Your glory.’
So that's the first thing that Paul wants to do. He genuinely wants to thank the Philippians.
But the second thing he wants to make sure that the Philippians don't misunderstand is he's not asking them to send some more. Have you ever gotten a thank-you letter from somebody that you’re supporting in ministry, and the subtext of the letter was “Thank you for sending the money you just sent. Could you please send some more?” And the Apostle Paul wants to make it clear: ‘That's not what I'm doing. I'm not lavishly thanking you so that you’ll send me more.’ In fact, he makes it clear: ‘Look, what you've sent, it's fine. It's more than enough. I don't need any more. I'm in great shape. The gift that you sent by Epaphroditus — it got here. I am fine. Please don't hear my thank-you to be me begging you for more money or more support. That's not what I'm doing.’ So Paul wants to make it very clear: ‘I'm not asking you for more. What you've sent is more than enough.’
But along with this, Paul wants to do a third thing in Philippians 4:10-20. He wants to teach the Philippians something vitally important about the Christian life. He wants to teach yet another huge lesson in the Christian life, and that lesson is a lesson that Paul has learned and it's a lesson that he wants the Philippians to learn, and that they especially need to learn because of their poverty. It is a lesson about contentment.
So let's hear God's word, and before we do, let's pray.
Heavenly Father, by Your Holy Spirit himself, open our eyes to behold the truth of Your word. This word is crystal clear, but it is easier to understand than it is to live; so, by Your Holy Spirit, open our dim eyes and open our dull hearts to see what You’re telling us in Your word and by Your Holy Spirit work in us both a desire of it and some measure of an attainment of it. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of the living God:
“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.
“Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will supply every need of yours according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
And amen. This ends the reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to it and write its eternal truth upon our hearts.
Are you content? Right where you are now, right in your life situation? Are you content? Have you learned the secret of contentment? You know, somebody was distracted during note-taking this morning and they missed the secret of contentment. They didn't have it in their notes, and they grabbed you by the collar as you’re going out the door… “Well, what was it?” In one sentence could you say you know what it is, you know where it comes from. Or are you one of those honest people that populate the pews who, in the quietness of your heart and in the solitariness of your room, you look in the mirror in the bathroom and you look at yourself and you say, “No, I'm not content. I still haven't found what I'm looking for. I've not arrived at contentment. I'm not living in contentment. I'm struggling in ‘the summer of my discontent’ right now”? Well, I've got good news for you. Precisely because you are where you are, Paul has a word especially for you today. And in this passage he teaches us five things about gospel contentment. He teaches us about the need for contentment, about the nature of contentment, about the secret of contentment, about the song of contentment, and about the gratefulness of contentment, and I want to look at those five things with you today.
I. God wants His people to be content.
The first thing is the need for contentment. Paul is concerned that Christians understand that God wants them to be content. God desires His people to live in a state of contentment, and so Paul is first, in verse 11, going to speak of the need for and the importance of gospel contentment. Listen to what he says (verse 11): “Not that I am speaking of need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am …” [what?] “…to be content.” He is commending to the Philippians his state of contentment, and he is saying to them that he wants them to be content; that God wants them to live in a state of contentment. In other words, Paul is saying here Christians are to be content — and Paul talks about this all the time.
Think of II Corinthians 12:10, where he says, “For the sake of Christ then, I am content.” Now listen to the circumstance in which he says this: I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. Now you may be thinking, ‘Paul, you need to see a psychiatrist if you’re content with that!’ But for Paul it's very important, and he follows up by saying what? “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” And in I Timothy 6:6-8, he says,
“Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world and we cannot take anything out of the world, but if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.”
Contentment is a big deal for Paul. He taught his student, the author of Hebrews — maybe it was Apollos — this truth, and in Hebrews 13:5, the author of that great book says,
“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for He has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’”
Paul…the Bible…God is concerned for Christians to be content. It is a significant, important need for the Christian life.
II. The nature of contentment.
Now it's very important that you understand the nature of this contentment as well, because there are all sorts of theories about contentment out there and how you attain contentment; but Paul, in verse 11, tells you something else about the nature of the contentment. Look at what he says at the end of verse 11: “For I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” Did you catch that? “For I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” Isn't that an encouragement?
There are three encouragements in verse 11 for you with regard to contentment. The first encouragement is this: Paul had to learn how to be content! Is that great, or what? Paul didn't just see Jesus and become content! Paul had to learn how to be content. That means there's hope for you and me! If we are not living in a state of contentment, join the club! Paul had to learn contentment!
The second encouragement is this: Contentment is not innate to Christian experience, it is learned. You don't just trust Jesus and suddenly get content. Oh, yes, there is a certain kind of contentment that comes immediately when we trust in Jesus Christ, but there are battles of contentment to fight all the time, and we don't just become content because we come to Christ. We have to learn contentment. That's encouraging! If you’re struggling with contentment, that's incredibly encouraging.
But here's what I want you to see, maybe more than anything else. It's the third encouragement: You are more apt to seek and find real gospel contentment when you sense your lack of it than you are to seek and find real gospel contentment when your circumstances are providing you a greater measure of contentment.
Do you hear that? You are more likely to find real contentment when you realize your lack of real contentment than if you are in a circumstance in life where your situation provides you with such comforts that you are not thinking about your lack of the real thing.
This is why Jesus said that it is hard for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Why? Because the rich man can mistake circumstantial contentment for gospel contentment. He can mistake a superficial temporal contentment with a deep and permanent and eternal contentment, and he cannot seek real contentment because he doesn't sense his lack of real contentment, because he's in circumstances that make him content.
So here's what I'm saying to you, my friends. If you’re out there sitting in the pew saying, “Yes, Ligon, I am deeply discontent,” I've got good news for you. You are more likely to seek real contentment and find it than someone who is content in his or her circumstances.
And my friends, do you understand then why it is so deadly what the “health and wealth” preachers are saying around you? They’re saying, ‘Look, God wants you to be affluent. God wants you to have stuff.’
Now what's so deadly about that? Very often it is precisely the stuff and the affluence that does what? It blinds us to the real thing, and so God in His kindness takes away the stuff and puts us in hard life circumstances and situations so that we realize, ‘You know, Lord, I really don't have gospel contentment. But, boy, do I want it!’ Do you see how kind it is of God to do that to us? To pull the chair out from under us, to take our legs out from under us, so — what? So that for the first time in our lives we’ll realize that we don't have the real thing, and we’ll want it, and so we will accept no substitute.
That means, dear friends, sisters in Christ in this congregation, if you've ever looked across the table at your husband or you've leaned into his shoulder as you’re sitting on the bed before you go to sleep at night, and you've said to him, “You know, if I could just have one good friend who loved me and cared about me…honey, don't get me wrong. I know you love me, but I need a girlfriend! I need someone that I can talk to that understands me, and will share life with me and encourage me. I'm so alone.” Or if, husbands, you've ever looked across the breakfast table at your wife and said, “Honey, I hate what I'm doing in life. It pays the bills, puts clothes on your back, puts food in your mouth and in the stomachs of the kids, gives us a place to live…make good money…hate it! Hate getting up in the morning. Can't wait till the time comes for me to go home at night. I hate what I'm doing! I can't stand it, and I'm miserable. I'm not content with where I am, and I don't know what to do because I don't know where I can provide for you like I'm providing for you now, but I don't want to keep on doing what I'm doing.” Or maybe it's your finances. Bill collectors are calling, and the bills aren't adding up to the income. And month after month you feel like you’re just slipping deeper and deeper, and you’re deeply dissatisfied and discontent with where you are.
Maybe it's your marriage. You don't say it to your spouse, but you do in the dark of the night, and you look up to heaven and you say, ‘Lord, this is not where I thought I would be. This is not what I thought I was buying into. This is not the dream of my heart as a child for my marriage.’
Or maybe it's just your life situation. Friends, I want you to understand. If that's where you are, if you’re there, you are poised for a great discovery, and that is that your contentment doesn't come from those things, and those things cannot stop the contentment of God. Your contentment — and that's what we're going to learn next — is non-circumstantial. If you are after God-contentment, if you are after gospel contentment, if you are after real contentment, the first thing you learn about it is it's non-circumstantial.
Jeremiah Burroughs’ little book The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment is waiting for you in the Learning Resource Center. You can check it out, or you can go by this week and buy it. Short book, small pages…couple of hundred pages. Don't read it fast. Read it slow, and pray through it slowly over the next six months. It's the most helpful little book I know on this subject: Jeremiah Burroughs’ The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment.
I hope Ann won't kill me for saying this, but I like to read through little books like this. And many years ago at the beginning of our marriage I thought, “Well, this would be a fun book to read through with Ann.” This was not a stealth book recommendation: “Hmmm…Ann has contentment issues, so we’ll read this as our family devotion.” It was not! I'd never read the book before, Derek kept telling me what a great book it was; I thought it would be good to read with Ann. And so Ann said, “Well, what are we going to read together?” “Well, I thought we’d read The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment,” and Ann said, “Oh, no! Not contentment!”
You are more apt to seek real gospel contentment and find it if you’re here this morning and you don't have it than if you are here this morning fat with the circumstantial contentment of this world. That is really, really good news.
III. The secret of contentment.
Now, so what's the secret? You've been waiting for that part! You were going to skip all the other notes…that one you weren't going to miss! Here it is. It's simple. He tells you in verses 11-13…second half of verse 11, down to verse 13. Listen to what he says:
“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.”
So what has he told you so far? He's telling you that his contentment does not come from his circumstances; that they do not contribute to or detract from the gospel contentment that he enjoys. That's still not the secret. That sets you up to hear the secret, but it's still not the secret. He's just telling you, ‘The kind of contentment I'm talking about is not from circumstances.’
It's real interesting. There are many forms of Buddhism. In fact, all forms of Buddhism are really concerned that you cultivate contentment. But interestingly, one significant brand of Buddhism says the way you cultivate contentment is you lower your expectations. That's how you cultivate contentment. That's the secret. Lowered expectations. And Paul's telling you at the outset, “Wrong! Not the source of contentment. Contentment doesn't come from circumstances or your lowered expectations of those circumstances. Contentment, gospel contentment, real contentment comes from someplace else.” Where? He tells you in verse 13. Verse 13 is the secret of contentment: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
In other words, here it is, friends. The secret of contentment is God's providence apprehended by your soul…the secret of contentment is God's providence apprehended by your soul. It's not just the doctrine of God's providence, though you've got to understand the doctrine before you can experience contentment. It's not just the doctrine of God's providence taught to you. It is the doctrine of providence; it is the God of providence embraced by your soul so that you believe it. Gospel contentment rests on a deep personal doctrinal experiential embrace of God's providence.
Now notice what Paul is not saying in verse 13. He's not saying you can do anything. He's not coming to me, a middle-aged pudgy guy, and saying, ‘You can win the 100-meter sprint in China this summer at the Olympics.’ That is a lark! He is saying, ‘Ligon, anything that I ask you to do and anyplace where I put you, you can be content and thrive. Because I'm the one who strengthens you.’
Don't you love the way Al Chestnut…he catches you off guard when he says it. He says, “Always remember that God will never call you to do…” and then what are you waiting for him to say? “That God will never call you to do something that He won't help you do.” That's what you’re waiting for him to say: God will never call you to do something that He won't…. (Now he wouldn't deny that that's true, but he really catches you.) Here's what he says: “God will never call you to do something that you can do.” He will never call you to do something that you can do. He will only call you to do what you can't do without Him. And Paul's saying, ‘I've learned that. I can do nothing in and of myself, but I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.’ There is the secret of contentment.
Now, my friends, it will take you years to work that truth deep down into your bones so that it is your default setting, but that is the secret of contentment. The battle is of course getting it into the heart so that it dominates all of your circumstances, so that it is like Mount Everest towering above the piddling little molehills of your circumstances, however big, however real, however heart-breaking they are. The secret of contentment is a deep, personal, doctrinal, experiential embrace of God's providence.
IV. The song of contentment.
Now, contentment has a song. Contentment has a song. You know, some of you have theme songs for things that happened in your life. You know, you've broken up with a really bad boyfriend or girlfriend, and you've got a theme song. Oh, yeah! You might have thought that nobody else knew about your theme song, but I saw you sing it in your car! “I'm still standin’…da-da-da-da-da!” [Laughter] “Hit me with your best shot…da-da-da” —you've got a theme song!
And some of you, you've been in groups that have a theme song. You know, you've gone through something together in life and it's deeply molded you together in that group. That group…you are thicker than thieves for the rest of your life, and sometimes there are songs associated with that. There are songs that when you hear them on the radio or you start to sing them, all sorts of things come flooding back, and you remember what you went through with that set of friends. You've got theme songs for groups and friends and seasons of your life. Well, contentment has a theme song, and the lyrics are written down in verse 19. Here's the theme song of contentment:
“My God will supply every need of yours according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”
How many of you were growing up in the seventies, and you remember at youth group or at Young Life or some other place, singing, “Jehovah Jireh, my provider, His grace is sufficient for me? My God will supply all my needs according to His riches in glory. He gives His angels charge over me. Jehovah Jireh cares for me…for me…for me. Jehovah Jireh: the God who sees, the God who cares, the God who undertakes, the God of providence — Jehovah Jireh cares for me.” Well, my friends, that's the theme song of contentment. The song of contentment is, ‘My God, I believe that Your supply of my needs is more real than the air that I'm breathing right now. I believe that Your supply of all my needs is more real than the food that I eat. I believe that Your supply of my needs is more real than the skin that I'm in. I believe that Your supply of my needs is more real, more lasting, than any circumstance that I'm in right now. That's my theme song.’ And until the truth of God's providence has worked deep down into our hearts so that is the reflex reaction the minute that we're in any difficult circumstances of life, we haven't yet apprehended the secret of contentment in the way that we need to.
V. Contentment is grateful.
Now there's one last thing: Contentment is grateful. Contentment is grateful. There is a gratefulness in contentment, and you see it in the doxology that Paul sings in verse 20:
“To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
Contentment expresses itself in constant gratitude to God. God-glorifying gratefulness flows from the heart of the one who is content. You want to see a content person, I’ll show you a grateful person. Show me a content person in gospel contentment, I’ll show you a person who's grateful to God. Put them in the worst circumstance of life, they’ll still praise God. Why? Because He has supplied all their needs and they know it. And they know that nobody else in the world can take away what He has supplied. The world can take everything else away, but they cannot take what He has supplied. And so they’re grateful.
Now let me make it clear. You may be here today a Christian who is discontent. That's okay, and that's not okay. It's not okay because God wants you to live in contentment. It's okay because, my friends, you’re at the starting block if you’re there. If you’re here today and you’re content in circumstances, you’re not even in the game yet. But if you’re here and you’re a Christian and you’re discontent, there is really good news waiting for you. Pick up the book and starting working through it. Pick up the Bible and starting working through it.
But you may be here today, and you may be discontent and you may be ungrateful…and the reason that you may be discontent and the reason that you may be ungrateful may be that you’re not a Christian.
And I want you to understand that what I've been telling the Christians here for the last thirty minutes won't help you at all unless and until you put your faith in Jesus Christ, because apart from Him, there is no contentment worth having, and with Him there is nothing in this world that can take His contentment away.
Our Lord and our God, by the grace of Your Holy Spirit give us a taste of real gospel contentment, and then by the grace of Your Spirit, never ever let us accept substitutes. We pray this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Would you take your hymnals out and turn with me to No. 559, which is one of my favorite hymns of contentment: Father, I Know That All My Life.