The Key to Contentment

Week of September 15, 2019

The Point:  True contentment comes through Christ alone.

God’s Provision:  Philippians 4:10-20.

[10] 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. [11] Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. [12] 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. [13] I can do all things through him who strengthens me. [14] Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. [15] 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. [16] Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. [17] Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. [18] 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. [19] And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. [20] To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.  [ESV]

“Resolve to Learn the Secret of Contentment [4:10-13]. Paul begins this paragraph by commenting again on the Philippians’ concern to meet Paul’s needs by sending support: I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. The phrase now at length (‘at last’) does not in this context carry derogatory overtones that blame the Philippians for being so slow. Rather it means that now, in these last few days or weeks, after an extended hiatus caused by all sorts of things (not least Paul’s constant travels), you have renewed the concern for me that you showed in the early days ten years ago. That this is what Paul means is made clear by his next sentence: You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. But Paul very shrewdly grasps how his exuberant thanks to the Philippians could be misunderstood. Some people voice their thanks in such a way that it is hard to avoid the inference that they are hoping for another gift. Perhaps, they grovel; perhaps there is nothing tangible in their thanks that you can put your finger on, but you feel slightly manipulated anyway. In any case, Paul takes no chances; he wants to distance himself from all of these possibilities, so he immediately explains his own motives in verses 11-13. This is a remarkable stance. Note especially two features of it: First, the secret of contentment is not normally learned in posh circumstances or in deprived circumstances, but in exposure to both. Perhaps you have come from a well-to-do background, and you have never lacked anything. You have never had anything you valued taken away from you. The question arises whether you would be comfortable and content if you were suddenly forced to live in poverty. But on the other side, you may have come from a really poor background. Perhaps you learned to handle the uncertainty and the deprivation in godly ways. But now the question arises whether you could be content if you suddenly fell into wealth. Would it instantly corrupt you? Or would you feel so guilty with all these possessions that you could scarcely look at yourself in the mirror? Paul carefully insists that his own contentment operates under both conditions [12]. He avoids the arrogance that is often associated with wealth; he also avoids the kind of spiritual arrogance that is often associated with poverty. The brute fact is that Paul is content in both circumstances because his contentment is utterly independent of circumstances. His contentment is focused on all that he enjoys of Christ Jesus. That means he has learned, by hard experience, a relaxed contentment whatever his circumstances. Second, the secret of Christian contentment is quite unlike stoic self-sufficiency. Paul is not claiming to be so strong that nothing can move him. Nor is he simply resolving to be independent of circumstances by a superlative act of will. Far from it; he immediately confesses that if he has reached this stage of contentment he owes everything to God: I can do all things through him who strengthens me [13]. This verse is often wrenched out of its context. Paul is not claiming to be a kind of superman because he is a Christian and God is on his side. The all things in this verse is certainly not unlimited, as if Paul could be read to mean, “I can raise the dead” or “I can walk on water” or “I can show you how cold fusion is a practical possibility.” By the same token, the verse should not be deployed by well-meaning but ill-informed church leaders who are trying to manipulate church members into doing something they really do not think they should do. Paul’s all things is constrained by the context. His point is that whatever the circumstances in which he finds himself, whether with the rich and the powerful or with the poor and the powerless, whether preaching with unction to substantial crowds or incarcerated in a filthy prison, he has learned to cast himself on God and to be content. He can do all these things, everything that God assigns him to do, through the one who gives him strength. Let the gospel advance, let God’s will be done in me and through me. Paul is saying, I am content, for I can trust the one who invariably strengthens me to do what He assigns me. It takes the strength and resolution and perspective that only God can provide to live above changing, difficult circumstances. But to live above circumstances, utterly content in Christ Jesus, is to ensure that you will never give up the Christian walk. Resolve to learn the secret of contentment.

Resolve to Grow in the Grace of Christian Gratitude and Courtesy [4:14-20]. These closing verses are full of wonderful pastoral touches. However much Paul is content, regardless of his circumstances, he is grateful to the Philippians for what they have provided [14]. Indeed, they were the only Christians in their area to be quick off the mark in this regard [15-16]. It is helpful to follow Paul’s course on a map. Paul left Troas in Asia Minor and crossed over to Europe, landing at the port city of Neapolis and proceeding immediately to Philippi. There he and Silas were beaten up, arrested, and eventually escorted out of town, but not before they planted this fledgling church. Leaving Philippi, Paul quickly passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia and arrived at Thessalonica, where in short order he started another church. So Paul is saying that even by the time he got to Thessalonica and started preaching the gospel there, before he left there to evangelize Athens and Corinth, the Philippians were already finding ways to help and were asking what part they could play in this great ministry. Apparently Paul stayed in Thessalonica only a few weeks, but during that relatively short time, the Philippians came through again and again. And for his part, Paul is not slow to express his profound gratitude. Once again Paul insists that his words do not suggest he is angling for another gift. If he wants anything, he says, I seek the fruit that increases to your credit [17]. In other words, Paul is primarily pleased that the Philippians have been so generous in the work of the gospel, not because he has been the recipient of that generosity, but because by being generous they have been acting like Christians – and God, who is no one’s debtor, will reward them. Paul is more delighted with the blessings they will experience because they are a giving and generous church than he is with the help that has come his way. Paul even tries, apparently, to redirect some of their future giving [18]. In any case, whether the Philippians send such generous gifts to Paul or to someone else, the gifts were first and foremost offered to God [18]. There are important lessons of Christian courtesy here. Examine how Paul thanks believers in his letters; read and reread the opening “thanksgiving” sections that mark all but one (Galatians) of his letters. His pattern is to thank God for what the believers have done or for the signs of spiritual vitality that he detects in them. This is doubly wise. Contrast the opposite errors into which we easily fall. On the one hand, there are Christian leaders who are so unrestrained in their praise of people, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that they control others by extravagant flattery. Of course, in some cases it is nothing more than a quirk of personality. But some Christian leaders have adopted so generous a stance in praising others, a stance that is then imitated by others around them, that their churches are no longer Godward. They are nothing but mutual admiration societies. On the other hand, some Christian leaders – jealous for the glory of God and firmly committed to the belief that if any believer does any good in any way, it is nothing other than the product of what God is doing in them and through them – end up offering very few thank-yous. They are most begrudging in praise; their tight-lipped reticence is their way of avoiding cheap flattery. Besides, they are so frightened of the sin of pride, in themselves and others, that they avoid the compliments that might turn heads. If you tell a preacher that his sermon was good, so they think, he might strut like a peacock all week. If you were helped by the sermon, go home and thank God, but do not corrode the preacher with praise. Do not corrode anyone with praise – deacons, Sunday School teachers, church trustees, janitors, organists, whomever. But Paul has the matter right. In his letters, he does not simply thank people (though he sometimes does that); he thanks God for God’s grace in them – but he utters his thanks to God in front of the people. In effect, he approaches these believers and says, “I greatly rejoice at the grace of God displayed in your life” or “I thank God every time I remember you” or “Your life is a fragrant sacrifice to God, a sacrifice with which God Himself is well pleased.” That is precisely what Paul does here. He acknowledges that it was good of the Philippians to help him [14], but he quickly insists that he is more interested in what this says about their character and what this will mean in blessings on their lives, than he is in his own enrichment [17]. In any case, he insists, the gifts were first and foremost a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God [18]. And all of this excites Paul’s rejoicing in the Lord [10], for he recognizes that the marks of grace in the Philippian church can be traced to the Lord Jesus Himself. And meanwhile, he reminds the Philippians that, precisely because God is no one’s debtor, they can rely on Him to meet their needs: And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus [19]. Resolve to grow in the grace of Christian gratitude and courtesy. By now it should be clear that this is not exactly like the gratitude and courtesy commonly associated with good breeding or good training. The categories are different; the values are not merely formal; even the forms are a little different. Christian courtesy, besides being merely courteous, strengthens believers, invites them to turn their thoughts toward God, multiplies the cords that draw them together as the body of Christ. So resolve to grow in the grace of Christian gratitude and courtesy. Precisely because it will strengthen your own discipleship and edify your brothers and sisters in Christ, you will be multiplying the resolution of the church never to give up the Christian walk. Paul ends this section with: To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen. [20]. This is not simply a formula that Paul feels constrained to drop into his text once in a while, without giving the words much thought. Rather, the apostle wants to remind his readers that even at this stage it is possible to pursue all the excellent advice he has provided in this chapter, resolving to be obedient to the apostolic imperatives, and yet somehow prostitute them all. The deciding factor is this: Do these believers see that all of Christian discipleship, all of Christian virtue, all of Christian resolution, all of Christian perseverance, must be offered to the glory of God, or do they think that these virtues are ultimate ends in themselves? For it is a sad fact that some Christians will hear the injunctions of this chapter – resolve to pursue like-mindedness with other true believers; resolve always to rejoice in the Lord; resolve to be known for selflessness; resolve not to be anxious for anything, but learn instead to pray; resolved to think holy thoughts; resolve to learn the secret of contentment; resolve to grow in the grace of Christian gratitude and courtesy – and they will treasure these virtues as little gods to be coveted. But that may lead only to a new round of legalism. Even worse, these goals are simply not worthy of that much energy and commitment if they are regarded as ends in themselves. But if they are cheerfully and lovingly offered up to God – that makes all the difference. We resolve to pursue these virtues not only because they are good, but because God demands them and gives us the grace to live them out. And the result is that He receives glory.” [Carson, pp. 117-124].

“Sacrificial Giving:  a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God [18]. For Paul, this is the wonderful thing about the Philippians’ gifts: they reflect the ministry of all believers as priests before the Lord. Not only have they exercised the priesthood of all believers in praying for Paul; their gifts have been like thank-offerings to the Lord, with which He has been pleased. What a delight it was to the apostle to think that these Christians he had nurtured were also doing things that were a delight to the Lord! To give sacrificially, as the Philippians did, means that we may be in danger of impoverishing ourselves. Paul has some words of encouragement: their needs will be supplied, in turn, by the Lord, according to his riches in glory [19]. He is reminding them of the principle, illustrated frequently throughout Scripture, but powerfully enunciated by Jesus Himself: whatever we yield up to Him we will regain again and again [Luke 18:28-30]. All the riches of Christ’s heavenly resources are available to us. The Philippians were seeking to put the kingdom of God and its advance first in their lives; that was why they gave so lovingly to Paul. Paul was assuring them, on the basis of Jesus’ teaching and also out of his own experience, that everything they needed would be provided [Matt. 6:33]. In response to these thoughts, Paul breaks into praise. Prisoner he may be, but his soul cannot be contained by walls. It rises in adoration to his God and Father, who is also the God and Father of the Philippians. To Him be glory forever and ever [20]. These verses provide us with material for a catechism which will help us assess our concern for the Lord, His servants and the advance of His kingdom. It may be a challenging exercise to reflect on the answers we would give.

Question 1:  Am I really concerned for the welfare of the Lord’s servants? If they have material needs, do I simply shrug my shoulders and say, ‘They didn’t need to become involved in poorly supported Christian service?’ But they did need to, didn’t they? Otherwise they would have been disobeying their Lord, and yours.

Question 2:  Do I regard my Christian stewardship, particularly although not exclusively of money, as a partnership? Of do I see it only as an investment with no return, a one-way-relationship (I give, they get)?

Question 3:  Do I really believe that God will supply what I need if I give sacrificially? Or do I always give in such a way that sacrifice will be avoided? Do I see that generous giving is not the same thing as sacrificial giving (I can give generously, yet not sacrificially)?

Question 4:  Do I really want to live and give, pray and share with others in such a way that glory will be seen to come to our God and Father by the way His people (i) love each other, (ii) support each other’s ministries, and (iii) depend on the Lord’s provision so that it becomes clear that the power and the glory are His and not ours?

When, with Paul and the Philippians, we see that our chief end is to glorify God then we will also discover what it means to enjoy Him forever.”  [Ferguson, pp. 112-113].

 Questions for Discussion:

  1. What circumstances make you discontented? What do you learn from this passage concerning how to be content in any and every circumstance? What is the secret that Paul learned [see 4:6-7,13]? Note Paul’s emphasis on his relationship with Christ: through him [13], in Christ Jesus [19].
  2. When we think of contentment, we naturally think of being content when we lack something we desire or think that we need. But, in verse 12, Paul speaks of being content when facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. How do we show contentment in times of abundance? Note: Paul’s contentment is not dependent upon circumstances. Instead what is his contentment focused on?
  3. What is Paul giving glory to God for in verse 20? How do the all things of verse 13 and the every need of verse 19 relate to God’s glory? How does being content in any and every circumstance bring glory to God?
  4. What is sacrificial giving? How does it differ from generous giving? Why is sacrificial giving a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God? Seek to give personal answers to the four questions Ferguson presents to us concerning sacrificial giving.


An Exposition of Philippians, D. A. Carson, Baker.

Let’s Study Philippians, Sinclair Ferguson, Banner of Truth.

The Letter to the Philippians, G. Walter Hansen, Eerdmans.

The Message of Philippians, J. A. Motyer, Inter Varsity.

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