Contentment in Christ

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. – Philippians 4:10-13 ESV

Verse 10 presents what appears to be, at first glance, a somewhat awkward and misplaced transition. It seems as if Paul is jumping to a whole new topic: His recent receipt of some sort of gift from the Philippian congregation. But, while that is the topic, Paul seems to be bringing it up at this point because it has everything to do with what he has been discussing in this section. He is using their gift to make an important point about what it means to “think on these things.”

Remember, Paul has just stressed that they were to fix their thoughts on whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or commendable. They were to fill their minds with thoughts of those actions and attitudes that reflect those kind of characteristics. Then, almost as if out of nowhere, Paul brings up their recent gift to him. But notice that is it not the gift itself that Paul turns his attention to. It is what the gift represented to him. He tells them that he “rejoiced in the Lord greatly,” not because of the nature of what they gave, but because of the heart behind the gift – “you have revived your concern for me” (Philippians 4:10 ESV). 

The gift was a tangible expression of their love and concern for him. And, Paul lets them know that he always knew they cared for him, but was aware that they had been hindered in expressing their love in either word or deed because of distance and his own unique circumstance in Rome. For Paul, the gift was not the point. He doesn’t even mention what the gift was. It was simply a timely reminder of their love for him and, as he thought about that, he couldn’t help but rejoice. Their thoughtfulness to send him the gift was an example of whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or commendable.

Too often, we allow conditions and circumstances to determine the degree of our joy. When things go well for us, we react with happiness. When they don’t, we can find ourselves struggling with disappointment and disillusionment, wondering what we did to make God mad at us. But circumstances were never meant to be metrics for measuring our joy or contentment. And neither were material things. But the truth is, far too many of us place excessive importance on stuff and things, seeking from them a sense of worth and using them as our primary source for finding satisfaction and significance in life.

The Philippians saw Paul as someone in need. He was under house arrest in Rome, so his circumstances were less than ideal. He had no source of income, so his financial situation was challenging. They may have heard that his housing was inadequate and his food supply was insufficient. From their perspective, it must have appeared that Paul was in dire straights, as he awaited trial before Caesar.  So, they sent him a gift. And it was only natural that they would do so. They wanted to do something to help alleviate any suffering he may be experiencing as a result of his conditions.

But Paul, while grateful for their graciousness and love, used this as another teaching moment, letting them know that, in spite of what he was going through, he really had no need. It wasn’t about the condition of his circumstances or the abundance or lack of material things. And Paul makes that point quite clear in what has become one of the most well-known and oft-quoted verses from the Bible.

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. – Philippians 4:11 ESV

Think about what Paul is saying. His mention of the delay in receiving their gift was not intended to convey that he had lacked in anything. He had not been sitting around waiting for someone to do something about his circumstances. He had not been longing for a gift of some kind that would lighten his load or improve his living conditions. No, he said that he was perfectly content. He was at peace. He appreciated their gift, as an expression of their love, but he didn’t need it. Whatever it was that they sent was not going to make him any more happy or satisfied than he already was.

Over the years, Paul had learned a valuable lesson, that he was not attempting to pass on to them.

I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. – Philippians 4:12 NLT

Paul refers to what he has learned as being a secret or mystery. The Greek word he used is myeō, and it means “to initiate into the mysteries.” He had been taught something that few people ever get to know on their own. And the lesson he learned was taught to him by Jesus Christ Himself. Remember what Paul stated earlier in this same letter: “You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had” (Philippians 2:5 NLT).  He was humble, obedient, selfless, sacrificial and obedient to God the Father, even to the point of death.

Paul was probably familiar with the story when the disciples had brought Jesus food and had encouraged Him to eat. But He had responded, “I have a kind of food you know nothing about” (John 4:32 NLT). While they debated among themselves how Jesus had gotten this food, Jesus told them, “My nourishment comes from doing the will of God, who sent me, and from finishing his work” (John 4:34 NLT). And it is likely that Paul was aware of the encounter Jesus had with a would-be disciple, to whom Jesus declared, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58 NLT).

For Paul, contentment had nothing to do with content. It wasn’t about things. Clothes, food, and living arrangements were not what brought Paul joy. The size of his personal portfolio was not a determiner of Paul’s contentment. The condition of his circumstances was not how Paul measured his sense of satisfaction. The ebbs and flows of material prosperity had no little or no impact on Paul. He didn’t allow the ups and downs of life circumstances to dictate his overall sense of contentment. And the key to this rather radical view on life was his relationship with Jesus. According to Paul, it was Jesus who gave him the strength to live as he did.

I can do all things through him who strengthens me. – Philippians 4:13 NLT

Paul could survive house arrest, because of Jesus. He could put up with less-than-satisfactory living conditions, because of Jesus. He could do without comfortable clothes or good food, because of Jesus. But Jesus didn’t just give Paul strength to survive want and neglect. Paul could survive all the temptations that come with material wealth, because of Jesus. He had remained undistracted by the allure of fame and notoriety, because of Jesus. He was not prone to envy other, more popular, ministers, all because of Jesus.

In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul reminded them that when he had arrived in their city, he wasn’t out to impress or to gain approval.

I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified. I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. – 1 Corinthians 2:1-2 NT

His emphasis had been of Jesus. His strength had come from Jesus. He came to them, filled with fear and trepidation, but he found the power to do what he had been called to do – in Christ. And, in a second letter to the same congregation, Paul emphasized that the strength he received from Christ allowed him to endure anything and everything so that the gospel might be spread and the church of Jesus Christ might be strengthened.

All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. For the more we suffer for Christ, the more God will shower us with his comfort through Christ. Even when we are weighed down with troubles, it is for your comfort and salvation! For when we ourselves are comforted, we will certainly comfort you. Then you can patiently endure the same things we suffer. We are confident that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in the comfort God gives us. – 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 NLT

For Paul, suffering and troubles came with the territory. They were just part of the job description of being a follower of Christ. And he was perfectly content to endure all that came with being a faithful servant of Christ. Life isn’t about ideal circumstances or the presence of material comforts. It is about contentment in Christ.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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Our Prayer Partner.

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. – Romans 8:26-27 ESV

In the preceding verses, Paul encourages us to wait eagerly, hopefully, and yet patiently for the final stage of our adoption as sons and daughters of God and for the redemption of our bodies. There is a day coming when we will freed from these bodies of death as Paul called them (Romans 7:24). We will be given new bodies and the long-awaited opportunity to live in perfect, unbroken fellowship with God, fully enjoying our position as His children and all the benefits that come with being His heirs. But in the meantime, we must continue to live in a fallen world, dealing with the ongoing presence of our sin natures and struggling against the persistent attacks of Satan. Back in verse 17, Paul told us “we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” Our glorification is coming, but in the meantime we sometimes find ourselves suffering as a result of our faith in Christ and our relationship with Him. And as we suffer as God’s children, we naturally call out to Him as our Father. We find ourselves too weak at times to handle all that is happening to us and around us in this world. We are constantly experiencing and witnessing the effects of sin. And so, in our weakness, we cry out for help. But there are times when we don’t even know what to pray. We aren’t even sure what to ask God for. And when we do ask, we sometimes never see the answer to our request.

In our present circumstances, our needs are constant, but Paul assures us that so is the help of the Holy Spirit. He helps us in our weakness. As we patiently, eagerly, hopefully wait for our final adoption and redemption, He comes alongside and assists us during this time of suffering. Paul says we “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23 ESV). That word, “groan”, means to sigh or pray inaudibly. As we attempt to live holy lives in the midst of an unholy world, we find ourselves struggling with our own sin and the constant emotional bombardment from witnessing sin’s damaging influence over the world. So we pray. We call out. And when we do, we find ourselves asking God to remove the cause of our struggles. We beg Him to remove sickness from our loved ones. We ask Him to provide us with resources when our bank account is low or our pantry is bare. We plead with Him to remove our pain and restore our strength when we are weak. And when He doesn’t seem to answer those prayers, we become defeated, confused and, at times, even bitter and disillusioned. But Paul would have us consider that the Holy Spirit helps us in our times of weakness. When we don’t know what to pray, how to pray, or how to get what we pray for, He intercedes on our behalf. “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” The truth is, we don’t know what we need. Paul says, we don’t know what to pray for. We are like little children who ask for the obvious. Driven by our fallen human nature, we tend to ask for what we want, not necessarily what we need. If we have pain, we want it removed. If we experience sickness, we can think of nothing better than having it healed. Paul provided us with a personal testimony regarding this very thing. “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9 ESV). Whatever the “thorn” in Paul’s flesh might have been, Paul prayed that it be removed. But God had other plans and a higher purpose. He was protecting Paul from conceited, proud and arrogant over his position as God’s spokesman. Paul pleaded for the removal of the thorn, but the Holy Spirit interceded and turned those self-centered, comfort-oriented requests into prayers that matched the will of God.

We are children of God, but like all children, we rarely know what we truly need. The Spirit does, because He knows the heart and mind of God. If you ask a small child what he or she wants for dinner, they are likely to respond, “Ice cream!” That is what they want, but that is not what they need. And a loving parent would not give in to their request. Instead, they would provide them with what they truly needed, even though the child may feel like their “needs” are not being met. The difference between our prayers and those that the Spirit prays on our behalf are that He “intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” I don’t always know the will of God. I don’t always know what is best for me. But the Spirit does. And He is constantly taking my sighs, moans, and silent prayers, and turning them into requests that align with God’s will for my life as His child. So when His answers come, I may not always recognize them, but I can trust that they are just what I needed. I have a prayer partner who intercedes on my behalf. He knows the desires of my heart, the will of God, and how the two can become one. Like any loving Father, God is not interested in giving us all that we want, but He is determined to provide us with all that we need for life and godliness. And His Spirit helps us pray within His will so that we can always know that we are receiving the right answer at just the right time.

Surrounded by God.

Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it. Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? – Psalm 139:4-7 ESV

Psalm 139

As far as David was concerned, God knew everything about him. He was acquainted with all his ways. God knew when he was lying down, sitting up, walking around, and even what he was thinking about. Not only that, according to David, “You know what I am going to say even before I say it, Lord” (Psalm 139:4 NLT). Now, that’s a scary thought. God not only knows what we’re thinking, He knows what we’re going to think. He not only knows what we say, He knows what we’re going to say before we do. That is the incredible nature of God’s omniscience. He is truly all-knowing. And David’s response to this fact is rather unique. He tells God, “You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me” (Psalm 139:5 ESV). The word David uses is an unusual one, because it has a predominately negative connotation. It is the Hebrew word, tsuwr and its primary meaning is to “bind, besiege, confine, cramp” (Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance). It can also mean “to show hostility to, be an adversary, treat as foe.” It is the same word God used when He spoke the following promise to the people of Israel: “But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries” (Exodus 23:22 ESV). Even modern translators have wrestled with what David meant. The NET Bible (NET) translated verse 5 this way: “You squeeze me in from behind and in front; you place your hand on me.” The Bible In Basic English (BBE) translates it as, “I am shut in by you on every side.” Other translations take a more positive tone. The New Living Translation (NLT) reads, “You go before me and follow me. You place your hand of blessing on my head.” The New American Standard Bible (NASB) says, “You have enclosed me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me.” One of the reasons for the more positive nature of some of these translations is the less common meaning of the word used by David. It can sometimes be used to mean, “to form, fashion, delineate.”

So the question becomes, is David feeling hemmed in by God, a little bit hampered and hindered by the thought that God has him surrounded? Or does he find this idea comforting and reassuring? In a way, I think it is both. There are times when we feel like we can’t escape the gaze of God, that no matter what we do or where we go, He is there. When we are living in a way that is displeasing to Him, that awareness manifests itself in guilt and regret. It has a negative connotation. When David sinned with Bathsheba, he knew that God knew. David fully realized that God was aware of every sordid and intimate second of his affair and every thought that went through his mind – all the way up to the plan for her husband’s murder. It is at those times that God’s omniscience and omnipresence feel overwhelming and less-than-encouraging. But there are also those moments when we feel all alone and in great need. It is on those occasions that we need to remember that God is there. He knows and He cares. He has us hemmed in “before and behind.” His hand is on us. He is watching over us. He has us surrounded.

My conclusion is that David was using this word to convey the undeniable nature of God’s presence in his life. There were times when it felt overwhelming and probably a bit oppressive. But those times were related to David’s sin. But when David was in trouble, he found great comfort in knowing that his God was all around him. The Old Testament refers to the hand of God often. “The Lord’s right hand gives victory, the Lord’s right hand conquers” (Psalm 118:16 NET). “Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power,your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy” (Exodus 15:6 ESV). “Let your hand be ready to help me,for I have chosen your precepts” (Psalm 119:173 ESV). Overall, I think David found the nature of God’s pervading, inescapable presence reassuring. That’s why he said, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it.” It was all too much for him to take in and comprehend. A bit overwhelming and intimidating at times? Yes. But also reassuring and incredibly comforting. There had been times David had wanted to run away and hide from God. But he knew he couldn’t. There were other times when he felt like God had abandoned him. But He hadn’t. God was always there. He had David surrounded at all times. And that is as true for us as Christ-followers as it was for David. Our God is everywhere. He knows and sees everything. When we are sinning, that is an intimidating thing to consider. But when we are in trouble or need, it should bring us great hope and comfort. You are never out of God’s sight, apart from His presence, out of His thoughts, or devoid of His love. He is always there. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too great for me to understand!” (Psalm 139:6 NLT).

2 Corinthians 1:1-11

Learning to Lean.

2 Corinthians 1:1-11

We were crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure, and we thought we would never live through it. In fact, we expected to die. But as a result, we stopped relying on ourselves and learned to rely only on God, who raises the dead. – 2 Corinthians 1:8-9 NLT

Going through difficulties is, well, difficult at times. No one enjoys trials and troubles, in spite of James’ admonition to “consider it all joy…when you encounter various trials” (James 1:2 NLT). Trials can be trying. Difficulties are difficult. Suffering can be insufferably hard. Unless we share Paul’s perspective on the subject. And there are few people who understood suffering as well as he did. In this follow-up letter to the Corinthian believers, Paul provided them with a primer on how to handle suffering, and he spoke from first-hand experience. He wrote of the trouble he had encountered somewhere in Asia during one of his missionary journeys. He didn’t provide any details, but simply said that it was a life-threatening experience. He and his traveling companions fully expected to die. So whatever it was, it was bad. Paul wrote that they were “crushed and overwhelmed beyond our ability to endure” (2 Corinthians 1:8b NLT). And yet, the result of this overwhelmingly difficult circumstance was positive. Paul learned to give up and look up. His strength and self-confidence at an all-time low, Paul understood just how much he needed God to see him through the trial. He learned to rely on God, instead of himself. One of the fascinating things about trials is that they can reveal to us just how lousy we are at being god. Through trials, we discover our weaknesses, fears, ignorance, inadequacies, and vulnerabilities. We are no match for life. And yet, small personal victories over trials and troubles along the way can lull us into a false sense of confidence and cockiness. We can begin to believe that we are our own savior. We can deliver ourselves from any and every difficulty – with a little ingenuity, creativity and determination.

But Paul knew better. He had encountered a trial that was beyond his personal capacity to endure. And it drove him to his knees and into the arms of God. “We placed our confidence in him,” Paul wrote. And guess what? “And he did rescue us from mortal danger, and he will rescue us again” (2 Corinthians 1:10a NLT). Paul gave up, looked up, and God showed up. He delivered. He rescued. And Paul learned an invaluable lesson: That God who rescued once, will do it again. He learned to trust God, because God is trustworthy. And that wasn’t just some academic understanding, gleaned from a book sermon, or seminar. Paul had learned it first-hand and up close and personal. Paul’s God wasn’t some ethereal, disembodied deity who lived in some invisible realm and watched over His subjects with disinterest and disdain. He was transcendent, but He was also eminent. God was involved in the lives of His people. He got His hands dirty. He saw what was going on. He heard the prayers of His people. And He did something about it. And Paul had learned to rely on God. He had learned to place his confidence in God.

But there was one other thing Paul had learned and attempted to pass on to the Corinthians. Paul had experienced the comfort of God in the midst of trials. God doesn’t always deliver. At least not on our terms or according to our time table. A big part of trusting God is being willing to let Him do what He knows to be best for us, regardless of whether we particularly like it or not. It’s interesting that Paul had to endure difficulties that practically crushed and overwhelmed him. From his perspective, his difficulties were bad enough to make him believe he was going to die. And yet, God was in the midst of it all. And while it was going on, God was not distant or disinterested. He was providing comfort. The Greek word Paul uses for comfort is parakaleo, and it means to “come alongside, to console, to encourage and strengthen.” God had been there. He had provided them with encouragement, exhortation and comfort – even in the midst of all the difficulties. Sometimes we fail to see God in the middle of our messes. He is there, speaking to us, encouraging us, teaching us – but we are so busy staring at our difficulty or scheming how to get out of it, that we fail to see or hear God.

And Paul had learned one more valuable lesson about trials. Not only does God comfort us in the midst of our trials, He expects us to pass on that comfort to others. One of the most beneficial things about enduring the difficulties of life is that we get the opportunity to come alongside others in their times of trouble, comforting them just as God did us. We can share our intimate knowledge of God’s love, compassion and mercy. We can encourage them to trust in the midst of trials, because we have learned to rely on God. We have seen Him prove Himself faithful in our own lives. So we can speak from experience and “come alongside” those in need and encourage them to wait on the Lord. We can become a source of comfort to them. God never wastes our suffering. He uses it to reveal our weaknesses, expose our pride, dismantle our self-reliance, and increase our faith. He shows up when things are looking down. He comes alongside right when we think He is nowhere to be found. He provides comfort and strength to endure. And He rescues right when He knows it’s time. All so we will learn to place our confidence in Him.

Father, the trials of life are real and regular. They come without warning and, sometimes, in waves. And the tendency is to miss You in the midst of them. Open my eyes so that I can see You in my trials. Help me to hear Your words of comfort and encouragement. Patiently pry my hands off the rudder of my life, so that I will allow You to direct my path and set my course. Forgive me for my self-reliance and stubborn self-sufficiency. I want to rely on You more and me less. I want to experience Your comfort and pass it along to all those You bring into my life who need it. I want to place my confidence in You – at all times and in every circumstance. Amen.

Ken Miller
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men
kenm@christchapelbc.org