Unshakable Christian Contentment
P. G. Mathew | Monday, November 22, 2004
Copyright © 2004, P. G. Mathew
I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can to everything through him who gives me strength.
Have you said "Thank you" to anyone recently? Thankfulness is an important quality, especially for Christians. First, we must thank God for what he has done for us; second, we must thank the agent God used to work in our lives. Some people want to profusely thank God, yet treat God's agents with contempt. That is not right. We must thank God, for he is the source of all blessings, but we must also thank the human agents through whom these blessings come. So children should thank God and then also thank their parents, whom God used to provide for them. We must never take things for granted, because God does not appreciate people who receive but never thank.
The book of Philippians is a thank-you note sent by the apostle Paul to the church of Philippi for the care package they sent to him as he languished in prison in Rome. Not only did Paul thank the Philippians for their gift, but he also expressed his contentment with God's provision for him in any and every situation, even in prison. Let us, then, examine Philippians 4:10-20 to learn the secret of Paul's contentment and thankfulness.
The Key to Contentment
The first thing Paul says is that he has learned to be content in every circumstance. If you are a Christian, are you unshakably content with your life? If not, what do you think will make you happy? A thing? Notice, Paul was in a Roman prison when he wrote this letter to the Philippians around A.D. 61. This Jewish rabbi, who was a Pharisee, a Roman citizen, a highly educated man, and a former persecutor of the Christian faith, was disinherited by his rich parents because of his faith. Now he was languishing in a dungeon because of his faith in Jesus Christ. Yet he was unshakably happy and content. In fact, he says, "I have no need." Paul was not looking for a thing to make him happy.
Paul's was not the contentment of the Stoics, the self-sufficiency due to a stiff upper lip, or the independence from circumstances that comes from sheer mental discipline. No, Paul had various needs. The prison system in those days did not provide much. He needed food, clothing, books, pens, paper, ink, and, above all, freedom. He also needed spiritual fellowship with the people of God. Additionally, he had no money to provide for these needs.
We are not created to be self-sufficient. Rather, we are all dependent beings-dependent on creation, dependent on people, dependent on holy angels, who are always helping us, and, above all, dependent on the triune God. So the Stoic who proclaims himself to be self-sufficient is a fool. No one is self-sufficient in that sense. We all are dependent.
Paul's condition was worse than that of a slave. A slave was free, but Paul was in prison, chained to soldiers on the left and on the right. How, then, could he say he was content? How could anyone be happy in such a miserable situation? Here is the secret: If heaven is where God is, this prison was heaven to Paul, because the Lord was with him. That is the key to it all. Paul could look at the chains and the prison and the darkness, or he could look at God, who was with him. The Lord who appeared to him and apprehended him on the road to Damascus never forsook him. He said that at his first trial, though all believers, friends, left him, the Lord stood with him and gave him strength. So the key to Christian contentment is not a thing but a person, God himself. And he who started a good work, Paul said, will continue it until completion. We may quit, but God never does. So Paul said, "To me to live is Christ" and "I no longer live but Christ lives in me." That is the key to true happiness.
By faith, Paul was united to Christ. Professor John Murray said the mother of all doctrines is the union of a believer with Jesus Christ by saving faith. It is an inseparable and everlasting union in which Christ his head always nourishes and cherishes him, just as a Christian husband is to nourish and cherish his wife. He does this every moment for every one of us by granting us the sufficiency of his grace.
Paul was the branch and Christ was the vine. He worked out his salvation because God was working in him, both to will and to do his good pleasure. Jesus told his disciples to go into all the world, and then he promised to be with them, even to the end of the ages. So it does not matter where we are. We can even be confined in a prison and in chains, yet God will be with us, meeting our every need.
That was the key to Paul's happiness and sufficiency: the Lord was with him and the Lord was in him. How could Paul be unhappy in the Lord's presence? In his presence there is fullness of joy, and on his right hand there are pleasures forevermore. David says, "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall lack nothing." The Lord led Israel through the wilderness of desolation so that his people would learn not to trust in themselves, in others, or in this world, but in him. He also leads us in the way of wilderness to humble us. He brings us through trials so that we may look up and trust in Christ alone and fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. He ordains that Pharaoh's mighty army pursue us. Before is the Red Sea and behind is the army; before is Marah; before is the army of the Amalekites; before there is no food or water; before is the raging Jordan River. But no matter: the Lord is with us-the Creator and Redeemer, the infinite, sovereign Lord. Is there anything too hard for this God?
Paul's faith was not academic, but experiential. Some seminaries can only give an academic, theoretical faith. They can never teach us how to have saving faith in Jesus Christ. But the faith of Paul was experiential, and we need such vital, experimental faith. Don't tell me that when your wife is sick and dying, you can live by academic faith. Theoretical faith will never survive a cold prison. How can theoretical faith write to the Philippians from prison, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I say again, rejoice!"
Learning to Be Content
So the secret of Paul's contentment in prison, as well as in all the adversity he experienced, is disclosed in Philippians 4:11-13. Paul says first, "I have learned. . . ." Then he says, "I know. . . ." Then he says again, "I know. . . ." Finally, he says, "I have been taught the secret of being content." This is serious business. Paul was a disciple and the Lord was his teacher. Christian life is always a life of discipleship. The Lord is with us and he is teaching us.
"I have learned" - "I know" - "I know" - "I have been taught." What did he learn? What was he taught? What did he know? And who taught him? Paul learned to be autarkê, which means self-sufficient or content. Contentment - this is what the Lord taught him in prison. He learned to be self-sufficient, independent of all the changing circumstances of life. He learned to be able to live independent of everything, but dependent on God and God alone.
Paul was not always like this; the Lord had to teach him through the school of wilderness experience. Just read 2 Corinthians 1, 4, 6, 11, and 12. In these chapters we see Paul going through all kinds of experiences until, finally, he arrived at this position. He learned his lesson well, well enough to be sufficient, and content, whatever his circumstances-unshakably content.
Paul learned he could have deep peace in his soul, whatever his circumstances. He learned he could pray instead of murmuring and sing instead of sulking. Thus, when he was led to preach in Europe in the city of Philippi, and this Roman citizen, this accomplished rabbi and apostle of Christ, was stripped and severely beaten and thrown into an inner cell in the Philippian jail where his feet were placed in stocks, he, together with Silas, began to pray and sing hymns at midnight. This is true contentment, true happiness that is irrespective of circumstances. I pray that God will help us to emulate Paul. Life is real. We will experience storms and troubles and ups and downs.
Paul was taught by the Lord to be content, to be happy and rejoice in all situations. Whether demoted or promoted, sick or healthy, poor or rich, despised or praised, abased or abounding, hungry or filled, lonely or having many friends, in shipwreck or safe on the land, when stoned and left for dead or when rising from the rock heap, Paul was content. The Christian life is a life of contentment. He learned to be self-sufficient and content in any and every situation.
Don't we feel ashamed for murmuring and complaining and sulking over silly things? How often have we lost our temper over little things? The Christian life is like that of the Israelites in the wilderness. First, we have no water. Then, thirsty, we come to Marah, but the water is bitter. Then the water is made sweet, but now we have no food and are hungry until God provides manna. Then the Amalekites attack and God must defeat them. That is what the Christian life is about: the ups and downs of health and sickness, despising and praising, deprivation and provision, some hating us and others loving us. God ordains sovereignly all of these experiences for our good. There is purpose behind all the experiences God brings our way.
God uses all things to conform us to Jesus Christ in character. Through our life experiences, the Lord our Bridegroom makes us, his bride, glorious, without stain or wrinkle, holy and blameless, in preparation for the great eschatological wedding feast of the Lamb.
We Are Able
What, then, is the key to Paul's professed self-sufficiency? We find it in chapter 4, verse 13. In the Greek text, the first word is panta, which means all things -– Panta ischuô en tô endunamounti me: "All things I am able in the one who strengthens me." All things! Paul puts that first. Whether people despise us or praise us, whether we live in poverty or abundance, whether we have sickness or health, we are able for all things.
Now, the Greek and the Stoic would also say, "I am able for all things," but that would be the end of his statement, because he is a self-centered, self-anchored person. A British man was always to have a stiff upper lip, no matter what. Such stoicism has nothing to do with faith; it is only pride in one's own self-discipline. But that is not the key to Paul's contentment and happiness. He says, "I am able for all things in the one who strengthens me." Who is this one? The Lord Jesus Christ. Notice, Paul uses a present participle. That means it is an ongoing, continuous action of the Lord. He is with us and in us, strengthening us and infusing into us his divine strength and power to make us competent to face all realities. That is the key.
Socrates was described as autokratos kai semnos - self-sufficient and devout. But not St. Paul. Paul says, "I am able for all things in the One who strengthens me." Here we find this great doctrine of union with Christ. When we put our trust in Jesus Christ, we enter into a vital, everlasting, inseparable dynamic union with Jesus Christ, our God, Savior, and Lord. It is because of this union that we are able for all things.
So the key to Paul's contentment, strength, and sufficiency is his vital union with Christ. What about you? Do you have vital faith or phony faith? If you have vital faith in Christ, you will glory in him, delight in him, love him, and keep his commandments. You will honor him, worship him, and sing his praises with passion and intelligence.
Union with Christ
This union with Christ is a living and inseparable union. Paul knew that nothing in all creation could separate him from Jesus Christ-neither death nor life, he declares, nor anything else. Jesus himself said, "I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand" (John 10:28). So Paul could say, "I am able for all things in him who gives me strength. Right now, in this dungeon, while I am chained to soldiers, when I have no freedom, God is in me and God is with me. And I know that he will give me all that I need." Yes, we all have needs. We are dependent creatures. We need food, water, clothing, shelter, family, friends, church and God. Like a fish need water, we need God and his gracious provisions. And because we are connected vitally to Christ by saving faith, he will take care of our needs.
What did Paul do when he faced need? Chapter 4 gives us a clue. You see, Paul was not just writing something theoretical; he was speaking from experience. Though he was in prison, he wrote, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God" (v. 6). When a situation comes that tries us, what should we do? Approach God. And when we see the infinite, personal Savior/Redeemer God, then everything will be all right. "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything," approach God in prayer and specific petition. If we are really needy, we will make a specific petition, and we will do so with thanksgiving. Thank God for all that he has done. "[W]ith thanksgiving, present your requests to God." Yes, God knows our needs, but he requires us to make them known to him. Then the Bible says, "And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus" (v. 7). God will send his peace into our hearts, and we will experience deep peace and unshakable contentment. When we approach our prayer-hearing, eternal, almighty God in the name of Jesus Christ, he sends such peace into us that, in the midst of all instability, our hearts will be stable and steady. The world may ask, "How can you do that?" We can then tell them, "It is God who enables me to do it."
Then Paul tells us something else in verse 8, which he also practiced: "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think on these things." We need to think the word of God. If we give the gospel only superficial and perfunctory attention, we will be shaken.
Paul says, "Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me-practice these things. And the God of peace will be you" (v. 9). So there is the peace of God, as well as the God of peace. If God is with us, we will be unshakable, for God himself is the unshakable, eternal God. (PGM) He tells us, "No one is able to snatch them out of my hands. My Father is greater than I, and no one is able to snatch them out of his hands."
In the midst of pain and suffering and misery and loneliness, know this truth: God is with us and he will give us his peace. "My peace I give unto you." That should stabilize our hearts. The deep peace of God that surpasses all human reasoning guarded Paul's heart and mind in Christ Jesus and, thus, he enjoyed deep peace. He knew that God would provide, God would come through, and God would take care of him. God is our life and our salvation. We are God's responsibility. It is his business to take care of us! All his life, Paul was taken care of by God. And, finally, God gave him strength to die a martyr's death.
God Provides through His Agents
So we are able as Christians to do all things-to live for him and die for him-through Jesus Christ, who continuously infuses his divine strength into us. He works into us, and we work out. It is that simple. And he supplies our needs through his people. So if God helps us in Christ through his people, then we have a responsibility to love and care for one another. We should know who is in need, what type of trouble they are in, and share their suffering in various ways.
Who do you think put the idea into the minds of the Philippians of supplying the need of the apostle while he was in prison in Rome? God! God brought Paul's plight to their minds, and they said, "We have to do something about it. Who is able to go?" Epaphroditus volunteered, and the church said, "Here is the care package; take it all the way to Rome." So they sent Epaphroditus, and when he arrived, he brought great joy to the apostle's heart: "I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me" (v. 10). So Paul wrote his thank-you note to the Philippians, saying, "You have done beautifully in sharing in my affliction" (v. 14, paraphrased). You see, the church of Christ is one. When one suffers, everyone suffers. Everyone is to share in affliction as well as in joy. And how do we share in each other's affliction? By praying for others, by visiting them, and by sharing our material possessions with them, as is described in Acts 2 and Acts 4.
Jesus Christ himself speaks of this in Matthew 25, beginning with verse 34: "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.' Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you,'" and so on. Verse 40: "The King will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.'"
Paul describes this aid he received as a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God. As New Testament priests, we have sacrifices to offer. Whenever we help someone, it is a sacrifice to God, and God is pleased with it. That is why we help one another generously.
Paul's Thank-you Blessing
Of course, Paul had nothing material to give to these people. But he sent them a spiritual thank-you note, a spiritual blessing, wrapped in a divine promise: "And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus" (v. 19). Simply put, Jehovah Jireh: "My God shall fill to the full" - that is what the Greek text says. The idea is that we are to bring our empty vessels to God, make our needs known to him, and he will fill them. And it is as important to thank the agents whom God uses to bless us as it is to thank God, the source of all blessings. Here we see Paul doing both.
"My God" means the God who loved him from before the creation of the world, the God who chose him and sent the Redeemer to die in his place, the God who sent his Holy Spirit to apply this salvation to him, the God Paul loved and with whom he had been fellowshipping throughout his life. In other words, Paul is not speaking about a theoretical God, but the God of his personal experience. "My God"!
And not only that, he says, "shall fill to the full." Some people say they are living by faith, but what they really mean is that others should give them money. I do not believe in that. But God provides for his people in several ways. The normal way is that we work six days a week, don't spend everything that we make, and save for the days of evil that will come. But even if we are in a prison as Paul was, God will provide. Remember, God provided for Elijah through ravens, then through a poor widow, and then, in the wilderness, through an angel. Oh, my God will supply our every need. Notice, it doesn't say luxury. He may give us luxury, but he guarantees to supply our need. The Bible says if you have food and covering, be content therewith. Then Paul says God will supply this, not out of his riches, but according to them. This wonderful phrase means in proportion to his great wealth. God will open the windows of heaven and pour out a blessing in proportion to his great wealth.
All this blessing comes to us in Christ Jesus. That is why we must trust in him alone for our eternal salvation. This special grace comes from God through Christ to us, and we will be happy. And, finally, in verse 20, Paul thanks and worships God.
What about You?
Let me tell you, this God has supplied all my need all these years and I have lacked nothing. That does not mean there were not times when I did not have anything. But the truth is, he has always provided, and I thank him and those who were his agents to help us.
What about you? Are you unshakably content? Or are you saying, "No, I am not content. If only I had this thing and that thing and a few more things, then I will be happy"? I hope we will realize that our need is not for any more things; our need is to know that God is with us.
Are you content? Is my God your God? Are you united with Jesus Christ by saving faith? Can you rest in God completely, no matter what happens? "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened," Jesus said, "and I will give you rest."
I hope we will begin to believe in the promises of God's word. We are able to do all things in him who gives us strength constantly. Our life does not consist in things, Jesus said. Our life consists in our vital union with Jesus Christ, and he will cause us to be content always. Therefore, do not be anxious of anything. He is with us, he is in us, and he shall never leave us nor forsake us. He will be with us, strengthening us, even in the hour of our death. And when we die, God will send his angels to carry us into the very presence of God. He who started the work will continue and finish it, and make us glorious. So be happy in the Lord, in life and in death. Amen.
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Copyright © 2004, P. G. Mathew
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