Content in All Circumstances
February 11, 2007 AM
By Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
From: Philippians Sermons
We have finished the short section of ethical exhortations so characteristic of the latter part of Paul’s letters. The formally didactic part of the letter is now concluded and, as also characteristic of Paul’s letter writing, he concludes with some personal comment. However that comment is also richly instructive and it too is Holy Scripture, the Word of God is to be believed and obeyed by us. So now we commence the final section of the letter, the last before the salutation. And only here, interestingly, we obviously have come to perhaps the main reason Paul wrote this letter in the first place: to thank the brothers and sisters in Philippi for their generous gift. He has alluded to their kindness earlier (1:5), and has commended Epaphroditus, who brought their gift to him, but he has not yet properly acknowledged their generosity. [O’Brien, 513] The way Paul communicates his thanks, however, has sometimes troubled modern readers of the Bible. It has seemed to some that Paul takes back with the left hand what he offered with the right. Some even have referred to Paul’s “thankless thanks.” To others it has seemed that Paul is actually offering thanks and criticism at the same time. When people do that do us, we hear the criticism and forget the thanks. Some people have thought it is as if he were saying:
“I am glad that at long last, after waiting all this time, you finally decided to think about me.... I hope you understand, however, that I do not really need the money.” [Silva, 200]
But remember the conventions of good manners are perhaps as much as anything different from place to place in different times and cultures. The fact that we would not write as Paul did doesn’t mean that he was either improperly grateful or that the Philippians would have thought he was. Further, perhaps all of us at one time or another have faced the difficulty of accepting gifts – especially large and expensive gifts – accepting them graciously without at the same time suggesting that more is expected. [Silva, 201] Paul knew the sacrifice required of the Philippians to gather the substantial gift of money that they had, and, as once before in 2 Cor. 11:8-9 – he refers to that earlier occasion in vv. 15-16 below, he felt that they had given more than their share. In any case, Paul was always sensitive and careful in talking about money. Then as now people could easily get sideways when money was involved!
Paul has told the Philippian Christians to rejoice over and over again throughout the letter, and mentioned his own joy at several points. Now one final time, he does so again.
The second sentence of the verse is designed to correct any possible misunderstanding of the first: as if Paul were irritated that their gift had not come sooner. Their lack of opportunity may have consisted in not knowing at first where Paul was (remember it was a long and tumultuous period of several years between the time Paul was arrested in Jerusalem and the time he arrived a prisoner in Rome), in the time it took to find someone who could travel to Rome on their behalf (Epaphroditus, as it turned out), and then the long delay as that good man took sick and almost died en route.
vv. 11-13 are designed to forestall another possible misunderstanding: that Paul had been chafing under his straitened circumstances and anxious for some help to arrive.
Stoicism, the reigning philosophical outlook of the Greco-Roman world of that day, the thinking of the elite culture of the time, laid great stress on the virtue of self-sufficiency, and contentment in that self-sufficiency, indeed it was the essence of all virtues. And it was a self-sufficiency: a reliance of the man upon himself. The term Paul uses in v. 11 (translated “content” in the NIV) is, in fact, a favorite term among Stoic writers. There may be a bit of nose-tweaking going on here. Paul uses their word but, of course, because the sufficiency or contentment he is talking about is a very different thing and rests upon a completely different foundation, means something very different by it. That is all the more likely given the fact that the NIV’s “I have learned the secret” is another favorite word of the culture, not now the philosophical thinking of the elite but the religious thinking of the masses. In the usage of the mystery religions – of which there were many in the world of that day – one sought and supposedly found initiation, usually cultic in its character, into the secrets of reality. By the discovery of these secrets one was rendered immune from the evil and the suffering of the world. If Paul is using the familiar term ironically, Paul is saying that there is another way to the secret of reality, a better way, a truer way and he has found it in Jesus Christ.
By the way, it is a relatively easy thing to be content when everything is going swimmingly well. Being content in the midst of troubles is the problem and in that sense Paul’s language may mean nothing more than rhetorically, “I am content no matter what the situation.” For example, when Paul writes in Romans 8 that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” he goes on to illustrate that point only in regard to hard things, sorrows, troubles, and disappointments in life. We tend not to worry very much nor do we need to be encouraged in regard to the happy things, or when we are prosperous and successful. All of that is true enough. But, on the other hand, there is a very real sense in which even times of happiness and plenty have their own temptation. For example, the one who has been given much is often someone who craves more. That is also not the contentment Paul is talking about. Brides and grooms, for example, promise their faithfulness to one another in times of plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, but there have been a great many divorces, as we know, in times of plenty and health.
The “in him” is, of course, a reference to Jesus Christ. It is in and through our union with Christ that these happy states come to pass in our hearts and this strength is found for a life of peace and contentment in a world full of difficulties of every kind.
Paul’s famous statement – usually quoted as “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” – has often been taken out of context by a certain kind of preacher and made into a promise that Christians can have or accomplish whatever they wish if only they have enough faith in Jesus. But in its context Paul is talking about handling or coping with the things he has just mentioned in v. 12. That is all the more obvious in Paul’s Greek than it is in your English translation because the “everything” or the “all things” in v. 13 is the same word as is translated “any” in the phrase “any and every situation” in the previous verse.
Verse 14 completes the previous thought rather than it begins the next. He wants to be sure that they haven’t taken his previous comments to mean that he didn’t greatly appreciate their kindness. He really did.
In assuring his friends in Philippi both of his gratitude for their generous gift to him that had come by the hand of Epaphroditus, one of their number, and the fact that he is not in further need of anything, the great apostle makes his famous declarations: “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances…” and “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.” He has been a free man for most of his life, but now he is a prisoner; no matter, he is as content in the latter situation as in the former. He has enjoyed times of plenty and times of great need, but has learned to be content in either situation.
Using an unusual verb, indeed it appears only here in the New Testament, Paul says that he has “learned the secret” of this contentment. [Cf. BAG, 530] Well, he might well say that it is a secret. A secret is, of course, something that many, if not most people, do not know. And in regard to this secret, even many Christians might well admit that they have not yet learned it themselves.
Certainly no one can deny that true contentment is not the fortune of many in our day and time. It is a scarce commodity in the world. Our world is fueled by discontent. It runs the engines of government, economy, and society. Everyone wants more than he has or wants something else than she has. They want to be happier, wealthier, prettier, whatever. Enormous amounts of time, energy and money are devoted to seeking this elusive contentment and for its sake sacrifices are made, families are divided, the law is broken, great risks are undertaken, pleasures hotly pursued, even coaches are fired.
Long ago the prophet Habakkuk described today’s man or woman to a “T.” “He is as greedy as the grave and like death is never satisfied.” [2:5] But, alas, what is true in the world is too often true in the kingdom of God. There may be more true contentment to be found among Christians – there certainly is – but there is not nearly as much as there ought to be.
In 1648 the English Puritan preacher, Jeremiah Burroughs, wrote a book he entitled The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. The “rare jewel…” So it was in the 17th century and so it is today!
But let me make the matter more personal by asking you if you are yourself content. Can you say of yourself what Paul said of himself: that he had learned the secret of being content in any and every situation? Well, before we can answer that question for ourselves, we need to know what this contentment is that Paul is talking about, this “secret” that he had learned. He doesn’t really tell us here precisely what the secret is or how it might be defined or even in particular how it might be had. He expects us to know what he is talking about, but do we?
- It obviously doesn’t mean a lack of problems and troubles for Paul had plenty of those and so do we. Paul is not content because he denies reality. Paul was no Pollyanna. He was in prison, after all, facing an uncertain future when he wrote about being content! Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science held that everyone should be content because man is incapable of sin, sickness, and death – evil, the unlikeness of God, is unreal. Such things are merely figments of the imagination. But that is not the Bible’s view and certainly not Paul’s. “Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.”
- Nor is this contentment a complacency which simply refuses to feel the troubles of life, our own and those of others. Paul was a man who felt his own sorrows keenly – “Oh wretched man that I am…” he once wrote about himself. And he was a man who felt a deep sympathy for others in their troubles and sorrows. Speaking of the Jews, his countrymen, who had crucified the Lord of Glory and still refused to believe in him even after his resurrection from the dead, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart for them…” The contentment, of which Paul speaks here, this wonderful secret he had learned, is definitely not insensitivity to pain, evil, or sorrow. He is no impassive Buddhist seeking calm detachment within himself. He wants, he needs, and he does feel the sting of life.
- Nor is it simply resignation, a passivity that feels the hurts but recognizes that nothing can be done about them and so might as well not think about them or concern him over them. No; Paul was content, but we know him from Acts and his letters to be a man of intense desire, almost unbelievable drive, and purposeful action. He worked all his Christian life to change things, to leave the world a different place than he found it. He worked hard to change things in his own sinful heart; “I beat my body and make it my slave,” he says in 1 Corinthians 9. He worked hard to change things in the church to make it strong and healthy and influential. And he worked hard to change things in the world bringing the knowledge of Christ and salvation to those who had not heard. The contentment Paul is talking about goes hand in hand somehow with dissatisfaction, even an uneasy frustration with things as they are. It goes together with very hard work to make things better.
But if this contentment is not the denial of pain, or complacency in the face of it, nor resignation to it, what is it? Burroughs, in his famous 17th century work, defined it this way:
“Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.”
That is a 17th century way to say that this distinctly Christian form of contentment, this secret of contentment, is an agreement in our hearts with the ways of God, with his plan for us and for the world. John Newton, of “Amazing Grace” fame, put it this way:
“[The Christian] knows he has no right to complain of anything, because he is a sinner; and he has no reason, because he is sure the Lord does all things well. Therefore, his submission is not forced, but is an act of trust.”
But we can be more specific. Paul says that he learned this, which suggests that his contentment was the application of the truth he had come to know as a Christian. The reason he tells the Philippians of his contentment is obviously because he expects them to seek it and find it also. And the reason he doesn’t give a long explanation of this contentment and how it comes to a believing heart is because he expects them to know what he is talking about. These states of mind, this secret contentment is the inevitable result of believing – really believing to be true – what Christians, all Christians, believe. It’s a secret not because the argument is hard to follow, but because it is hard to put into practice.
Paul’s contentment rests on an argument something like this, interestingly, almost every part of which has already appeared in some form in this letter.
- Conditions are always changing, so obviously I must not be dependent upon conditions. There can be no true contentment if the reason for my contentment may have disappeared tomorrow.
- What matters first and foremost in my life is my soul, my relationship to God. That is the first thing and, ultimately, that is the only thing, my salvation. “What does it profit a man,” Jesus said, “if he gains the whole world but forfeits his soul.” [Mark 8:36]
- In Christ I have found peace with God, the forgiveness of my sins, and a place in God’s family and the promise of eternal life. God is now my heavenly Father and is concerned about me as my Father. Nothing happens to me apart from his will. He numbers even the hairs on my head. I must never forget this. As Augustine put it in a famous sentence: “He has everything, who has the one who has everything”, “Habet omnia qui habet Habentem omnia.”
- God’s will and God’s ways are a great mystery. I do not understand what he is doing but I know, because he has told me and Christ has shown me, that whatever he wills for me is for my ultimate good.
- Everything that happens to me, therefore, is some manifestation of God’s love for me and goodness to me no matter how impenetrable the reason. I can look for and often find the divine love in something difficult that has happened, but even if I can’t tell just how God is loving me in some trouble or trial through which I must pass, I will see it some day.
- God is, in any case, after a greater holiness in me, greater Christ-likeness, and as Jesus grew in grace through his trials, so will and so must I. If these troubles are necessary to make me holy, to deepen my faith, to soften my heart, to make me less enamored of this world, then I’d rather have them than not.
- And, finally, whatever my conditions may be at this moment, they are only temporary. If they are great, and I am enjoying a great period of happiness and prosperity, I am soon to die and be in heaven and no matter how much prosperity a person has in this world, it is abject poverty compared to heaven. As one old writer put it, “While you are alive, you should not be much troubled about that which you cannot enjoy when you are dead.” [Manton, Works, xxii, 308] And if I am in want, and I am not in prosperity at this particular moment, very soon my wants will be made up beyond my wildest dreams. Nothing in this world can rob me of the joy and the glory that await me because Christ has gone ahead to prepare a place for me. [This adapted from Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression, 284-285]
Now that is a simple argument and there is no part of it that any true Christian can possibly object to or deny. When Jesus Christ is the defining principle of your life, when he – the conqueror of sin and death – is the object of your faith, your hope, and your highest love, then the true contentment of which Paul speaks can be a problem, it can be missing, for one reason and one reason only: our sins and the weakness of our faith have kept us from being and living as consistently as Christians as we ought to. The more faithful to Christ and to the truth that is in Christ we are the more content we will be and in the nature of the case the more content we have to be. The argument is invincible so long as Christ is clear to our sight, the gospel is a living power in our hearts, and the truth of God’s Word is present to our minds.
Take the worst thing that could happen to us. What would that be? Well, there are many parents in this sanctuary this morning. And for us it is easy to think that the worst thing would be the death of one of our children. There may be worse things, but this surely would be very hard to bear.
I was looking up something the other day and came across this. James Wodrow, a 17th century Scottish covenanter, was a man who suffered for his faith during the times of persecution. He was a faithful Christian man and very faithful father of very worthy sons, one of whom became an important theologian and church historian, but another of whom, by the name of Sandie – short for Alexander – died while still a young man. It was a loss very keenly felt by a loving father. One day, not long after Sandie’s death, some friends came to visit and found Mr. Wodrow sitting alone by his son’s grave. They asked him what he was doing and he replied, “I have been adoring holy, spotless and absolute sovereignty…and I was thanking God for 31 years’ loan of Sandie, my dear son.” [A. Smellie, Men of the Covenant, 250] No indifference or complacency here. His heart was broken. But he knew some things. He knew his son’s death was God’s perfect will and plan. Sandie’s death was no accident, no meaningless misfortune. He knew he couldn’t begin to fathom the infinite wisdom of God’s decree, but he knew that his heavenly Father loved him and would never bring heartbreak for no good reason. He knew that much as he grieved for his son and missed him, his son a faithful Christian himself was in a world of everlasting joy and, even if he could, he would not ask for him back. And he knew that he would be with his son someday to love and be loved again.
That is Paul’s secret of contentment, the aftereffect of placing our faith in Christ and looking up to our heavenly Father, confident of his love, of his perfect care of us and for us in all things. All things!
We know that an all-wise God makes some of his children rich and some poor; makes some strong and others weak; some handsome or beautiful and some plain; some intelligent and others less so; some confident and self-assertive, some shy and reticent. He orders a comparatively easy road for some of his children to walk and for others an uphill and rocky and slippery way. But God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, always provides perfectly for the needs of his children. Whatever the shape of their lives, he has chosen it for them precisely because he loves them as much as he does and has their ultimate welfare and happiness in view.
Paul knew and every Christian knows however many times he must remind himself of this in the push and pull of life that the true purpose of any life in this world is found only in respect to its fulfillment in the world to come. Paul’s contentment, the secret contentment of the Christian faith rests upon an unshakeable confidence in the new Jerusalem, the city of God, and that everything that happens in this life takes on its meaning only from the vantage point of eternity.
Some of you may know the name of Thomas Goodwin, one of the members of the great assembly of ministers and theologians who, in the middle of the 17th century, produced our Westminster Confession of Faith. Goodwin was a celebrated preacher, a faithful pastor, and an important churchman, but by temperament he was a scholar: a man of books and a lover of books. He had an immense and valuable library. It was the kind of library that other ministers coveted and included many of what were regarded even then, in the 17th century, as old and rare volumes.
In the Great Fire of London of 1666 Goodwin lost that matchless library. Unless you love books and have spent your life acquiring them and find yourself sometimes sitting in your chair looking at them, you cannot know what a punishing loss and personal catastrophe that was. I never think about Goodwin without a bolt of fear shooting through my own heart and I have neither the library nor the scholarship of Thomas Goodwin. But we share a love of books and of a particular kind of book. Well, Goodwin was regarded in his day and has been regarded ever since as a particularly faithful and insightful interpreter of the apostle Paul. Paul was in a particular way Goodwin’s master. And so perhaps it is not surprising that Goodwin had learned Paul’s ancient secret about contentment.
He acknowledged that the Judge of all the earth does right and that God’s wisdom is far above our own and that what God appoints for his children is always motivated by his impossibly great love for them, the love that sent his Son Jesus to the cross to take away their sins and open the path to eternal life. He saw a particular kindness of the Lord – stern but kind – in the loss of his great library. “I loved my books too well,” he wrote, “and the Lord rebuked me.” The tragedy resulted in Goodwin’s re-centering himself on eternal matters. Out of his trial and out of his reflections on that trial came what some consider his greatest work, Patience and its Perfect Work, a book that has helped generations of believers learn the secret of contentment in any and every situation.
Goodwin would never have again the library he once had, but he had God, he had Christ, he had heaven, he had a life to live and a great calling to fulfill, and his name was written on a page – in the indelible letters of Christ’s blood – in the only book that matters in all of this wide universe: the Book of Life.
And if you are a Christian, if you are united to Christ by faith in him, if you have put your trust in him as your Savior and offered your fealty and obedience and love to him as your Lord and Master, if you are a follower of Christ and so God’s child, your name is written on some page of that same book in the same letters of blood. And to know that and to believe that is contentment of the truest, the highest, the purest, and the most indestructible kind! And if you are not yet a Christian, what on earth are you waiting for? Your whole self craves, you have been made to crave and long for that heavenly Father and for that contentment and fulfillment in life. There is only one place where it may be found and all the thousands of years of human life in this world have proved this true over and over again, one place, one name: in him, Jesus Christ. Amen.