Editors note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers think through what discipleship is and how to embrace the Cross of Christ in all of life.

Discipleship-greenPreviously I wrote an article on contentment. Today we’ll continue looking at contentment exploring it’s depths and what it means for us. In Philippians 4:13 Paul provides another dimension of what he means by contentment when he says, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” This verse is not God’s blank check signed and waiting for you and I to fill in the amount of strength I want, to achieve impossible deeds. The “all things” that Paul can handle in verse 13 are the range of situations that he has just described in verse 12. Where we read “in any and every circumstance,” the Greek says “in each thing and in all things”—in the whole range of situations, from being stuffed to being starved, from riding high to crawling low.

Although Paul’s “I can do all things” declaration is not God’s carte blanche for youthful delusions of grandeur, the apostle’s words cast a very distinctive light on the meaning of contentment for those who trust Christ. The fact is that Christ’s apostle has borrowed the word content from the ancient Stoic philosophers, and then twisted it inside out. The word’s origin and its contemporary usage gave it the meaning “self-sufficient.” It conveyed the ideal of self-contained independence that Stoicism advocated. The Stoics claimed that the wise person realizes that every experience, whether pleasurable or painful, is part of an interconnected matrix permeated by Reason. Thus, it is pointless to resent illness or injustice. The key to contentment said the Stoics, was to become emotionally self-sufficient by insulating oneself from the variables of pain and pleasure. One scholar sums up the Stoic conception of contentment this way: “By the exercise of reason over emotions, the Stoic learns to be content. For the Stoic, emotional detachment is essential in order to be content.” Whereas the Stoics believed that intellectual aloofness could provide protection from emotional distress, Paul refuses to insulate his heart from sorrow by keeping people and their hurts at arm’s length. He rejoices with people and weeps over them.

Moreover, here he twists the Stoics’ favorite term, self-sufficiency, inside out. His capacity to handle life’s ebbs and flows is not self-generated. It comes from outside Paul, from “him who strengthens me.” Paul’s contentment is found not in self-sufficiency, but in Christ’s sufficiency. Paul has learned the secret of real contentment, which was portrayed beautifully by the prophet Jeremiah:

Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,

whose trust is the Lord.

He is like a tree planted by water,

that sends out its roots by the stream,

and does not fear when heat comes,

for its leaves remain green,

and is not anxious in the year of drought,

for it does not cease to bear fruit. (Jer. 17:7–8)

How can a tree keep its green leaves in the summer heat and bear fruit in years without rainfall? Not because the tree itself contains an internal spring of water, but because it is planted by a flowing stream. If you are trusting in Jesus Christ, you are this stream-irrigated tree, just as Paul was.

Christ himself is Paul’s source of strength. Elsewhere the apostle speaks of “him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord” (1 Tim. 1:12; see Col. 1:28–29). Paul is far from self-sufficient, but the all-sufficient Christ is Paul’s source of strength. Paul has just promised that “the Lord is at hand” and “the God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:5, 9). Because Paul knows the nearness of Christ even in his captivity, Paul can receive whatever God’s providence brings his way, whether painful or pleasant, with a deep joy “in the Lord.” How can we learn the secret and skill of Christian contentment that sustained Paul?

Contentment Is a Learned Skill and a Shared Secret

In verses, 11 and 12 Paul uses four verbs to communicate how he has acquired the contentment that enables him to rejoice in the Lord in plenty or in want. He writes:

“I have learned …

I know …

I know …

I have learned the secret.”

The double occurrence of “I know” shows the result of the learning process indicated in the first and fourth verbs—“I have learned” and “I have learned the secret.” Paul can say, “I know how to be brought low” and again “I know how to abound” because he has gone through a learning process and been initiated into a secret that gives him a Christ-centered perspective on his fluctuating situation.

The fact that Paul has “learned” contentment shows that his calm response to life’s ups and downs is a skill honed through practice. The author to the Hebrews uses the same term, writing that Christ Himself, “although he was a son, learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). The eternal Son of God entered the world ready to fulfill the Father’s will (10:5–10), but His holy resolve was tested and proved through His obedient suffering. In this sense He “learned” in practice what obedience entailed, and what it cost. Christ-centered contentment is not preinstalled on our hearts, like a software program preloaded into a new computer. Nor is Christian contentment injected in a single dose, as though it were a vaccine that could make us immune to a complaining spirit. It takes practice. Contentment grows over time, as we face adverse situations—in finances, health, relationships, or other areas—and seek Christ’s strength to release our grip on his gifts, while we strengthen our grasp on his grace.

Yet cultivating Christian contentment is not merely a matter of following an exercise regimen to reprogram our attitudes. Contentment is a secret that has been shared with Paul by Another. Our version’s “I have learned the secret” represents a single Greek word, which could also be translated “I have been initiated.” This is the only place in the whole New Testament that this word appears. In Paul’s day it was associated with the bizarre initiation rituals of the pagan “mystery religions.” (In fact, the verb is related to the Greek noun mystērion, from which we get mystery in English.)

The mystery of the gospel is an “open secret” concerning public events: Jesus, the Son of God, became man, lived a perfectly obedient life, then died a criminal’s death under God’s wrath (not for his own sins but for others’ offenses), rose from the dead, ascended to heaven, rules now, and will return in glory. There it is, God’s most wonderful secret, right out there on the open market … no passwords, no secret handshakes, no going down into a pit to be showered with the warm blood of a freshly slaughtered bull as in Mithraism.

Paul implies that there is a secret to contentment, a code to be cracked that will enable you to weather the best of times and the worst of times. Contentment in Christ is a kind of “insider knowledge.” Yet the great here is that it can be known can simply by believing the very public gospel that Paul preached—by entrusting your life to the crucified and risen God-man, Jesus the Messiah. Christ, Himself is the secret to contentment—not a mystical Christ hidden behind secret rituals or visionary experiences, but the historical Jesus who lived and died and rose again, who is now proclaimed openly among the nations. The better we get to know Christ, the more we discover that He is the One who satisfies our hearts.

Food and shelter are necessities for existence on this earth. Extra food and comfortable shelter, as well as cars and computers and the other extras that many of us enjoy—these are not necessary, but they are nice. Yet none of this can quench your heart’s thirst because, at the core of who you are, you were made for friendship with the living God. When you’re tempted to think that there is something else, anything else, that you “just have to have” to make life worth living, that is the time to remind yourself of the secret. By faith in the gospel of God’s Son, you have been initiated as an “insider.” You are in on the secret. You have Christ at the center of your life, and in the end he is all that you need!

Contentment Entails Exerting Strength

Does all of this sound like too facile and cheap a solution to the real-world shortages and crises that keep you awake at night? Is Paul simply offering an ancient form of “happy talk”? No, Paul is a sober realist, and his closing word on contentment, before he resumes his thanksgiving for the Philippians’ gift, shows that the contentment he commends requires that we flex the mental and spiritual muscle that Christ has given us by his indwelling Spirit: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13).

Christ is the source of Paul’s strength and ours, but we must not ignore Paul’s “I can do”—or, as Paul’s Greek says, “I have power” or “prevail over” every circumstance. Paul uses a term that has “strength” built into it in order to remind us that Christian contentment is not a sedative. Christian contentment is something that we fight for. We must exert effort to wage war against the temptation to complain, to envy others, to fixate on what is uncomfortable and inconvenient and downright wrong in our circumstances. We strive to focus instead on the faithfulness and mercy and strength of our God. Paul flexes his mental muscle to remind himself often that in Christ he already has the supreme treasure, and that he is racing toward a goal that will mean an even greater experience of His Savior’s grace and glory. And again, Paul is not striving in his own strength or racing in his own energy. The key to his patience in the present and his hope for the future is the presence of the Christ who gives him strength.

Conclusion

How can you follow Paul’s lead, winning the war over both Anxiety and Discontent, even in financially tight times? Focus your mind on the truth that, if you are trusting in Jesus, the living God is with you and at work in you, through the unseen but very real and very powerful presence of the Holy Spirit (Phil. 1:19).

The more you direct your heart toward Christ’s presence and power, the less you will waste your mental and emotional energy on the stuff that doesn’t last. You will be able to keep a light grip on what you do have, and you won’t fret over what you don’t have. God will keep the amazing promise that Paul issued just before our text, “The God of peace will be with you” (Phil. 4:9). And you will want to invest the resources that He does entrust to you in ways that enable others to see in you glimpses of the generosity of Jesus Himself and the contentment that He imparts to those who trust him wherever He leads, whether through plenty or through poverty.