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The Keys To Contentment

Philippians 4:8-13

Last summer, as I was preparing the preaching schedule for this year, I was privileged to be part of a week-long seminar entitled “A Fresh Look At Paul.” Material and encouragement gleaned from that seminar have led me to take us periodically through these last months to “A Fresh Encounter with Paul.” We’ve turned repeatedly to his letters or to the book of Acts there to expose ourselves to what God was able to do through this remarkable man. Today we turn to Paul once more. A passage from his letter to the Philippians. It is the fourth chapter, beginning at the eighth verse. This is the Word of God. “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, do, and the God of peace will be with you. For I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now, at length, you have revived your concern for me. Oh, you are indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I complain of want for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. In any and all circumstances, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want. I can do all things in Him who strengthens me.”

Soli Deo Gloria. To God alone be the glory. 

Let us pray. Now may the words in my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, oh God, our rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

I would have to confess to you today that of all the words written by the Apostle Paul, the words which are most difficult for me to grasp in my own life are these words in Philippians 4:11 where Paul says, “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content.” You see, the fact of the matter is that I have never yet met the person – and obviously, I include myself in that number. I have never yet met the person who is absolutely 100% completely satisfied with life just as it is. I’ve never yet met the person who would be willing to say honestly, “There is not a single thing that I would change in life even if I could do it.” I’ve never met that person. And I would venture to say today that for all of us, well, we have at least one complaint; don’t we?

I mean, there is at least one cloud in our sky. There is at least one weed in our garden. There is at least one circumstance in life that we would like to change if we could. It may be some physical problem or a recurring illness. It may be a situation at work which we do not like. Or it may be a state of tension at home. Or it may be some unpleasant task which we are compelled or obligated to perform. It may be something as vast as the state of the national economy, or it may be something as small as a neighbor’s lack of courtesy. It may be a family budget that is just stretched too tight. Or it may be a frustrating relationship with another person which is beginning to wear very thin. I don’t care what it is. But I think that if you are honest, you are going to have to admit that, yes, there is something – oh, it may not be a great something, but there is something in your life, which you would have to change in order to be able to say, “I am totally, completely happy and satisfied and fulfilled in life.”

And given that fact, imagine my problem with having to stand in this pulpit today and try to encourage us to begin to wrap our minds and our hearts around this word that Paul writes to the Philippians, “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content.” And if I didn’t have any idea who wrote those words and if I didn’t know anything about the situation from which those words flowed, I think I would be tempted to say, “Oh, come on now. You must be kidding. And if you’re not kidding, then you must be living in some kind of a dream world to be able to say, ‘I have learned in whatever state I am to be content.'” But the fact is I do know who wrote the words, and I do know the situation from which those words flowed. And the fact is Paul was not living in a dream world, no, far from it.

At that particular point in his life, at the very moment that he set his pen to the paper and wrote those words, do you know where he was? He was in a prison cell in the city of Rome. And he was shackled by the wrist to a Roman guard 24 hours of every day. He was completely cut off from his great life’s work, and he was under the sentence of death by execution. His life could be ended anytime, any day, simply by the word of command from Caesar himself. And Paul knew that. And yet, in the midst of that circumstance, he could sit down and write, “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content.” “I have learned the secret,” he says, “of facing plenty and want, abundance and hunger.” The secret. And you know what I want to say to him today? “Paul, for heaven’s sake’s, whatever your secret is, share it with me because I, of all people, need to know it.” And my guess is that you need to know it too.

And so as I have struggled with Paul over these last months and particularly this last week, as I have tried to crawl inside his mind and his heart, well, I’ve discovered that I believe there are three keys to unlocking the secret of Paul’s contentment, and I believe that those three keys are worth sharing with you. And that’s what I want to do now. 

The first key is this: Paul had the right view of life. 

Paul looked at life realistically. Oh, that’s so important. Paul understood that life is not a bed of roses. Paul knew the sting of setback in his own experience. I mean, Paul knew what it was to be betrayed by friends, to be beaten with whips, to be imprisoned and shipwrecked and stoned. He knew what it was to be maligned and slandered, to be regarded as a traitor and a maverick. He knew these things. He knew what it was to fight against ill health, to battle against wild animals, and to lose all of his money in a lawsuit with the Roman authorities. Paul knew about life. He had been thoroughly initiated into life in the cold, cruel world. He knew all the ups and downs and the ins and outs of life. And I believe that that is what gave him a realistic view of life.

The problem with so many of us is that we haven’t learned to have that realistic view of life. I mean, we think of things like success and happiness and prosperity and privilege and joy and happiness, and we think that those things are our due in life. We think that those things are a right which we possess: it is our right to have those things in life. It doesn’t say that anywhere in the Bible. These things are not our right in life. And Paul understood perfectly well that the rough spots in life are just as normal as the smooth ones. Paul understood that. He understood that sometimes life is going to deal with us harshly. And the problem with most of us is that we expect that we have a right to something else in life, so then when life suddenly brings us up against hardship or failure or sorrow or suffering in some form, well, we get plunged into the black hole of despair and disillusionment.

Not Paul. No, Paul knew that life has its ups and downs, and he looked at life realistically. And that’s why he was able to say, “I’ve learned in whatever state I have to be content.” What a glorious thing to be able to say. And if you and I are ever going to be able to say something like that in life, well, the fact of the matter is there are some very basic realities of life with which we are going to have to come to terms, and we’re going to have to come to terms with those things right now. 

Just for example, one reality in life which we need to face up to is the fact that we live in mortal bodies. And these human bodies of ours are weaker and more prone to illness and less fit for survival than the bodies of most animals. Did you know that? It’s true. You know how it is when you go to buy a car. You know perfectly well when you get that car that sooner or later the battery’s going to wear down, and the tires are going to get thin, and the chassis is going to begin to rattle, and the fuel pump is probably going to fail. And you know, after a number of trips to the repair shop, that, ultimately, you’re going to have to exchange the old vehicle, the old worn-out car and get a new one. And don’t you see that’s exactly the way it is with us? Just as our car is not immortal, so our bodies are not immortal, these bodies with which we travel through time to eternity. The fact of the matter is that things are going to go wrong with our bodies sooner or later. That happened to Paul. He knew what it was to experience physical suffering. And his body, as he moved through life, sometimes gave him such pain that it literally paralyzed his ministry. He couldn’t do anything. He knew what it was to have a mortal body, and he knew that things were going to go wrong with it. That’s one of life’s realities, and we need to face it.

And another reality of life which we need to face is the fact that we live in a hazardous world. All day long, as we handle gadgets and drive our cars and cross the street and swim at the beach or do any number of other things, we are always going to have to confront the possibility of an accident. We live in a hazardous world, and Paul understood that. I mean, he’d been shipwrecked. On one occasion, he was bitten by a snake. He knew all kinds of hazards. He experienced it again and again in the course of his life. He knew that we live in a hazardous world, and he was ready to face that prospect and that possibility, and we need to do the same. 

Another reality we need to face is that we live in a society with other people. Someone once said, “Hell is other people.” Well, that may be just a bit strong. But the fact is – you know it as well as I do – that the actions of other people, many times, will create distress and sorrow and discontent in us. Oh, I suppose that we could avoid that if we want to by going off and living in isolation on some deserted island somewhere. But as long as we choose to live in the midst of a society with other people, then we need to face the fact that we are going to have to share their mistakes and their troubles as well as our own.

Paul understood that. His relationships with others sometimes were fraught with difficulties. He had real difficulty with Barnabas and John Mark so much so that they had to part the ways. His relationship with Peter was never very much to write home about. He had a lot of trouble along those lines. And it caused real problems and real heartache for him. But he faced up to that. He took a realistic view of life. And that’s what he wants us to understand, that these things are simply inevitable in the living of life, and we need to learn that things like disease and accident and suffering and hardship, these things are just as much a part of life as those things which give us joy and satisfaction. Paul learned that lesson. Oh, he learned it well. He knew it. And I’m convinced that because he had learned that lesson, he was able to write, “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content.” He had the right view of life. He looked at life realistically.

But a second key to the secret of Paul’s contentment is this: Paul had the right priorities. 

Paul regarded people as being more important than things. Paul understood that as long as his treasured human relationships remained intact that he had no reason to complain. And he knew that even though he was physically separated at this point from many of those whom he loved most in the world, he knew that that was no reason to be discontented in life because Paul understood that true friendship can never be stopped by anything as insignificant as miles. He knew that. 

In London, England, there was a remarkable institution, a place where, for more than forty years, young boys and girls who had been cursed by their home background and their social environment could come and find their Christian love and Christian hope and Christian ideals which enable them to go on to become respected, useful members of society. It was a place where literally thousands of troubled young lives were transformed in the name of Jesus Christ.

And then one night, during the Second World War, the buildings where those young people lived and worked and learned and played, those buildings were demolished by Hitler’s bombs. The next morning, the superintendent was standing out amidst the smoldering ruins. And some of the boys were there with him. And with a trace of a tear in his eye, the superintendent said, “I guess that’s it. We’ve lost everything.” Whereupon, one of those little boys said, “No, you ain’t. You still got us.” 

And you see that? I think that was Paul’s experience. Because, you see, I believe that there was a day when Paul was sitting in that prison cell in Rome, and he was feeling depressed and dejected about the fact that his whole life had been wiped out. He was locked away, his ministry was finished, and he would soon die. And at that moment, in depth of depression, suddenly, the cell door rattled, and it opened, and there walked in a visitor who carried in his hand a letter and the gift of money. It was from Paul’s friends in faraway Philippi. And that letter would have said, in essence, “Paul, cheer up. You still got us.” And I believe that it was at that moment, at that very moment that Paul sat down and took his pen and began to write a letter of reply, the letter which we know as the letter to the Philippians. And in that letter, as he pours out his heart, he says to them, “Your concern for me is a great source of joy to me for I believe that I can face any trouble, any difficulty, any hardship as long as I know that there are trusted friends who are willing to stand with me in the midst of it all.” That’s what made the difference. And oh, it would change our outlook on life, especially the frustrations and the disappointments we encounter, if we would learn from Paul that we are to place our priority on people and not on things instead of sitting around complaining about all the things life has denied us or taken away from us. Instead, we ought to be celebrating the fact that we have been blessed in life with untold numbers of marvelous friendships by the power of the Spirit of God.

Helen Keller is a woman whom I deeply admire. She spent her life locked away in a prison house of darkness and silence. She was blind and deaf. And yet Helen Keller was an incredibly contented person. Why? Very simply because she had learned, like Paul, that people mattered more than things. And so though she was denied the physical blessings that most of us, frankly, take for granted, still, she was able to sit down and write these words. Helen Keller said, “I feel that all is well in my life because of my friends.” She understood what Paul meant when he wrote, “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content.” He had the right priorities.

But the third key is this: Paul had the right Lord. 

He had the power of Jesus Christ working within him. And that was what really made the difference. If you pushed him to the ultimate, that’s what he would say. As a matter of fact, that’s what he does say right here. He knew that the power of Jesus Christ was working within him. He says, in verse 13, “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.” Paul knew that that power of the Lord Jesus Christ was working within him. And how did it work within him? 

Well, I read not long ago about a rather unusual man. He suffered a tremendous series of reverses in life. There was the deterioration of his own health. And then not long thereafter, his business failed. And then after that, he had to face the tragic death of his father, a man to whom he was quite close. And yet, every time disaster befell him, you know what he did? He stepped back, and he surveyed the wreckage, and he cried his tears of sorrow, and then he said, “Now how can this be used to serve God’s purpose in my life?” What an incredible question, “How can this be used to serve God’s purpose in my life?” And yet, I suggest to you that is precisely the question Paul asked in prison, “How can this imprisonment of mine be used to serve God’s purpose in my life?” He asked the question, and he found the answer. And we know it because of what’s written in Scripture.

In the first place, Paul began to see that he had a missionary opportunity right there in the prison cell. Remember. Remember what I said? He was chained by the wrist 24 hours a day to succeeding shifts of Roman guards, and suddenly he realized that he could share his faith with the one who was holding him in confinement. And that’s what he proceeded to do. He proceeded to share that fate with one shift after another so that later on we read in Scripture that a great portion of the Roman Praetorian Guard came to faith in Jesus Christ, and it was all because of the witness of one man who was locked away in a prison cell and chained to those guards. But not only that, in prison, Paul had time, time on his hands, time to burn. And what did he do with that time? Well, he began to write. And he wrote some of the tenderest, most beautiful, most appealing, most inspirational letters to the churches, letters which have become a part of our New Testament, letters which have changed and shaped the lives of countless thousands of people through the ages.

He said, “How can my imprisonment be used to serve God’s purpose in my life?” And he found the answer. And what was the secret? He says, “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me.” That was the secret. That’s the testimony of a man in Christ, the testimony of a man who knew himself to be possessed by a power that was stronger than he was. And he knew that that power working within him would sustain his faith and his hope and his purpose in life even if life took everything else away from him. And that’s what life did to Paul. Life took away everything from him. And still, he said, “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content because I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

There is an old legend about Paul. I don’t know if the story is true or not. But I hope it might have been. See if you agree. It seems that there was a wealthy merchant who traveled all about the Mediterranean world on business. And in the course of his travels, he kept running into the name Paul. He kept talking with people who had been impacted by this man named Paul. He kept seeing the results of Paul’s work, and he developed a fascination for this man because wherever he went in the Mediterranean world, he saw the signs that Paul had been there. And as he listened to the stories about Paul, he became more and more fascinated with him, so much so that the great desire of his life was to somehow have a face-to-face meeting with Paul. And then, one day, he was traveling on business in the city of Rome, and he heard that Paul had been in prison there. Now, he knew from what he knew about Paul that Timothy was one of Paul’s closest friends. And so he sought out Timothy in the city, and he asked him if he if he could arrange for a visit. And Timothy said yes, and the arrangements were made. And on the appointed day, Timothy accompanied him to the prison where Paul was being held. When they walked into the cell, the merchant was somewhat surprised to see the great apostle looking rather old and physically frail. But he sensed immediately the tremendous strength and the magnetism of Paul’s personality. They had a great visit. It lasted for several hours, so the story goes. And then the merchant left with Paul’s blessing. Outside the prison, the merchant turned to Timothy, and he said, “Tell me, what is the secret of that man’s power? I have never experienced anything like that in my life. What is the secret of his power?” And Timothy said, “Well, it’s rather simple, really. You see Paul’s in love.” The merchant was puzzled, “In love? Paul’s in love?” And Timothy said, “Yes, that’s right. Paul’s in love. He’s in love with Jesus Christ.” The merchant was even more bewildered now than before. “And that’s all?” he said, “He’s in love with Jesus Christ. And that’s all?”


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