How to Find Contentment in a World of Discontent (Phil Johnson)

Philippians 4:10-13   |   Sunday, January 13, 2013   |   Code: 2013-01-13pm-PJ

     The theme of this passage is contentment. This is a virtue that is hardly esteemed at all in our culture. In fact, you might say our culture is hostile to the very idea of contentment.

      In the worlds of sports and business, if you are contented, you may even be criticized as someone who isn't ambitious enough, hungry enough, feisty enough to be an asset to your company or your team. It sometimes seems as if the entire goal of the advertising industry is not to sell products but to foment discontent, by stimulating desires for things we cannot afford and do not need; by inflaming appetites that cannot possibly be gratified righteously; and by appealing to lusts that ought to be suppressed rather than cultivated and encouraged. The world is constantly screaming at us that we should not be content with our lives and our possessions. Contentment is not an easy thing to cultivate in a culture such the one in which we live.

      The main language of political discourse in America is grousing and complaining. You can hear it nonstop from both the left and the right on drive-time talk-show radio. Whether you are one of the poor and disenfranchised or a member of the rich and privileged class, those who claim to speak for you are unhappy with the way things are going, displeased that you are not getting your fair share of benefits, convinced that you are being forced to bear more than your share of society's economic burden, and certain that government policies will make your lot in life worse, not better.

      Discontent is even fodder for comedy and other forms of entertainment. Have you ever thought about how many popular songs are simply drawn-out complaints and ballads of dissatisfaction? "I Can't Get No Satisfaction." There's even a song titled "Glad to Be Unhappy." We have whole musical genres for songs of complaint: protest songs; angry rap; sad ballads; the blues. That's not a criticism of any style, but it should be clear from the kinds of songs we enjoy and the sheer number of songs like that—our culture is over-saturated with discontent.

      Not to mention our comedy. Comedy has taken a very hard edge since the early 1960s, and it's not just because bad language and lascivious subject matter have taken over the entertainment industry. It's partly that, but not completely. The one theme that runs through most forms of entertainment—especially comedy routines—is this relentless spirit of discontent, complaining, and self-pity. I think it's practically an occupational requirement these days for every stand-up comedian to have a routine about all the little insignificant things that make them unhappy.

      And can I be candid? Even the evangelical community is overdosed on discontent. It's as if we look for things to complain about. My church isn't big enough—or it's too big. We're not cool and relevant enough, or the music isn't to my liking, or the people aren't friendly enough—or whatever.

      And yet, imagine if you could go back to Philippi in the first century, take a dozen random church members who are accustomed to that culture, somehow transport them through time, and bring them here for twelve hours. Show them all the conveniences, household appliances, modes of travel and communication we take for granted; let them listen to our Ipods and play with our smartphones. Show them the abundance of our food, the relative wealth of even the poorest small-church pastor, the openness with which our churches are permitted to worship and preach. Let them see that not only the Word of God but also volumes and volumes of Bible-study aids are readily available to us—and not just in hard-copy formats, but you can literally carry a large library of resources around on an iPad.

      Now imagine if you had to explain to that simple first-century believer why we find it so hard to be content with what we have. Words would fail, wouldn't they?

      Let me confess to you that I do my fair share of grousing. Especially when I'm driving. And it drives Darlene crazy to hear what I mutter under my breath about other drivers: they drive too slow, or too fast; they are too risky, or too hesitant; they slow me down, or they are too impatient to get around me. You know how it is. For me, one of the hardest places to avoid being a complainer is when I'm seated behind the wheel. (Except for when I'm seated in the passenger seat and Darlene's driving.)

      Those are all just petty things, but they bring out a spirit of discontent in me, and that's really my point: Nothing is more natural for us than discontent, and nothing comes more spontaneously from our lips than complaining. I was there for the birth of each of my three sons, and every one of them came into this world complaining loudly. Some of us never really do get over that tendency.

      Contentment, even when we have it, seems short-lived and slippery. You know all about this, I'm sure, from your own bitter experience, going back to childhood. There may have been something you wanted badly—some plaything or possession or item of clothing. You daydreamed about it; you felt that if you could just get that one thing, your life would be complete and you would never want anything so badly again. But when the day finally came that you got what you wished for—perhaps it came as a Christmas gift, or you purchased the longed-for item after months of saving your allowance, or whatever—when your wish was finally realized, it was nowhere nearly as satisfying as you thought it would be. And wealth and material things don't get any more satisfying the older you get and the more you accumulate. That's why people who can afford whatever they want keep getting new cars—sometimes every six months or so. We can't get no satisfaction. "Moth and rust destroy and . . . thieves break in and steal" whatever pleasures we derive from material things, earthly fame, worldly power, or any of the treasures of this life. That is the common experience of us all.

      And yet, discontent is no minor transgression. A lack of true contentment is the seed-bed in which sins like covetousness, lust, anger, hatred, and a host of grosser evils are bred and cultivated. The devil's very first temptation of Eve purposely invoked a feeling of discontent in her by suggesting that all the trees in the garden of Eden were not really food enough, as long as God placed a restriction on that one forbidden fruit. Then the devil questioned the truthfulness and the clarity of God's commandment: "Did God actually say, 'You shall not eat of any tree in the garden'?" "You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." See: "God is holding back from you something that is better than what He has given you. Don't be content with such things as you have. Pursue that which God has forbidden as well."

      Doubt married with discontent was thus the only temptation Satan needed to unleash an entire universe of evil, sorrow, suffering, shame, and guilt. Discontent is no minor sin.

      The passage we are looking at in this hour is perhaps the definitive passage on the subject of contentment and how the saints may expect to acquire it. Given that dissatisfaction is our natural tendency; knowing that in our fallen state we are thoroughly corrupted with sinful desires, covetous hearts, evil appetites; and deeply sensing our utter inadequacy when it comes to being truly contented—how can we come by this virtue? How can we be contented people?

      Now, let's not forget that the apostle Paul very humbly confesses in Romans 7 that if he has a besetting sin, it is the sin of covetousness. Evil desire. Romans 7:7-8: "I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, "You shall not covet." But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness." The covetousness Paul is thinking of might include everything from sexual lust or gluttonous cravings to an inordinate desire for material advantages or a constant craving for creature comforts. All of that is rooted in discontent, and all of it breeds more and more discontent.

      So we're not to imagine that contentment came naturally to Paul or that he was specially endowed with some spiritual gift that made satisfaction and serenity easy virtues for him to attain. He's talking about something we know he struggled with. Contentment was just as foreign to Paul as it is to you and me.

      Furthermore, as he writes this epistle to the Philippians, he is literally being held in shackles under the eye of Roman soldiers in the city of Rome. In chapter 1, verse 13 Paul refers to his imprisonment and to the imperial guards who were in effect his jailers. In chapter 4, verse 22, he sends greetings from the saints who are members "of Caesar's household"—so he is clearly being held in Rome as he writes. According to Acts 28:16, during this point in Paul's life, he "was allowed to stay by himself, with the soldier that guarded him." In other words, he was being kept under house arrest, chained to a Roman soldier. And under the rules of Roman jurisprudence, Acts 28:30-31 says, "He lived there two whole years at his own expense." This wasn't like today's prisons, where room and board are provided at taxpayer expense. While Paul was in Roman custody, he had to pay his own rent.

      Paul was awaiting trial in the court of Caesar. This was apparently sometime between AD 60 and 63. So we know precisely who Caesar was. From the years 54-68 the emperor of Rome was Nero—a ruthless man who tolerated no hint of subversion, disloyalty, or rebellion against the established norms of Roman culture. Paul faced the very real possibility that he would have to die for his faith. A final decision on his fate was imminent. When Paul famously says in Philippians 1:20, that "Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death . . . to live is Christ, and to die is gain"—he was facing a looming court-date with Caesar, who would rule on his case one way or another. In chapter 2, Paul says the final outcome of his case will be decided very soon. He says in verse 23: "I hope . . . to send [Timothy] just as soon as I see how it will go with me." He hopes for a favorable ruling, because (v. 24) "I trust in the Lord that shortly I myself will come also."

      But given Nero's cruel and capricious tendencies, there was a very real possibility that Paul might suffer martyrdom (2:17): "Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all." In fact, Paul was in a quandary knowing which outcome to wish for (1:22-24): "If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account."

      Ultimately, of course, Paul would be called upon by Christ to make that supreme sacrifice. But according to the closing verses of Acts, this first long imprisonment, which had begun in Acts 21:30, with Paul's arrest in Jerusalem, finally ended after two years of house arrest in Rome. Paul was given a few more years of freedom (four or five years at most). He had those few years to minister openly before he was ultimately brought to Rome a second time and (this time) put to death for his testimony.

      So this is the setting of Philippians: Paul is nearing the end of that first imprisonment, which was the culmination of a very long ordeal. By the chronology of Luke's account, it has now been about five years since Paul was arrested under false pretenses in Jerusalem. Jewish leaders had seen Paul in the city proper with Trophimus, who was a Gentile. When they later saw Paul in the Temple, "they [wrongly] supposed that Paul had brought [Trophimus] into the temple." They drummed up a mob (Luke says "all the city was stirred up, and the people ran together."). They dragged Paul out of the Temple, beat him nearly to death. He was arrested, repeatedly put on trial, and finally shipped off to Rome.

      Paul was transported by prison ship across the Mediterranean during the worst time of the year; he suffered shipwreck; he was dragged in chains from Malta to Sicily to Calabria (the toe of the Italian boot). He was taken by ship to the Bay of Naples; then brought from there via the Appian Way to Rome. He has now been nearly two years confined to a house or cottage somewhere in Rome, forced to live there at his own expense, but chained constantly to Roman guards. Virtually everything about his life and circumstances was beset with obstacles, hardships, constraints, hazards, and difficulties of every kind. We know he suffered loneliness; friends and fellow workers abandoned him; he was deprived of most of the means of both fellowship and study. According to 1:15-17, he was despised and seen as a troublemaker and a liability—or regarded as a rival—even by some in the area who went around preaching the gospel. Paul suggests that they were so driven by their hatred of him, that some of them were preaching insincerely out of spite—not that they really wanted to work for the furtherance of the gospel, but because they hoped to add to Paul's afflictions.

      And yet Paul testifies to the Philippians that he is contented. Notice this very carefully: Paul is not attempting to suggest that he is an easily-satisfied or naturally contented person. That would contradict what he said in Romans 7. But he expressly says that contentment is something he has learned through his trials. Chapter 4, verse 11: "I have learned." Verse 12 again: "I know . . . [and again] I know." Why, Paul? Because "I have learned." Or if you are reading the King James Version, "I am instructed." He uses an expression borrowed from the mystery religions suggesting he has been initiated into this secret knowledge of how to be content.

      He's more or less confessing again that it is not his native tendency to be content; but he has gained this knowledge. He has learned contentment. It is a strength he has come to understand and master through His time in the school of tribulation. He gained this quality through a process of training, indoctrination, and discipline. It isn't a grace that was given to him in full-blown fashion, ripe and mature with immediate effect. It is something he has learned over time. Bear that in mind as I read the text, because I think it is the main point Paul is making. Here's our passage (Philippians 4:10-13):

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.

Now, by the way, this passage is the culmination and the key text of the whole epistle. It ties the whole epistle together. It reflects one of Paul's main reasons for writing to the Philippian church in the first place. This epistle is a thank-you note for gifts that they had sent to Paul, and this section is where he explicitly expresses his gratitude.

      Furthermore, every spiritual lesson contained in this entire epistle is ultimately brought together in this section and either exemplified, expanded upon, accented, or made practical—then sealed with the promise of Christ's enabling strength (which Paul mentions, for course, in verse 13).

      And in the course of thanking the Philippians, Paul not only declares his own complete contentment, he expounds on his gratitude in a way that shows us in very practical terms how we can attain the same kind of contentment. This is the chief practical value of this passage: Paul basically outlines the instruments of instruction whereby he learned to be content. There are four of them: the Lord's people; the Lord's providence; the Lord's promise; and the Lord's power. There they are, neatly alliterated for you, and we'll work our way through this passage with that as our outline. So if you didn't get all four, keep your notes handy, because we're going to look at them one at a time. Four instruments of instruction that can help us master the art of contentment. First—


1. The Lord's People

      Paul and the Philippians had always had an especially close relationship. Most of you will remember the circumstances under which that church was founded. The story is told by Luke in Acts 16. Philippi was "a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony." Paul and his missionary team went there in response to a vision Paul received through a dream, in which a Macedonian man appeared to him and said, "Come over to Macedonia and help us."

      This was the first entry of he gospel into Europe, and the Philippian church was the first church ever on European soil. (By the way, this is also the exact point in Acts where Luke starts using first-person pronouns. He evidently joined up with Paul in Troas, just before Paul went to Macedonia.) But the founding of this church was fraught with difficulties and disasters.

      There apparently was not enough of a Jewish community in Philippi to sustain a synagogue (which means there were fewer than 10 men, because that's what was required for a quorum). So in lieu of going to the local synagogue first (which is what Paul customarily did), he found a prayer meeting by the riverside and preached to the group that was gathered there—mostly women. Lydia is the first convert mentioned in Luke's record of how that church started.

      But there was also a slave-girl there, demon-possessed, who followed Paul and his team around, "crying out, 'These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.'" Now, what she said was true enough, but Paul didn't want anyone thinking this demonic soothsayer was in league with him. Besides, in the mouth of a demon, even the truth is a blasphemy. Remember that Satan quoted Scripture to Jesus. A devil will tell the truth one minute and blend it with a lie the next—so Paul cast out this demon before it had a chance to sully the truth with any lies.

      That cost the owners of this slave girl their livelihood because she didn't go into a trance and prophesy any more, so they drummed up false charges against Paul and Silas and had them thrown into prison. Then there was an earthquake; the city jailer was converted; and when the magistrates realized Paul was a Roman citizen, they decided they didn't want him in their prison. They came and personally apologized to him—and that is how the church at Philippi got started.

      The believers in Philippi maintained a close relationship with Paul from then on. They were perhaps closer to him than any other church. They supported him in a uniquely generous way. Several times in the early years they sent him financial support. He reminds them of that Philippians 4:15-16: "You Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again."

      They followed his career from then on. The church seems to have been founded around AD 51 or 52 at the latest. This epistle pertains to events that happened around AD 62 or 63. So more than a decade has elapsed since the Philippians were converted under Paul's ministry. For some time, they had prayed for him, supported him financially, and maintained their relationship with him as their spiritual father. No wonder. They owed him everything, spiritually speaking, and they seem to have felt that debt deeply. It is clear that their spiritual and financial partnership, together with their friendship and prayer support meant a lot to Paul. They helped bear his burdens, and Paul was deeply grateful to them. Philippians 4:14: "It was kind of you to share my trouble."

      But then somewhere along the line they stopped giving. Precisely why and for how long, we don't know, but the language suggests it had been a long time since Paul had heard anything from them. (Verse 10, "Now at length you have revived your concern for me"—at last!) It's clear that Paul wondered what became of their kindness and care for him.

      But finally, at some late point during Paul's house arrest in Rome, they sent a messenger, Epaphroditus, with a package of gifts for Paul. Verse 18: "I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God."

      That is why Paul is writing. He is sending his thanks back to them through Epaphroditus. He wants them to know that he has learned, in part because of them, the Lord's people, to be content.

      Notice that in spite of that long period of unexplained silence, Paul overflows with thanksgiving. "You have revived your concern for me" (v. 10). He uses a word that evokes the idea of a barren tree finally budding at springtime. The idea is, Your concern for me might have appeared to die, but I know it was never dead. It was just waiting to burst forth in due time. I might have wondered once, he says. But know I know that "you were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity."

      What does this mean, "you had no opportunity"? It is not entirely clear why they lacked an opportunity to help Paul. Paul might be acknowledging that they didn't have the financial means to send him money. Or it might have been the case that no messenger was available (or no safe and suitable form of transport available) for such a mission to Rome. Whatever the case, Paul assures them that he loves them and he knows they love him, and that knowledge (to him) is more important than the gift itself. Notice that Paul recognizes and expresses gratitude for their personal concern in verse 10, and he doesn't actually mention the gift they sent until verse 18, which is really the tail end of his expression of thanks.

      Some men might have complained of the neglect and uncertainty during such a long period of silence. Paul had truly learned to be content—satisfied even more by the knowledge of the Philippians' love for him than he was with whatever financial gift they sent him. It's a touching, tactful, and very classy way of saying thanks.

      Notice that Paul is modeling for the Philippians the very attitudes he has urged them to adopt—charity and unity toward one another; the mind of Christ, who humbled Himself; and (above all) a spirit of joy and rejoicing, which is the very theme of this epistle. In 2:14, he told them: "Do all things without grumbling or questioning." That is precisely what he does as he deals with the subject of their long silence. Earlier in our chapter, 4:4, he says, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice." He's doing that. And verse 8, "whatever is honorable . . . worthy of praise, think about these things." He is doing that, too—spurning anxiety, reveling in the peace of God, a blessing he shares in common with all the Lord's people.

      How could a man in such a state of mind not be contented?

      And that is one of the keys to contentment for you and me as well—learn to enjoy the things of God with the people of God, "And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." That is the very definition of true contentment.

      But there's more. Not only were the Lord's people an instrument of instruction through whom Paul learned to be content; here's instrument number 2:


2. The Lord's Providence

      Verse 11: "Not that I am speaking of being in need." In other words, Paul says, I am grateful for your concern—but it's not because I'm destitute and desperate. God is the one who providentially supplies my needs, and in the same way (verse 19) "my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus." So, he says, don't interpret my overflowing thankfulness to you as a veiled grievance against God's kindness to me. I'm not complaining about the treatment I have received from His hand of providence.

      He goes on (vv. 11-12): "For I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 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." Providence has taught me to be satisfied no matter what.

      And notice the three pairs of opposite extremes: Paul is content whether he brought low; humbled; degraded and disgraced—or whether he is basking in prosperity. "I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound." I like that better than the New American Standard Bible, which translates it this way, "I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity." But remember Paul's situation, and you have to know he is not talking about some charismatic televangelist's notion of prosperity. The gist of Paul's point is not ultimately about his financial situation; it's about his sense of personal pride. Literally, I might be humbled, or I might be exalted, and I can be contented either way.

      The second couplet comes later in the verse: "I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger." There the contrast is between feast and famine; He is talking now about his need for physical nourishment; food. Paul had literally at times been deprived of edible sustenance during his imprisonment.

      Then the third pair of terms is clearly a contrast between material wealth and poverty: "abundance and need." Whether I have more than enough or less than enough, Paul says, I have learned the secret of being content in all these circumstances.

      Now again, that expression is significant: "I have learned the secret." He employs an expression (meMU-emai) which was commonly used in the mystery religions. Literally, "I have been initiated into the secret of contentment." Now of course (and I hardly feel I need to say it) Paul was not endorsing any form of mystery religion or quasi-gnostic notion of secret knowledge, and the Philippians, knowing him well, would understand that. But by using this kind of terminology, he signifies that contentment is by no means an easy virtue to master. It's not (as we might be tempted to think) a minor or commonplace or simple virtue; it is advanced holiness; accelerated spirituality; post-graduate-level sanctification. It's not the sort of grace that comes prepackaged in some standard dose like a pill you swallow and you're done with that step of the Christian life. Contentment is something you are initiated into and then learn and master through long discipline and difficult experiences. It's more like mastering some high art or understanding the details of an arcane mystery than it is like learning to ride a bicycle.

      And every turn of divine providence is an instrument of training to help us master the art of contentment. Whether we get riches or poverty, feast or famine, exaltation or humility—or (more likely) at various times all of the above—the purpose of providence in taking us from wealth to want; health to hunger; height to humiliation is always to teach us contentment by showing us that in Christ we have all we need. He is our all in all.

      By the way, may I confess something to you? I find prosperity and popularity and material abundance are much bigger hindrances to contentment than poverty, plainness, and a shortage of resources. We tend to equate contentment with material things and worldly success. Our idea of contentment is having every material thing we could possibly want. If you find yourself thinking that way, rebuke your own heart. Jesus said, "One's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (Luke 12:15).

      That's absolutely true. There was an article last year at the Life Magazine website featuring a long list of Hollywood celebrities who at the very height of their success and popularity committed suicide. It's amazing how many there have been. Reaching the top of the world's ladder, they find popularity, riches, success, fame, and privilege do not bring contentment, and in utter despair they end their own lives. What a tragedy! And it's a reminder of the truth of Jesus' words: "One's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." But everything we truly need—everything that can truly satisfy, is found only in Christ. And that gets us to point number 3. These are the tools of training whereby we are taught contentment: First, the Lord's people; second, the Lord's providence. Now third:


3. The Lord's Promise

      I'm going to take you just outside our text for the actual wording of the promise that permeates this whole passage. The section I read stops at verse 13, but look down at verse 19: "And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus." That is the same promise on which Paul's own contentment was based. He refers to it obliquely in verse 11: "Not that I am speaking of being in need." Paul wanted it made clear that he was not someone in need. He knew very well that all his actual needs were met with full sufficiency in the grace of God—the same grace first shown to him on the road to Damascus.

      And that lesson was reinforced for Paul as he describes in 2 Corinthians 12, when he besought the Lord three time to remove the thorn from his flesh, some messenger from Satan that was harassing him. And Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 12:9: "But he said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.'" Christ supplied all his need. In the next verse, then, he says, "For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities"—and (trust me) if you are content with those things, you'll be contented no matter what.

      This is a principle that applies to every Christian in every church in every era: "My God will supply every need of yours [not necessarily your desires; not every craving you have, but all that you truly need] according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus"—which is to say He has a more-than-abundant supply, and His resources will not run out before your need is met. Learn to trust that promise at all times and you will (like Paul) master the secret mystery of contentment.

      These, one more time, are the training-tools by which Paul had learned contentment:  First, the Lord's people; second, the Lord's providence; third, the Lord's promise. Now finally,


4. The Lord's Power

      Here is Paul's final punctuation to all the practical instructions he has been giving from the start of the epistle (v. 13): "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." He points us to the Lord's own power as the ultimate answer to every hint of human discontent.

      Now, Paul was not so foolish as to think he could summon contentment by sheer willpower. He knew he did not have the strength to withstand trials and suffer hardship after hardship without a sense of gnawing resentment and discontent. But (and his was perhaps the greatest lesson Paul learned and the most important truth about sanctification he teaches us) Paul did not expect or attempt to achieve holiness in his own strength. He knew that in and of himself he was bereft of true righteousness, inclined to evil passions, too full of self, and too encumbered with fleshly weaknesses to be holy in the sight of God.

      Oh, he tried all that in his earlier life as an unregenerate Pharisee, and that is precisely what his testimony in Philippians 3 is all about.

      But this was the whole difference between Saul of Tarsus and Paul the apostle (Philippians 3:10): Whereas Saul of Tarsus took pride in his own flawed achievements, the apostle Paul desired only to "be found in [Christ], not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God."

      Now that is talking about the imputed righteousness we receive when we are justified. But Paul understood that if we are impotent to concoct a righteousness of our own for justification, there's no way we will ever in our own power be able to achieve perfect sanctification.

      And whenever Paul talks about sanctification, he stresses the truth of his absolute reliance on the power of Christ as the means of daily sanctification. Sure, he says in 1 Corinthians 15:10: "I worked harder than any[one]"—then he hastens to add, "though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me." "By the grace of God I am what I am." He says the same thing in Galatians 2:20: "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God."

      And here in our text (v. 13), Paul says, "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." There is perhaps no more confident statement in all of Scripture. But it's not brazen self-confidence. It is confidence in the power of Christ.

      By the way, the Greek derivation of the word "content" in verse 11 is interesting. It's the Greek word auTARkes, which literally means "self-contained," or "self-sufficient." But as the context makes perfectly clear, this is not a manifesto for self-esteem and possibility thinking—although verse 13 is sometimes used that way. People quote verse 13 as if it meant "With Jesus' help you can achieve whatever dream you have for yourself." That's not the idea at all. This is someone who wants to do the will of God and knows he is too weak and sinful to do it, laying hold of Christ's power to do in him what he knows he cannot do on his own. The appropriate cross-reference is 2 Corinthians 3:5: "Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God." So (in the words of Ephesians 6:10) "be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might." There's no room for any hint of carnal self-esteem, if you understand that principle. 

      Now let me sum up in a simple statement what this passage is saying about contentment: The reason true contentment is not dependent on external circumstances, life's ups and downs, material things, or earthly comforts is that real contentment has nothing to do with those things. It is impervious to earthly troubles, and they are irrelevant to our contentment.

      Authentic contentment, when you break it down and analyze it, is simply grown-up faith come to fruition. Contentment is the same faith by which we first laid hold of Christ learning to cling to Him—to love His people, trust His providence, believe His promises, and lean on His power. You do that and you will cultivate a spirit of contentment nothing in this world could ever threaten. In the words of verse 7, "The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." It's like laying hold of heaven early. In fact, that is precisely what it is: a preview of the settled rest of heaven.

      You might think it's impossible to live in the real world with all its troubles and get to that point of faith. Impossible for you and me in our own power, yes—but "I can do all things through him who strengthens me."

      By the way, verse 13 contrasts wonderfully with Jesus' statement in John 15:5: "Apart from me you can do nothing." But "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." If the boundaries for "all things" that you seek to accomplish are set by the express commands of God and the righteous example of Christ, then there truly is no limit to what you can do through His power. That is the secret to true contentment. It's not really a complex mystery. But the reason it is so difficult to learn is that it entails the mortification of our worldly lusts, our carnal ambitions, our selfish pride, and our ungodly attitudes.

      Hard? Yes, it's a lifelong pursuit. But it is by no means impossible. "[We] can do all things through him who strengthens [us]."