Learning the Secret, part 1 (Philippians 4:10)

Historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., observes that our society is marked by “inextinguishable discontent.”  We have a yearning for more and a drive for what is new.

We want a better job with better pay and a better boss.  We want better relationships and a better car and a better backhand in tennis or a longer drive in golf.  

And, we have a propensity to live endlessly for the next thing – the next weekend, the next vacation, the next purchase, and the next experience.  We are never satisfied, never content, and envious of those who have what we have not attained or accumulated.

Walter Kerr, in his book titled The Decline of Pleasure, analyzed the discontentment of our age.  He pierced through the superficiality of much we do.  He noted that the very things that we do that should be pleasurable for us are void of joy.  Why?  Because they are being used as a means to an end.  We do not treat them as enjoyable in and of themselves.  He wrote, “We are all of us compelled to read for profit, party for contacts, lunch for contracts, bowl for unity, drive for mileage, gamble for charity, go out for the evening for the greater glory of municipality, and stay home for the weekend to rebuild the house.”

That sounds a lot like the book of Ecclesiastes, which will be our next study once we finish Philippians.

A 1944 newspaper article addressed the issue of what it was to be a wife in the U.S. during World War 2, and the article begins like this:  “Marna Wilkins thinks she needs a more considerable husband, more money, more domestic help, less nervous strain, less housework to do, fewer children, a kinder mother, more sympathetic friends, but what she really needs is a finer character.”

I don’t think you’d find a 2020 newspaper article to suggest that!

But most of us can relate to Marna Wilkins: we think we could do with more of this or less of that.  We’ve bought into the lie that our contentment is dependent upon our circumstances.  We’ve bought into the lie that in order to be content, I need more of A, B, or C and the immediate removal of X, Y and Z.

We think, “If I only had better…or only had more…or less” then I would be happy.

So many times we find ourselves in less than ideal circumstances and what really needs to change is not our circumstances, but our character, our attitude.

Paul tells us that we, like him, needs to learn to be content no matter what our circumstances may be.

In Philippians 4:10-13, a man who sits in prison because of corrupt officials awaiting possible execution over false charges tells us how to find contentment.  The answer lies buried in the midst of a thank-you note.

As a prisoner in Rome, possibly awaiting a death sentence, few things turning out as he had planned, he models contentment for us.

We will look at four steps on the path of contentment in Philippians 4.

Here in this passage, Paul is going to answer the question, “How can I cultivate contentment?  What steps can I take to insure that I am content, right here and right now, regardless of what God has provided for me in terms of my circumstances, my possessions, my relationships, my career, my future, or my health?”

Here is what Paul says…

10 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.

The first thing I want you to see is that contentment is a secret that can be learned.  Do you see it there in v. 12?  “I have learned the secret…”  It doesn’t come naturally, or magically, but in the very context of the ups and downs of life it can be learned.

Before we begin, let’s define our terms.

What is contentment?  In his classic book The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, Jeremiah Burroughs provided this definition:

“Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every situation.”

Contentment is not loud and complaining or grumbling, nor is it mere resignation or fatalism, it “submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every situation.”

Contentment is an act of faith, trusting our Father to take care of us as He promised He would.

John Stott wrote, “Contentment is the secret of inward peace.  It remembers the stark truth that we brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it.  Life, in fact, is a pilgrimage from one moment of nakedness to another.  So we should travel light and live simply.  Our enemy is not possessions, but excess.  Our battle cry is not ‘Nothing!’ but ‘Enough!’  We’ve got enough.  Simplicity says, if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”

For the Christian: Contentment knows that if we have Jesus we have enough.

This is what Asaph learned in Psalm 73.  At first, he envied the wicked.  They were rich, fat, healthy and had life easy.  Asaph was troubled by that, wondered what use it was to keep his life pure before God and almost voiced his defection from the faith.

But Asaph did something very important, and this was the turning point.  He went to the temple.  There he focused on truth, and on God.

God showed Asaph that the end for this wicked rich people would be terrible, while he would be with God in glory.

25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. 26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. 27 For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. 28 But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord GOD my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.

Did you notice v. 25, “There is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.”

Corrie Ten Boom, the Dutch young lady who was taken to a Nazi prison camp because she and her family were hiding Jews, once said: “You can never learn that Christ is all you need, until Christ is all you have.”

It is in our times of need and want that we if we remind ourselves that we still have Christ, that He then becomes all we really need.

And John MacArthur put it this way: “If you have everything but Jesus, you have nothing.  If you have nothing but Jesus, you have everything.”

When God gave us Jesus, He gave us not just His best, but also everything.  We are truly rich because we have Christ, our all in all.

When we have Jesus, we truly have everything.  Jesus is our wisdom, our righteousness, our sanctification, our redemption and our success.  In Him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Now, we too can learn the secret of being content no matter what our circumstances are.

  1. The first step is to delight yourself in the Lord and his present provision.

Look at verse 10.

10 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.

Paul is referring to a financial gift that Epaphroditus brought to Paul from the Philippians when he first arrived in Rome, a gift that really helped him.  They had heard of his need and sent a gift (cf. v. 18).

You “revived your concern for me” Paul says.  This is a word used of horticulture—of trees and flowers sprouting again in Spring, to grow anew.  That’s a good manifestation of this care and concern—the evidence that their concern had blossomed again.

They had provided a gift for Paul before, and now again they had renewed their concern.  It had been awhile, but they came through for Paul again.

Gerald Hawthorne writes: “Like a person rejoicing over the first signs of spring after a harsh winter, so Paul rejoiced to see again the signs of personal concern from Philippi after a long interval of silence.”

Then, almost as if Paul catches himself, realizing that they might take that last statement to mean that they hadn’t really cared for him during the long interval between gifts, he adds, “indeed you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity.”

He understands why they hadn’t helped in the meantime.

It doesn’t say how or why they hadn’t helped.  Maybe it was their own poverty, maybe it was the lack of a message from Paul of his need, or possibly they didn’t even know where Paul was.  Whatever the reason, Paul is clear that he was not attaching blame to them, but something outside their control had prevented their giving.

Now, however, their concern is shown by their donation.

The apostle rejoiced in the generosity of the Philippians’ monetary gift because prisoners in the Roman system were dependent upon outside support for everything.  But Paul’s joy went far deeper because the gift was indicative of the distant Philippians’ continuing authenticity and spiritual health. 

Now catch this:  Even though Paul is here expressing his gratitude to the Philippians for their concern and their gifts, his ultimate joy was in the Lord.  “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me.”

In other words, Paul is saying, “Your gift gave me reason to rejoice in the Lord again, because ultimately I know it came from his hand.”

This was important for both Paul and the Philippians to realize.  Paul saw anything that happened to him to be cause for him rejoicing in the Lord.  Back in chapter 1 Paul, knowing that some were preaching the gospel for selfish reasons, said this:

18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Yes, and I will rejoice,

But Paul also wanted the Philippians themselves to realize that even though they had given the gift, they could only do that because of God’s blessing in their lives.  Both the giver and the receiver need to remember that God is behind it all.

Paul knew that God was in control, God knew his need, and God would supply or not supply as He saw fit.  Paul was subject to the Sovereign God in this most practical area of his financial support.  I don’t think Paul let his needs be known to others, as we will see later in this passage.  That God therefore had moved their hearts to give, reflected His goodness to Paul.

Again, like Asaph, we need to learn to find our contentment in Christ.  A contented heart is a thankful heart, rejoicing in whatever God gives because we know that it is God’s good will for us.

Even if everything else is taken from us, we still have Christ.  Whatever comes to us comes because of our Father’s good pleasure.

When I preached through Philippians in 2007 at Grace Bible Church, I had just returned from a mission trip to Belarus.  While traveling I had plenty opportunity to watch people who had missed flights (as I had) and how they reacted as they tried to get help to fix their problems.

They would speak animatedly and earnestly as they plead for help in getting a new flight, then they would get angry and make threats when they could not, and finally they would resign themselves to a new reality with sullenness.

That’s not contentment.

Contentment is not saying, “Oh well, I guess that will do Lord…if that is the best you can do.”

We find this attitude often in marriage.  “Okay, so my marriage can’t be great,” so she resigns herself to mediocrity.  That’s not contentment.  Contentment is joyfully submitting to God’s providential plan, knowing that God has my best in mind, even when that means disappointment and trials.

Being content with our circumstances doesn’t mean that we cannot work to change them, it just means that we carry a contented attitude with us while we work for change.

What we see here is Paul’s underlying confidence in the providence of God.  Providence is that theological word which refers to God’s active and continuous involvement in this world by which He brings His divine intentions to pass.  God is constantly at work bringing about the things that he had planned in eternity past.

We know from Romans 8:28 that God’s purpose in both the good and the bad things that happen to us is to “works all things together for our good.”  Our problem is that we want to define “our good” as health and wealth and care-free living.  In that passage, God defines “our good” as being “conformed to the image of His Son,” to become more like Jesus.

When the Philippians had been unable to send a gift to Paul, that was all part of God’s divine plan.  But when they revived their concern and sent a gift, that too was part of God’s sovereign plan.

The Philippian gift, pointed back to the Philippians’ concern, that ultimately point back further to God’s providence, His good plan.  And so, Paul rejoices in the Lord.

John MacArthur writes this:

“Paul’s gracious attitude reflectsHis patient confidence in God’s sovereign providence.  He was certain that God, in due time, would arrange his circumstances to meet his needs.  There was no panic on his part, no attempt to manipulate people, no taking matters into his own hands.  Paul was content because he knew that the times, seasons, and opportunities of life are controlled by the Sovereign God who works all things after the counsel of his will, thereby causing all things to work together for the good to those who love God….Those who seek to control their own lives will inevitably be frustrated.  A confident trust in God’s providence is foundational to contentment.”

Thus, if you want to learn the secret to contentment, you must begin by delighting yourself in the Lord and in His present provision for your life.  Don’t worry about tomorrow’s provision or amassing enough to meet future needs.  Rejoice in the Lord and His ability to provide for your needs today.

Don’t say to yourself, “What I really need in life is this or that, a better this or a better that.”  Instead, realize that in your present circumstances, right now—is exactly what God has orchestrated for you.  All of this has been orchestrated by God himself.

The battle cry of a discontented heart is, “I don’t deserve this; this ain’t fair.  I deserve something better.  I deserve for things to go smoothly, to go my way, to meet my needs.”

The contented heart realizes that all I really deserve is hell.  It delights in the fact that God has called me His child and lavished every spiritual blessing on him, so I submit to what God has provided me first right now, realizing that He does all things well.

David, in his psalm that is precious to so many, started out by saying,

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

I like the way the New Living Translation puts it:

The LORD is my shepherd; I have all that I need.

Truly, if you have Jesus as your shepherd, you can know that he will lead you to green pastures and still waters, providing what you need today and tomorrow and the next day.  So enjoy His blessings today, enjoy Him, and trust Him for tomorrow.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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