Learning the Secret, part 2 (Philippians 4:11-12)

Steve Cole introduces his sermon on Philippians 4:10-13 with these words:

An airline pilot was flying over the Tennessee mountains and pointed out a lake to his copilot. “See that little lake?” he said.  “When I was a kid I used to sit in a rowboat down there, fishing.  Every time a plane would fly overhead, I’d look up and wish I was flying it.  Now I look down and wish I was in a rowboat, fishing.”

Contentment can be an elusive pursuit.  We go after what we think will make us happy only to find that it didn’t work; in fact, we were happier before we started the quest.  It’s like the story of two teardrops floating down the river of life.  One teardrop said to the other, “Who are you?”  “I’m a teardrop from a girl who loved a man and lost him.  Who are you?”  “I’m a teardrop from the girl who got him.”

Our discontent drives consumer debt, a high divorce rate, rioting, drug and alcohol abuse, the hook-up culture, changing sexual identity or preferences and many other societal ills.

Paul says in our passage today

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.

Last week we quoted Jeremiah Burrough’s definition of contentment:

“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 a state of life in which you are propped up by artificial protections.  It is not a security which assures that you will not be buffeted by ups and downs.  Contentment is that inner sense of self-sufficiency which says, “No matter what comes along, I have the capacity to meet it head-on because I have Jesus Christ.  Whether it be joy or sorrow, sickness or health, plenty or want, I will continue on.  I have all the resources I need in Christ.  I will carry on with an internal fullness of life.”

Last week we noted first that Paul delighted in the Lord because of the present provision of his need through the Philippians’ gift.  He acknowledged to himself and to them that this was God’s provision.

The second step in the path of contentment is:

2. Free yourself from your obsession with pleasant circumstances.

Maybe “obsession” is a little bit strong, but the typical American Christian at least struggles with being consumed about having things go their way in life.  We want things to go our way…in the worst way.  But you have to free yourself from this kind of obsession and learn to live above your circumstances.

Some people do live as if their life was all about having an abundance of possessions or having everything work out positively in their life.

Kent Hughes reminds us of Zacchaeus:

WHEN ZACCHAEUS, the miserly little kingpin of the Jericho tax franchise, strode off to his home for a lengthy conversation with Jesus, no one anticipated the change that would be announced from his own lips for all to hear: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor.  And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold” (Luke 19:8).

For starters, he gave away 50 percent of everything he had to the poor. And from the remaining half of his fortune, he pledged to make restitution at four times the amount of what he had extorted.  In effect, Zacchaeus lived out Jesus’ command that had earlier caused the rich young ruler to depart from Jesus: “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Luke 18:22).

Tiny Zacchaeus had become huge!  The compulsive drive to make money and keep it was gone.  He went to Jesus mastered by the passion to get; he left mastered by the passion to give.  He went in as the littlest man in Jericho; he left as the biggest man in town.

Something wonderful had happened inside that house with Jesus.  And Jesus made it forever clear for all to hear: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham” (19:9).  Zacchaeus had been regenerated—saved!  And the immediate evidence of his new heart was his desire to give. His newfound generosity was prima facie evidence of his salvation.

Jesus told several parables about money as well.  In one of His parables he warned about those who thought their lives consisted of an abundance of possessions (Luke 12:15).

At the beginning of verse 11 Paul makes a disclaimer about his situation.  He said, “Not that I speak from want…”  He wants to make it clear to the Philippians that although he is glad that they have sent a gift as evidence of their renewed concern for him, he is not saying this from a position of discontented want, as if he lacked something essential.

The reason he can say that is “because I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.”

Just reading Paul’s words exhibits a glorious freedom not to be controlled by the things of this world, but to be focused on things above and on Jesus Christ.

Notice Paul did NOT say, “not that I speak from want, because I’ve gotten everything I want.”

Certainly their gift had met a need, but even if the gift had never come Paul would still say, “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstance I am.”

Paul’s present condition—not lacking anything—flows out of his learning to rise above all circumstance and by content regardless of what those circumstances are.

Now notice that Paul said, “I have learned to be content.”  Contentment doesn’t come naturally, arising accidentally; nor does it come magically, in a special moment.

Gerald Hawthorne notes:

“It [the aorist tense of the Greek verb emathon, translated “learned”] implies that Paul’s whole experience, especially as a Christian, up to the present has been a sort of schooling from which he has not failed to master its lessons.”

Learning to be content is a lifelong process, something we learn each and every day as we walk with Jesus Christ.  It doesn’t come suddenly, in a flash, but over a lifetime of learning.

Now, that doesn’t mean we won’t experience contentment until we are very old.  But we will be learning more and more to be content throughout our lives.  That is why we need to start young.  It is so important to teach our children to be content.

Contentment is contrary to human nature since the Fall.  Just think about it: Adam and Eve had the perfect environment, and they were not content in it. They had perfect health, a perfect marriage, a perfect garden, and daily fellowship with God Himself, yet they soon believed the lie that God had not provided everything they needed for their present and future happiness.

If Adam and Eve were not content in the Garden of Eden, what hope is there for us, apart from the spiritual insight that comes from God? May we, with Paul, be able to say, “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am.”

Contentment begins by learning the purpose of our existence.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks the question, “What is the chief end of man?” and the answer is, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”

Certainly, God is the greatest joy that meets the need of every human heart.

Not every heart seeks after Him, but He can meet the deepest needs of any human who turns to Him.  That is why Paul great desire was to “know Christ.”

Contentment also learns to distinguish between needs and wants.  There are few things in life that are really necessary.  In fact, God identified just two: food and clothing, and says in 1 Timothy 6:8 “But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.”

Paul goes on to warn:

9 But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.

This is the danger of confusing wants for needs.

God has promised to provide for our needs; however, He has not assured us that we will get all our wants.  We have a tendency to spend our resources on wants and then worry about our needs. Jesus warned about such concern in Matthew 6:

31 Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Learning to be content is learning to trust God for your needs.

George Muller proved the sovereign faithfulness of God in the matter of finances.  He lived in 19th century Bristol, England, where he founded an orphanage.  He and his wife had taken literally Jesus’ command to give away all their possessions (Luke 14:33), so they had no personal resources.

Also, he was firmly committed to the principle of not making his financial needs known to anyone, except to God in prayer.  He was extremely careful not even to give hints about his own needs or the needs of the orphanage.  The children never knew about any financial difficulties, nor did they ever lack good food, clothes, or warmth.

But there were times when Muller’s faith was tried, when the Lord took them down to the wire before supplying the need.  On February 8, 1842, they had enough food in all the orphan houses for that day’s meals, but no money to buy the usual stock of bread or milk for the following morning, and two houses needed coal.  Muller noted in his journal that if God did not send help before nine the next morning, His name would be dishonored.

The next morning Muller walked to the orphanage early to see how God would meet their need, only to discover that the need had already been met.  A Christian businessman had walked about a half mile past the orphanages toward his place of work when the thought occurred to him that Muller’s children might be in need.  He decided not to retrace his steps then, but to drop off something that evening.  But he couldn’t go any further and felt constrained to go back.  He gave a gift that met their need for the next two days (George Muller: Delighted in God! by Roger Steer [Harold Shaw Publishers], pp. 115-116).  Muller knew many instances like that where God tried his faith.

In his journals, Müller recorded miracle-after-miracle of God’s provision and answered prayer:

One morning, all the plates and cups and bowls on the table were empty.  There was no food in the larder and no money to buy food.  The children were standing, waiting for their morning meal, when Müller said, “Children, you know we must be in time for school.”  Then lifting up his hands he prayed, “Dear Father, we thank Thee for what Thou art going to give us to eat.”

There was a knock at the door.  The baker stood there, and said, “Mr. Müller, I couldn’t sleep last night.  Somehow I felt you didn’t have bread for breakfast, and the Lord wanted me to send you some.  So I got up at 2 a.m. and baked some fresh bread, and have brought it.”

Mr. Müller thanked the baker, and no sooner had he left, when there was a second knock at the door.  It was the milkman.  He announced that his milk cart had broken down right in front of the orphanage, and he would like to give the children his cans of fresh milk so he could empty his wagon and repair it.

If you are walking with God and you find yourself in a desperate situation, you can know that you are not there by chance.  The sovereign God has put you there for your training in faith, that you might share His holiness.  It may be a small crisis or a major, life-threatening crisis.  Submit to and trust the Sovereign God and you will know the contentment that comes from Him.

Every Christian needs to learn to be content.  When Paul urged his readers to “rejoice in the Lord always” (v. 4), he was preaching what he practiced (vv. 5-8).  The apostle’s contentment and joy—even in prison—indicate his spiritual maturity, and it challenges us all.

Paul goes on to explain in verse 12, using a series of opposites to illustrate the variety of circumstances, using both ends of the spectrum when it comes to our physical needs.

On the one end he speaks of “brought low…hunger…need.”

On the other end of the spectrum he mentions “abound…plenty…abundance.”

Paul is reminding the Philippians that he was not talking in the abstract, but he had actually lived through these fluctuations of life.

About being “brought low” Adam Clarke comments:

“See here the state to which God permitted his chief apostle to be reduced! And see how powerfully the grace of Christ supported him under the whole!  How few of those who are called Christian ministers or Christian men have learned this important lesson!  When want or affliction comes, their complaints are loud and frequent; and they are soon at the end of their patience.”

And regarding “abounding,” Charles Spurgeon makes this statement:

“There are a great many men that know a little how to be abased, that do not know at all how to abound.  When they are put down into the pit with Joseph, they look up and see the starry promise, and they hope for an escape.  But when they are put on the top of a pinnacle, their heads grow dizzy, and they are ready to fall.”

Most of us would have to admit that we are only happy when most circumstances fall on the side of abundance and prosperity, when our circumstances line up with our desires…that’s when there is a spring in our step.

But I’m afraid few of us would declare that we are most happy when we are “brought low” and suffer “hunger” and “need.”

The reality is, we have made an idol out of comfort and convenience.  When our comfort is disrupted, complaining begins, shoving contentment out the door of our hearts.

But Paul is saying, “It really doesn’t matter what is taking place in my life…I can be at either end of the spectrum…things can go my way or not…in ANY and EVERY kind of circumstance I have learned to be content.”

Every time we go to Haiti I come away amazed that these people, who know so little of the world’s riches, are rich spiritually.  They are content and happy in what God has given them.

Do none of them complain?  I doubt it.  But it just shows that contentment has nothing to do with “having” things, as long as we “have” Jesus.  It depends not upon our external circumstances, but our inner heart disposition.

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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