Learning the Secret, part 3 (Philippians 4:12, 13)

Over the last few weeks we’ve been talking about contentment, which Jeremiah Burroughs defines as

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

Paul has taught them two steps on the path to contentment so far:

First, to delight in the Lord and in his present provision.  No matter how large or small, rejoice in what he has given you now.

Second, free yourself from an obsession with pleasant circumstances.  Just because you rejoice in your present circumstances doesn’t mean that they have to be on the pleasant side.

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.

We weren’t quite finished with the second point last week.

Contentment is not based on what is going on outside of me, but the focus I have inside me.

Unless we learn the secret of contentment we will remain a slave to our circumstances.

H. A. Ironside tells the story of how one Christian asked another Christian friend how he was getting along.  He answered, “Of, fairly well, under the circumstances.”  Ironside responded, “I am sorry you are under the circumstances.  The Lord would have us living above all circumstances where he can satisfy our hearts and meet our every need for time and eternity.”

That is the key—to live above the circumstances and focus our joy in Christ and Christ alone.  The gifts He gives us—spiritual blessings—are ours now and will never be taken away from us.

Even at its best this world cannot satisfy, as the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us over and over again.

A man once went to a minister for counseling. He was in the midst of a financial collapse. “I’ve lost everything,” he bemoaned.

“Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve lost your faith.’

“No,” the man corrected him, “I haven’t lost my faith.”

“Well, then I’m sad to hear that you’ve lost your character.”

“I didn’t say that,” he corrected. “I still have my character.”

“I’m sorry to hear that you’ve lost your salvation.”

“That’s not what I said,” the man objected. “I haven’t lost my salvation.”

“You have your faith, your character, your salvation. Seems to me,” the minister observed, “that you’ve lost none of the things that really matter.”

We haven’t either.  You and I could pray like the Puritan.  He sat down to a meal of bread and water.  He bowed his head and declared, “All this and Jesus too!”

Can we honestly say?

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.

Contentment is learned.

Doug McKnight could say those words.  At the age of thirty-two he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.  Over the next sixteen years it would cost him his career, his mobility, and eventually his life.  Because of MS, he couldn’t feed himself or walk; he battled depression and fear.  But through it all, Doug never lost his sense of gratitude. Evidence of this was seen in his prayer list.

Friends in his congregation asked him to compile a list of requests so they could intercede for him.  His response included eighteen blessings for which to be grateful and six concerns for which to be prayerful.  His blessings outweighed his needs by three times.  Doug McKnight had learned to be content.

So had the leper on the island of Tobago.  A short-term missionary met her on a mission trip.  On the final day, he was leading worship in a leper colony.  He asked if anyone had a favorite song.  When he did, a woman turned around, and he saw the most disfigured face he’d ever seen.  She had no ears and no nose.  Her lips were gone.  But she raised a fingerless hand and asked, “Could we sing ‘Count Your Many Blessings’?”

The missionary started the song but couldn’t finish.  Someone later commented, “I suppose you’ll never be able to sing the song again.”  He answered, “No, I’ll sing it again.  Just never the same way.”

Those who can be content when they are “brought now,” when they experience “hunger” and “need” are a great testimony to us that we can learn to be content as well.

Such contentment is learned.  It isn’t natural.  We’re not born with it.  It is not a gift.  It is a skill that must be learned.

We have to learn that even at its best this world cannot satisfy us.  No one knew this better than John Bunyan, who was imprisoned for 12 of the first 13 years of his married life for preaching the gospel.  Listen to what John Bunyan said, “If we don’t have quiet in our minds, outward comfort will do no more for us than a golden slipper on a gouty foot.”

If you want to learn the secret of contentment, you must rise above your desire that outward circumstances bring joy, for it never delivers on its promise.

The billionaire J. D. Rockefeller was once asked how much money it would take to make him happy.  His answer: “Just a little more.”

Discontent says, “Never enough.”  Contentment says, “I have all I need in Jesus, everything else is just the cherry on top.”

We need to express our contentment especially in four essential areas.

First, we need to be content where we are.  We don’t need to have “destinitis,” thinking that “If I only could move there I would be happy.”  Acts 17:26 tells us that God determines when and where we live.

Second, we need to become content in what we do.  Instead of comparing ourselves to what others do and either the salary or the skills they have, we need to be content in the job or mission God has given us.  We can be content in any career IF we remember that the ultimate purpose of our life is to become like Jesus and make His glory known.

Third, we must express contentment in what we have, rather than being greedy for more.  Ecclesiastes tells us to just enjoy the simple things.  Don’t wear yourself out grasping for more.

Fourth, be content with who we’re with.  Instead of wishing you were married to someone else who is better looking or better behaved; instead of focusing on your spouse’s weaknesses, thank God for the spouse God has given to you.

Paul’s balanced sentence, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound” means that Paul knew how to share in Christ’s humiliation and how to share in his glorious riches (v. 12; cf. 4:19).  

In this life Paul had been repeatedly beaten to within an inch of his life, but he had also been caught up to the third heaven (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:24, 25; 12:1-6).  Paul also came to gladly boast, as he says, “of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities” (2 Corinthians 12:9, 10).

Having stated the larger principle, Paul elaborated on the extremes of his contentment: “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (v. 12b.).  On the downside “hunger” and “need” echo the extremes of the hardship lists from Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.

  • “To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. . . . We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.” (1 Corinthians 4:11-13)
  • “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.  For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh.  So death is at work in us, but life in you.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-12)
  • “. . . but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger. . . .” (2 Corinthians 6:4, 5)
  • “Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.” (2 Corinthians 11:24-27)

Paul had learned to experience contentment in the extremes of deprivation from hunger to homelessness to being in rags to beatings to labor and exhaustion to intense humiliation.

On the upside “plenty” and “abundance” echo the apostle’s experience of those times that were the good times by comparison.  While we know much about his deprivations from the hardship lists, we know little about his experiences of abundance, but we can imagine what they were.

For example, in Philippi when the church was born, likely there were feasts in the home of his first convert, Lydia, a prosperous seller of purple, and perhaps also in the home of his other notable convert, the Philippian jailer.  Certainly there were times in Ephesus and Corinth when the sun shined brightly over the pleasures of friends and feasting amidst the beauty of God’s creation and especially the beauty of his people as they honored Paul for bringing them the gospel.  And during these times also Paul was content.

What is remarkable, of course, is that Paul knew the secret of being content in either extreme—whether hunger or a sumptuous Mediterranean repast.  Indeed, it may be more of an accomplishment to be content with plenty. As John Calvin explained:

He who knows how to use present abundance soberly and temperately with thanksgiving, prepared to part with everything whenever it may please the Lord, giving also a share to his brother according to his ability, and is also not puffed up, that man has learned to excel and to abound. This is an excellent and rare virtue, and much greater than the endurance of poverty.

Paul had come to know the secret of contentment over a period of time. His learning was part of his spiritual growth and sanctification. The question for us is, have we learned the secret?

Finally, Paul comes to a third step on the road to contentment:

3.  Remind yourself of the sufficiency that is yours in Christ.

As you seek to reach a level of contentment that is independent of your circumstances, whenever you feel like it is beyond your reach, then remind yourself that Christ will provide the necessary strength in the midst of your battle.

How was Paul able to be content in all circumstances?

Because Jesus Christ enabled him.

13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Now, I have to say from the start—this verse has been ripped out of its context many times by athletes and students and anyone else who has tried to do something beyond their own strength or apart from their own preparation.

How many times has a student who didn’t prepare ask Jesus Christ to help him or her make a good grade?  After all, doesn’t it say “all things,” meaning anything I ask God’s help for I will get it?

“All things” is placed first for emphasis.  “ALL THINGS I can do…” Paul says.

But the “all things” is defined by the context as all kinds of circumstances, the heights and depths that Paul has just listed.  It means that I can be content whether I am “brought low,” with “hunger” and “need.”  Or whether I am “abounding” with “plenty” and “abundance.”

Thus what Paul says is that in whatever circumstances I find myself, in whatever extremes—whether experiencing abundance with the wealthy or fellowshipping with the poor or struggling to proclaim the gospel to people who don’t want to hear or enduring the wrath of the establishment or bringing peace to the church or languishing in prison—I can be content and “can do all things through him who strengthens me” (v. 13). 

By extension it has a secondary application to being able to live according to the will of God in daily life, no matter what the obstacles, NOT to become a millionaire or win the Super Bowl.

Paul is confident that he will be divinely strengthened to do anything and everything that God calls him to do.  Not only could Paul be content and confident in every circumstance, he could also be sure that he would be equipped with divine power to deal with it.

Paul says much the same thing in Colossians 1:28, 29 where he reveals that it is Christ who sustains his active ministry: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”

Paul toils and struggles, straining with all his might, but it is the energy and power of Christ that strengthens him!

A better translation than “through Christ” is “in Christ.”  In other words, because of my union with Christ through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, His power works through me.

Although Paul says “I can do” he is not depending upon his own willpower and mighty efforts, but Christ working through him.

Christ is the one who continually empowers and strengthens the believer for all kinds of challenges.  He energizes him or her and enables them to be content in all kinds of circumstances.

Whatever comes Paul’s way, he has the strength to meet it.  If he is brought low, he is a man in Christ; if he abounds, he is a man in Christ.  In any and every circumstance he is a man in Christ.  As a man in Christ he can do all things.  As a man in Christ he is content regardless of the situation.

John MacArthur said, “Contentment comes to believers who rely on the sustaining grace of Christ, infused into believers when they have no strength of their own.”

That’s actually a good place to be—no strength of our own, because then we can draw from the strength of Christ.

Jeremiah Burroughs said, “A Christian finds satisfaction in every circumstance by getting strength from another, by going out of himself to Jesus Christ, by his faith acting upon Christ, and bringing the strength of Jesus Christ into his own soul, he is thereby enabled to bear whatever God lays on him, by the strength that he finds from Jesus Christ.… There is strength in Christ not only to sanctify and save us, but strength to support us under all our burdens and afflictions, and Christ expects that when we are under any burden, we should act our faith upon him to draw virtue and strength from him. (The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, 63)

If you want to be like Paul, having sweet contentment in any circumstance, there is hope.  But it’s not in you.  It comes from Jesus Christ.

Too often we forget about all the spiritual power and riches we have in Jesus Christ.

A few years ago in West Palm Beach a 71-year-old woman died in utter squalor.  She had been living in the seediest part of town.  She was known in that part of town as a beggar.  She would rummage through the Salvation Army bins trying to find something to wear, begging for food behind the restaurants.  At age 71 she died of malnutrition.

When officials got into her apartment they found two keys to safety deposit boxes in her name in Florida.  They went in and found in one of the boxes $200,00.00 in cash and several hundred thousand in certificates, deposits and bonds, etc.  In the other box was $600,000.00 dollars.  She was a millionaire living as a pauper.

I hope you don’t live that way.  You don’t have to.  But you need to look to Christ living in you, and live by the power He gives so that you can flourish as a Christian.

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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