Learning the Secret, part 4 (Philippians 4:17)

So, we’ve been talking about learning the secret to contentment these last few weeks.

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.

Third, remind yourself of the sufficiency that you have in Christ.  He lives in you to strengthen you so that you can be content no matter what the circumstance.

Finally, Paul tells us another step on the road to contentment.

Paul expresses this in Philippians 4:14-17…

14 Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. 15 And 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. 16 Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. 17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit.

The fourth steps on the road to learning contentment is…

4. Preoccupy yourself with the welfare of others.

Another key to learning contentment is to think about others more than yourself.  Back in chapter 2 Paul had laid out this principle when he said, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”

Then he identified Timothy as a good example of that disposition when he said

20 For I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare. 21 For they all seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.

All throughout the epistle to the Philippians Paul has been telling them that their joy, their contentment, their unity and their capacity for gospel ministry depends upon their ability to be others-focused instead of self-focused.

Paul expresses this here in vv. 14-19, which we will examine in more detail in the coming weeks.  I just want you to see here how Paul advocates this others-focused mindset as a way to become more content with life.

In verse 14 Paul expresses again his appreciation for their gift.  In doing so they have “shared in my trouble.”  As one person said, “He had joy in their concern, not in their cash.” And in vv. 14-16 he commends them as being the only church to do so.

Verse 17 is the key.  There Paul says “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit.”  His ultimate desire is not to have his needs met, but for the gain that came to the Philippians in giving.

“Whenever you minister to me, you gain,” Paul says.  That is what brought Paul the most joy—not because his needs had been met, but because of the reward they received from giving.  Using an accounting term here (“credit”) he is saying their interest in him actually accrued to their own heavenly bank account.

Paul trying believed what Jesus had said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

D. A. Carson says, “Paul is more delighted with the blessings they will experience…than with the help that has come his way.”

Imagine being in prison and receiving a gift from someone outside—a family member, a good friend, or even a stranger—and being able to focus on how much that gift to you goes to benefit them!  That doesn’t happen naturally.  It only happens through practice.

Paul was genuinely and consistently preoccupied with the welfare of others.  His focus was not on himself.  That is why he flourished in his life.  That kept him from depression, anxiety and bitterness.  That enabled him to have joy, contentment and to be productive for Christ.

This is such a key to learning contentment.  Don’t miss this.

So much of the time when a person is depressed, they need to turn their thoughts away from themselves and the problems they have, and focus on how they can minister to the needs of others.

So much of our discontentment flows out of a preoccupation with my own needs, desires and welfare, especially in comparison to the blessings of others or in view of the difficult circumstances I am now facing.

The Veggie Tales “lesson in thankfulness” tells the story of Madame Blueberry, a very depressed blueberry who resides in a tree house.  She is not content with anything she owns: her dishes are chipped, the knives are too dull, the spoons are too small.  Madame Blueberry sings a mournful ditty about her neighbors, all of whom have more wonderful things than she.

She sings to her butlers, Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato: “I’m so blue, blue, blue, blue.  I’m so blue I don’t know what to do.  My friends all have nice things.  I’ve seen them myself.  In fact, I keep pictures up there on my shelf!”

Framed pictures of her neighbors’ belongings line her shelf.  There are pictures of one neighbor’s Crock-Pot, one neighbor’s flatware, and another neighbor’s ceramic jars with all kinds of sauces.  Although her two-story tree house appears attractive and well furnished, Madame Blueberry is hopelessly dissatisfied.

One day a new megastore called Stuff-Mart moves across the street.  The sign glitters like a beacon of hope to Madame Blueberry.  She has only just see the sign when three “helpful representatives” from Stuff-Mart show up at her door to confirm her suspicions that her stuff is outdated and that she needs some more.

These dapper sales-vegetables tell her about Stuff Mart’s remarkable line of stuff: refrigerators that store extra mashed potatoes, giant air compressors that blow fruit flies off your dresser, and solar turkey choppers.  They sing, “Happiness waits at the Stuff-Mart.  All you need is lots of stuff.”

No wonder she was “so blue she didn’t know what to do.”

How different was Paul’s attitude.  He was able to experience deep joy and contentment because he took his eyes off himself, off others (as far as comparison) and onto Jesus Christ.  Then he could turn his eyes onto others with a heart for their good and their blessing.

So forget about yourself, at least for awhile, and focus on others.

As long as we are preoccupied with ourselves, we will never learn to be content.  So turn your eyes first on Jesus, then upon others.  Seek the good of others and rejoice in their blessings.  You will find your heart growing more and more content.

So get out and help somebody else.  If you are depressed, anxious, discouraged, I guarantee you that if you get up and help someone else, you too will be helped.  If you encourage them, you will be encouraged.

Jesus was like this, when he was on the cross he said several things, struggling to get His breath just to breathe.  But in three of the seven sayings His focus was upon others.

If I had been hanging on the cross, struggling to breathe, I probably wouldn’t have said anything, much less taking care of the needs of others.

But there on the cross Jesus said:

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” — Luke 23:34

“Today you will be with me in Paradise.” — Luke 23:43

“Woman, behold your Son.” — John 19:26

Jesus offered forgiveness for His torturers, acceptance to a brand new Christian, and took care of his mother, while hanging there on the cross suffocating.

He was thinking of others, probably most of the time while He was hanging on the cross.  He was in excruciating pain, but He thought of others.

In an article entitled “Lay Aside the Weight of Self-Preoccupation,” Jon Bloom suggests these three steps in overcoming of self-focus:

1. Deny yourself by getting your eyes off yourself.  But remember, Christian self-denial is hedonistic because you’re denying yourself of what robs life in order to gain real, lasting life.

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24–25)

2. Look to Jesus (Hebrews 12:2) and all that God promises to be and do for you through him.  Only he will satisfy your soul (Psalm 63:1-3) and only he has the words of eternal life (John 6:68).

Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. (Colossians 3:2)

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)

3. Serve others.  Strike a blow at self-preoccupation by focusing on others’ needs and concerns.   Our Lord’s commands to love one another (John 13:34) and serve one another (John 13:14) have a double-edged benefit for us: they give us the blessing of giving and liberate us from the tyranny of self.

“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Philippians 2:3–4)

Worldly hedonists believe that narcissism [focusing on yourself] is the path to joy.  That is a horrible lie.  Christian  Hedonists know that narcissism is the death of joy, because only God is our “exceeding joy” (Psalm 43:4Psalm 16:11).

So join me today, for the sake of God’s joy, our joy, and others’ joy, in laying aside the weight of self-preoccupation by denying ourselves lifelessness, looking to Jesus who is our life (John 14:6), and giving life to others by serving them.

Aside from Jesus, we sometimes see this played out in society.

Several years ago, Sara Tucholsky of Western Oregon University smacked her first home run in her college career with two runners on base in a playoff game against Central Washington University.  While rounding the bases, she missed first base. As she started back to tag it, she collapsed with a knee injury.  All she could do was crawl back to first, and if her teammates helped her, she would be called out.

Central Washington first baseman Mallory Holtman reportedly asked the umpire if she and her teammates could help Tucholsky.  The umpire said yes, so Holtman and shortstop Liz Wallace put their arms under Tucholsky’s legs, and Tucholsky put her arms over their shoulders.  The three rounded the bases, stopping only to let Tucholsky touch each bag with her uninjured leg.

“The only thing I remember is that Mallory asked me which leg was the one that hurt,” Tucholsky said in a story from FOX Sports on MSN.  “I told her it was my right leg and she said, ‘OK, we’re going to drop you down gently and you need to touch it with your left leg.’”  Added Wallace: “We didn’t know that she was a senior or that this was her first home run. That makes the story more touching than it was.

We just wanted to help her.”  Holtman told FOX Sports that she and Wallace weren’t thinking about the playoff spot, and didn’t consider the gesture something special.

They may not remember the heroics they did to help their team win that season, but I doubt they will ever forget helping Sara Tucholsky.  And I’m sure it gives them great joy to reminisce on that act of self-forgetfulness and kindness.

There is a Chinese saying that goes: “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap.  If you want happiness for a day, go fishing.  If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune.  If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.”

I don’t know about the others, but it is scientifically proven that you receive more joy by helping others than by tending to your own needs.

An article in Time magazine reports:

“Through fMRI technology, we now know that giving activates the same parts of the brain that are stimulated by food and sex.  Experiments show evidence that altruism is hardwired in the brain, and it’s pleasurable.  Helping others may just be the secret to living a life that is not only happier but also healthier, wealthier, more productive, and meaningful” (https://time.com/collection/guide-to-happiness/4070299/secret-to-happiness/# )

It is what psychologists call “the helper’s high.”

Stephen Witmer points out a paradoxical truth that can liberate us for sacrificial service: the less we need others (whether it’s securing their praise or avoiding their censure), the more and better we will serve them.

He takes that from Colossians 3:23-25 and says this in an online article entitled “Love Them More, Need Them Less”:

Colossians 3:23 is the apostle Paul’s intriguing command to Christian slaves: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”  Not for men.  That’s intriguing, because just one verse earlier Paul instructs slaves, “obey in everything those who are your earthly masters” (Colossians 3:22).  Which is it, Paul?  How do these back-to-back commands fit together?

Somehow, even when we’re serving another person (Colossians 3:22), we’re not to be working for them (Colossians 3:23).  So, what does it mean to work for someone?  The context helps us here.  Verse 22 instructs slaves not to be motivated by a desire to please other people, but rather to fear the Lord.  Verses 24–25 remind slaves that their reward for service will come from the Lord, and that punishment for wrongdoing will also come from the Lord:

. . . knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. (Colossians 3:24–25)

It seems that to work for someone means to serve them in order to secure their praise or avoid their punishment.  Paul says we’re to serve others, but not because we hope for their reward or fear their wrath.  It’s the Lord we’re looking to as we serve them. (https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/love-them-more-need-them-less)

We serve others better when we realize that we are really working for our Lord.  We don’t have to be rewarded by them, because ultimately He will reward us.

So we learn content by getting our eyes off of ourselves, our own needs or struggles, and first putting them on Jesus Christ and rejoicing in what He has provided for me today, then by freeing ourselves from an obsession with pleasant circumstances, recognizing the blessing that comes from adversity, then we draw strength from our union with Christ to be content, and finally we focus on others—serving them and rejoicing in the reward they receive from helping us.

I hope you will learn the secret of being content this week.

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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