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by Ted Schroder

What is your level of contentment? High? Medium? Low? Do you consider contentment to be a virtue, or do you consider it to be an excuse for complacency, passivity, or laziness? Is a certain degree of discontentment healthy? Is it not a spur to excel, to learn more, to achieve more, to seek reform and make progress? Individuals and societies have used discontent to address issues that have been contentious, and developed ways of dealing with them.

Rosa Parks was discontented with sitting at the back of the bus, and having to give up her seat to a white man in Birmingham, Alabama. Her discontent sparked the civil rights movement, and achieved a more equitable society. Discontent is one of the components of a democratic society. But what about the search for personal contentment? How do you go about using your experience of discontentment to achieve a level of contentment? Obviously the goal is to move from discontentment to contentment and not to stay stewing in discontentment all the days of your life. How do you learn contentment?

Contentment was a virtue to be prized in the ancient world. In the moral philosophy of Stoicism the ability to be content became the essence of all virtues. One was content when one lived according to that which suited one's nature. Stoics prided themselves in becoming independent of things and relying on themselves or in submitting to the lot meted out by the gods. However such a philosophy required education and affluence. It was made famous by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Tom Wolfe used the writings of Stoic teacher, Epictetus in his novel, A Man in Full, to guide the protagonist to contentment.

In the New Testament, contentment is seen to be no longer autonomy and self-sufficiency, but the freedom to give to others rather than living exclusively for ourselves. Jesus said, that this attitude of contentment presupposes trust and confidence as God's children in their heavenly Father. Since we are secure in God's love, we can be content with what we have, because it is given to us by God himself. He promises to watch over his children all their lives. Such confidence can overcome anxiety about the future because the future, like the present, is provided for by God. God's children can be delivered from anxiety about themselves so that they may be free to care for others. (Matthew 6:25-34)

In Philippians 4:11 Paul describes his own attitude: He has learned, in whatever state he is, to be content. Such contentment springs from complete readiness to accept whatever God gives. In his case he is writing out of prison in Rome, so he is dealing with the reality of the lack of freedom he has, and the precarious position he is in. He is not being idealistic or presenting unrealistic counsels of perfection, or in denial of his unpleasant circumstances. The apostle makes no distinction between the necessary and the superfluous, but simply gives thanks for everything. He can accept both abundance and want as part of his life, and he gives thanks that he has received both as a gift, together with God's gracious forgiveness and enriching power.

Contentment to Paul is not the passive acceptance of the status quo, but the positive assurance that God has supplied one's need, and the consequent release from unnecessary desire.

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) wrote, "There is a sense in which a man looking at the present in the light of the future, and taking his whole being into account, may be contented with his lot: that is Christian contentment. But if a man has come to that point where he is so content that he says, 'I do not want to know any more, or do any more, or be any more,' he is in a state in which he ought to be changed into a mummy!"

Paul's contentment rests in the fruit he sees of his proclamation of the gospel in the establishment of the church, and their consequent support of his ministry. He can be joyful despite the physical deprivations of prison and the emotional struggles of opposition from fellow believers. The Philippians had sent him aid, "again and again when I was in need." Their monetary gifts helped to alleviate his physical distress, and the presence of their representative who brought the gifts, Epaphroditus, was undoubtedly an emotional comfort. But Paul made it clear that he did not depend on either to be content.

The secret of his contentment was: "I can do everything through him who gives me strength." (Philippians 4:13) God gives him the ability to face all circumstances in his strength. He shares this secret with the Philippians. They too, can find the same strength. God is fully able and fully willing to meet whatever needs surround the believer. "And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 4:19)

What needs is he referring to? God can supply the physical needs of his people if he determines. But this is not the primary need that is addressed. Many faithful Christians have suffered deeply, like Paul, for the sake of the Gospel, and have prayed earnestly that God might alleviate their suffering, but it has nevertheless continued. Their faith is not flawed, or their lives less committed than they should have been. If we take Jesus and Paul as examples, it becomes apparent that sometimes obedience to the will of God requires physical deprivation to the point of death.

This promise, of God meeting all our needs, according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus, must be understood in the light of being content with what God supplies. "I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances...I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want." (Philippians 4:11,12) This contentment did not come easily. He had to learn it. He had to learn that God could supply his needs by giving him the resources in Christ to cope with hardship. What are those resources?

Hardship tempts us to think that God is unmoved by our plight or is against us, and so we despair. When we experience difficult times, we need the strength of God to show us by the riches of the cross of Christ that he is for us, and not against us. When we experience difficult times, we can be strengthened by the knowledge that God was so filled with love and concern for us, that he came in his Son to suffer hardship and to die on our behalf, to transform our suffering into something worthwhile. If this powerful truth dominates our lives, then we can face the worst human hardship with a strong faith, and we can rest assured that God is working out our salvation, even in the midst of hardship.

We need this strength as much when we experience affluence as when we experience poverty. When life is comfortable, we are tempted to forget the grace of God and rely on ourselves. We forget easily that many have worked as hard as us but have not had our success. God has given success to us, not because we deserve it, but as a concrete reminder that he is a gracious God. In the midst of affluence as much as in the times of deprivation, we need God's help to survive spiritually.

Paul expressed his thanks to the Philippians for their generosity. "It was good of you to share in my troubles." Yet, he disclaimed that he was looking for a gift from them, but that he was "looking for what may be credited to your account...The gifts you sent are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God." (Philippians 4:17,18)

This reminds us that our financial support of the ministry of the church is at least as important for our own spiritual development as for any good that it might do those to whom we give. God's work is going to go forward without our help. His purpose does not depend on our giving and serving. But when we give of our means sacrificially to his purposes, we benefit spiritually, because we confirm that God is at work within us, "to will and to act according to his good purpose." (Philippians 2:13)

The chief value of generosity does not lie in the help which it gives the ministry of the church. It lies in increasing the spiritual capital of the givers, and in rendering to God a fragrant, acceptable, and pleasing sacrifice. Such aid demonstrates our partnership in the work of the gospel and shows that we are progressing in our spiritual lives as we move closer to the day when we will meet Christ in glory.

Such giving demonstrates our the refusal to base contentment on the possession of financial wealth. Generous, sacrificial, planned giving is our refusal to allow wealth to control us. Regular giving enables us to control wealth and to give it power to do good. Paul rejoiced in the gift of the Philippians, not because he required it, but because it demonstrated their own freedom in Christ to care for others. By giving their money, poor as they were, they demonstrated where their loyalties lay and strengthened their commitment to God who would supply all that they ultimately needed through his riches in Christ Jesus.

What is your level of contentment? Learn to say with faith and deep conviction: "I can do everything through him who gives me strength?" Then you will find that God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.

(Some material for this sermon comes from The NIV Application Commentary on Philippians, Frank Thielman)

An audio version of this sermon may be found on www.ameliachapel.com.

Amelia Plantation Chapel
Amelia Island, Florida

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