“…I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. 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. I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (Phil. 4:11–13).
The book of Philippians is Paul’s “thank you” note to the church at Philippi for the lovely gift they sent him in the Roman prison. In connection with the gift he received, Paul addressed the very important subject of contentment.
What is contentment? The word “content” comes from the Latin and means “to hold together.” It can mean that which is held together, like the contents of a book or the contents of a bottle. Or it can mean the feeling of being filled and having enough, being satisfied. When we mean that which fills something, we put the emphasis on the first syllable: content. When we mean the feeling of being filled and satisfied, we put the emphasis on the second syllable: content. Now what Paul is saying is that the content of what experience is not that which makes me content. He says: “…for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (ch. 4:11).
The brothers and sisters at Philippi had taken an offering and given a gift to Paul. He rejoices when this gift is presented to him because of the sweet surprise. Imagine the apostle in prison and lonely. What a joy to receive a beautiful expression of love from the congregation. It was like receiving something from his own family. He states the reason for his rejoicing: “That now at last you are letting bloom anew your being minded for my benefit” (Lenski’s translation). Like a flowering plant the Philippians were sending out a new bloom as they did twice before in the same way (vv. 15,16). The picture is one of process. The bud started, it swelled and then it burst into flower. Someone in the congregation suggested an offering for Paul in prison. The idea caught on. The offering was taken and now it was delivered. Paul gets the beautiful bloom, the flower of their tender care and love.
He appreciates the gift from the Philippians because it showed that their concern for him was blooming. But he is not complaining about his situation in prison, for he had learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
Contentment is learned. God is the teacher. It is learned in His school and He is in charge of the curriculum. Learning contentment is a process. It progresses from one stage to another. It involves self-discipline and self-denial. But one cannot be thankful without being content. This “education” for contentment is neither quick nor easy. It goes from simpler lessons to more difficult lessons. They are all administered by our heavenly Father (see II Corinthians 11:16–33). Paul learned that even though the thorn in the flesh was not removed, God’s grace was sufficient. Both plenty and want are training schools. The cost of the training we can call tuition. Someone said when he received a traffic ticket for speeding, this is “leer-geld,” that is, tuition paid for a painful lesson learned. The Lord is teaching us in all the circumstances of life. We must learn to be content, not to rebel, not to murmur and complain.
What does this have to do with thanksgiving? Think of what Paul says in Phil. 4:6,7: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Only the person with contentment can have a thankful heart. Even our prayers about our problems must be with thanksgiving.
How can we be thankful and content? Paul answers that in Phil. 4:13: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Christ’s power infuses us so that no matter if we face plenty or want, joy or sorrow, sickness or health, we can be content. The secret is being connected to Christ by faith. He gives us the strength to do our duty. What is the situation without Christ? It is to be without hope and without help in the face of the problems and trials of life. Nothing can be worse.
But with Christ we can do all things. Christ’s presence, His Spirit, His Word and His example infuse us with power. He is the One who gives a thankful heart.
Remember Psalm 62:11: “One thing God has spoken, two things have I heard; that you a God, are strong, and that you O Lord, are loving.” When we know this, we can have contentment and be thankful.
Rev. Vanden Heuvel is pastor of First Christian Reformed Church of Byron Center, MI, and co-editor of The Outlook.