“Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:11–13
To adapt a line from Charles Dickens, Thanksgiving can be “the best of times and the worst of times.” Properly practiced, Thanksgiving is a time of great joy. We remember the thorough goodness of our God for another year. Many preachers will select texts of praise to God for Thanksgiving morning. They do so rightfully. We live in the best of times by no accident. God has blessed us beyond the imagination of many.
But Thanksgiving (dare we admit it?) may also bring out the worst in us. Considering what we have may be perverted to an unsettledness about what we do not have. We may find ourselves believing it would be possible to possess peace and joy if only we had a little more to be thankful for. And therein is the great lie about what we have: our circumstances determine our contentment.
The Bible tells us that something quite different is true: our contentment at Thanksgiving time, or any time for that matter, must come from somewhere beside possessions and position in life. Contentment does not come from our circumstances but through an understanding of life rooted in Christ. And not only does the Bible tell us where true contentment lies, it also tells us such contentment is possible for each one of us. And it does so in no uncertain terms.
I attended high school at a small Christian school in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Near the end of each year there was an athletics banquet at which a guest was invited to address the students. At the end of my junior year our guest chose to speak about Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” The substance of the address is probably not unlike one you have heard based on this same verse: When I do not feel like I can run another stride, I remember that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. How can I have calm nerves at the end of a tight game? How can I do one more repetition? Through Christ who strengthens me.
There is no question that long distance running or converting a free throw are difficult tasks. But unfortunately, the speaker was incorrect in employing Philippians 4:13 to make his point. Athletics can be difficult. But what is in view in this verse is far more difficult. In fact its promise is applied to perhaps the most difficult thing any one of us may be faced with in this life: contentment.
Would you characterize yourself as content? Or do you suppose that you could be content if only one or two things (or maybe three or more) were changed? How many of us are convinced that contentment would be there if only we had a bit more money, a little less stress, more of something else?
If you read the entirety of Philippians 4 you will notice Paul ends this book addressing a particular personal need. Paul was in prison when he wrote this letter. In such a circumstance he required the physical care of others. The Philippians had evidently responded by sending a gift to Paul through Epaphroditus.
This leads Paul to speak to them more directly in chapter 4:11–13 about what he had learned in general about circumstances and contentment. He tells them in verse 10 that they should not think that he rejoiced simply because he had what he needed. Rather his joy and contentment were based on something else – something that always transcends whatever the circumstances of life may be. To base contentment on circumstances, Paul writes, is always deceptive.
This is precisely the point driven home in verses 11 and 12 of chapter 4. Paul emphasizes to his readers that he had known plenty of good and bad throughout his life and contentment was never found in either. Paul knew how to be “abased”, likely a reference to his financial want. It is true that Paul was often responsible for his own physical support – a support that could hardly be characterized as luxurious. Further, he knew what it meant to be hungry and to suffer needs of various kinds (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:11, 2 Corinthians 11:27). Paul’s life was not one of material prosperity. Rather, every appearance is that he faced personal and financial need. And to those of every age who would believe that contentment is not possible without personal and financial success, Paul would have had every reason to be discontent.
On the other hand, Paul knew good. Not only do verses 11 and 12 tell us about his lack, there also must have been times of plenty. Paul writes about both of having just enough to get by as well as having more than enough.
Such a range of good and bad is known to each of us. It is the universal human experience. What is foreign to the Scriptures is that anyone would believe that contentment is based on these things. The end of verse 11 is clear: “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content:”
We are taught to be content in the range of possibilities, not because of them. The Bible teaches that position, power, and riches as sources of contentment are fruitless. A few biblical examples are apropos. In Acts 12:21–23 we read about the awful death of King Herod. This was a man who wished to have prestige and honor above all else (v. 23). Yet there is no hint that Herod knew any contentment. Much to the contrary, the Bible portrays a family line where there is anything but peace (e.g. Mark 6).
Additionally we should consider the example of the rich young man in Matthew 19:16–30. This young man was not prepared to give up all to follow after Christ (vv. 29, 30). Rather, he believed that he would find peace and contentment in those riches.
Very little appears to have changed since the time of Herod and the rich young man. Many people believe that if they only have a “little more” they will be happy. So a big screen television leads to a new boat, to a new house, to a trip to Jamaica. None of these is inherently wrong, but they become so when we think that we will be content because of them. Looking for contentment in these sorts of things is like the donkey reaching for the carrot hung out before him – we think one more step, one more thing will do it, only to discover once we have it, contentment is still beyond us.
The Bible tells us very clearly that contentment comes from only one place: through our relationship with an all knowing and all controlling God. The secret that Paul learned in verse 12 of Philippians 4 requires a shift in focus. We turn from looking at those parts of our lives that we would wish to change, to the loving heavenly Father who brings all things into our lives for our good (Romans 8:28). Through Christ we are now children of this Father. Through this same Savior it is possible to be content.
Are you content? The question is not whether there are circumstances about your life that you would like to change. There are certainly at least some. The question is rather whether or not we can be content in them. Is that possible?
God says it is. Contentment is possible because of Jesus Christ: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Rev. Jeff De Boer is the pastor of the Peace Reformed Church [RCUS] in Garner, Iowa.