"From Christ to Contentment"
(Delivered Sunday, November 2, 2008 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
Two missionaries were sitting in a prison cell—not knowing whether they were about to be released or executed. Their names were Paul and Silas.
In obedience to the command of God, they had brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to the ancient city of Philippi in the regions of Macedonia. And their preaching of that gospel had transformed lives. But it had also upset the cultural system of the city. They had cast a demon out of a fortune-telling slave girl—an act which had cost her masters the profits they were making from her. And so, the two missionaries were accused of troubling the city. They were beaten with rods, thrown into prison with other condemned prisoners, shackled by their feet, and placed under the custody of a stern jailer.
We can only barely imagine what a miserable situation their imprisonment would have been. The shackles around their ankles and the wounds on their backs would have been constantly painful. The disturbing sound of other prisoners would have incessantly filled the air—the sounds of men cursing in anger, or moaning in pain, or even whimpering pathetically in fear. The stench would have been almost unbearable. And as night fell, the darkness and coldness would have compounded the sense of foreboding over what may happen at the break of day.
Paul and Silas had been doing what God had told them to do. But as a result, there they were—sitting in one of the most grim circumstances possible. Humanly speaking, they could easily have fallen into despair and asked, "Why did this happen? Where is God in all this?" But instead, the Bible tells that "at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and signing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them" (Acts 16:25).
How could it be that, in such a dreadful situation—one of the most miserable external circumstances one could experience—Paul and Silas were so 'content' in their inner-most beings that they could sing hymns of praise to God? What was their secret?
Paul, as we know, lived on to tell this secret. And he tells it to us in this morning's passage. Years later, when he was in another prison cell (this time, in Rome), Paul wrote a 'thank-you' note to the Christians who were living in that same ancient city of Philippi. The Christians there had sent a gift to him to help support him during his time in jail. We have that 'thank-you' note in our Bible's as the New Testament book of Philippians. He wanted them to know that he was grateful that they showed such love to him, and that it was good that they had sent the gift. But he also wanted them to know that his happiness and contentment didn't ultimately depend on the gift—or in any other external circumstance. He wrote back to them and said;
The conviction that "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me"—that's Paul's secret to how he could endure joyfully in such difficult circumstances of life.
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Think about "contentment" with me for a moment. It's is something that all of us naturally need and long for. And yet, it's something that people seem to lack more than anything else today.
I believe that the biggest reason people people lack an inner sense of peace is because they believe "contentment" depends on external circumstances. To be in a state of inward satisfaction, they believe you must have satisfying circumstances. In this respect, I think that people's concept of "real contentment" probably looks a lot like those Corona commercials on television. (I hope you'll forgive me for mentioning a beer ad in church.) You've probably seen the commercials I'm talking about—a woman and a man are laying in hammocks in the sun on a beautiful beach under a deep blue sky, resting under the shade of an umbrella or a palm tree, passing a bottle of Corona back and forth between them; the sound of the ocean waves crashing in the distance; the sight of an occasional bird of paradise flying by . . .
It's the ultimate picture of 'contentment through circumstances'—the exact opposite of Paul's and Silas' prison cell. (There were no hammocks in their prison cell—and if it had any animals, it's a pretty safe bet they weren't birds of paradise!) And yet, if external circumstances were where "contentment" truly came from, then only a relatively few of us would ever achieve contentment—and even then, only for a few fleeting moments. The vast majority of us would never achieve it at all. If we look to external circumstances like that for our "contentment", then we're doomed to be continually disappointed and frustrated; because the circumstances that would make for such contentment would always be uncertain and out of our control. As soon as the circumstances came to an end, so would our contentment.
But that's not the meaning of the word for "contentment", as Paul used it in our passage this morning. He used a compound word in Greek—one that puts together the two words for "self" (autos) and "sufficiency" (arkeō). Thus autarkēs means to be sufficient or adequate in one's self—completely apart from or independent of the circumstances of life. It stresses the idea of being satisfied in one's own inner being—no matter what one's external lot in life may be.
Now think about it. Is your life characterized by "contentment"? What is it that you base that contentment on? Is it dependent upon the external circumstances of life? What will happen to your contentment if you lose everything through a downward turn in the stock market? What will happen to your contentment if 'your man' doesn't win the election? What will happen to your contentment if your health goes bad, or you lose your job, or your house burns down? What happens to it if you are treated unjustly, or accused wrongly, or your reputation is destroyed?
Nobody wants these things to happen, of course. But Paul is telling us in this passage what it is that we must base our contentment on; so that if those things do happen, it doesn't affect our inner contentment. Even in the worst of circumstances, we can be like Paul himself was—singing praises to God, even though in a dismal prison cell.
Paul teaches us, in this morning's passage, that true contentment lies in living one's life in a calm and satisfied state of dependency on Jesus Christ in all situations of life.
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Now; to help us develop what Paul is saying, let's work through this passage backwards. To see how he ended-up content in whatever state he was, let's discover how it is that he got there.
And the place to begin is with . . .
1. THE PERSON: PAUL WAS VITALLY UNITED TO JESUS CHRIST (V. 13).
He said that he was able to do all things "through Christ", or, as it is in some translations, "through Him who strengthens me" (v. 13). What an absolutely crucial thing that is to understand! Real, lasting contentment doesn't come as a result of achieving a set of wonderful circumstances. Rather, it comes as a result of being in a relationship with a wonderful Person.
Now; this isn't talking about some kind of religious sentimentality. It isn't about having nice feelings about God. It's a matter of being unshakably convinced of what the Bible says about Jesus Christ; of placing a conscious, deliberate trust in Him; and of entering fully into a saving relationship with Him by faith.
What did Paul believe about Jesus? There are some portions of the Book of Philippians that tell us clearly what he believed. He affirmed for example, in Philippians 2:6-11, that Jesus,
Paul's conviction of heart was that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God who became Man on our behalf. He believed that the Jesus he trusted knew what it felt like to suffer—that He even endured the death of the cross. But he also believed that Jesus rose from the grave—victorious over death and suffering—to sit at the right hand of God in glory.
And knowing these things, Paul made it his singular ambition in life to be fully given over to a saving faith in this Jesus. He used to trust in his own righteousness and good works to save him. But he cast all those things aside in order to trust only in Jesus. In Philippians 3:7-14, he wrote;
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Do you want to have contentment—real contentment—in your inner-most being? Do you want to have a contentment that doesn't change with the changing circumstances? Then here's where you have to begin. You must enter into a relationship with the unchanging Sovereign of the universe—the Son of God, Jesus Christ. You must believe the truth about Him; and you must enter into a personal relationship of love and trust with Him. True contentment with respect to the circumstances of this world comes as a by-product of a relationship with the One who made you for Himself.
And this would be a good time for me to pause and ask: Have you entered into that relationship? Have you come to the place in your life in which you have said, "God, I am a sinner; but I now understand that You have sent your Son Jesus Christ to pay the debt of my sin on His cross"? Have you told God, "I now put my trust in Jesus' sacrifice for me; and I invite Him to take hold of my life and transform everything about me—my attitudes, my actions, my aspirations, my loves, my hates, my longings—everything about me. I welcome the circumstances of life as that which He sovereignly rules over; and that He uses to transform me into the person He died to make me to be. And I ask that He empower me to grow in the kind of ongoing relationship with Him in which I look to Him for everything, trust Him in every situation, and depend on Him for guidance every step of my life"?
True contentment comes, ultimately, from that kind of relationship with Jesus Christ. Enter into that relationship today—and you'll have made the first, essential step toward true contentment!
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Paul was content—even in prison—because he had entered by faith into that kind of a vital relationship with the Son of God. And that leads us, next, to consider . . .
2. THE EXPERIENCE : HE WAS THERFORE STRENGHENED BY CHRIST FOR ALL THINGS (v. 13).
Notice how Paul puts this. He says, "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me"—or, more literally, "For all things, I have been strengthened in the One who empowers me".
Sometimes, when we think of such having "power" for life, we're thinking in terms of power over the circumstances—so that we can actively change things ourselves, and make the situation into whatever we want it to be. But that's not what Paul meant. The strength Paul spoke of possessing through Christ is the strength that empowered him to trust God and praise Him in all circumstances. As he writes in Colossians 1:11, it's a strength God gives through Christ, "with all might, according to His glorious power, for all patience and longsuffering with joy . . ."
When we enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ by faith, just think of who it is that we become spiritually united to! As Paul affirmed elsewhere in the Scriptures, Jesus was the eternally pre-existent Son of God—the Creator and upholder of all things—whom God the Father sent as our Savior. Paul writes in Colossians 1:13-18, that God the Father
If I may speak frankly; there isn't anything in life that you and I could not endure with joy, if we knew that we were united to someone such as that; and that He was constantly with us and always sufficiently empowering us for it. And when we are united to Jesus Christ; that is the Person we are united to!
What's more, through our precious Savior Jesus Christ, we enter into a relationship with His Father; who sovereignly rules over all the circumstances of life. As Paul said in Romans 8:28; "And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose." When we enter into a relationship with Jesus Christ, we meet the fundamental condition for full contentment in all circumstances; because we have entered into a relationship through Him with the One who controls all circumstances.
And what's more still, when we enter into a relationship with Jesus, He even sends the Holy Spirit to take up permanent residence in us. And the Spirit produces His fruit in us, so that we have every provision necessary to exhibit Christ-like attitudes in all circumstances. Through the Holy Spirit, we have an endless supply of Jesus Christ's own "love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" for every situation of life (Galatians 5:22-23).
So; if you are in a relationship with Jesus Christ, you can sing hymns of praise to God—even in the prison-like circumstances of this world. You can do so through Him who constantly and sufficiently strengthens you.
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As we have seen so far, true contentment begins by entering into a relationship with Jesus Christ by faith. And because of that relationship, we see that we are then brought into His own eternal resources, so that we empowered to rest confidently in a calm dependency upon Him in any and all circumstances of life.
But that just provides us with the basis on which the work toward true inner contentment can begin. Another thing we need to notice in this passage about Paul's experience of contentment is . . .
3. THE PROCESS: HE 'LEARNED' TO LIVE LIFE WITH A CALM DEPENDECE ON CHRIST (vv. 11-12).
We may not like to hear about this part of the process. As soon as we trust Jesus, we'd much rather expect a state of contentment to come to us "instantly" and "automatically. But not even the great apostle Paul experienced "instant" contentment. He lets us know that it took some time and practice and work to grow into it.
He lets us know this, very plainly, in three ways in this passage. First, in verse 11, he says that he "learned" in whatever state he was, to be content. It wasn't something that was instantaneously developed in him. Contentment in his inner-most being in Christ was something that he developed by practical experience. He went through the process of "learning" it.
Second, in the twelfth verse, he tells us, "I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound . . ." It was something that he, at one time, did not know—but now knew. It was information that he acquired. He had gone through, as it were, some 'courses' in God's 'school of life'; and gained some 'how-to' knowledge along the way.
And finally, he says, "Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need." And the word that he uses for "learned" here is different from the one found in verse eleven. This word has the idea of being "initiated" into something—much like the mystery religions would "initiate" someone into their secret practices through a process. I think the New American Standard version translates it correctly when it says, "I have learned the secret . . ."
The point is that experiencing contentment in Christ—a true contentment that transcends the circumstances of life—is something that must be learned, over time, in the training-ground of an everyday experience of walking with Christ.
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I had a chance to make a 'forward step' in my own contentment in Christ just the other day. In my case, the learning experience came through my car.
I had been having a problem with a leak in the interior of my car that had been running down from underneath the dashboard. I spent a little money on the problem, because the moisture had caused some damage to the electrical parts of the car. And I thought that I had it fixed. But we had a pretty good rain near the end of last week; and as I got in my car to take off for a busy day, I found a fresh puddle of rain water sloshing around the passenger's side floor mat.
This would mean that my plans for the day had to change. I would immediately have to run to the service shop, or even greater damage would begin to occur. It meant more money would be spent, and more time lost for the day. When I saw the puddle, I clenched my hand into a fist, raised it, and was just about to bring it down onto the dashboard in anger.
And right then, the Holy Spirit did something that I think He only does to pastors. In that quiet way of His, it was as if He asked, "So; what are you preaching on this Sunday?" And it was then that I realized I was receiving a 'pop-quiz' in God's 'school of contentment in Christ'. My fist loosened, and my finger pointed to God; and I said, "Lord, Your word says that I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I've spent the past day or so studying the passage that says so. So I ask you to give me strength right now to accept that you have permitted my schedule to be changed for the day, and to trust confidently that this is something that is under Your control. Help me to be content in my inner man, and to go through this challenge with calm, satisfied dependency in Christ."
Now, I'd like to tell you that a miracle occurred to my car; and that as soon as I prayed that prayer, it was instantly healed. Well; it wasn't. I had to pay a shop to heal it. But a miracle did occur—in me! God graced me with a contented heart throughout that day, and gave me a joyful attitude as I wrote out the repair check. And as for the things about my schedule for the day that I thought would be ruined; everything turned out to be just fine. God proved Himself to me. I made just a little more progress in God's 'school' that day; and learned a little more, in whatever state I am, to be content in Christ.
Maybe that seems like a small “trial” in the scheme of things. But that's God's way of developing contentment in us through Christ. He gives us the basic resources in Christ for true contentment, but we must 'learn' contentment, through experience in the daily trials of life, to draw from those resources. As Paul wrote elsewhere in this letter;
Each trial we encounter, or every challenge we face, or every difficulty we endure, is allowed by our loving Father's sovereign permission to come into our lives. And He permits it so that we can 'learn'—through the 'classroom' of real-life experience—how to maintain the sort of calm dependency in Christ that leads to constant contentment in all circumstances.
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Paul went through the process we all have to go through. And he ended up a contented man, because he had "learned" to cultivate that calm, satisfied dependency upon Christ through experience.
And that leads us, finally, to notice . . .
4. THE RESULT: HE HAD CONSISTANT CONTENTMENT IN ALL CIRCUMSTANCES (v. 11).
He said, "Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content."
Look again at the different "states" he had been in. Put them together categorically. He had learned, first of all, how to be "abased" (that is, in a humble state). He had learned the secret of being hungry. He had learned how to be in need. No one would sign up for such a 'course'. But God had put him through it—and he learned how to do it without losing his inner contentment in Christ.
Or look at the other side of the spectrum. Paul said that he had learned how to "abound". He had learned the secret of being "full" (just like when your cat takes a nap after having a full belly). He had learned how to have plenty. Now many of us are tempted to say, "Well; I'd certainly like for God to give me some training in that!" But don't be so hasty. Paul warns elsewhere in the Bible that "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows" (1 Timothy 6:10). Just as we need to learn how to be content in Christ in times of want, we also need to learn how to keep our contentment centered in Christ during times of plenty.
But the point is, through the training of actual life-experience, Paul had learned how to be content in all circumstances of life. Nothing shook him from his peace in Christ—one way or the other.
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The Bible tells us that “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6). And such contentment in the inner man can be yours.
If you have placed our trust in Jesus, then the basis of true contentment is already there. Let God use every situation that He brings your way to teach you and train you to draw closer to Jesus Christ in calm dependency, and to trust in His endless resources to empower you for the challenges of life. And if you have never placed your trust in Jesus Christ, then do so today. That's the first and most essential step you must take toward true inner contentment.
Then you, like Paul, will learn to rest in a calm and satisfying dependency upon Jesus in even the darkest of life's circumstances—and to even sing hymns of praise, in the midst of those circumstances, to the glory of God.
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