The Secret of Contentment Back to all sermons

Date: February 17, 2013

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Scripture: Philippians 4:10–4:13

(Put jewelry box on table.)

This box represents a precious treasure. It is one of the most valuable treasures you could ever want or wish for. It is a treasure God wants you to have and to enjoy.

What is it? Listen to these verses of Scripture from Philippians 4:10-13 and see if you can pick out the treasure.

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Did you pick it out? What do you think the treasure is? The treasure that is found in this paragraph is a wonderful thing called “contentment.” It is one of life’s rarest and most precious commodities. If I could wish one thing for all of you early in this year, 2012, it would simply be this: that you would enjoy true contentment throughout the year.

But, you might say, what is this thing called contentment? How do we define it? In the original Greek, it is a compound word, made up of two parts. One part is a word meaning “sufficient” or “enough.” Two examples of this word in use come from the gospel of John. In John 6:7, Jesus tells his disciples to feed the multitude and Philip states, “Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread.” In another discussion with Jesus in John, Philip makes this request: “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” So that gives us a sense of one part of this word: adequate, sufficient, enough to meet the need.

The second part of the word is the word for “self”. The two words together, then have the sense of having enough or sufficient within one’s self; hence not dependent on outside supply or circumstances. The word is used, for example of a city state that was able to produce all of its own food, so it was not dependent on trade with its neighbors to feed its citizens.

In our context, then, contentment is a state of sufficiency, a state of “enoughness” that is not reliant on outside sources or suppliers. There is nothing lacking. In this paragraph, Paul makes this remarkable statement: for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. This phrase “in whatever situation I am” refers in the context to his financial and material resources. As he goes on to expand on the extremes: plenty and hunger, abundance and need. The point that Paul is making is that his state of contentment is not dependent on his material or financial resources. In either extreme, Paul experiences the same inner contentment.

In trying to understand this quality of contentment and its value maybe it will help to see it in contrast by looking at the opposite of contentment. In I Timothy 6:9-10 we have a very vivid description of what happens to people who lack this quality of contentment: People who want to get rich (in other words, they are not content with what they have) fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (this is from NIV) One of Satan’s lies is that more money will bring us greater happiness. People who believe this lie are never content.

One day, when I was about 9 years old, my mother called me to look out the back door of our house where we were living in Kenya. It was just after a rain storm and the late afternoon sun had broken through the clouds. There behind our house was one of the most vivid rainbows I have ever seen. What made it even more remarkable was that the end of the rainbow was only about 100 meters away, just beyond our neighbor’s house. It was close enough to touch. My mother teasingly said, “Why don’t you go see if you can find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?” Now, I didn’t believe in the pot of gold, but I was curious to see what was at the end of the rainbow. It was so near! So I started walking toward it. I learned a valuable lesson that afternoon. I found I could never get any closer to the foot of the rainbow. It just kept receding, always just beyond reach. So it will always be if we try to base our contentment on our possessions. Enough is never enough. It is a treadmill that never stops.

The treasure that Paul offers us here is a state of contentment that is not tied to financial or material resources. I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances…whether living in plenty or in want.

So that is the treasure. But this treasure is like this box. There is a lock on it. And you can’t enjoy the treasure unless you have the key that will unlock it. The treasure of contentment also requires a key to unlock it. I want to give you that key this evening and tell you the secret to opening the box. It is not a new secret. In fact, it’s been around a long, long time. But it is still a rare secret, because not very many people have learned it.

What is the key that will open the treasure box for us? What is the secret Paul speaks about? Paul clearly tells us in these verses that this was not something that came to him naturally. It was something he had to learn. In fact he says it three different ways. In verse 11 he says “I have learned…” In verse 12 he says “I know,” and “I have learned the secret…” This last phrase is especially descriptive. It is an unusual word that comes from the mystery religions of the day. These mystery religions were based on special secrets or mysteries which were revealed only to the members at their initiation and progressively as they rose in the ranks of the religion. They were secrets and mysteries that were carefully guarded and revealed very selectively. Paul uses this vocabulary to describe the secret that he has learned. The question before us then is, what is the secret Paul learned? What is the key that will open the treasure?

When I first studied this passage, I spent a lot of time thinking about that. Then it finally hit me. When I was a child and I couldn’t find something, my mother would often tease me that it was “hiding in plain view.” Or as my father used to say, “If had been a snake, it could have bit you.” In this case the key or the secret is lying right here alongside the treasure box. Paul is playing the role of the master teacher, initiating us into the secret, and he has laid the secret out in plain sight. The secret is in verse 13: I can do all things through him who strengthens me. There it is! That’s the secret! But we have often failed to recognize it as the key to contentment for several reasons.

The first reason is that we have taken this verse and isolated it from its context. Frankly, a lot of very foolish and absurd claims have been made by preachers using this verse as their authority. It is the equivalent of taking a key and concluding, rightly, that it is valuable, but then running around trying to open doors and boxes with it that it was never intended to open! This key belongs right here beside this very valuable treasure box. This is the lock it is intended to open.

The other reason we often go astray is because of a difficulty in translation. Let me explain. The first thing we need to know is that the word “do” is not in the Greek text. What the original literally says is, “I can…all things…” But that makes no sense in English, does it? It is incomplete. So the translators have provided a helping verb to complete the meaning. As is often the case in such contexts, they have used a very neutral, non-specific verb, “do”. But unfortunately, when we translate it that way and we isolate this verse from its context, we can find ourselves far off course.

I sympathize with the translators, because it is not easy to render this verse clearly into English. But I would suggest supplying some different verbs in light of the context of poverty and plenty. How about, “I can (endure) all things…”? Or maybe, “I can (cope with) all things…” The best published translation I found was J.B. Phillips: “I am ready for anything…” But then I settled on the simplest solution, by simply relying on the words in the context itself. “I can (be content) in every circumstance…” He is simply repeating his premise and setting us up for the secret he is about to deliver. Here it is. Are you ready for it? “Through him (Christ) who strengthens me.”

The secret is the indwelling Christ. He dwells in me. He is my constant companion in every situation and in every circumstance. With him beside me, I have all I need. I am content, because I know that he will supply all the strength I need to endure, to persevere and to overcome whatever comes my way. Paul is really repeating the theme song of his life. Back in Philippians 1:21, he states it, “For me to live is Christ!” Then in Philippians 3:10 he cries out, “That I may know Christ!” Christ lives in me. If I have him, I have all I need. I can be content in every situation through him who provides the strength. Don’t look for your contentment in money or material possessions. Get off that treadmill. Quit chasing that rainbow. Put your trust and confidence in Christ and Christ alone.

This secret is expounded in other Scripture as well. Turn with me to Hebrews 13:5-6.

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (NIV)

The context is the same: material possessions and the love of money. The gift is the same: be content with what you have. The secret is the same: The Lord is with us. He is our helper. Trust in him. Make him the source of your contentment and your joy. He will never leave you.

Before we leave this passage, I want to broaden the scope of Paul’s teaching. We have been speaking specifically of the arena of financial and material possessions: being full and being hungry, having plenty or being in want. That is the context of Paul’s words in Philippians 4. But I would like to suggest that the same principles can be applied to the wider arena of all of life’s circumstances, not just material resources. We all face a variety of circumstances in our lives. They include such things as physical health, personal abilities or disabilities, family relationships, job circumstances, and so on. We all have a tendency to look at our circumstances and say, “If I could just change THIS, then life would be good and I would be content.”

Paul had a circumstance like that. It wasn’t financial. It was something very personal, probably physical, because he refers to it as a “thorn in his flesh.” It was something constant and painful and annoying. He tells us in II Corinthians 12:8: Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.

But I want us to see how the Lord answered him, in II Corinthians 12:9: But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. (NIV)” The word “sufficient” is the word that makes up half of our word “contentment”; to have enough, to be adequate. The second word, “power” is the same root word as the “strength” which Christ supplies in Philippians 4:13. The message is the same. The key is the same. The secret is the same. Don’t look to your circumstances for your contentment. You won’t find it there. Look to the indwelling Christ and his sufficient grace and power.

I can’t help but wonder if this wasn’t where Paul was initiated into the secret and received the key to the treasure. Look at his response in the rest of the paragraph (II Corinthians 12:9 and following): Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (NIV)

Paul not only accepted his infirmity. He embraced it! He delighted in it! He saw it as an opportunity for God’s glory and strength to be displayed. He had learned the secret of being content in each and every circumstance, relying totally on Christ’s sufficient grace and sustaining strength. Now that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pray about the troublesome things in our lives. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for solutions and seek to improve our circumstances when we have the opportunity. But it does mean we don’t have to wait for perfect circumstances to have a quiet and contented heart.

I don’t know what the rest of 2013 will hold for you. I hope it will be full of good things and bright and sunny days. But whether you experience plenty or poverty, abundance or hunger, good circumstances or difficult ones, I pray for you the precious gift of contentment and deep joy that comes from putting your trust in the Lord and the strength that he alone supplies.