“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 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. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11–13 ESV)
Paul is grateful for the Philippians’ gift to him & for their partnership in the gospel (1:5), but he has learned a contentment that transcends his external circumstances. To be content means to be OK with the lot that we have in life or with the means that have been afforded to us, regardless of whether they are slim or plentiful. However, we normally associate lacking contentment with being in need. For most that are reading this, that is not the case – we have more than enough. Paul said that he had learned the secret of finding contentment whether in abundance or in need. So why is contentment, even when all of our basic needs are met, so difficult to obtain & experience?
Contentment looks different in abundance and in need. When in need, there must be an abiding trust that God will provide all that is required for life. This is a trust issue in the sovereign goodness of God. When living in abundance, contentment is also difficult; it involves seeing Christ as more beautiful than anything else that is vying for our attention. Becoming content is tied back to abiding in Christ and thinking on things that stir worship in our souls (4:4-7, see here & here).
When in abundance the risk is to treasure and look to created things as objects of our worship. When we worship created things, we are looking for them to satisfy the deepest longings of our soul – something that they are incapable of doing because they were not designed to hold the weight of our worship. Contentment, at its root is a worship problem. When we have abundance in our lives – there are many shiny, new things to distract us from Ultimate realities. When we latch on to all of the things around us as “necessary” things to make our lives worth living then we will never find contentment. We will always be looking for the next gadget, car, house, spouse, accomplishment, pay raise, toy, relationship, experience or whatever. But, the man who can learn to not place his trust in worldly wealth and can enjoy all things as a gift from God is a fortunate man: “as for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17 ESV).
We might think that the remedy to our discontentment is to sell all of our worldly possessions and move over seas to serve God. This is not the remedy, this is just transferring the problem to a different venue. You trusting in created things more than the Creator of all things is not a function of what you have, it is a function of what you believe is most worthy of your worship, praise & adoration.
So how did the apostle become content in all things? Paul saw Christ as more glorious, more worthy, more spectacular than anything else the world had to offer (3:7-11). The work is not to lower the value or allure of the things that compete for our affections – this will prove a fools errand as most can attest to. The real secret of contentment is not in lowering other things, but in seeing Christ more clearly – seeing Him as so far above anything else that we are willing to joyfully exchange all things to have Him.
We need a yearning in our soul (like Paul had) that considers everything as loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus. This is a supernatural act, this is not something that we muster up, this is something that is Holy Spirit wrought. This puts us in a place of utter dependance upon God to do what only He can do in our souls. This goes back to a place where we intentionally quiet ourselves and pray desperate prayers like, “enlighten the eyes of my heart, quicken my mind, help me to see things as they really are, make your kingdom come in ME, I do believe – help me with my unbelief. Help me to taste and see that you are good, that in your presence is deepest satisfaction and that your steadfast love is better than life.” Contentment is not the goal, it is a byproduct of the goal – which is to know the good, sovereign, Lord of the universe. To lack contentment in one’s life is merely symptomatic of a deeper, heart problem; contentment is not the problem, the object of our worship is the problem.