In this third part of our series, Simplicity: Finding Contentment in a Busy Life, we land with both feet on the heart of Paul’s secret. What is it that gave Paul the ability to be content in all circumstances? It’s an idea that you’ve probably encountered before. But stay tuned to the end. There just may be more here than you thought there was. Thanks for reading.
The Key to Contentment
Where is your happy place? Come to mine with me for a minute. Imagine sitting on the porch of a cabin up in the mountains. It’s cool, but not too cool. The kind of cool where you could put a jacket on, but you don’t really need it. The porch looks out eastward over a majestic valley. From your post up on the side of the mountain you can see the valley opening up wide below you. There are a couple of farms down on the floor, carved out among the trees, but everything else is blanketed in deciduous beauty. It’s mid-fall and the leaves are at their peak color. And as you look out at the mountain on the opposite side of the valley, the sun is just coming up over its peak. The air is still and it tickles your nose just a bit, seasoned by the aroma of fall, as you breathe it in. And you just…sit there as the shadow line slowly recedes across the valley, chased away by the rising sun. Close by is your favorite person in the world—or, in my case, four favorite people in the world, three of whom are unusually quiet—and together you simply rest in the grandeur of God’s goodness.
Or maybe your happy place takes you in the opposite direction. Yours is sitting in a low chair on the beach just beyond the edge of the where the waves are lapping at your toes. The beach is quiet and as the sun slowly makes its way across the cloudless sky, you take in the therapy of the ocean’s grumbling frustration that it can’t reach any further up the sand than it does. Or perhaps it is Christmas morning for you. All the family has gathered at your house. The living room and kitchen are awash in the smells and sounds of the day. There is much to be done, but for just a minute, you find a quiet place in the corner and just watch as multiple generations—the fruit of your labors over many long years—all laugh and talk and tell stories of why this morning means so much to all of them.
Whatever your happy place happens to be, how often to do you get to go there? It could be that you are in a season when you get to experience it frequently, but if you’re like most of us, getting into that place where things are just right is a rare treat. But what is it about that place that has such a pull on us? Why is it so attractive to us? Because in that happy place, things are right. Problems get relegated to the back seat for a while. We forget about the burdens we were carrying before we got there. Work is a distant memory. The daily grind of running the house gets put on hold. Life just feels simpler. And we’re content.
And…I don’t know…maybe I’m stepping too far outside my wheelhouse here, but can I suggest something? Your happy place—and mine too—isn’t happy because of where you are or what is (or isn’t) happening. It’s happy because of that sense of simplicity and contentment. It’s that pervading sense that everything is right with the world and you don’t have to worry about anything that makes the place happy. It’s not about location, then, but mood and feeling. It’s about relief from burdens and an easing of schedule. If I’m right—and I may not be—but if I am, then your happy place could be more of a moving target than you think. It could be that your happy place is something you could experience, not just occasionally when the stars are properly aligned, but all the time. What if I told you I knew a way to make that possible? Would you want to hear it?
This morning we are in the third part of our new teaching series, Simplicity: Finding Contentment in a Busy Life. For this six-weeks, we are talking about how we can have the experience of being in our happy place in more places than just our happy place. The fact is, most of us live lives that are busy. So. Much. Busyness. Right? We just about meet ourselves coming and going as we hustle from one thing to the next. There is an old adage that cleanliness is next to godliness. We tend to operate more on the principle that busyness is next to godliness. The result of all our efforts is a kind of baseline discontentment that keeps us dissatisfied more often than not. Sure, we have happy times, but those tend to be the exceptions to the norm rather than the usual state of affairs. This may be how things so often go, but somewhere in us is a gnawing sense that it’s not how they should be. Then we come across things like the apostle Paul saying that he had discovered the secret to being content in all circumstances—nearly 2,000 years ago no less—and our attention is captured. How can we get some of what he found? That’s exactly what we’ve been talking about.
We kicked things off a couple of weeks ago by addressing head-on one of the chief agitators of discontentment in our lives: worry. Remember what we said about worry? Worry is a substitute for control we lack. We want control over something, don’t have it, and make up for this lack by worrying. Worry, though, is silly to the point of ridiculous because there is a God who knows what we need, and who is eagerly willing and able to meet them. Our piece in this is to be willing to trust Him rather than trying to seize control for ourselves by worrying, and to be willing to receive His help. The way this works out practically speaking Jesus laid out for us in remarkably simple terms in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount: “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be provided for you.” When our lives are centered on Christ, we find all we need. No worry necessary.
Getting rid of worry, though, doesn’t get rid of the kinds of situations that often lead us to worry. So, last week, we experienced the power of the Spirit together as we looked with Paul at how we can stand firm in the storms of life no matter what form they happen to take. As Paul reflected on his own experiences with standing firm in the various storms of life it became clear that there are three things we can do to follow his lead: worship, pray, and pursue righteousness. We summarized these efforts like this: If you want to stand firm in life’s storms, you’ve got to be anchored to Jesus.
As important as those two reminders may have been for you, though, we’ve really just been dancing around Paul’s secret to contentment. We’ve hinted at it as we’ve gone, but we haven’t yet given it the full focus of our attention as I had assured you we would. This morning we are going to fix that. We are going to look together at Paul’s secret to being content in all circumstances. I’ll tell you now it is an idea many, if not most, of you have encountered before because it is so often presented as bumper-sticker theology at its finest. This idea is used—more accurately, misused—for all kinds of different things. But, misuse aside, that doesn’t take away from its potential power in our lives. Turn with me in your Bibles to Philippians 4:10 and we’ll take a look at what Paul says here together.
“I rejoiced in the Lord greatly because once again you renewed your care for me.” Coming along here at the end of his letter, Paul shifts once again back to thanking the Philippian believers for their care for him. This church went out of their way to support Paul when he was facing a rough time and in a way no one else did. This wasn’t just some flash-in-the-pan care either. They were concerned about him even when they couldn’t do anything physical about it. Look at the second half of v. 10: “You were, in fact, concerned about me but lacked the opportunity to show it.”
But then Paul says something interesting. Listen to this in v. 11 now: “I don’t say this out of need, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I find myself.” Now, think about that for a second. Paul essentially thanks them for their concern for him, but follows up with, “But I didn’t really need it.” This is just another one of those places where you kind of want to say, “Really, Paul?” I don’t know…it just feels a little ungracious to me. Maybe it does for you too. Before either of us gets too bent out of shape, though, keep in mind that Paul was writing out of a different culture. They had different ways of expressing gratitude than we do. That being said, Paul is pointing us here toward something important. He was grateful for their help but wanted to make clear that whether it came or not, he was not going to be undone because of the current shape of his circumstances. He wasn’t going to let the difficult season he was in change his being anchored to Jesus.
You see, too often we allow our circumstances to dictate our level of contentment. When things are good, we are happy. When they aren’t, neither are we. That may be normal, but it’s exhausting too, isn’t it? I said last week that I like playing in the waves at the beach. After a while, though, trying to hold a reasonably consistent position as the waves crash in and out wears you out. When our emotions are flowing back and forth like the waves, the same kind of thing becomes true in our lives. What Paul is saying here is this: “Look, you don’t have to let your circumstances dictate your joy. I’ve learned how not to do that.” Verse 12 now: “I know both how to make do with little, and I know how to make do with a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content—whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need.”
Don’t you want that? To know how to hit your happy place no matter what is going on in your life at a given moment? No more needing to escape to the mountains or the beach or the bathtub or the woods or anywhere else. You can find that happy place feeling anywhere. So then, what is it? What is the secret? Read this with me: “I am able to do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Philippians 4:13. Famous verse. I’m pretty sure it is the official verse of sports. Not a few football teams have had it on the banner their cheerleaders hold up for them to run through when they enter the field for the game. All kinds of professional athletes who are professed followers of Jesus have it written in various places on their bodies or clothing before games. Steph Curry famously writes it on his shoes.
And taken out of context, this is a great verse. I mean, in context it’s great too, but out of context it’s the kind of verse that easily becomes a kind of blanket permission to do just about anything. Think about it. I can do all things. What does all mean? Well…it seems to mean all. What kinds of things are included in “all”? Again…it would seem that all of them are. That’s a lot of things. So, Steph Curry can be a superlatively great basketball player through the one who strengthens him. Football teams can win games. You can succeed at your job. Your kids can be successful at school. You can get the winning lottery numbers right. You can hit your weight-loss goals. You can score at date with your crush. You can cheat on that test you didn’t study for without getting caught. Hey, wait a minute. We seem to be drifting a bit off the path of what’s right. Certainly something like cheating shouldn’t be included in “all things,” right?
Furthermore, what if you had players on opposing teams, both claiming Philippians 4:13, facing off against each other? Is one of them wrong? I mean, they may be able to do “all things,” but one of them isn’t going to win. Did the loser just not believe in God strongly enough? Did his lack of faith let down his entire team? Or was Paul wrong here? Does God pick winners and losers in sporting events? And let’s push this forward just a little bit more. I may be able to do all things through him who strengthens me, but I can’t dunk a basketball. No amount of wishing is going to enable me to do it either. God could technically make me fly through the air, but that’s not really His M.O. Not much glory to Him out of that. But, in theory, I could start working on my leg muscles and white-man jumping abilities, and gradually grow to the point that I could dunk a basketball. Would I then claim God helped me with that? I mean, I did all the work. We could say He helped me to not break a leg or anything like that, but still… Okay, so let’s move into an area I couldn’t possibly claim any provenance. Paul says I can do all things through Him who strengthens me, but I can’t fly on my own. Even a little. I can jump…not very high…but that’s not the same as flying. Unless He starts doling out superhuman powers like in the comic books, I’m not likely to ever start flying either.
So then, is Paul intentionally misleading or just plain wrong here? I mean, if we can’t do all things through Him who strengthens us, then why did Paul say we can? Context, my friends; context. Context is queen to the Holy Spirit’s king in understanding the Scriptures. Okay, what is Paul saying in context? Well, what was he just talking about? Contentment, right? Paul said he had learned the secret to being content in all circumstances. That idea provides the necessary context for understanding what Paul is saying here without running off into some theological weeds that will leave us all tangled up in knots as we just saw. In context we saw that God can give us the ability to remain content regardless of our circumstances. We can be content in all things through Him who strengthens us. That’s the secret. The secret to contentment is Jesus. True contentment comes through Christ alone.
Listen: There is nowhere else we can go that will enable us to find that happy place we were talking about earlier if things aren’t settled on the inside. That’s part of the secret here. And you know this is true too. There have been seasons in your life when by all accounts you should have been living in your happy place, but on the inside, you knew something wasn’t right and you just couldn’t quite put your finger on it. You were discontent without any obvious reason. You’ve been through seasons when you got to spend a lot of time in wherever your happy place is and it didn’t bring you the peace you were seeking. You knew the storm that was waiting for you when you walked back in the door of reality and it kept you from ever really letting go of anything. There is no place or person or action or event or any combination thereof that can give you the contentment for which you are so desperately longing. There’s just not. You may put a band-aid on things for a while, but it’ll come off eventually. You might as well be trying to dig a hole in the sand below the wave line. You may bail all the water out briefly, but another wave is coming and it’s just going to fill up again. True contentment comes through Christ alone.
That’s what Paul was getting at when he said he didn’t really need the help the Philippian believers provided him. While he wanted them to know how grateful he was for their sacrifice on his behalf, he doesn’t want them to think that his happiness depended on what they did. His contentment was not connected to their actions. His contentment, in fact, was not connected to anything of this world. His contentment was rooted in Christ alone. He is the one who gives us the strength to remain content in spite of the storms that may currently be raging around us. He is the one whose joy floods our own souls and enables us to stand firm regardless of the threats that are facing us. He is the one, the only one, who can enable us to rise above the troubles of the day and see our lives in light of the bigger picture of reality. True contentment comes through Christ alone.
Make this personal for a minute. How many times have you rooted your happiness in another person? How many times have you sunk all your hopes for peace in a situation working out a certain way? How many times have you bemoaned the onset of just one more thing as if some magical set of circumstances that just wouldn’t fall into place held the key to your contentment? How many times have you longed for that happy place we talked about earlier because of your confidence that you could find what you needed to renew your joy there? Listen: It won’t work. None of it will. You were—perhaps you are—looking to something or someone other than God to give you the contentment you need. That’s idolatry. You don’t need anyone or anything else in order to be happy. Contentment will not be found in any person, situation, or place. They will not give you anything more than a flash in the dark that will soon be gone, making the dark that follows feel even darker than it did before. True contentment comes through Christ alone. He is the secret.
There’s one more verse here that goes with this section of text. It seems like it’s almost an afterthought from Paul, but I assure you it is critical to understanding what Paul says here rightly. Remember when we first read Paul’s reaction to the Philippians’ generosity a little bit ago? Remember how it felt a little ungracious of him to thank them but then immediately turn around and say, “But I didn’t really need it”? Paul seems to have realized that too. Look at how he finishes this little section in v. 14: “Still, you did well by partnering with me in my hardship.” Paul wanted them to understand that his contentment wasn’t connected to their gift in part to help them see that in their own lives they needed to not connect their contentment with a particular set of circumstances, but he didn’t want to leave them thinking they had done something wrong. What they did for him was a good thing. That eases our minds a bit, doesn’t it? But I think there’s even more to this than that. I want you to listen really closely to this next thing. I’m going to split some hairs here pretty finely, but I think they are hairs that need to be split.
Why did the Philippian church do well to partner with Paul in his hardship? What was good about that? If it didn’t have any impact on Paul’s contentment, what made it something worthwhile to do? Because the truth is that it did have an impact on his contentment. Now, hold on a minute. I thought we just said it didn’t have any impact on his contentment. What about all that stuff about true contentment only being found in Christ? Why the blatant contradiction? It’s not. We’re splitting hairs, remember? No, the gift of the Philippian church did not enhance or detract from Paul’s contentment. That much is true. But what was the Philippian church? What is any church? It is a part of the body of Christ. When Jesus ascended to the Father’s right hand about a week before the coming of the Holy Spirit, He physically departed from the earth. But that doesn’t mean He is entirely gone from the scene. His body lives on as the church. The church is the body of Christ.
Stay with me here: How do you experience someone? By getting in their presence, right? You have to be where their body is if you are going to really experience them to the fullest extent possible. That applies to people generally, but it also applies to Jesus. But, Jesus isn’t physically present on the earth anymore. We just said that. Okay, but what else did we just say? That His body is still present through the church. In other words, if we want to experience Jesus to the fullest extent possible, we have to be where His body is, that is, we have to be with the church.
Let’s connect the dots together. True contentment comes from where? Christ alone. No doubts on that at all. We don’t need anyone other than Jesus in order to be content. But, where do we best experience Jesus—that is, where do we best encounter Him in order to gain the strength to be content in all circumstances? Well, where did we just say Jesus is the most present today? In the church. Do you see it yet? If true contentment comes through Christ alone, and if Christ is best experienced in the context of a local church, then true contentment is going to be best experienced in the context of the church. You will never be more content in your life regardless of what happens to be going on in a given moment than when you are the most connected to the church. In other words, what you are doing here this morning is one of the absolute best things you can be doing to deepen and broaden your contentment in this life.
Now, let me make sure you aren’t hearing what I’m not saying. The people around you are not the key to your contentment. Jesus is. But, where those people around you are committed followers of Jesus, they are part of the mediating institution of His presence, and learning to lean into them, to receive ministry from them, and to be eager in ministering to them will advance your spirit of contentment further and faster than anything else. If you want to experience the kind of peace and simplicity and contentment that you would normally seek out in some kind of a happy place, invest yourself in the church. I’m particularly fond of this one myself, and not all churches are equal, but you find where God has called you to connect and plant yourself there for the sake of not only your contentment, but for the contentment of those around you. Indeed, your faithfulness to God’s call on your life may very well bless other people you don’t even realize. Your faithful ministry may be the way Jesus gives someone the strength to be content in all circumstances. True contentment comes through Christ alone, and Christ is best experienced in the context of His body, the church.
If you want to find that happy place we talked about earlier, it’s not going to be in a place. It’s going to be in a person experienced through a people. My only question to you is this: What are you waiting for? If you are not planted deeply in a church, what are you waiting for? If you are not planted deeply in Christ, what are you waiting for? True contentment comes through Christ alone. Plant yourself in Him and know the peace you long to experience in a way you haven’t been for some time or perhaps ever before.