I don’t watch much television anymore which means that I don’t watch much college football anymore (read: one partial game this entire season) but I do still follow my teams by checking scores when they are playing. It caused me no small amount of pleasure to see that Oklahoma trounced West Virginia and that, perhaps more importantly, Texas lost to Kansas… The same Kansas team who is 1-19 in games versus FBS opponents, the same Kansas team that has not won a Big 12 game in something like 3 years. It’s a good day not to be a UT fan.
I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying Philippians 4 this week in preparation for my sermon next week. It is sometimes frustrating to read Paul’s letters because he frequently builds up to a climax for holy living, and we read through expecting to see a simple and specific solution to our problems but then he pivots and speaks to something else that only seems tangentially related. So, then you are forced to reread the text to understand that the solution you expected was actually subtly provided in the passages building up to the climax. Philippians is no different.
Philippians 4:11-13 is a passage frequently cited in reference for how Paul is speaking about contentment, but what is stunning to me is that as you begin to read the context you understand that this is not really a passage about contentment, Paul simply raises this as an aside to the topic he is discussing, which is the generosity of the Philippian church! That said, there is still value in the text as it pertains to contentment if we are careful to understand it in the context of what was written.
I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.
I have learned the secret! Paul doesn’t say, “Well, don’t worry if you are poor, you should be content with what you have.” No! He is telling us that he has learned how to be content in all situations. Contentment is something we all strive for, contentment is why we pursue after other things, whether it’s money, cars, houses, or any other number of things; we think, “If I can just get this thing, then I will be happy, then I will be content.” But it is all an illusion, because once we get that thing we find ourselves wanting something else, something more. Yet here we find Paul telling us, “I have found the secret to being content, and it does not have anything to do with the amount of stuff you have.”
What I find interesting about how this passage is written is that Paul is not telling us that we should be content in all situations, merely that he has figured out how to. I’ve heard this verse used to encourage people to be content in seemingly bad situations. “Oh, you don’t have money to pay your rent and you are being evicted? Well, remember, you should be content in every situation.”
No! Telling me to be content in all situations is like telling me that I should want air. Air is a great thing, but telling me I should want it when I am drowning serves no purpose. Of course I want air, I’m drowning! If I did not want air it would be because I am already dead. It is the same with contentment and that is not what Paul is saying here. What Paul is saying is that it is possible to be content in all situations, he knows it is possible because he has done it! Every single one of us desires to be content, that desire is what drives every single thing we do, so telling me to be content in all things does me no good, I need to know how to be content in all things.
What is it? What is the secret to being content? You must tell me!
I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Really, that’s all you are going to give me? I get it, God is all powerful, He can do anything He wants. You are able to be content because God has made you content. But what about me? I’m not content, God has not made me content.
If we were to only read these handful of verses it would very much seem like Paul has let us down; that he told us he had learned the secret and then failed to divulge the secret. But these few verses are not the entirety of his letter, in fact, they comprise merely a small part at the very end of his letter. If we go back into chapters 1-3, and even earlier in chapter 4 I think we begin to see what the secret is that Paul was hinting at.
1:3-4 I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy
1:18c Yes, and I will continue to rejoice,
2:17b-18 I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.
3:1a Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord!
4:4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice!
4:10a I rejoice greatly in the Lord
The word rejoice can be defined as, “to make glad, or take delight in,” and here we see Paul saying that he takes delight in the Lord over and over again and then encouraging his readers to do the same. If we were to expand the selection of verses I read earlier, you would see that not once does Paul say he rejoices in material things. In fact, he calls it out a bit more strongly in 4:6,
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
Do not be anxious about anything. Don’t worry about material things… That’s funny, that sounds like something Jesus would say. Oh, wait, He did say something very similar in Matthew 6:25
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?
What Paul is getting at is this, if we seek contentment out of material things then we will always wind up somewhere short of being content because there will always be more stuff to have and someone who has more stuff than us. Rather, we should seek something eternal, we should seek to transform our mindset and in doing so contentment will be granted to us in such abundance that we will have learned to be content in any situation; we will ourselves, have been transformed so that what we have (or do not have) will not define how we feel.
Gratitude leads to contentment. Gratitude is the temporary feeling while contentment is the deep-seated personality trait. Contentment is bestowed through the continual act of gratitude, which is fed by our constant realization of how truly fortunate we are. It is through continual acts and admissions of gratitude that we begin to form and achieve our concept of contentment.