Paul’s Contentment

“…for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought, 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 4:11b-13

A few months ago a sermon on these verses whacked me over my head.

Contentment eluded me for my entire life. I had spent years familiar with these verses but never finding the meaning. Here was someone (Paul) saying he had learned to be content in every circumstance.

Wait. What? How? How was Paul content when he was low, hungry, and in need? Was he bluffing?

I could understand his contentment in plenty. I was frequently quite settled when things were going well, but when times were hard I freaked out, often disastrously.

What was Paul’s secret?

We often hear that last verse quoted as though it were some kind of good luck charm. But “I can do all things” isn’t pertaining to some feat of strength or passing a test. In context it’s so much more.

The secret to Paul’s contentment was his faith in Christ. Instead of depending on his ever changing circumstances for his peace he depended on the solid foundation of Jesus. Jesus never changes. There is no fluctuation in the love of Christ, unlike the other things we put our faith in.

A lifetime doesn’t seem to be enough to grasp this concept. Even though I tried to be content in Christ as all good Christians should be, I didn’t see my idols. For many years I was plagued by anxiety because this or that wasn’t right in my life. I experienced long periods of want. Instead of trusting God and being content, I allowed these periods to devour me. Anxiety and fear ran my life.

Only recently did I discover that I made idols out of so many things. And everything failed me one way or another. Instead of rightly seeing the things I had and desired to have as gifts from God, I made them into demands. When I didn’t get my demands, I became a poster child of discontent. This discontentment then proceeded to destroy many of those good gifts.

It took losing the most important thing in my life (my biggest idol) to show me the power of my idols. It took months of floundering and grasping for that idol to wake me up. I had depended on something temporal, something delicate. When it broke and went away, it almost broke me.

I was drowning but those verses hit me like a lifebouy. Paul depended on Christ, and Paul made it through excruciating suffering. Not only was I made aware that what I had lost was an idol, but I realized that all of those things which had driven my anxiety were idols as well: financial security, steady employment, well behaved kids, a clean house, sex, intimacy, friendships, my pride, etc. All of these things had failed me at times and because I had depended on them I was always left staggering.

Christ never fails. He never gives up on me. He never stops loving me. Even when I run towards my idols He always pulls me back into the fold. When I lean on Him I am never left staggering. It took going through hell to teach me this, but when I started to grasp it I felt a peace like I never have before.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t hurt or have days of discouragement and discontent. I am still going through this trial. I am still suffering. At times I feel like a train is sitting on my chest. It’s hell. I still want to restore what was lost (it is a good thing in and of itself, when properly esteemed). But I am content. Christ is sovereign, God is working for my good and His glory. I don’t have to flail or kick against His Providence because I know it is perfect.

When I am lonely or struggling with thoughts of suicide (I am ashamed to even admit this) or wasting away in pain I can call on Him and He restores peace to my soul. I can read His word and find comfort in His promises, as well as instruction on how to handle difficult people and circumstances. I can know that no matter what happens to me I am secure in my salvation. I may suffer and even die, but my eternity is secure.

Perhaps “I can do all things” means “I can endure all things”. No matter what God gives or takes away in His Providence, we can be sure that if we (like Paul) rest in Him we will endure. If we call on Him when in trial or despair we can find real comfort. When we obey His law and trust in His word we can handle any circumstance that comes our way.

That is true contentment.

A Hex on The Stoics

The other day, I was listening to an episode about prayer on Ligonier’s “Renewing Your Mind”. The speaker, R.C. Sproul, mentioned that prayer is a lot like a love letter. He said the even though God already knows about our life, we should be excited to pray and tell God all about it.

This made me wonder, why aren’t more people who claim to love God giving Him love letters in their prayers?

I then realized that many Christians don’t pray at all. Perhaps much of what prevents them from praying is a lack of real joy in their life.

They prefer to be stoics.

People are told so often not to let their emotions control them and dictate their actions that they often assume it’s safer not to have any feelings. They think “Don’t let your emotions rule you” really means stop having emotions at all.

Should emotions rule us and dictate everything we do or say? No, we should certainly apply logic and rational thinking when making decisions. But should emotions have some influence? Perhaps.

I think it’s unbiblical to say we shouldn’t have our emotions influence any of our actions. In the Bible there are numerous examples of people weeping, soaking their beds in tears, and rending their clothing in mourning. In the Gospels we have Jesus flipping tables. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” got angry and showed it. The people of the Bible were very emotional and their actions certainly displayed it.

I think the modern (or not so modern, honestly) tendency to stoicism is very unbiblical. We were created to feel. God Himself has emotions, and strong ones at that. Part of being created in His image is the ability to emote.

Most of Fruits of the Spirit are emotional. For example, what is joy if not happy? What is joy if not exuberant? We should let joy influence us. Especially in our prayers.

There are many out there who say that happiness is not something we should strive for. I think this is hogwash. We should feel nothing but happy knowing that the God of creation loves us, cares about us, provides for us, and even died for our sins. If nothing else, we should strive to be happy about those facts.

That happiness ought to be reflected in our prayers. We should be excited to pray because God is listening. He values and loves the prayers of His saints and wants us to come to Him with our burdens and worship. We should be glad to give Him our love letters of prayer, because his love gives us great joy.

As usual, Sproul was right.