“I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, to be content” ~ Philippians 4:11
Contentment is more than resignation to endure what cannot be altered. It is not passivity and does not breed laziness, fretfulness, or melancholy. Contentment will improve a man in virtually every circumstance in his life, and by changing him, it often improves his circumstances.
We are contented if our hearts are quiet before God’s will (Ps. 131:2). We are able to yield by the power of the Holy Spirit, who teaches us to embrace God’s will as good in itself (Gen. 18:25) and as the best thing for us (2 Cor. 5:7). If we are unsettled and bitter against God’s providence or seek forgetfulness through drugs and entertainment, we are fighting against God. This is the heart of all discontent – war against God, his wise government of the world, and his goodness toward his children.
The word Paul used for “content” means self-sufficiency, personal independence, feeling no need for external aid or help. It is a description of the man who does not allow himself to become a slave to his circumstances or to his feelings about his circumstances. Contentment is the Spirit-given ability to control our thoughts, attitudes, and words through fellowship with Christ and his strength (4:13). We are contented when the Lord masters our hearts so that we are yielded to him.
Paul was in prison when he wrote Philippians. He was likely chained to soldiers. And yet, he declared that his circumstances had not mastered him but that he was master of himself in them. He did not deny their difficulty; he denied their dominance over him. He recalled earlier times of plenty and exaltation. Good times have their unique challenges, and we must learn to master ourselves when all is going well so that we do not think the good times will last forever (Ps. 30:6) or that we cannot be happy without them.
There are two constants in all circumstances. We are the first constant, our attitudes and responses to what is going on around us, our feelings and thoughts. Since contentment is a fruit of the Spirit, it is our duty to seek self-mastery through renewed minds (Rom. 12:1), settled wills (Ps. 57:7), and heavenly affections (Col. 3:1). We should not give way to fear, anxiety, and unbelief. We must follow Christ, seeking to please him in all things, glorifying him by our life or by our death (Phil. 1:20-21). We have the privilege to govern ourselves in Christ, by the power of Christ, unto the glory of Christ.
God is the second and consuming constant. Paul learned to master himself in every state because he yielded to God’s mastery of him and God’s sovereignty over his life. Self-mastery is impossible unless we are God-mastered. We must learn to walk humbly with the Lord (Mic. 6:8) and to worship him, whether he gives or takes away (Job 1:21). Our lives are so bound to God, as our Maker and Redeemer, that without him, we immediately lose ourselves. When we recognize his sovereignty and trust his goodness, we are released from fear and doubt and bitterness so that our spirit is buoyant and our heart confident of his wisdom and able to rest in his promised love.
Since our lives are hid with Christ in God (Col. 3:3), we can be certain that his providences in our lives, even the most painful suffering, will work an eternal weight of glory for us. Therefore, we must strive to be at peace with him and trust his wise dealings with us. Failure here explains the misery of many Christians. We fight the wrong battles and learn the wrong lessons. Fighting against God’s direction of our lives is pointless, but we are slow to yield to him. As long as Job confessed, “The Lord gives and takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord,” he was master of himself because he remembered God’s sovereignty and goodness. He was reigning on high while prostrate in the dirt. Paul sang in the Philippian jail. Our Savior endured the cross with joy by yielding himself completely into God’s hand (Heb. 12:2).
After his powerful contentment testimony, Paul immediately turns to the strength of Christ (Phil. 4:13). We can only learn true contentment by drawing near to our Savior and trusting his strength. This lays upon each of us the privilege of seeking communion with Christ. He offers himself to us, but our minds are unhinged by what is going on around us. This is the reason we are strongly urged to “set our affections on things above, where Christ is” (Col. 3:1-2)? Constantly we are told to look unto Jesus, to see him, to walk more closely with him, to trust his love. What we cannot do, he can do in us. It is his grace that labors in us mightily (Col. 1:29). When he dwells in our hearts by faith, it is with power (Eph. 3:16-17). All the power of contentment, of self-mastery in all our circumstances, is Christ’s powerful, resurrection life in us.
Christians are different from non-Christians. Christians, those united by faith to Jesus Christ in a living union with him, have power, real power to face, overcome, and forsake their sins. Christians have real power to deny themselves and find themselves in serving their Lord. Jesus’ kingdom is not words but power (1 Cor. 4:20) – unto godliness, to master self for him, to live by faith in the Son of God when the flesh fights back and the world deceives. We can do all things through the strength of Christ in us (Phil. 4:13). The glory of our religion does not lie in rituals and traditions but in the indwelling Spirit of Christ raising us to new life and godliness.
Perhaps we have settled too much for a powerless life. This is just the way I am, but to say this pushes Jesus away. He has the Spirit without measure (John 4:34). He shares that Spirit with us, so that the kingdom of God within us is “righteousness, peace and joy” (Rom. 14:17). It is power unto godliness, the power of Christ indwelling (1 Cor. 4:20; Eph. 3:16-17). This is a life-long pursuit, but it is also a fruitful pursuit. Each time we think of our weakness, we must think of and trust our Savior’s power. Left to ourselves, we cannot do this, but Jesus never leaves us to ourselves. He is able to make us content in pain, neglected, in this world of evil. He is able to master us, and he will. We can do all things in him.
Let us run to him! We might, of course, choose to remain slaves to our circumstances and to our attitudes about them. We might pine after what we do not have, nurse a root of bitterness for what we feel has been unjustly denied to us. We are expert builders of fake kingdoms and false expectations that make us miserable. There is no power in them, only disappointment. There is power only in Jesus Christ. There is no power in blaming others. There is power in Jesus to love and serve those who have injured us. We learn contentment when we are mastered by our Master. And with him, there is grace to grace in the wilderness (John 1:18), fullness of joy in dark times (John 16:33), and peace when facing each cross (John 14:27).