The Secret of Contentment (Philippians 4:10-12)

Pastor Jon TruaxPastor Jon Truax, November 26, 2017
Part of the General series, preached at a Sunday Morning service

The Secret of Contentment
Philippians 4:10-13

I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Early Christians did not care much for secrets.
There was a competitive offshoot of Christianity called “Gnosticism” which maintained that it alone had the “secret teachings” of Jesus and the “secret knowledge” that people needed to be saved. Paul and the other Christian apostles made it clear in their writings that the way of Jesus was open to all through grace by faith. You didn’t need to pay extra to learn the secret knock and secret handshake.
It’s a little surprising, then, to hear Paul talk to the Philippian church about learning a “secret.” He writes, “For I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.” What is this “secret”? It’s the secret of contentment, being content with whatever we have, whether much or little. We are just coming off the Thanksgiving holiday where, hopefully, you took time out from watching parades and football, eating turkey and mashed potatoes, and gave some thought to your many blessings from God for which you expressed thanks.
That seems to be an exercise we are practicing less and less as a nation. Instead of focusing on our blessings and joys and riches, today people want to talk about their injustices and slights and grievances. We are living at a time in history when we have the most varied diet, full supermarkets and department stores, 2-day Amazon prime shipping, medicines to cure or treat hundreds of diseases, the means to Google anything at our fingertips, more sports and entertainment available then we could ever hope to consume, the ability to travel around the world in a matter of hours, and the freedom to elect our own leaders. The poorest among us live lives better than royalty did just a century ago, yet we still find so much to be dissatisfied with. And even though Americans have it a lot better off than the rest of the world, we still gripe about first world problems, kneel during the anthem, and grumble about anything.
We have lost the secret to contentment. Paul is talking in these verses about that secret, and that’s attractive. It’s something that we think we desire, but we should be aware at the outset that it is not the same thing as happiness. When we look into it, we find that happiness is relative, but contentment is constant.
What’s the difference? Consider the experience of lottery winners.
You know what sounds pretty great? Something that would surely make us happy for the rest of our lives? Finding out that you've won a Powerball or Megamillions jackpot! We know buying a ticket is not a financially rational decision, but we'd have to imagine that winning a chunk of money like that would make us super happy — right?
But researchers have found that if you're not happy already, winning the lottery won’t make much of a difference in the long term. After a short-lived period of euphoria, most winners report ending up about as happy as they were before winning. A classic study on this compared 22 lottery winners with 22 control-group members (who didn't win any money) and 29 people who were paralyzed in accidents.
In general, lottery winners reported being happier than people with paraplegia or quadriplegia — a 4 out of 5 versus a 2.96 out of 5. The control group averaged 3.82 out of 5, not significantly different from lottery winners. However, lottery winners also got the least enjoyment from what researchers called "mundane pleasures" — enjoyable aspects of everyday life like eating breakfast or talking with a friend.
Researchers were surprised that lottery winners didn't report being significantly happier than non-winners, and that even the average among people who had been in traumatic accidents was above the scale's midpoint. Overall, winning the lottery didn't increase happiness as much as they thought it would, and a catastrophic accident didn't make people as unhappy as one might expect.
Here was the conclusion of the study: "Eventually, the thrill of winning the lottery wears off. If all things are judged by the extent to which they depart from a baseline of past experience, gradually even the most positive events will cease to have an impact as they themselves are absorbed into the new baseline against which further events are judged. Thus, as lottery winners become accustomed to the additional pleasures made possible by their new wealth, these pleasures are experienced as less intense and no longer contribute very much to their general level of happiness." The concept at play here is called “hedonic adaptation.” We adjust or adapt to our outward circumstances. People have been shown to return to a kind of set point of happiness after events that we assume will have a big effect on how we feel.
Psychologist Robert Puff wrote in Psychology Today: "Some of us have our thermostat set to happy. Some are set to depressed. Meanwhile, others are somewhere in between. When we experience a major event, say winning the lottery or becoming paralyzed, our thermostat may temporarily swing up or down. But over time, it returns to its usual setting."
Happiness may be relative, but contentment is constant. Contentment is steady. Contentment is peace. It doesn’t matter how much we have or not. As Paul said, he had learned the secret to being content, whether hungry or well-fed, whether having little or having plenty. His contentment didn’t swing up and down based on his circumstances. He knew the secret of contentment.
What is that secret? I won’t leave you in suspense. The secret is our relationship with Christ!
The most famous verse in this section of scripture is the last one: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” It’s famous for a reason. When you are in a life-giving relationship with God through Jesus Christ, it is He Who can get you through the times of hardship.
Everything comes back to Jesus. If you truly want to have your thermostat set to content, to live a life of peace and joy, with discontent and regret strangers to you, then the key, the secret, is to approach everything through the lens of a rock-solid relationship with Christ.
Now that sounds pretty easy, and I’m probably not telling you anything you haven’t heard before in a Bible study or Sunday School class. But what keeps us from living it out? Wouldn’t you like to be able to be content in any and every situation like Paul? Whether you have all things or nothing? Let me ask you: What is it that gets between us and contentment? What fights against our contentment? What steals it? What are the barriers we have to overcome?
The first obstacle to contentment in our lives is Fear and Anxiety. It is impossible to be content if we are always worrying about the future. Fear sucks the joy and contentment right out of life. Even if everything is going good, we can’t enjoy it because of the worry that it’s going to get bad. And if things are bad, we live in fear that it’s going to get worse. A life of contentment has no room for worry and anxiety.
Jesus cautioned us against worrying in the Sermon on the Mount.
He said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:25-34)
So the first step to the secret is to rid our lives of worry, anxiety, and fear. The secret to contentment lies in realizing that we are safe in Christ.
The second obstacle to a life of contentment is not being satisfied with what we have. We don’t realize what we have, or we forget it.
The story is told about a pilot who always looked down intently on a certain valley in the Appalachians whenever the plane passed over. One day his co-pilot asked, “What’s so interesting about that one spot?” The pilot replied, “See that stream? Well, when I was a kid I used to sit down there on a log and fish. Every time an airplane flew over, I would look up and wish I were flying…Now I look down and wish I were fishing.”
It is always tempting to think that others have it better than we do, and that if we just had “a little more” everything would be fine. But contentment cannot be achieved by increasing possessions. Nothing will ever be enough. It seems to be a human tendency to always want more, more, more! That is where greed and jealousy and bitterness enter the picture.
You’ve got to especially watch out for the love of money! That warning is a biblical, Christian message! We find it in both testaments. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon wrote, “Whoever loves money never has money enough.” (Ecclesiastes 5:10) Paul warned of the dangers of greed in his first letter to Timothy: “Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” (I Timothy 6:6-10)
The danger is that people look for their fulfillment or satisfaction in areas that are outside of God’s will. Whether lusting after sex, drugs, money, materialism, or power, their search is in vain. Contentment is not there. The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, but God’s people don’t focus on what’s beyond the boundary. The secret to contentment lies in realizing that, in Christ, we have enough.
The third barrier to the secret is adopting an attitude of complacency instead of contentment. When we view God’s blessings with a sense of entitlement and spiritual smugness, we are missing the mark of contentment. Contentment shouldn’t reduce our fire or desire to be ardently at work in the world to bring about God’s kingdom. Complacency makes us want to sit back, give up, and feel like we’ve already done our part. Complacency is not contentment.
Consider the parable that Jesus told about a man who settled for complacency instead of achieving contentment: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. He thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16-21)
Rather than counting our blessings and patting ourselves on the back, or finding security in the gifts instead of the Giver, contentment recognizes God as the source of all good things. We are thankful to Him for what He has provided. We commit to sharing what we have with others for the building up of His kingdom. The secret to contentment lies in refusing to let our blessings in Christ make us complacent.
Here is a picture of simple contentment: A Sunday School teacher asked her young class memorize one of the most beloved passages in the Bible - Psalm 23. She gave the youngsters a month to learn the chapter. Little Ricky was excited about the task - but no matter what he did, he just couldn't learn it. After much practice, he could barely get past the first line. On the day that the kids were all scheduled to recite it in front of the congregation, Ricky was so nervous. When it was his turn, he stepped up to the microphone and said proudly, "The Lord is my Shepherd…and…and that's all I need to know." You know what? Ricky was absolutely right! Had he been able to memorize the entire 23rd Psalm, Ricky would have discovered that he captured its essence. That Psalm is all about finding our contentment in God.
Give it a listen: “The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.” That’s contentment!
Do you know Who your shepherd is? Do you know where you will dwell forever? Do you know the secret of where your contentment can be found? It’s not in fear or anxiety, it’s not in greed or jealousy, and it’s not in complacency or pride. It’s in Christ!

Tags: complacency, contentment, joy, peace, satisfaction

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Philippians 4:10-12

10But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at the last your care of me hath flourished again; wherein ye were also careful, but ye lacked opportunity. 11Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. 12I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. (KJV)

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