Discontent is the “if justs” in our life:
- If I just got a higher paying job…
- If I just could get that promotion….
- If my wife would just…
- If I just could get accepted to that school…
- If I could just afford a house….
- If I could just loose a few pounds….
- things would just be so much easier if just….
- I could have more time for ministry if just…
- We could have more children if just….
- I could pay next month’s rent if just….
We know that God wants us to trust him, we know that he wants us to be satisfied in him
but sometimes those things that are really important are so far out of reach, and we think we could have peace if just….
Discontent can start small, but over time it grows, it becomes restlessness, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness. The “if justs” can consume our thoughts, make sleep difficult, and remove any peace in our lives.
Certainly this is not the way God wants us to live, but it’s just so easy to live in these sorts of places. Just when we think perhaps we’ve found contentment, life brings a new twist or turn and we’re back to “if just…”
So how can we remain content? Paul has a pretty incredible answer
- First we’re going to see how Paul learned to find contentment in his life
- Then we are going to see why he was content
First, how did Paul learn to find contentment?
Learning content without Context
When Paul wrote the letter, he was in a pretty rough spot. He was in prison pending a trial, and he knew there was a good chance he would be executed. Death was just around the corner. The Philippian church sent him a gift (probably money) to help him
At the end of the letter Paul wanted to thank them for their gift, starting in verse 10
I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need….
Paul wanted to make it clear with the church that his joy is in their friendship: they were concerned for him. But he very quickly adds he’s not saying his joy is because of their gift
Paul uses a very strong negation here: he is saying “most certainly I do not mean…” Of course the Philippians knew Paul was in poverty and prison and he certainly lacked the basic essentials in life.
It would be very easy for them to think that his joy was at least in part because their gift had relieved some of the suffering in his life. Quite the contrary, Paul was saying he was overjoyed only because of their friendship and concern for him.
Paul continues to explain why:
for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.
I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.
It’s interesting that Paul uses learning language 3 times here: he has learned (twice) and he knows (twice). He’s emphasizing learning through experience. It’s not as if Paul converted and instantly knew contentment. Instead, over time and through a wide variety of situations he has been moving towards a place of knowing true contentment.
Paul’s life certainly had a lot of suffering: he had been beaten many times, been arrested, and shipwrecked. He faced persecution, rejection, and he lived in poverty.
But for Paul, the contentment he had learned wasn’t “if just” but “now always”. Contentment wasn’t tied to his context in life. No matter the situation, he has learned how to be content. He knew contentment without context
He has been brought low, hungry and in need
This is language of humiliation, poverty, and dire need
But he has also abounded, had plenty, and been in abundance
I’m not really sure when in his life he is referring to, but what’s important is that he was content through any and every circumstance! No context in life would change the contentment he knew
He’s learned through times of plenty and times of none. The journey God had taken him on has brought a wide variety of contexts and they have all taught him contentment. So really, contentment is really a part of the process of following Jesus
So Paul learned contentment through any context. His relationships, the financial support he received, and any aspect of his context… none of these affected his contentment. His situation had no bearing on whether he was content or not. Contentment is “always now” and not “if just”
Paul says he has learned the secret for why he can be content. What is it?
Contentment in Christ
I can do all things through him
So often this passage is read without its context. We understand Paul to be saying “I can do anything through Christ”, as in “because of Christ I can accomplish extraordinary feats”. It’s the slogan of Christian athletes, employees, and students. In Christ we can accomplish, achieve, and triumph.
The problem is that we are taking this verse out of its context: Paul isn’t saying in a general sense “I can do anything” but rather something specific: “I can be content in all situations”. “all things” refers to what he’s talking about: being content in every context.
So Paul has something very specific in mind: in Christ we are able to be content in any context. It’s not a general notion of achievement but a specific notion that we can endure all the contexts of life because of Christ.
It’s interesting because Paul’s word for “contentment” is a word that in his day actually referred to a Greek philosophy known as stoicism. For stoics, contentment meant exercising reason over emotions so that a person is unaffected by discontent. A person is “independent” and “self-sufficient” because their peace, serenity, and happiness cannot be affected by others or their context.
To his audience, Paul’s words would have immediately brought to mind this philosophy. But Paul’s language of “in Christ” takes a sharp turn away from stoicism. Contentment isn’t becoming indifferent to one’s circumstance and self-sufficient like a stoic believed. It’s not about being detached from others or our situation, but attached to Christ. It’s not about self-sufficiency, but complete dependence.
I think what Paul is painting here is actually a continuum: on the one end we have discontent and the “if justs”, and Paul is saying “no, contentment is not about our context”. On the other we have detachment (i.e. not caring) like the stoics, and Paul is saying “no, contentment is by being attached to Jesus”. Real contentment is in between these: it’s being completely dependent on Jesus
It’s this dependence that further moves us away from a triumphant “I can accomplish extraordinary things” to “I can endure extraordinarily difficult situations”. It’s neither detachment nor “if justs”. Paul is saying his contentment is without context, it’s “always now” not “if just”, and it’s because of his dependence on Christ.
Paul has one more key phrase we need to unpack… it’s quite familiar but it really brings into focus what this contentment through dependence means
Power for a purpose
through him who strengthens me.
In Greek Paul’s language is “I am empowered in Christ because of the one who empowers me”. He is “strong enough” because he is “strengthened” in Christ. He can be content in any situation he is strengthened with Jesus’ power.
It’s very common for Christians to talk about the strength or power of God in their lives. I have noticed that often when I pray for God’s strength I really want him to improve my present situation:
- “help me to have a good attitude today”
- “help me to have the strength to be disciplined”
- “help me to meet this deadline”
- “here are specific ways I want your strength to make my life better”
The concept of the strength or power of God in our lives is rich and worthy of an entire series. I just want to offer one brief observation:
God’s power in our lives is for a specific purpose: to be holy and obedient, remaining in him and bearing fruit
- The power to stand strong when the enemy tries to trip us
- The power to resist temptation and sin.
- The power that works through us in ministry.
- The power to remind us of God’s promises so that we can have hope
Paul gives us a good example of what this power looks like in our lives in his later letter to the Corinthian church. They were very frustrated because he appeared so weak to them: he wasn’t a good public speaker, he didn’t perform miracles like other “apostles”, he lived in poverty, and he refused their support (accepting support was a way to honor someone)
To them he said:
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
For Paul, Christ’s strength most vividly manifest when he appeared weak. Paul certainly had a lot of talent and ability, but it was when his ability faltered, when he looked humiliated, when others had little reason to respect him…. These times are when Christ’s power was strongest in his life.
I think this is where the secret to contentment is for Paul. He learned that he had to surrender those things he wanted: whether it was his desire for the “thorn” to be removed, or anything else. The power of God in his life wasn’t about improving his situation, but about God’s power working through his weakness.
This means if we want to experience God’s power then we absolutely must surrender our intentions, desires, and goals. It’s not that the things we want are bad, often they are good. But what’s important is that we are surrendering what we want because the power of God in our life is not about improving our situation.
I think this is the real reason why discontent can grow so fiercely because even though we have good intentions, they aren’t actually surrendered to God. When something we want isn’t surrendered, then it very quickly can turn into discontent because we are not depending on God’s strength.
Really discontent is the desire for things to change. But if we have this kind of dependence, then really we are also surrendering even our desire for things to change. So really, being content is being okay with God not taking away hardships. God’s strength is in our lives because we aren’t waiting on him to improve situations.
Contentment then is surrendering those things we are discontent with
It’s surrendering and being okay with God not taking away tough times
It’s learning that in our weakness we can most experience God’s strength
So we are at peace with present circumstances because we are dependent and surrendered to God’s way
Because Christ’s strength is power for a purpose
And as we can surrender and become more dependent on his strength
We can be content in easy times
We can be content in hard times
This is ironic because in many ways for me it is harder to recognize our need for dependence when things are easy. So really, discontent happens more when we have a lot of good things, and we just keep focusing on the “if Just” to move us even further into contentment.
But the truth is, in either circumstance, if we are surrendered completely to his power we can know contentment
It’s not detachment and giving up, but being attached to Jesus
It’s not on our terms, but his
And it’s a process
Being content is not because things are good or will get good, but contentment is being at peace with present circumstances, even if they don’t change! It’s ironic because we need to equally depend on Christ in the easy times of abundance, but in some ways those are the hardest.
God wants us to learn to be content in every context,
He wants us to depend on Christ,
and He wants his power to work in our lives for his purpose, so that our “just ifs” became “now always”
- What kind of situations have helped teach you contentment?
- What things are you discontent with?
- Is disengaging true contentment?
- Which is harder: to be content when things are easy or when they are hard? When things are easy or hard, do you find yourself in more of detachment or “if just”?
- How do you normally pursue contentment?
- How do you normally experience the strength of God?
- What does it look like to be in Christ in those areas you are discontent with?
- What do you think about the idea of being content even if things won’t improve?
- Pray that God will focus our minds on his will and not our own
- Surrender those areas where you struggle with discontent
- Surrender those areas where your contentment really is “waiting on God to fix them”
- Surrender those areas where you are content because things are “okay” or “good”
- Pray for God’s strength to focus us on his Kingdom and his Will
- Pray for God’s strength to be holy and obedient children
- Pray for God’s strength to be seen where we are weak
- Pray for God’s strength to trust him and be content even if things don’t change
- Praise God for the many blessings he has shown us
- Praise God for the strength he has given us
- Praise God that he is the reason for our hope, not our circumstances