Contentment is a virtue God works in the heart of the believer. Surprisingly, it is not listed among the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5, but this is probably true because it is a close relative, as we will find, of peace and joy. We speak often of the need to be content in life because there are so many circumstances of life that lead to discontentment. This, in turn, leads oftentimes to trouble in marriage, the church, and life in general.
Most often the Bible stresses the need to be content in connection with riches and possessions. This same emphasis on contentment is implied in the words we consider together today. In Philippians 4:11 Paul writes of himself, “Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” In this verse Paul applies the need for contentment in the life of the child of God in a broader way than merely in connection with riches. In every circumstance of life we are called to be content. We must live with the peace, joy, and contentment found in the knowledge that we belong to God. Paul was led by God to live under all sorts of adverse situations during his life and ministry. In the passage before us we certainly can understand when he writes, “I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” That same contentment is what we too strive for in our lives in this world.
Paul had a special place in his heart for this Philippian church. That is evident from many different verses in his letter to the Philippians. The love Paul had for the Philippians was reciprocated too. Paul commends this church that when no other church contributed to help supply his earthly needs, this church had. The members of this church evidently had Paul and his work in their hearts. They remembered him in their prayers and they gave to his necessity. For that reason too Paul expresses his great love for her saints.
It is in this context that Paul pens the words we consider today. Paul did not want this congregation to think that he was begging for money from them. I do not speak in respect of want. I am not complimenting you because I want something from you. I am content with my life in whatever state I am in—whether I have much or I have little. This is why I said that Paul has in mind contentment regarding one’s possessions and money. But, again, this Word of God applies much more broadly. And we want to spend some time addressing contentment in general. To this we direct our attention therefore.
I. An Elusive Virtue
Godliness with contentment is great gain! But contentment can be an elusive virtue. Contentment is that condition of one’s heart that is satisfied with one’s lot in life. It is patiently and quietly waiting on God in whatever circumstance—especially those that are more difficult—that as a result our hearts are at peace. Contentment is to be free from restlessness and dissatisfaction with the circumstances under which God places us. Contentment is not laziness. It is not to float by in life without applying ourselves in any way to improve our lives. Contentment does not imply that we may not try to better ourselves in this life. On the contrary, contentment is to be satisfied with God’s providential control of our lives. When life takes a sudden twist and we find ourselves wanting or lacking because this is the way God has chosen for us, contentment is to rest in that way and be still. It is to find peace even when life is turned upside down.
There is another aspect to contentment too. It is the opposite of being obsessed with gaining to ourselves more than what God intends for us at any given time in life. We read in I Timothy 6:6-8, “But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.” It is in this way that Paul uses the term “content” in the context of the verse we consider here in Philippians. We learn in verse 12 that Paul knew how to be full and to be hungry. Both to abound and to suffer need. So contentment is to be free from the cravings and desires to be rich: the love of money. It is to be satisfied with the lot in life God has given us, free of greed.
This is why we must say that contentment is a virtue worked in the heart of God’s people with their salvation. When the Holy Spirit is sent forth to dwell in the hearts of God’s people, He works in them contentment. It is a part of their recreation. We have been delivered from the dissatisfaction and restlessness of unbelief—where the wicked can find no peace. And we have been brought into fellowship with God. God enters into covenant with us. Fellowship with God becomes for us the mainstay in life because it results in the joy, peace, and contentment we as believers enjoy. Joy, peace, and contentment go hand in hand with each other. They are the believer’s experience of dwelling with God. Of course! To know and to live close to God; to know all things are held in His hand and nothing befalls us by chance but by His Fatherly love and goodness—that gives us joy and peace. That gives us contentment with the way in which our God leads us.
This is why contentment is great gain. God will never leave or forsake us. He is there in the good times and in the hard times. We are satisfied with our lot in life. We do not keep reaching out as if there is something better out there for us. We do not covet after someone else’s life as if the joy and peace of our life with God is just an elusive dream that cannot be ours unless we have what another has. Contentment is to view our life as good because this is the way God has chosen to lead us specifically.
Now, such contentment is all comprehensive. Paul writes, “I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” This means that no matter what might be our state or condition of existence we must be content. I must be content in my marriage with the spouse God has given me. I must be content in my home with the family God has given me. I must be at joy and peace in my church where I am a member. I must be content with the work God has given me in life. I must be content with the direction of my life in general since I know God is leading and directing my life in exactly the way He has chosen—unless, of course, I am walking in the way of sin. Contentment must comprehend whatever the circumstance of life through which God leads me. Yes, when God leads me in the way of health and riches and fulness of life. But we must be content when God leads us in the way of sickness and poverty and lack of fulness too. No matter what state I am in, I must learn to be content.
Now, if you noticed, I said toward the beginning of our broadcast today that contentment is an elusive virtue. The wicked world around us is never at peace. The unbeliever is always seeking something that he does not have. The world is characterized by covetousness and greed. People are not satisfied with their lot in life but are constantly complaining that society or someone is doing them wrong. Our society is overtaken in the sin of the Epicureans, who lived for the day: “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” As a result, the haves want more and the have nots want what the haves possess. Everyone must be given the opportunity to eat, drink, and be merry. And when confronted by the ills of society or by affliction or by being poor in comparison to the neighbor then the cry is heard “unfair!” We have the right to what another has. We should not have to suffer want. We are all equal! Why would I be dealt such an awful hand when the person next to me has so much more?
All this is true of our society and world, because sin has entered into the world. Sin causes unrest, anger, resentment, covetousness, rivalry, dissatisfaction, loss of hope, and a sense of utter futility! Those lost in sin are without God and without Christ. They do not understand the joy and peace that comes with knowing and loving God. They have no fellowship with the blessed God who holds all things in His hands. They do not want a God that controls the events of their lives. Yet, the believer finds comfort and joy in exactly that—that God is in control.
But there is in each and every one of us, dear listener, an old man of sin that oftentimes is drawn to the sinful attitudes of unbelief. There are times—with some more frequently, with others less so—that we are not all that content with what the Lord gives us or sends upon us in life. Contentment can be so elusive! Some friends have the finest of cars. I deserve to have one or two of them too, even though I cannot afford to own a new car. Look at the fancy clothes they and their children wear. My budget is too tight to spend money on new clothes, but I will put them on the credit card. Why are they always going on trips and vacations or out to eat or shopping? Paul writes to Timothy, I came into this world naked and with nothing and I will carry nothing out. Having food and raiment let us be content.
But then there are also the more serious, heart-rending circumstances in life that confront us too. God has not given me a wife or a husband, or worse, God has taken one away from me. But I deserve to be happy. I am not happy with my lot in life. I will find me a wife even if she is an unbeliever. God has withheld from me children. I am barren or have maybe only one child and I want more! Look at the families of others, how happy they seem. I groan and I cry! I pray! Oh, how I pray! But God does not give me what I want. I’m not happy. I have no joy in life. The Lord has smitten me with affliction. My back and my legs do not function as well because of arthritis. But I want to play baseball or basketball or tennis. I cannot, so I am not happy. I am not content with the lot God has given me in my life. I have cancer. The Lord has shown to me and my family that He is going to take me from this world. But my children are young and it frightens me to think that my husband or wife is going to have to take care of them alone. I’m frantic! I need the cure! I do not want to lose my life at this point.
So unrest, lack of peace, and dissatisfaction with life sets in. We cannot begin to count the many different ways that we can lack what others have. I’m not happy with my marriage, I’m not happy with my children, I’m not happy with the church, I hate my job. There is no joy in life for me! There are so many afflictions, cares, and burdens we confront in this life, we cannot begin to list them.
“Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.”
II. A Need to Learn
No, fellow believers, contentment does not come naturally. Even though we know we are held in God’s almighty hands so that everything that confronts us in life is guided by Him in His love, we can find ourselves so dissatisfied with our lot in life. And we oftentimes attempt to fix our lot in a sinful way too. We are going to wiggle out of this problem without God’s guidance or the guidance of His Word because following God’s Word is the hard way to go. This is why we need to learn contentment. This learning that Paul speaks of does not take place in the school of unbelief and by nature. It was in his regenerated heart that Paul learned contentment. He was not a Stoic. The Stoics believe that we must simply bear the burdens of life with a stiff upper lip and plow our way through them. The Stoics saw no reason for joy in these burdens. They simply ground their teeth and hunkered down under the burden.
That is not true with the child of God. Paul learned contentment in life. He did not learn how to maneuver this circumstance and that in order to come out on top. He did not seek money to buy happiness. He did not seek possessions to give him peace in life. These give no real joy and peace, especially when certain circumstances are unavoidable and cannot be overcome in any earthly, material way. What Paul learned, he learned as a regenerated believer who in faith looked to God as his heavenly Father. That is what we need to learn as well! Paul learned all this not simply by means of the adversity and difficulties he confronted throughout his Christian journey, but he learned this by God’s grace. So must we!
It is striking that contentment is learned not by the rules of the ungodly: not by prosperity, but by adversity! When the believer suffers want, he learns that what God has made crooked no man can make straight. He sends all things according to His sovereign, all good, and all wise counsel and directs them by His providence. Do you think that the circumstance of life in which you find yourself, hurting saint, takes place by chance without the will of God? Through suffering, believers learn that we do not deserve anything from the hand of God save a just reward for our sins. That our all is found in the cross of Jesus Christ. We learn through the hardships of life what it means to belong to Jehovah God and to be held in His almighty hand.
Then we begin to realize that no matter what befalls us, it is sent from a hand that loves and cherishes us for Christ’s sake. Then we begin to learn what Paul writes in verse 13, “I can do all things through Christ that strengthens me.” Not only can we do all things, but we are able to bear all things. For Christ’s sake God will never send us a care or burden that is too great to bear. He always gives to us the necessary grace to bear up under that care. But God will also give those who believe the necessary grace to understand that we are the objects of God’s fellowship and love. He will hold us up. Then we learn that we can have joy, but especially peace of heart, even when life is bumpy and rough. Verse 7: “The peace of God which passeth all understanding shall keep your hearts and minds through Jesus Christ.”
The practical question is: how can I, a believer, learn such contentment when the circumstances of life are adverse? How do I come by this joy and peace when my soul is so troubled? Contentment is an exercise of faith, fellow saints. Do I believe that Christ has died for me and taken away my sins? Do I trust in Him that He has conquered for me sin and its curse? Do I believe that for Christ’s sake alone God has established His covenant of friendship and love with me. Do I believe I am held in God’s almighty hand so that nothing befalls me by chance? Do I believe that God directs the course of my life and sends me exactly what He knows I need? Do I believe that in these times of need my heavenly Father and my Savior will not forsake me in my need? Do I believe that He will take care of me and uphold me in whatever He may send? Do I then quietly cast my cares and burdens upon God, knowing that He cares for me? That is faith. We live by faith and not by sight. When the hardships of life befall us and oftentimes leave questions in our minds, we commend our ways to God. When we exercise our faith in this way, then we learn contentment.
But how do we live in this knowledge so that we learn contentment? God gives us an all important medium by which we can talk with Him—prayer. There is the answer. The believer, when frightened, when distressed and perplexed, when burdened, flees to God in prayer. And he or she unburdens himself or herself at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ, who gives the necessary strength to endure all things. He gives us the hope of eternal life and a life of eternal bliss and happiness. We need to cast our cares upon God and bow before His sovereign will for us in our lives. This is the answer to our burdens. This is the answer to covetousness. We pray with thanksgiving for that which we have been given by the hand of God. This is the means we use to smash all our unrest and dissatisfaction. Prayer. Pray without ceasing.
III. A Gracious Benefit
The benefit of such contentment is clear: joy and peace will accompany our way. Listen, saints of God, life is not always easy. Life can be hard. There are certainly times when we are distressed and our souls are in pain. Sometimes the billows and waves of life roll over us. I know that. None of us is free from his own set of cares. But when we in faith turn to God and pour out our hearts and souls to Him, the result is peace in our hearts. Even when the tears roll down our cheeks, we still can have peace in our hearts. The peace Paul speaks of in this chapter passes all human understanding. We have a heart that is at rest with God. That is the benefit of contentment. With that is joy too. This is ours as believers in this world. This joy is an inner joy of a heart that rests alone in Christ. It is the joy of our salvation.
In whatsoever state. Is your soul in the arms of Christ? Is God your Father? Do you love Him? Then no matter in what position we are in our lives we have what is sufficient. We need no aid or support other than our God and our Savior. We have learned to be content.