The Mystery of Contentment - Philippians 4:10-13

In 1965, the Rolling Stones released their hit song (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction. In its intended meaning and even stripped of its innuendo, the song has been an anthem hit for over half a century. Other than it just being a catchy song, it’s relatable. 

The Mystery of Contentment - Philippians 4:10-13

Because at the core, most people aren’t content with the way things are. We live in a society that applauds more possessions, more extravagant vacations, and encourages the parading of it on social media.

It’s always been easy to find reasons to be unsatisfied. We live in a world where we’re barraged by the successes of others. Rare is the day when someone talks about their failures.

And so we try to minimize our problems and maximize our success, because we’ve been taught to believe that the fewer problems we have in life, the happier and more satisfied we’ll be. And so by living in a state of denial we think our problems will just disappear.

But we all know that our problems will never go away. 

It’s easy to look around at others and see what they have or what they’re doing and feel unhappy with our circumstances in life.

In light of this, it’s really not that surprising that a Time Magazine happiness survey found that only 33% of Americans claimed to be happy. And apparently, that’s an improvement.

That means that 7 out of 10 people are unhappy, dissatisfied, and discontent. And 3 out of 10 people are probably lying. 

And this is where we find Philippians 4:13. 

You’ve probably seen and heard this verse several times. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” 

We normally think of Philippians 4:13 as a verse that suggests that Jesus will empower you to do whatever you set your mind to. Jesus is just waiting on you to help you fulfill your destiny.

But the passage is actually set in the middle of something very different. Philippians 4:10-13 isn’t talking about fulfilling your dreams, it’s almost the exact opposite: contentment. 

Philippians 4:13 is right in the middle of a discussion on contentment.

We believe that our circumstances dictate our contentment. But our circumstances will never allow us to be satisfied.

You’ll never find contentment in circumstances, you’ll only find true contentment in Jesus Christ.

But there are two large obstacles to finding contentment in Christ, and we see them here in Philippians 4:10-13: First, true contentment is unnatural and second, true contentment is counterintuitive.


True contentment is unnatural

The subject of contentment is rather fascinating when you consider the fact that the Paul wrote Philippians from jail.

We learn in the book of Acts chapter 28, that Paul was wrongfully imprisoned simply for preaching the gospel. He wasn’t organizing a rebellion, or plotting to commit an act of terrorism, he was only guilty of preaching the good news of Jesus Christ.

So, he’s in Rome under house arrest as he writes his letter to the Philippian church.

And as he’s imprisoned he pens an eloquent passage on contentment. Rather ironic.

There aren’t many prison inmates that are happy to be there. Much less, a prison inmate that thinks he can give you advice on contentment. 

And yet here we are, reading a letter from a prison inmate who’s teaching by example the beauty of contentment in life. 

One of Paul’s reasons for writing a letter to the Philippian church was to express his gratitude for the gift they gave him. And in verse 10 we read that Paul is grateful for the provision of the Philippian church. 

When the Philippian church found out that Paul had been arrested in Rome they wanted to do something. But sending a gift wasn’t as easy then as it is now. They couldn’t just drop a care package in the mail for Paul.

They needed a messenger to go from Philippi to Rome, which is about 800 miles. An approximate equivalent is New York to Chicago - without an airplane or car. It would have been something like a month long journey. 

In light of all that, it makes sense why, in verse 10, Paul would thank the Lord for them and say “You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity.”

They were concerned for Paul, but sending a gift was extremely challenging. And in spite of all that they had a messenger deliver their gift to Paul. 

After expressing his gratitude for them in verse 10 he balances it with verse 11.

Paul didn’t want them to mistake his gratefulness as code for asking them to send more gifts. And on the other hand he didn’t want them to think he was in desperate need.

So in order to clear up any confusion he says ““Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”

Paul wanted the Philippians to know that their gift and the pleasure it brought him were not the source of his contentment.

A gift can certainly bring you temporary pleasure but it will never give you lasting contentment.

There’s no quick fix to contentment.

That’s why Paul says in both verses 11 and 12 that contentment is something that must be “learned.”

In other words, contentment isn’t something that comes naturally to us, even as Christians. It’s unnatural. It isn’t easy to be content with what we have and it’s something that must be learned over time.

It’s like learning to ride a bike. It’s unnatural to pedal in a circle in order to move forward. It’s hard to figure out how to balance on the bike.

Normally, we try to help little ones learn how to ride a bike by putting training wheels on it. More recently, I’ve  seen the balance bikes that don’t have pedals on them. Supposedly those bikes help children figure out how to balance on a bike. 

It takes years and years to learn how to ride a bike well.

And once you start riding a bike really well… it’s time to learn how to drive a car.  

In some ways, learning contentment is the same as learning to ride a bike. It takes time. It takes effort. It takes prayer.

The world we live in teaches several views of contentment that are very different from the Bible. There are two approaches that are popular right now. The first is the “more is better” approach. It teaches that in order to be satisfied you need more money, this product, or that gadget. 

Your happiness is dependant on how much stuff you accumulate. But we know this isn’t true because we all know people who have a lot of stuff and still aren’t happy.

Then there is the opposite approach: “Less is more.” This mentality wants you and I to believe that happiness is found in how simply you’re able to live.

The more simply you live, the more satisfying your life will be. If only you just pared down the items on your to do list, cut back on the busyness, and finally got rid of all the junk in your attic, life would be easier. 

And while the search for simplicity might make you feel less stressed at first, it doesn’t bring lasting satisfaction. Less is more is not the answer for contentment.

With this in mind, it’s easy to see the power of Paul’s words in verse 12.  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. 

Paul had experienced just about every circumstance imaginable. 

And yet, he still understood that contentment does not come naturally. True contentment is abnormal because we’re told our circumstances dictate our happiness. 

And so we assume people that appear to have control over their circumstances are content. Those that have everything must be content. Or those that live simply must be content. But that’s not true.

And so if we can’t control our circumstances we’ll imagine scenarios in which we were or will be content.

It’s even easy to live in the past and think if I could only restore what I once had - then I’ll be happy. Are you constantly living in the past - looking at what once was through rose tinted glasses?  

Or we imagine the future and think: I can’t wait until this or that happens - then I’ll be satisfied. Are you desperate for the future to arrive so your circumstances can improve?

The more important question is: are you, like Paul, trying to learn what it means to be content in the present - not letting your circumstances control your contentment?

Are you content - right here, right now? 

If not, why? What’s preventing you from finding contentment in Christ? But we also learn from Paul that there is a certain type of discontentment that is good for your soul.


True contentment is a mystery

Paul was grateful for the gift from the Philippian church, but he didn’t want to seem over the top with his praise. And yet at the same time didn’t want to seem indifferent. 

Just as our day advocates certain views on contentment so did Paul’s.

Stoicism was a first century greek philosophy that had its own view on contentment and how to attain it. They advocated imperturbability. A fancy word that describes a person who is incapable of being upset or agitated.

It’s someone who always acts like they have everything together. They’re never caught off guard. Unswayed. They just have this permanent facade up. 

 Imperturbability describes someone that is essentially emotionless.

According to the stoics, imperturbability was contentment. The fewer emotions you showed the more content you must be. But we know this isn’t true.

Just because you can restrain your emotions certainly doesn’t mean you’re content. 

By no means is Paul advocating something like stoicism. For him true contentment was not absent of any emotion.

I think most Christian circles would deny the emotionless stoic view that contentment is imperturbability. But I think Christian evangelicalism has its own version of imperturbability.

It seems that many Christians are led to believe that they can never be sad, and therefore, they have to be happy all the time. True contentment is happiness. 

So in order to make people think you’re content, you have to seem happy. The happier you appear the more content you must be.

But that isn’t real happiness. It’s fake happiness. And the truth is that sadness is a real part of the world we live. Even more, sadness is part of the Christian life. We should mourn with those that mourn. Jesus said blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted. And Jesus wept himself.  

But Paul says in verse 12, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. The word ‘secret’ can also be translated as ‘mystery.’ So what is the mystery of contentment that Paul has learned?

In order to answer that question Philippians chapter 3 Paul says:

12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.

He strains forward to what lies ahead and presses toward to goal. He’s not one bit complacent with his life. He wasn’t satisfied with where he was with in his walk with Christ. He wanted to grow deeper and learn more. 

You read Philippians 3:12-14 and you are struck with Paul’s discontentment.

The same Paul that wrote Philippians 4:10-13 is the same Paul that wrote in Romans chapter 7: For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 

I’m not sure there are more discontented words in all of Scripture. He says he does the very thing that he hates.

For someone who wrote such powerful words on contentment - he really seems discontent. 

I went to the Virginia Military Institute. And while it was a very different college experience than most, my four years at VMI have come in handy because they’ve provided me with a lot of weird stories, traditions and sayings. 

One of the sayings we used all of the time was “fake it till you make it.” You’ve probably heard that saying somewhere before, but at VMI all we meant by that saying was, ‘go through the motions until you get something done.’ 

I was trying to think of some good examples where you have to fake it till you make it in our general everyday life.

Yesterday, I asked a friend what’s an example of something you don’t like doing but have to do? And he thought about it for a second and said, “Thanksgiving with my in-laws!” He was joking of course!

Maybe a better example is in order to get through a day at the DMV you have to fake it till you make it. 

But sometimes, the saying “fake it till you make it” meant go through the motions until you convince yourself you enjoy it. You fake it till you make it so the journey is a little less miserable. 

Whenever you decide to do cardio at the gym you have to “fake it till you make it.” And afterward, you might wonder to yourself… maybe I’ll love doing this if I do it enough…

Some believers might think they need to “fake it till you make it.” You might feel pressure to convince yourself that you’re content when you’re really not. 

But Paul gives us an example of a different, counterintuitive view. He certainly didn’t pretend to be content all the time. At times he seemed very discontent and yet he wrote that he learned to be content. 

The secret or mystery to contentment is this: The more discontent you are, the more content you’ll be.

I know it sounds unexpected, paradoxical, or counterintuitive. But here’s what I’m trying to say: 

The more discontent you are in your walk with Christ, the more discontent you are in this world without him, the more discontent you are in your personal holiness - the more content you’ll be.

Scottish Pastor Sinclair Ferguson said it this way, “Everything we need and everything we lack is found in Christ.”

The more clearly you see your need for Jesus Christ - the more content you’ll be.

Do you believe that?

Paul understood this and that’s why in some places he’s so dissatisfied and yet at the same time can say “for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”

Christ gives him the strength to face any circumstance. He can face any situation. That’s why he says, “ I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”

Because of Christ, Paul can be content in prison. Because of Christ, Paul can withstand persecution. Because of Christ, Paul has hope.

That’s how Christ strengthens him. 

True contentment will never be found in your circumstances.

But you might be wondering how? How does Christ give me contentment in every circumstance? At the end of the day what does that really mean?

It simply means that Christ is enough, Christ is sufficient. Colossians 2:10 says, “you are complete in Him." If you are in Jesus Christ, if you are united to him in faith - you are complete. 

Ephesians 1:3 says that we have - in Christ - been blessed with all spiritual blessings in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus. 

Jesus Christ is sufficient to supply your every spiritual need in this life and for eternity.

We need to remind ourselves when we’re feeling discontent that for those who are born again this life isn’t the final destination and therefore we can face any trial, situation, or circumstance. He will one day make all things new.

 If you’re in Christ, you have so much to look forward to. 

And in those moments of discontent, when nothing is seeming to go your way it should make you and I long for the day in which we’ll be with Christ. It should help us remember that we’re made for something even better.  

When you understand that Christ is the reason you can have hope in this life - you’ll be content. 

And if you don’t understand that, you’ll experience an insatiable, unquenchable emptiness for the rest of your life. You’ll never find rest, you’ll never find peace, and you’ll never be content.

Philippians 4:13 doesn’t say that we can do anything we want and Christ is going to give it his full endorsement. Rather, it’s about facing any situation and finding contentment through the power of Jesus Christ. 

Is Christ the power source of your contentment? Or is it something else?

One will always leave you disappointed and the other will sustain your soul both for now and for eternity.