Do you want a promise from God that you will be able to do anything that you set your mind to? Wouldn’t it be a great thing, even a humbling thing, to hear that Christ will promise to be the one to give you strength to parent, preach, fix that leaky faucet, or win that championship football game? This would take the focus off of ourselves and onto Jesus as He gets the credit for every good thing accomplished and every victory won! Enter Philippians 4:13. Many have claimed this verse as they set out to do something, and I have particularly seen this in the athletic community. One NBA star would write this verse on his shoes, and in my youth ministry, would see things like that all the time.
Like most of the verses that we have studied so far, the popular interpretation isn’t too far off the truth. Indeed, the only way that we are able to do anything is because God preserves us. I am not the one keeping my heart beating. I’m not the one who keeps my body going. Anything that I do is because God preserves me. David recognizes this in Psalm 139. In another Psalm, specifically 104:14, we see that God’s control of the Earth extends even to the growing of grass. I’m currently reading through a 700 page book going through all the Bible verses that talk about God’s sovereignty over all things. It is true that draining the game winning basket, catching that touchdown pass, preaching a good sermon, or training up good kids is all credit due to God.
But that is not typically how we use the verse. Because it is also true that when we miss that critical basket, the sermon doesn’t land, or the kids don’t turn out the way we expect, God is overseeing that, too. If we use this verse simply to say, “God is going to empower me to win here based on this verse,” when we don’t win, we can end up disappointed, or at worst, disillusioned with God (Eric J. Bargerhuff, The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, 109-110).
What if I told you that the promise God is actually making here is better than victory? What if the promise that is made here will still empower you, even, in fact especially, in defeat? It turns out that Paul has a secret about how to do that, and a lot of us, me included, often miss what that is.
It turns out that the secret that Paul has is contentment. True contentment is probably, from the world’s perspective, the weirdest of Christian virtues. The ability to be satisfied with whatever you have whenever you have it and even when you don’t have it, strikes against the core of everything that our culture preaches. We are a culture of more is more. Newer is better. Whole industries are built on discontentment. I have been recently introduced to the phenomenon of fast fashion. We will produce clothes that are designed to only last a season! That shirt you bought in the spring is totally out of date in just a few months. The tech world (where I live a lot of the time) is no different. Honestly, I think Apple does this better than anyone. We need to crank out a new iPhone every year that is only incrementally better than last year’s. We didn’t even know that we wanted a phone to do this, that, or the other thing. Tool manufacturers do the same things. The Pyramids were built with hand tools, yet Milwaukee finds a way to make us need the new stuff.
The list can go on with nearly every hobby, and if we are honest, we have all fallen into this trap even over good things.
Hopefully today, we are going to be looking at a verse that will give us the power to stay out of that trap, or at the very least, show us how to get out of it when we do. Today, we are looking at our two points: Everything that we have is a gift from God and Contentment is possible.
Everything that we have is a gift from God
Let’s begin by reminding ourselves, as always, of context.
Paul is writing this letter to the Philippian church from prison. He has a lot to say to them, which I found summed up in these words by one writer: “Paul desires to see them grow spiritually and serve God faithfully without any attachment to the world. He wants them to be unified, experiencing the joy that is found in Christ. In fact, the words joy and rejoice are used no less than 16 times in the book's four chapters” (Bargerhuff, The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, 111). That is a pretty wild letter to write from prison! Talking about joy and rejoicing when there is suffering going on seems confusing. I have a hard time writing about having joy when things aren’t joyful for me!
But it turns out that if we think that way, then we just don’t understand how joy and contentment work. Thankfully, Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, does. When we look at the context of the passage, in this case, just a few verses up, we find that Paul has found the secret to being content in all situations in life. This isn’t a case of Paul just led a more rugged life than we do and just doesn’t know what he is missing. Apparently Paul has abounded before. He’s been full and hungry. Needy and satisfied. One scholar put it like this: “Such contentment springs from complete readiness to accept whatever God gives. The apostle makes no distinction between the necessary and the superfluous, but simply gives thanks for everything. He can accept both abundance and want as a part of his life, and he gives thanks that he has received both as a gift, together with God's gracious forgiveness and quickening power. (Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 72).”
Did you catch that? He was saying that Paul accepts everything from God as a gift whether we view that thing in and of itself as a win or a loss. You air-balling the final basket in your highschool championship game, losing the match to the boos of the crowd is just as much a gift from God as is scoring the game winning shot to wild cheers. Now, there is no denying that certainly one feels like a gift and the other doesn’t, but both are from the same gracious God. Missing the shot can be a test from God to grow you in satisfaction with Him alone, but if we choose to turn that into an occasion for bitterness against God, then we make it a temptation to sin. Look at Job. He was a successful man in every single sense of the word, and in a couple of days lost literally everything: business, family, and personal health. What does he say in response? “Blessed be the name of the Lord.” He worships God—praises Him—in the midst of life’s deepest sorrows. That’s what contentment looks like. This doesn’t mean that Job didn’t grieve. He did. Tearing your clothes indicates intense grief, and in all of that the Bible says he didn’t sin, but he praised God in the midst of his grief because, in that moment, at least, he trusted that God was good and just.
Trust in God is the key concept here.
Contentment is possible.
Let’s return to Paul. Many sources that I read pointed to the passage in 2 Corinthians 12. Paul is in the midst of a discussion about how much God has given to him in terms of spiritual insight and heavenly visions. When we get to verses 7-9, we find that Paul was given some sort of heavy hardship that even Paul found difficult to bear. He asked God three times that it would be taken away, and God’s answer was, “I have given you enough. My grace is sufficient.”
We can apply this lesson directly to what Paul is saying here in Philippians. One scholar put it this way: “This verse is about having the strength to be content when we are facing those moments in life when physical resources are minimal. This is about having faith in the God who provides – the God who is sovereignly in control over every circumstance in life, the God who sees and knows our needs and has promised to meet them in Christ!” (Bargerhuff, The Most Misused Verses in the Bible, 114). Do you see what he is saying there? Paul is telling us how to have contentment even when there is nothing, and the key to that is trust in God.
Trust God? That’s it? That’s the big secret? It sounds so familiar, that it is almost disappointing to hear that the key to contentment is trusting in God. We trust that God will work things out, and we look to Christ to give us the power to be content even when things aren’t going our way. So why are we so discontent so much of the time? If it truly is that easy and understandable that we trust that God is good and rely on His power as the key to being content, then why aren’t we?
I think the reason why is because we live in a world that tempts us with the possibility that contentment is just one more purchase away. One writer put it this way: “It's tempting to think, When I get a raise, I will be settled and secure, or As soon as I get married I'll find contentment at last. But these sorts of things are smoke screens for the believer in Christ.” (Bargerhuff, 115-6). Have you ever had those thoughts? What happened once you got them? We got discontent again! It’s like we have amnesia! I’ve done this while preparing this sermon! I’ve been trying to get some things fixed up around the house, and I’ve thought to myself, “Ok, as soon as I get this thing fixed, I can finally relax.” No sooner do I say this that I will see something else that needs attention. I think that the reason we aren’t content is not so much that we don’t trust God but because we think that we can eventually trust something else, and then we don’t have to trust God anymore! We are like the lottery players, buying just one more ticket, because this one has got to be the one! We’ve seen others win (even though if we follow their story through, everyone ends up worse, and more dissatisfied than before they played), so our turn is just around the corner. Yes, we will “trust” God until then, but really we are just biding our time until the real security comes along. And it’s a lie. It’s a false god. It will always leave you disappointed. It will give you just enough satisfaction for a little moment to hook you in and then leave right when you need it. I’ve talked to wealthy people, and it doesn’t provide lasting satisfaction. Does it make some aspects of life easier? Of course, but it doesn’t give you contentment.
Contentment can only happen in the present. There is no such thing on Earth as contentment in the future. If you find contentment feelings while thinking about something in the future, that’s worship. And unless that object is God, your sinful heart will never be satisfied.
But here is where we get the good news. To borrow one last time from Bargerhuff, “What a joy it would be to come to the place in our lives where we know that we could trust in Christ to provide and rest in his strength for any and ‘all things.’ To have that kind of spiritual strength would be amazing. Monumental. And according to what Paul says, absolutely possible” (114). Philippians 4:13 promises that by relying on Christ’s power to strengthen you, you can be content regardless of the situation in front of you.
So practically, how do we do that? When you find yourself dreaming of a future in which ______ difficulty is removed or _______ joy is achieved, bring your hopes, dreams, and fears to Christ. Tell Him what you are going through, ask His help on it, then rest in the promise that His grace is sufficient for you. Contentment isn’t sitting motionless, cross legged on a mountain with no desires. It’s actually more profound than that. It means that whatever you are going through, despite your desires, you find your satisfaction in God. It doesn’t come from your circumstances.
Now, if you are in a bad situation, you don’t have to stay in it in the name of contentment if you can remove yourself from it. If you are able to improve your circumstances, do it, but do so with the goal of God’s glory in mind. Paul was about to be unjustly whipped in Acts 22, and he used his status as a Roman citizen to avoid that. This wasn’t a sin. He didn’t, in the name of contentment, go through trouble he didn’t have to, and neither do you. If you are facing abuse in your marriage, that isn’t something that you have to take. In fact, to do so is allowing your spouse to sin. You can seek help. That’s ok. Even if by changing jobs you can provide better for your family, then do so, as long as there is no sin involved. If you want to be married, and you have the opportunity to marry as God would have you do, then do so!
Nevertheless, in all of this, do so with the realization that your ultimate hope doesn’t lie in achieving something in your life. Do so recognizing that you can be content in Christ even if God tells you, “No.” You will need to lean on Christ for this. You may need to tell yourself hourly that true contentment is found in God. Focus on the gospel that one day, like we discussed last week, all things will be made right. Rest in that future promise, and rely on Christ’s present strength. Ask Him. His grace is sufficient. One last quote: “The New Testament version of manna is grace. God will give you all the grace that you need today. But He’s not going to give you all the grace you need for tomorrow, because if you had manna for the next week, you would trust in your storehouse and forget about God.” (David Powlison). Keep close to God, have Him always in your mind, and you will discover that you already have all that you need.