“But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstance I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”
While I was out of the pulpit Bob delivered a couple of exhortations on contentment. Today I would like to follow up on that theme and make a couple observations from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. There is an ancient Roman proverb that I have mentioned in our assembly before. It states, “Who is it that has the most? Is it not he who desires the least?”
What Paul and this short proverb are endeavoring to communicate to us is that our contentment and happiness are directly proportionate to our expectations. We imagine that we need more, deserve more, are entitled to more and so we are not content with what we already possess. We set our expectations so high that they are never met and so we are never content. And our discontent reveals itself in a lack of thankfulness to others and to God. For thankfulness is an expression of contentment—an expression that the expectations we have set have been fulfilled and even exceeded.
These expectations come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Sometimes, as in the text before us, they are monetary in nature. Paul had learned, he tells us, to be content both with prosperity and with poverty, both with being filled and going hungry, of having abundance and suffering need. As a result, he was able to give thanks regardless of his circumstances.
But our expectations can also be non-monetary. We can set unreasonable expectations upon our spouses, our employers and employees, our children, our friends—and so we never thank them for the meal on the table, for the folded towels in the closet, for the daily labor at the office, for the opportunity to work, for the work performed, or for the frequent sacrifices made on our behalf. “It’s his or her job to do all those things,” we say to ourselves, and so we never express thankfulness—never look at others with a twinkle in our eye and a full heart and say, “Thank you.” Our expectations are set so high that no one—including ourselves—could ever possibly meet them. We demand of others what we would never demand of ourselves. Consequently, no circumstances however favorable could conspire to make us happy.
But this was not Paul’s situation. He tells us that he had learned the secret of being content. What is that secret? Paul came to understand that what is most important in life is not our circumstances but the God who has given these circumstances to us. Let us ask ourselves, when tempted to be discontent and unthankful, “Is God sovereign? Is God in control of every event in our lives both good and bad? Has God orchestrated every moment of our past lives as He sees fit?” If the answer to these questions is “yes” – and it is – then should we not trust Him? Should we not rest in His good providence and be overflowing with gratitude? As Paul says, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” True contentment comes not by having high expecations of our circumstances but by trusting in the goodness of our Heavenly Father who has given our circumstances to us.
So let me take a moment to express my gratitude for you as a congregation. The time that you gave me away to travel through Oregon down to the Redwood Forest was delightful. The time to read, to think, to pray – to be released from the need to develop a new sermon each week – this time was refreshing. So thank you. Thank you as well for your love for the Lord, your love for His Word, your desire to grow and to prosper, your willingness to listen to the Word of God preached even when I preach too long. Thank you – you are a blessing.
Yet how often am I tempted, how often are we tempted, rather than giving thanks for one another, rather than being content, to grumble and complain about what God has put in front of us. Reminded of our failure to trust the Lord in any and every circumstance and our failure to be thankful, let us kneel and confess our sins in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, seeking the forgiveness of our Heavenly Father.