Voices are being raised more and more that tell us our attitude,
our state of mind, has a great effect on our health. Our attitude toward
ourselves, our attitude toward life, our relationships with other people have a
powerful effect on our physical life as well as our emotional life. Fear,
resentment, anxieties, a lack of purpose in can be just as
detrimental to our health as can a whole variety of germs. That means our
attitude is a very crucial ingredient in retaining health.
I began to wrestle with that concept a lot during the last three
months when I walked through my valley. The concept of contentment: I kept
asking myself, What is it? I must tell you that in 23 years of
preaching, I have never preached on Philippians 4:1112, where it says. "I have
learned to be content." I've tried a number of times, but I have never felt I
got close enough to what Paul really had in mind that I understood and really
grasped what he was saying. And so I always backed off, because every time I
thought of contentment, I could think of a lot of reasons and circumstances in
which we may not be content. I never really understood it.
I believe that during the last few months while I walked my
valley, God, by his Spirit, has given me some very helpful insight for my life
about contentment. And I want to share that with you.
Remember while we study this passage, it's one of Paul's prison
epistles. He's in prison, probably in Rome, probably chained to a guard on
either side of him 24 hours a day. It's in that setting that he says, "I have
learned to be content." It's not only a testimony about himself; the very clear
implication is that you fellow Christians ought to learn it, too. Let's talk
is not what many people think.
To spend our time first in trying to define it isn't so easy.
It's a rather difficult concept to pin down, and it's open to a lot of
It's easier, I think, to define discontentment. You know what
that is. Every time we complain, every time we grumble, every time we express
our envy and our jealousy, we're expressing discontent. Discontent is when you
are unhappy with your present circumstances. Discontent is when you have an
uneasy state of mind because of the things that are happening in your
Well, then, is contentment saying, "I'm happy about what's
happening in my life"? Is contentment liking your present circumstances?
Not necessarily. That's not exactly what Paul was talking about. Let's see if
we can clarify it.
Let me begin by trying to clarify for you what I think it is
not. Contentment, I believe, is not being stoic. Paul is not telling us to be
stoic here. To be stoic is to so control your mind that suffering and pain no
longer come to your consciousness. Do you remember the stories of the Eastern
mystics, who can sleep on a bed of nails, who can walk over a bed of hot coals
and feel nothing, they have so suppressed their thought process about it?
That's not what Paul was talking about here. He's not calling us to be numb to
Nor is Paul telling us we have to learn to like everything
that's happening in our lives. I don't think Paulwhen he sat in a prison cell
for two years chained to a guard when he'd rather be out preachingliked it
either. During the past few months, I really don't think God expects me to say,
"I like having cancer." And in this whole treatment process of the last weeks,
I guess the hardest part of it all for me to handle was the incessant nausea
for five weeks straight. I don't think God expects me to say I like that. I
don't. And I don't think he expects you to look at your burdens or your
difficulties or your problems and say, "I like that." I get weary of a lot of
these Christians around us who so glibly say (while they're
healthy and you're sick), "You have to praise God for all things." I don't
think Paul is saying that.
Nor, if we may carry it a step further, is he telling us that we
must settle for those things in our lives that are less than they ought to be.
He had a lot of incompletes and a lot of imperfections in his life, and Paul
was not saying, "Well, I'm just going to settle for that." I remember days in
my life when I was in junior high and high school. I brought home some report
cards that, wellthey weren't so red hot. My parents wanted to talk about it,
and I always defended myself by saying, "Well, look, it's pretty well average.
That's pretty good." I thought that would calm the storm. And I tell you, the
thought got across to me very, very clearly that contentment was a totally
inappropriate response on my part to that report card! Paul says that. There
were things in his life to which Paul expressed a great deal of discontentment.
He said, "I press on; I have not yet achieved."
As a matter of fact, the whole idea of Christian growth is built
on the idea of a holy kind of discontentment. There has to be a creative
discontentment with that which is less than it ought to be in our lives. Those
who become good students are those who have in a healthy way become
discontented with halfhearted same with athletes, the same with
musicians, the same with your work in your trade. So Paul can't be meaning
is knowing you have all you need for your circumstances.
Then what does he mean? To understand what he means, look at
another passage in which he uses the same word we're looking at. There are
three times in the New Testament when that word appears. All three are used by
Paul. One is in 1 Timothy 6:6. We need not look at that because I think he uses
that in quite a different sense there. That's the passage where he says "the
love of money is the root of evil." He says, "Godliness with contentment is
great gain." There he uses that word to issue a warning against the craving to
be rich because it can well destroy your spiritual life.
In 2 Corinthians 9:8, we find the third location in which he
uses this word, though in our translations it is not translated by the word contentment.
This is a passage in which Paul is writing to the Corinthians about
money and giving money generously. Verse 6 says, "Whoever sows
sparingly will reap sparingly; whoever sows generously will reap generously.
Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly
or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver."
At that point, Paul anticipates that his readers are going to
say, "Yeah, you can say that, but I can't give much. I've got all these other
obligations, and I'll run out." And then read verse 8: "And God is able to make
all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times," here's the word, "having
all that you need"being content"you will abound in every good work." You see
what he's saying with that word now; he's saying, "As you give, expect that God
is going to be giving, so you will always measure up to the responsibilities
and obligations you have." Contentment, he is saying, is knowing that you have
all you need for the present circumstances.
Now with that in mind, go back to Philippians 4, and let's look
more intently at what he says there. He's been in prison in Rome about two
years, chained to guards, and notice what he says. He says, "There are times
when I have been in need and times when I have plenty. There are times when I'm
, times when I am hungry. I look back on my life, and I see times when
I've been in plenty and times when I'm in want."
Now notice he did not say: "I liked being hungry. I liked being
in want. I liked being in difficult circumstances." He does not at all say
that. But what he's saying is this: "Though I may not like it and would give my
right eyetooth to get out of this prison and preach the gospel again, I know I
have from God what it's going to take to measure up to these present
circumstances. I am sufficient." Or perhaps we ought to word it, "In God I have
become sufficient to this time of testing. God makes me sufficient." That's
what you see him expressing in verse 13, and you must never therefore separate
11 and 12 from 13: "I can do everything through him who gives me strength."
The last part of that verse, the "him who gives me strength," is
very obviously a reference to Jesus Christ, and some translators will even put
the word Christ in there. He is saying, "Christ, who is within me, so
thoroughly infuses his strength to me that no matter what the
matter what the I am sufficient to it. I can cope with it. I can
handle it. I can measure up to it."
Let me try to illustrate that from human life. Many of you know,
perhaps, that nothing drives me mad more quickly than when my car won't start.
I can be patient with a lot of things, but when my car won't run, you could
probably buy it from me for a nickel. If the key doesn't do it, I haven't the
foggiest idea where to go next. Therefore, when my car won't run, I am
extremely discontented. But why? Why am I so discontented? It's very simple. I
don't know where to go. I don't know what to do. I don't know how to begin
fixing it. I don't have the wherewithal to do the problem solving. I realize
when mechanical abilities were passed out, I must have been busy doing something
else. I cannot cope with it.
But, if one of my sons comes home with a catechism lesson or his
schoolwork, I have a great deal of contentment then, because I'm confident I
can handle that material. Let them come home with a car that doesn't run, and
I'm stumped. In the one situation, I can cope with it; in the other situation,
I cannot. The one situation I measure up to; the other situation I don't. And
therefore, in the one situation I have contentment, and in the other I have
That's the way Paul is using the word here: I am in a time of
testing, and in that time of testing, I am confident I can cope because God,
through the strength of Christ, makes me sufficient. For Paul contentment meant
saying, "I don't like being in this prison cell, but I know by Christ's
strength I will measure up to this time in my life." For me it means I don't
like the idea of having surgery, I don't like the idea of having cancer and
treatments and canceling a cherished sabbatical. But I know by the strength of
Christ dwelling within me, I can cope with it. For you, whether it is a disease or a family problem or a difficult
business situation or any other personal problem, you may say, "I don't like
it, but I can cope with it because Christ by his strength makes me sufficient
to measure up to it."
Contentment is taking your present situationwhatever obstacle
you are facing, whatever limitation you are living with, whatever chronic
condition wears you down, whatever has smashed your dreams, whatever factors and
circumstances in life tend to push you underand saying in the middle of it, "I
don't like it," but never saying, "I can't cope with it." You may feel
distress, but you may never feel despair. You may feel pressed down, but you
may never feel defeated. Paul says there are unlimited resources, and as soon
as you say "I can't cope," you are failing to draw on these unlimited resources
that Christ has readily, by his , made available to you. Contentment, therefore, is being confident
you measure up to any test you are facing because of the resources of strength
that Christ has made available within you. That's contentment.
comes through the resources God provides.
But there is another question that that immediately precipitates:
"How do I achieve that kind of contentment?" That question comes because we
sense it is not natural for us to feel that way. I don't believe it was natural
for Paul. Paul was a very gregarious, aggressive, active man, and I'm sure it
was intensely difficult for him to sit chained in a prison cell. He did not
come by it naturally. You sense that in those words in verse 12. He says, "I
have learned to be content."
He tells you through those words (and the dynamic those words
involve) that he did not wake up some fine morning and discover this fully
developed ability to be content had flown into his life. No. He said, "Life is
a school. It is a classroom. I've had to wrestle hard. And it is only through
the long process of living and wrestling with difficulties in life that I have
finally come to the point of realizing I have a corner on this matter of being
content. It is a process, and I practice it all my days."
That, as a matter of fact, may be one of the biggest reasons why
God allows these difficulties to come into our lives, because it's through the
process of wrestling with them down in the valley that we learn what this kind
of contentment is all about. Look at those words now and notice that Paul tells
us there are several very important ingredients involved in the achievement of
that contentment. The biggest ingredient, of course, is his personal union with
Jesus Christ. That's what verse 13 is all about.
That's why I said you cannot separate 11 and 12 from verse 13.
If you do, you're doing violence to the whole passage. His union with Christ,
his personal relationship with "the one who gives me strength" is the
heartthrob of it all; that's the key to it. Notice the precious balance in
verse 13 between the I and the him I who can do everything
and the him who gives me strength. Paul says. "I am in difficultydifficulties
I don't likebut I measure up to it because in those difficulties there are two
of us." This is not just some power of positive thinking based merely on
psychological principles, though God knows we need that. This is a confidence
of strength because of a union with Christ.
Paul is saying, therefore, it is an exclusive kind of
contentment that belongs only to Christians, those who are based squarely in
Jesus Christ. That's what he was saying
when he gave that powerful testimony to the Galatians in chapter 2: "I have
been crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live. Yet not I, but Christ lives
within me. And the life that I now live in the body I live by faith in Jesus,
the Son of God, who loves me and gave himself for me." He's saying that God,
through Jesus Christ, is the source of our strength.
That's why I have said from time to time, "Don't wait until you
are in a valley to think about the depth of your relationship in Jesus Christ."
God does not want to be a divine fire extinguisher you grab only when you get
yourself into a jam. He wants to be the very lifeblood of our whole being, so
that when the valleys come, all of the resources are readily available to us.
That, he says, is the most important ingredient, the basis of it all: my
personal union with Jesus Christ. And I want to tell all of you, that if you
are firmly grounded in Jesus Christ as your Savior and your Lord, there is no
valley you can't cope with. But if you are a nominal Christian, only going
through the motions, you're going to get in a valley and you won't have what it
takes. So you must know you are a child of God because you've been before the
cross and you've given yourself to the Lord Jesus Christ, and this Jesus dwells
within you and gives you his strength.
Paul says it all starts there. But we must go on in this passage
and notice that he also says there are some other elements, a few other
ingredients, that are a great part of achieving this contentment. If you look
back at verses 6 and 7, those precious, verses, he says prayer is a
big part of it. Paul was a praying man. We hear him talking about his prayers a
lot in his epistles. He says there are times in our lives that give us anxiety,
and the answer is to pray: "By prayer and petition with thanksgiving presenting
all of our requests to God." Lay it all out there before God, and it is in
response to those prayers that God makes his resources available to us, so that
we now are able with contentment to be confident. We can cope with the trial
that we are in instead of being crippled by the anxiety it produces. Prayer is
a very big part of it.
In verse 8 he tells us thought control is also a very big part
of it. It's interesting that in the middle of this whole discussion while he's
in prison, he talks about thinking: "whatever is true, whatever is noble,
whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable,
if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things." Here was a
preacher in prison. He could have had a lot of negative things to think about,
but he knew thinking about negative things wasn't going to do him any good. It
would only drag him down all the farther and destroy his spirit. And so he
says, "You must be very careful whether your mind becomes enslaved by a
negative thought process or a positive thought process. When you are walking
through your valleys, you don't need to be drawn down any farther by your
negative thought processes. Whatever is praiseworthy and of
those positive must discipline yourself to control your thinking
about such things."
And then he says there is another ingredient: the help of fellow
Christians. Look how in verse 10 he says, "I rejoice greatly in the Lord that
at last you have renewed your concern for me." As a matter of fact, that
generous concern on the part of the Philippians toward Paul seems to have been
the primary reason that stimulated the writing of this epistle in the first
place. He picks up again on that in verse 14: "It was good of you to share in
my troubles. Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your
acquaintance with the gospel when I set out from Macedonia, not one church
shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving except you only." He is so
grateful for their generosity. They were the means that God used to infuse a
lot of his strength into him. They were the channel God used to give him
strength. And that's how it ought to be. God ministers to us through fellow
Christians, powerfully. He wants his body to be that way.
One of the best things
we've got going for us is the fact that we are brothers and sisters in Jesus.
You have tremendous opportunities to minister to one another. I hope you will
always avail yourselves of those opportunities. After the last few months in the valley I have walked through, I
have become increasingly more sensitive and aware of the fact that there is a
tremendous amount of suffering of all kinds. There are a lot of hurting people
around. We don't look like it when we're all dressed up in our nice Sunday
finery, but there's a lot of hurt and there's a lot of disappointment a lot of
people live with.
My eyes have been increasingly opened to that. I find that an
overwhelming thought, because with the press of all of my other duties, I can't
begin to minister to all the needs and the hurts that exist in this
congregation in private lives and families. I can't begin to. The only way all
of the needs in lives and families are going to be met in this congregation,
for instance, is if every single one of I mean every one of that
we may be increasingly sensitive about the needs in others lives and takes the
initiative and the responsibility. Paul says in verse 14 to share in their
troubles and become the means that God uses to infuse strength to them.
Well, my friends, as I see it, that's what contentment is.
Contentment is the state of mind when you are in difficulty but you know Christ
is within you and all of his resources are available to you. And you will, you
will measure up to it. You know what my
needs are now. What are your needs? What disease are you facing? What weakness
wears you down? What chronic condition do you live with? What are the
circumstances in your work that drag you down? What are the smashed dreams you
have? What marriage and family problems are riddling your life with
unhappiness? What burdens are you bearing privately?
Whatever it isand there are a lot of themhere's the message
for you: You don't have to like it! You don't have to like those circumstances,
but you may not give in to them. If you are a Christian, you can cope with it;
you can make the best of it. You can conquer it. You don't have to live in a
state of anxiety and despair. Draw close to Jesus. Get just as close to Jesus
as you possibly can. And close to him, all this strength of his will be made
available to you. No matter what the valley, no matter how deep it is, you can,
you can make the best of it. And you can grow through it. I hope every one of
you becomes that content.
Vanderwell was pastor of Hillcrest Christian Reformed Church in Hudsonville,
Michigan, for many years. He was educated at Calvin College and Calvin