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Insights from the Valley

Like Paul, we can learn to be content and focused on Christ.

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 about it.

Contentment 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 misunderstanding.

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 life.

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 suffering.

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 those things.

Contentment 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 discontentment.

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.

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.

Howard D. Vanderwell was pastor of Hillcrest Christian Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan, for many years. He was educated at Calvin College and Calvin Seminary.

Howard D. Vanderwell

Preaching Today Tape # 29


A resource of Christianity Today International

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Sermon Outline:


I. Contentment is not what many people think

II. Contentment is knowing you have all you need for your circumstances

III. Contentment comes through the resources God provides