Our lives are changing rapidly. Our plans and schedules and some of our most basic routines all feel like they’re changing on us by the hour. This is certainly a difficult, strange, and unprecedented time to be alive. So many people who are a lot older than I am have frequently told me that, “We’ve never seen anything like this in our lifetime, where we can’t be in physical contact with anyone during a crisis that’s affecting everyone.” This is hard. This is disappointing. This is life-altering and even life-threatening for so many people.
So, what do we do? What do we do when we feel crushed? When we feel hopeless, confused, and beat down by the fluctuating circumstances of life that are totally outside our control? Well, I want to look at a passage that has always challenged me but also never failed to comfort me and point me in the right direction—to point me to Jesus and the strength that he provides. And my hope is that the way God has used this passage to help me and strengthen me, he would do the same for you.
(Read Philippians 4:11-13)
In any and every circumstance. In any and every circumstance! This is the remarkable, audacious, and comprehensive language that Paul uses here in verse 12—"In any and every circumstance.” Here’s a man who is claiming that he has learned how to face all the different ebbs and flows of life, and to face them with contentment in his heart.
Changing Seasons of Life
Right away we need to see that Christianity recognizes the changing circumstances of life. True Christianity never presents a theology and a life to be lived where you’re always up but never down. You’re always abounding but never brought low. Oh no, it recognizes the ups and downs of life—that they’re a normal part of life in a fallen world.
The Promise of Facing not Fixing
Another thing we see here is that Paul is not claiming to have some magic cure-all pill or prayer or formula that’s going fix all our problems. No, what does he say? That he’s got something, he’s learned something that is enabling him to face all of his problems. God doesn’t promise to fix all of our problems in the immediate here and now, but he does promise to give us something that will enable us to face our problems and the changing seasons of life with deep contentment.
Living in the Real World
Now, if you’re hearing this and you’re not a Christian and you’re tempted to think, “Yeah right! See! This is the type of pie-in-the-sky, bury your head in the sand outlook on life that I can’t stand to be around. It’s obvious that Paul is not living in the real world like we are.” If that’s your opinion, you need to know that Paul wasn’t writing this letter from some Lay-z-boy, comfy, cozy recliner with all his buddies and pals around him. No, he’s writing this letter from prison. The man is in chains.
Here is a man literally quarantined from the outside world. He’s experiencing the worst kind of social distancing that’s being forced upon him. The man is in prison but what is he doing? He’s rejoicing! He’s giving thanks! But he’s doing more than that. He’s setting out to help us. He’s writing this to help us. He’s letting us in on a secret.
Learning a Secret
Everyone loves to be let in on a secret. I’ve never met anyone who when you ask them, “You want to know a secret?” they say, “Naaaa. Not really.” No, everyone wants to know a secret. Here Paul tells us that he’s learned the secret to contentment, but he’s not keeping it to himself. He’s going to pass it along to us. He’s learned the secret of how to face any and every circumstance with contentment in his heart. Don’t you want this?
This is what Christianity claims to offer, but what is this contentment that Paul is talking about here and how do we experience it? What is Christian contentment, and how do we get it? These are the two main aspects of contentment that I believe Paul is teaching us here. In the changing, uncertain, difficult seasons of life, what is the contentment that Paul says is possible to experience, and how do we experience it? So, first let’s begin by defining our terms.
What Is Contentment?
Now, you might think, Why do we need to spend time defining this? Isn’t it obvious? Contentment is being satisfied with your life; it’s being satisfied in life. But if that’s all you think of when you think of contentment, you may be tempted to view contentment in a very passive way.
Here’s what I mean. If contentment is just a passive attitude of satisfaction, how do explain what Paul says earlier in chapter 3, when he says, “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead … I press on.” I strain forward! The idea is like a dog on a leash straining to get a bone. He says, “I’m straining forward. I press on!”
So, which is it? Should we be straining forward and pressing on? Or should we be content? You see, if you think of contentment only, or even mainly, in the passive sense, these two passages don’t seem to fit together. They seem to be at odds with one another. And if you’re not careful that truncated view of contentment can easily lead to thinking of it almost as a sanctified form of complacency.
But what do we find in verse 13? Paul doesn’t say, “I’ve learned the secret. So, I can sit back and do nothing through him who gives me strength. I can sit on the couch and just chill through Christ who strengthens me.” No, he says, “I can do all things.” “I can DO!” You see, right there we can tell that there’s an activeness and a “doing” to Christian contentment. So, we might say this:
Christian Contentment is an active satisfaction in life.
What do I mean? Well take the word that’s used in this passage for example. The Greek word that Paul used that’s translated as content in the end of verse 11 is the word autarkes. It literally means to be sufficient. It means to be or to have enough. It’s the realization that you’re already furnished and adequately equipped for the situation that you find yourself currently in. It’s recognizing that who I am, what I have, and where God has placed me right now is sufficient to fulfill the roles and responsibilities that God has given me.
Think of Contentment like MacGyver
If you’ve been coming to our church for a while, you know that I can never talk about Christian contentment without bringing in my childhood hero, American agent Angus MacGyver. You remember this show? He was a special agent who, in every episode, always found himself in these terrible predicaments where it looked like he didn’t have what he needed to get out of it or to make what he needed. But in any and every circumstance, in every episode, every single time MacGyver would use the everyday supplies that were all around him to make things work. He would make a bomb or a battery with toothpaste and toothpicks! It didn’t matter what situation he was in, MacGyver showed that what he had was sufficient for the situation that he was in. All he needed to do was be creative and maximize it.
Christian Contentment: What it is and What it isn’t
The creativity of MacGyver is a picture of biblical contentment. This is why Paul calls it a secret. When you’re watching MacGyver, it’s never obvious that he has what he needs, but eventually you come to see that he does. This is contentment. It’s maximizing the moment. It’s focusing on what you do have not on what you don’t have. It’s making the most of who you are and what you have for the glory of God, the good of others, and your joy in the Lord.
We might define it this way: Christian contentment is appreciating what you have and maximizing what you have. It’s the grateful and fruitful use of what you have and where God has placed us. G.K. Chesterton said it this way, “Contentment is the skill of getting out of every situation all the good that there is in it.” It’s maximizing the moment. And this is what Paul is saying. He’s saying, “I’ve learned that in any and every circumstance, Christ can strengthen me to make the most of it.”
So, we need to see that contentment is not laziness—where you just sit back and do nothing. It’s also not indifference where you can’t can grieve and cry over disappointing circumstances. It’s not fatalism—just throwing your hands up and saying, “Oh well. Whatever will be will be.” It doesn’t mean that I’m not trying to change myself or change my circumstances. No, Christian contentment is an active satisfaction. It’s recognizing that in any and every circumstance I have what I need to biblically succeed. My challenge is by the strength of Christ to make the most of it.
Our Challenge in this Moment
This is our challenge right now in the midst of this Coronavirus pandemic. Are we looking around and asking, “Lord, what are you teaching me? God, how can I make the most of this time? How can I get all the good out of this? How can I redeem the time? How can I creatively love my family and love my neighbor? So, this is Christian contentment. It’s an active satisfaction in the situation. It’s the grateful and fruitful use of the means and moments that God places us in. All right, but how do we get?
How Do We Get It?
How do we experience it? Well, I think Paul teaches us at least two ways that contentment comes into our lives: We must learn it and we must receive it.
Notice, two times in this passage Paul says that he had to learn this secret of contentment. Now, there’s a lot of encouragement in that. Because right away you see that contentment is not a special gift for the “Super Christians.” None of us are born with it. All of us must learn it. But that’s just the thing—it can be learned! And there are two primary ways that we learn the lesson and the secret of contentment: the easy way and the hard way.
1. Learning Contentment, the Easy Way
There are some lessons in life that we can learn by reading about other people’s experience. For example, one way that we’re meant to learn this secret and lesson of contentment is by learning it from the characters and stories that we have in the Bible.
Do you remember the story of Joseph? There he is being sold into slavery and taken into Egypt. And what did he do with his slavery? He made the most of it. He maximized his moment. He worked his way up to becoming Potiphar’s right-hand man. Then when he was unjustly sent to prison, what did he do? He maximized his moment there as well. You see, in any and every circumstance, Joseph was teaching us that, not only did God have a wonderful purpose behind all his suffering, but he also had given Joseph what he needed to fulfill his “dreams” and God’s plan for his life. Joseph actively and creatively made the most of any and every circumstance that he was in.
One way that we learn contentment is by learning from these stories and learning that the great Story-giver of the Bible is the same Storywriter of our lives. The more we understand how God writes stories, and how he provides for his people, the more we will learn this lesson that regardless of what it looks like, who we are, what we have, and where God has placed us right now, is sufficient to fulfill the roles and responsibilities that he has given us.
2. Learning Contentment, the Hard Way
But the truth, as Paul affirms here, is that we don’t learn the lessons very well from the lives of others. We need to learn them the hard way by going through difficult circumstances ourselves. It’s like Paul looking back on his life in this passage and he’s saying, “I have learned that in all those moments when I didn’t think that I had enough, I had enough. In those moments where I didn’t think that God was there, God was there. In those moments where I didn’t think I can do this, Christ showed up and he strengthened me to do it, to go through it, to make the most of it! I have learned this the hard way, by going through the changing circumstances of life first-hand.
Let’s not forget that our church has learned this the hard way as well.
-Almost eleven years ago now, 9 people made the most of a Bible-study and turned that Bible-study into a church holding Sunday services in a home.
-Then we didn’t know what would happen, but we made the most of that home and turned that living room into a little sanctuary of God.
-God gave us Bear Lakes Middle School. And for 8 years we faced so many unique challenges and obstacles with that meeting space, but as a church we hung together, and we worked together, and we made the most of that middle school cafeteria.
-When we were kicked out of that space because it was under renovation, we made the most of the Marriott hotel lobby and conference center and we continued to grow.
-When we didn’t think that we would be able to find a better option for the size of our church at a lower cost, God provided the Rosarian Academy.
-Now here we are in this trying and strenuous time where we can’t even physically be together. But what are we doing? You are watching this online and this ministry is going forward, because we will not go quietly into the night. We will not sulk and complain and sit back and do nothing. No! We are making the most of this opportunity and the technology that God has given to us to continue our mission of pointing people to the truth of the gospel.
We have learned this lesson in so many ways—that in any and every circumstance, Christ has given us what we need to fulfill his mission in our lives. It’s our job, with the eyes of faith, and with the strength of Christ, to make the most of what he has given to us for his glory. This is a secret that we have learned and must continue to learn. But where does the strength to do this come from?
3. Christian Contentment Must Be Received
The secret of Christian contentment is that who we are, what we have, and where God is placed us is sufficient even when it doesn’t look like it. However, the strength to see that truth and make the most of what we have in the moment can only come from Christ. Notice, Paul says, “through him who strengthens me.” Now, the world will quote the first half of verse 13: “I can do all things! I can handle it myself. I’ve got this!” Yet, time and time again we all come up short. But it’s the Christian who can quote and proclaim the whole verse, “I can do all things … through Christ who strengthens me!” I can’t do it, but he can. And he’s willing to do it through me.
I’m sure all of you are familiar with the great composer Johan Sebastian Bach. And I’m sure many of you know that at end of his written compositions, he was would include the initials SDG, which stood for: To the glory of God alone. But Bach wrote two other initials on his pieces as well. They came at the very beginning. It was JJ: Jesu Juva, which was Latin for: Jesus help! Here was this intellectual giant and musical genius, and at the very beginning, at the very outset of his work he cried out, “Jesu Juva! Jesus help me! Strengthen me to make the most of this musical gift that you’ve given me.”
But what do we find pervading our culture today? It’s the very opposite. The message that we’re bombarded with every day and tempted to believe is that we need to look deep within ourselves, not above. That somehow, you’ve got to find it in yourself to match the moment. But what do you say to the person who can’t get it together? You see, this way of coping with difficulties is actually a very narrow and exclusive way of living because it basically says, “It’s all up to you, and if you can’t find it deep within yourself to handle your circumstances, then we don’t know what to tell you.”
This is where Christ and Christianity come in with the hope and a real friend. Because when we admit that we can’t do it, and none of us can—none of us can respond to the low periods of life with all the faith and contentment that we should. But thankfully, we’re told of the One who has. Paul knew the One, and we know the One who in every second, in every moment of his life, he made the best of it. Even in the darkest moment of human history, when he as the true and better Joseph, was unjustly accused and then nailed to a tree, what did he do? Jesus took wood and nails, he took a wooden cross and turned it into the word’s redemption. Jesus made the most of the cross by taking all our complaining, all our discontentment, and self-pity upon himself. He was punished for our sin, so that all who trust in him would be completely forgiven.
The great news that Paul proclaimed and staked his life on that three days later Jesus rose again from the dead. He’s alive! And because all believers are united to him by faith. By his Spirit, he can now draw near and strengthen us to do the impossible. This is the hope of the gospel!
Christian contentment is not based on different or better circumstances; it’s based on the secret that can be learned and the strength that can be received through Christ. My prayer to God, and my plea to you, would be that you would depend on Christ now more than ever. That you would draw near to him and go to him and say, “O, living Christ, Jesu Juva! Jesus help me! Strengthen me for this time. Strengthen me for this moment! I am weak but you are strong. I’ve got nothing but you have everything. I can’t do this but you can!”
Friend, the divine and supernatural strength to make the most of these changing and difficult times is only a “phone call” away, because Christ is alive. By his grace, he is willing and able to strengthen his people. So, draw near to the throne of grace that you may receive mercy and grace to help—strength to help—in your time of need.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring there is a great scene where Frodo says: “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” And Gandalf responds: “So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Friend, if you won’t take it from me; take it from Gandalf. We didn’t decide to have this pandemic happen in our time, but it has and now the question is—what will we decide? What will I do with the time that is given me? Will I sulk and moan and complain, or will I go to the all strengthening Christ and say, “Jesu Juva! Lord help me! I’m a tired solider in need help. Help me to maximize this moment. Help me make the most of this time, for your glory, for others good and for my joy in life.” Let’s do that together. Let’s do that now.
Jeremy A. McKeen is the Senior Pastor of the First Congregational Church of Hamilton, MA.