Contemporary Western society is filled with a spirit of discontent. Yet we must admit that for many of us, discontentment isn’t a societal problem; it’s personal. Whether it comes from who we are or what we do or don’t have, a lack of contentment gives birth to all manner of vices, from the envy that begrudges what others achieve to the covetousness that desires what others possess.
However severe our malady, though, God does not leave us without a solution for our discontent. In Philippians 4:11–13, the apostle Paul boasts of a secret that, if taken to heart, will cause our contentment in Christ to grow and flourish.
Content in Christ
As “an apostle to the Gentiles” (Rom. 11:13), Paul’s mission led him to experience both the comfort of being warm and well fed and the deprivation of being cold and hungry. Not everyone has lived on both sides of the street. Not everyone knows how the other half lives, so to speak. But Paul sure did.
Paul also knew, though, that his inner life wasn’t meant always to rise and fall with the roller coaster of his outer circumstances. If it did, he’d be neutralized, never fully able to serve Christ. The same holds true for us: when our circumstances dictate our dispositions, we risk being intoxicated by wonderful things and overwhelmed by disheartening things.
When our circumstances dictate our dispositions, we risk being intoxicated by wonderful things and overwhelmed by disheartening things.
Paul writes, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need” (Phil. 4:11–12, emphasis added). Notice that his contentment is immediately rooted in the sufficiency of the Lord Jesus Christ: “I can do all things,” he says, “through him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). In other words, according to Paul, contentment is a result of bowing our hearts and minds to the will of God, no matter the conditions we face. As with the apostle, it is possible for us to be neither overwhelmed by poverty nor intoxicated by prosperity.
We should take care to note here that Philippians 4:13 is not about achieving success in anything we set out to do—though that is the way the text is often used. It doesn’t promise that we’ll sink a three-pointer on the basketball court, that we’ll ace our exams, or that a stay-at-home mom’s children won’t get the best of her. This text is not saying, I can do anything I put my mind to. Rather, it says, By Christ’s strength, I can be calm in adversity, and I can be humble in prosperity. And that’s the real victory we all need.
No Quick Fix
So what can we do to lay claim to this contentment? Well, that’s part of the mystery, the secret. We live in a pragmatic age, and we want our “five steps” to this or our “ten keys” to that. But in this case, it is genuinely knowing Christ that alone stokes contentment. Our contentment is grounded in our union with Jesus.
In other words, Philippians 3:10—“I want to know Christ” (NIV)—precedes Philippians 4:13. First we have to want to know Christ. Then, in knowing Him, we will be able to do everything through Him.
Discontentment doesn’t arise because we haven’t yet discovered the five magic principles; it arises because we haven’t yet fully uncovered God’s “riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). If we constantly remembered that He is “more precious than silver … more costly than gold … more beautiful than diamonds”1—that nothing we have compares to Him—then it would radically transform how we view our circumstances.
The more we press on to know Christ, the more the distractions of earth lose will their value—and the more content we will become.
Like Paul (and every other Christian this side of glory), we have not yet obtained the fullness of resurrection life, but we still “press on” into an ever deepening relationship with Jesus (Phil. 3:14). And the more we press on to know Christ, the more the distractions of earth lose will their value—and the more content we will become.
Our Highest Aim
Christian contentment, then, is not automatic but, as Paul says in verse 11, “learned.” It’s learned in the school of God’s providence. When we understand that every aspect of our lives, from the seemingly trivial to the momentous, is set by divine appointment, it proves increasingly difficult to dwell in discontent. Our God has a perfect plan, and He’s working it all “together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).
As God’s called ones, we live for Him, we live through Him, and we live to Him. Once our priorities and commitments coalesce around Christ, then we are well on our way to contentment. To have no higher ambition than to belong to Jesus and to be entirely at His disposal for every good work is fertile ground for true contentment to flourish.
This article was adapted from the sermon “The Secret of Contentment” by Alistair Begg.
1 Lynn DeShazo, “More Precious Than Silver” (1982).