Over 2000 years ago (in 35 B.C.), the Greek philosopher Horace stated, “We rarely find anyone who can say he has lived a happy life, and who, content with his life, can retire from the world like a satisfied guest.” Centuries later, the Rolling Stones expressed that sentiment for an entire generation of Americans when they sang, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.”
But in Philippians 4:11-12, the apostle Paul asserted that he had learned the secret of contentment despite all obstacles: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need.”
If there is a secret to contentment, and if Paul has found it, what is this secret?
In Philippians 4:8-14, Paul describes three key components of this secret:
1: Exchange “if only’s” for gratitudes. These verses make the point that we find no contentment in life when we complain that we would be happy “if only….” Instead, contentment is found when we express what we are grateful for.
Paul was raised in affluence. He came from a well-to-do Jewish family by which he enjoyed the honor of belonging to the Jewish inner-circle as well as the privileges of Roman citizenship. Paul was an up-and-rising star in the Jewish community. But then he became a Christian, and some would say that it was all downhill for Paul from that point on. He experienced intense rejection from those who had previously admired him. He was chased out of city after city, beaten with rods three times, flogged at least five times, shipwrecked three times, stoned once, exposed to death again and again, and imprisoned repeatedly. In similar circumstances, others might have complained, “I could have been happy in life if only I had stayed with the popular route of life” or “if only I had not encountered so many adversaries” or “if only God had done a better job of protecting me.” But, instead of saying, “If only,” Paul expressed what he was grateful for. Specifically, Paul was grateful for the care of the Philippians and the provisions of God. He said, “I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me…. It was kind of you to share my distress” (verses 10 & 14). And he said, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Paul found contentment not through completing an “if only” list, but by finding satisfaction in the life he had. Steve Brown explains, “The most unhappy person in the world is not someone who didn’t get what he or she wanted. The most unhappy person is the one who got what he or she wanted and then found out that it wasn’t as wonderful as expected. The secret of a happy life is not to get what you want but to live with what you’ve got. Most of us spend our lives concentrating on what we don’t have instead of thanking God for what we do have. Then we wake up, our life is over, and we missed the beauty of the present.”
2: Watch where you place your head.
Parents of a baby who is beginning to crawl know that their child explores life through taste. Babies put everything they touch into their mouths. Caring parents, therefore, are careful not to put their child on the ground beside the city dump, where sanitation workers have just dumped today’s collection of garbage. Parents understand that many items in the city dump would not be safe tor their child to put into her mouth, so they will not set their child down in such a dangerous location.
What about our hearts and minds? Do we pay attention to the dangers around us? Do we guard ourselves from setting our minds near spiritual dumps where our souls might be injured or poisoned? Or are we careful to surround our minds with those things that are good and safe and healthy. Verse 8 stresses, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
3: Put into practice what you have learned.
In verse 9, Paul instructs us, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Over and over and over again in Scripture, God makes it clear to us that our faith is to be active, that we are to put our energy into living out what we believe. That’s why Paul calls us to “keep on doing” what we learn and receive and hear and see. Susanna Wesley says it powerfully, “There are two things to do about the gospel—believe it and behave it.”
Verse 9 promises that as we do so “the God of peace will be with [us].” The presence of the God of peace is closely tied to experiencing the secret of contentment. As we put our faith into practice, we experience the closeness of the God of peace, and we find the secret of contentment.
An anonymous saying reads, “If you are not getting much out of the Christian life, it may be because you have not very much invested in it.” If we want to “get much out of the Christian life,” if we want to experience the peace of God from the God of peace, and if we want to experience the secret of contentment even in trying times, we need to be serious about putting into practice what we learn in the Scriptures.
Do worries ever keep you awake at night?
Do you ever find yourself feeling afraid about what the future might hold?
Do you ever feel overwhelmed by pressures weighing down on you?
Do you ever try to escape from the pressures in your life through alcohol, drugs, food, shopping, pornography or television?
Do you find yourself feeling cynical or depressed about life?
Do you find yourself acting irritably toward others?
Do you struggle with high blood pressure, ulcers or chronic illness?
Unaddressed or mishandled anxiety causes severe damage to our soul and to our health. In the book Anxiety, Disorders and Phobias, Dr. Aaron Beck points out, “Worrying is costly. It can lead to health problems, impaired concentration, and much wasted time.” Charles Swindoll puts it more harshly: “I have never seen a gravestone that reads, ‘He died of worry.’ But some of them ought to read that way.” Corrie ten Boom adds, “Worry does not empty tomorrow of sorrows; it empties today of strength.”
How might we best address our struggles with anxiousness?
Philippians 4:6-7 offers this prescription: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
At first sight, this counsel does not appear to be very helpful. How often has anyone’s anxiety ever been alleviated simply by someone telling them not to worry about it?
But when we dig more deeply into these verses we find wisdom and help. To understand the counsel of these verses, it helps to understand a bit about ancient Greek grammar. When Paul wrote these words, there were two ways he could have expressed a prohibition: he could have used the aorist subjunctive form of the verb or the present imperative form of the verb.
The aorist subjunctive form was used to prohibit a particular act from even beginning. For example, I might say to you, “Don’t hit me!” An aorist subjunctive form of “don’t hit” would imply, “Don’t lay a hand on me! Don’t throw a single punch in my direction!”
The present imperative, on the other hand, would be used to forbid the continuance of an action, especially an action that is already in progress.” For example, a boxer in the ring who is losing the fight might throw up his hands and shout, “Don’t hit me!” This time he would be implying, “I can’t take anymore. I give up. Please stop what you have been doing to me.”
That’s the difference in what we find here. This verse is not saying to us, “I forbid you from ever having a worrisome thought.” The verse is calling us not to keep getting punched around by worry, not to keep on loitering in anxiety.
But how do we stop loitering in anxiety?
Philippians 4:6 offers us an alternative to the continual pummeling of worry. It tells us, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Rather than holding within us worries that keep punching away at us, we are invited to present our worries to God in prayer. And verse 7 follows this invitation up with a promise: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
These verses paint a picture of anxiety banging at the door of our soul, screaming at us to let it in. I can’t take the incessant knocking and screaming, so I give in. I open the door. I allow anxiety to invade my soul and to set up his home within me. But Philippians 7 reminds me that with the indwelling Spirit of Christ in my soul, I have a Guard who can protect me from the attack of anxiety. Presenting our requests (our prayers) to God is like going to the Guard and asking the Guard to handle the one who keeps pounding on the door. After many years of habitually opening the door to anxiety, I am often inclined to squeeze past the Guard and to open the door to worry, but I am far better off when I step away from that habit and ask for help from the one who has come to guard my heart.
In the many letters the apostle Paul wrote to churches in Europe and Asia and to three different individuals, Paul requested “help” just one time. When Paul learned of a conflict in the church in Philippi between two women—each of whom Paul affirmed as individuals who had “struggled beside me in the work of the gospel”—Paul asked his “loyal companion” to “help these women.”
What were Euodia and Syntyche fighting about?
I wish I knew the juicy tidbits about their conflict. I would have enjoyed hearing the gossip that was going around about these two women. But Paul does not dangle any juicy tidbits in front of us. He doesn’t tell us any of the gossip because it is none of our business.
Here is the first lesson we can learn about how to deal with conflict in the church: Avoid gossip. Speak the truth in love to the appropriate persons. Dr. A.B. Simpson warns, “I would rather play with forked lightning, or take in my hands living wires with their fiery currents, than speak a reckless word against any servant of Christ, or idly repeat the slanderous darts which thousands of Christians are hurling on others, to the hurt of their own souls and bodies.”
Paul urges Euodia and he urges Syntyche to “be of the same mind in the Lord.” Paul does not try to persuade them to agree on the particulars of the issue they are in conflict over. They might always disagree over those matters. But Paul urges them to find their common ground in the Lord. In essence, he calls upon both of them to remember that they are both sinners who are in need of Christ’s forgiveness, that Christ died upon the cross for both of them, that the Holy Spirit has come to indwell the soul of each of them, and that each of them is now a precious daughter of the heavenly Father.
Here is the second lesson we can learn about how to deal with conflict in the church: Focus more of our time, attention and energy on our common ground (what we share together in Christ) than on what divides us. In any conflict we encounter with a fellow believer, remember this: We both owe our lives to the same Savior, and we are both loved by the same Savior. We may disagree about other things but we can be united in this: our bond in Christ.
After urging Euodia and Syntyche to “be of the same mind in the Lord,” Paul calls upon his “loyal companion” to “help these women.” Biblical scholars make guesses as to who this “loyal companion” may have been, but Paul does not tell us. What we do know is this: Wherever there is conflict, there are hurting people, and hurting people need persons who will care for their wounds. Paul wants to make sure that these hurting women are cared for, so he recruits the right person to meet the need. And I find it significant that Paul does not just ask this “loyal companion” to help straighten out the mess in Philippi. Paul cares about the individuals, so Paul asks his companion to “help these women.”
Here is the third lesson we can learn about how to deal with conflict in the church: Find help for those who are hurting. In the midst of conflict, let’s remember that people get hurt, and let’s keep an eye out for those who need care. If, for whatever reason, we cannot provide that care, let’s do what we can to recruit the right person to care for those who are hurting.
John Newton, the author of the hymn Amazing Grace, once said, “I am not what I ought to be, I am not what I want to be, I am not what I hope to be in another world; but still I am not what I once used to be, and by the grace of God I am what I am.”
This strikes me as a great statement for Christians to cling to, for it reminds us that God is in the business of continually growing us and changing us until our growth comes to completion “in another world,” while all along the way we are loved and accepted “by the grace of God.”
As I reflect upon Newton’s quote though, I am struck by the realization that the apostle Paul would never have said such a thing…prior to coming to Christ.
The earlier part of Paul’s life was lived in the conviction that he did not need to change because he had carefully ticked off the necessary religious requirements. The issue for Paul was not the kind of person he was becoming and whether his life bore the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. The issue for Paul was the satisfaction of religious requirements, and he could proudly announce that he had done his duty.
From the evidence of Scripture, when Paul began the Christian life, he did not exhibit much love, joy, peace, patience, or kindness. Having lived as a Pharisee, his early Christian life still exhibited the fruits of judgmentalness, confrontation, and argumentativeness. Right away, in Damascus, he got into such arguments that “the Jews plotted to kill him,” and the Christians had to sneak him out of town (Acts 9:23-25). When he arrived in Jerusalem, the arguments started again, and the Hellenists “were attempting to kill him” (Acts 9:29). It was only when the disciples shipped Paul off to Tarsus, we are told, “the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up” (Acts 9:30-31). Even after beginning his missionary career, Paul got into such a heated conflict with Barnabas (who was given the nickname “Son of Encouragement” and who had come to Paul’s rescue when the apostles had feared being associated with him—Acts 9:26-27) that they disbanded their missionary team and went different ways.
But as Paul progressed in the Christian life, he came to understand that he was ‘not what he ought to be, and was not what he wanted to be, and was not what he hoped to be in another world, but was not what he used to be, and by the grace of God he was who he was.’
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul wrote about his desire to keep growing: “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
The Christian life is never about stagnation, but it always about change, about the character of Christ growing in us.
In First Things First, A Roger Merrill tells of a business consultant who decided to landscape his yard. He hired a woman with a doctorate in horticulture who was extremely knowledgeable. Bill Norman summarizes what happened: “Because the business consultant was very busy and traveled a lot, he kept emphasizing to her the need to create his garden in a way that would require little or no maintenance on his part. He insisted on automatic sprinklers and other labor-saving devices. Finally she stopped and said, ‘There’s one thing you need to deal with before we go any further. If there’s no gardener, there’s no garden!’” Bill Norman then applies this story to the Christian life: “There are no labor-saving devices for growing a garden of spiritual virtue. Becoming a person of spiritual fruitfulness requires time, attention, and care.” This is why Paul speaks of pressing on toward the goal; this is why Paul calls us to keep growing.
We may not be what we ought to be or what we want to be or what we hope to be in another world, but we are not what we used to be. In the grace of God, may we continue to press on toward becoming what we can be in Christ Jesus.