Sermon: The Secret of Contentment

(This is an adapted transcript of a sermon I preached in November 2018. You can listen to the recording here: https://www.stmaryswollatonpark.co.uk/sermons/philippians-410-23-joy-in-meeting-the-needs-of-others/)

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for 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. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Yet it was kind of you to share my trouble. And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

Philippians 4:10-23

This comes at the end of a series going through the letter Paul wrote to the church in Philippi.

In the rest of the letter Paul encourages the Philippians to stand firm as a church together, loving and serving each other. We’ve seen him encourage them to shine for Jesus together with joy, looking forward to the prize of being with Jesus after we die. Paul finishes by encouraging them to not worry, but instead to pray, rejoice and focus on Jesus.

His letter could quite happily end there – after all, Paul has been saying “Finally…” since the beginning of chapter 3! But Paul finishes with thanking the Philippians for supporting him. It’s not just a quick “PS – cheers for the gift, love Paul;” it’s a glimpse into the beautifully warm and dearly-loving relationship that he had with the church in Philippi, and a glimpse into how as a church family together we can give to each other and the mission partners that we support.

In our Bibles this section has been given the very modest title of ‘God’s Provision’. God is a God who provides, it’s true. Yet sometimes we Christians can be tempted to use “God provides” as a kind of stock phrase when someone shares that they’re in need, and we want them to feel better, but we’re not quite sure what to say. I hope and pray that tonight as we look at this together that we’ll see that there is so, so much more to this than a well-meaning cliché. I pray we’ll see that the fact God provides for us has so much more power for our joy and contentment and generosity than we can dream!

Because we can be content in hardship, and joyful in giving. Because God provides.

 

Content In Hardship

So, first, let’s look at how can be content in hardship.

I said above that in Paul’s letter to the Philippian church we get a glimpse into the relationship that he had with them. In this final bit of his letter he thanks the church for the gift they had sent to him with Epaphroditus, and reassures them that he is OK.

How is Paul OK? When he wrote this letter, he was in prison. He was away from home. He had already sent Epaphroditus away to carry this letter back to Philippi, and he was about to send Timothy to see them too. And as we’ve read through Philippians we’ve seen hints that Paul is waiting to hear the verdict on his case, and that verdict might well be execution.

So what is he saying? Is he just saying “I’m fine!” like we do sometimes when we’re not really “fine” but we don’t want to talk about it?

Is he being overly optimistic, saying “yeah, it’s all fine” and not really grasping just how serious his situation is?

Well, no.

Paul has learned a secret. “I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” (v12b). That’s some secret! That sounds like the kind of secret that’s worth knowing!

Because in that first paragraph Paul talks about being content in every situation – whether he’s hungry or full; whether he’s weak or strong; whether he’s on top of the world, or down in the dumps.

“I have learned the secret.”

Part of that secret is obedience. Looking at verse 11, Paul says “… I have learned that in whatever situation I am to be content.”

Now, he doesn’t say “I know how to be immune to anything that happens to me.” It’s not that Paul has become so super-Christian that he never gets affected by anything, as if he’s achieved some kind of blissful enlightenment. Actually, if we read closely, it sounds more like a decision: “I have learned that I should be content”. For Paul, contentment wasn’t about what he felt. It was about making a choice to obey God.

When God gave His people the 10 Commandments back in Exodus 20, he made the final one “You shall not covet”. Coveting is about yearning for, craving something you don’t have. And it’s wrong because obsessing over things you don’t have means that either you don’t believe the all-loving, all-powerful God wants or even can give you what you need; or you don’t believe that the all-knowing, all-wise God has the right idea about what you need. And this kind of desperate longing can lead to all kinds of other sin like the stealing, lying and murder that God also commanded His people to not do.

So when Paul was in hard circumstances, he could see that the needs he felt could tempt him to covet the things that would satisfy those needs: Food. Security. Money. Rest. Love.

He had a choice: give in to the coveting, or choose to be content.

Choose to say ‘NO’ to those cravings and believe that God would give him what he really needed, when he really needed it.

This wasn’t an easy choice – he had to learn to do it. Learning involves hard work. It takes time and effort. And learning to be content is hard work. It’s hard when you’ve spent the entire night awake and you just need some sleep. It’s hard when you’ve lost your job and you don’t know how you’re going to afford to live. It’s hard when all your well-made plans seem to go up in smoke. It’s not the kind of thing we can do just on willpower.

But we have far, far more than our own willpower. Paul says, “I have learned the secret… I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (v12b, 13)

We can choose to be content because God strengthens us to face everything.

God is the commander of creation, the pinnacle of power, the source of salvation – and He promises to live in His people by the Holy Spirit and empower us to do what is right (Phil 2:12-13). God Himself strengthens us.

And He strengthens us to face everything.

It’s not about having some superhero-like experience where you get divinely zapped and then you have some kind of ULTIMATE POWER which means you can do whatever you set your mind to. It’s something that can look far less impressive, but is far more profound, than that. If we think back through what we’ve already heard in Philippians, we see hints of what this strength is:

It’s the strength to take joy in people hearing about Jesus, however it happens (1:18).

It’s the strength to really believe that “…to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (1:21).

It’s the strength to shine in this dark world by being willing to lay down our lives for each other, doing everything without grumbling because we know our reward is in heaven (2:1-15).

It’s the strength to deeply care for others and take risks in serving God and each other (2:19-30).

It’s the strength to press on to know Jesus, throwing everything else behind you like you’d hurl rubbish into the tip (3:8, 12).

It’s the strength to pray, be thankful and look to Jesus instead of worry (4:5-7).

This doesn’t mean that we aren’t allowed to feel our needs or cry out to God about them – back in verse 6 Paul encouraged the Philippians to tell God about every need they had.

But it does mean that we shouldn’t be consumed by the needs that we feel, because if we ask Him to, God will give us the strength to be content in the middle of hardship, instead of snatching at what we think we need.

It’s a big encouragement for the days when we struggle, because we can have peace knowing that God will help us get through it.

But it’s also a big challenge, because it means that we have no excuse to not be content.

Anyone who has lived with me for longer than a couple of weeks knows that being content is not something that comes easily to me. I’m a perfectionist by nature and I find it easy to see the problems with things. And I also fall into the trap of thinking that having a bad day gives me the right to be selfish. So I’m in there with anyone who feels the challenge of realising that no matter how late the neighbours kept me awake last night, no matter how worried I am about work, and no matter how much I want to be left alone, I have no excuse to be selfish and grumpy. Because if I ask Him, God will give me the energy to honour Him throughout the day; He will give me the faith to trust Him when life is difficult; He will give me the grace to serve others when I’d much rather run away and hide.

I can testify to every single one of those things.

I know from experience that if I trust that God will give me the strength I need, I really can do everything that He asks me to do. It’s not because of me, it’s because of God.

Believing that we can do all things through God giving us strength doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t ask others for help, but it does transform how we should go about asking for help. We’ll look at that a bit more later.

We’ve looked at how we can be content in hardship, and now let’s see how we can be joyful in giving.

 

Joyful in Giving

I’ve already said that part of the reason that Paul is writing to the church in Philippi is because he wants them to know that he’s OK. He knows that they have been deeply concerned for his welfare (v10).

The Philippian church had been funding Paul’s ministry since he had left them about 10 years before. They had supported him when he left the district of Macedonia to continue his ministry in southern Greece – in fact, verse 15 says they were the only church that did. They even helped him out when he was in Thessalonica, which was just down the road from them.

Paul says they “shared [his] trouble.” (v14). Through their love for him and continued relationship with him over a distance, they cared about Paul so much that they felt concern for him even if they weren’t able to practically do anything to help him out, like it says in verse 10.

This wasn’t a mere affiliation between a patron and a beneficiary. It was real relationship; the kind of relationship that sent Epaphroditus all the way to Paul’s prison in Rome to give him what he needed. I looked up on Google how long that would take, and it’s 10 days of non-stop walking now!

The Philippian church clearly loved to love Paul and provide for him when they could. They took great joy in giving to him generously.

And Paul was rejoicing that they did. It wasn’t because of what he could get from them. He makes a real point of saying that he wasn’t looking to squeeze money out of them. It was actually because by giving to him, the Philippians were laying up treasures in heaven for themselves. Verse 17 says, “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. Paul knew that by telling the Philippians about his needs and asking them to help, he was giving them the opportunity to sacrificially give as their worship: that what they gave to him could be “…a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.” (v18b). Their joyful giving was a fruit, a result, of their faith in Jesus. And joyful, generous giving comes from hearts that are content, from hearts that know that God will supply everything they need (v13, 19).

So how do we give to others? Is it a begrudging portion of what’s left over after the bills have been paid, the food has been bought, and the holiday has been booked?

Do we think of it as an obligation to comply with, or an opportunity to worship God?

Who are the Mission Partners or Missionaries that your church supports?

Who do you support personally in their own work of spreading the news about Jesus, whether by praying for them or by giving them money?

In our joyful giving to support those who tell others about Jesus, we shouldn’t only give from our pockets. What comes from our pockets should flow out of our hearts. Look at the bottom of our passage. It talks about the greetings that the Philippian church and the Christians with Paul shared with each other – they love each other, care for each other, and delight in the unity they have in Jesus, even over a distance.

So how do we give to the people we support? Do we genuinely care about them as people? Or have we set up a Standing Order, added them to a prayer list, and then forgotten about them?

How often do we affirm and share the love that we have for each other in Jesus? How much do we do this with those we pray for from a distance?

So as a whole church family, we should truly love our Mission Partners. Our financial giving should come from a place of love. And we should give that love, too. And the generosity of our giving should come from a place of joyfully trusting that God provides for our own needs, too.

If you’re ever a full-time Christian worker in the position of needing to ask others to give towards your ministry, think about how and why you ask for support. Is it because you’re merely looking to satisfy your own needs? Of course, if you need to raise support, it’s right to ask for it. But are you asking selfishly?

Or are you asking because you’re looking for the opportunity for fruit to grow in your brothers and sisters in Christ? For them to worship God and lay up for themselves treasures in heaven (Matt. 6:20) as they give to you?

We’ve seen that we can be content in hardship, and joyful in giving, and I’ll finish by looking at why: Because God provides.

 

Because God Provides

When you think about being content in hardship, and being joyful in giving, you realise that it needs a whole lot of trust in God.

Sometimes trust can be hard – it’s a literal leap of faith! Because when you choose to trust you don’t know for sure that what you’re trusting will happen, will happen; because the nature of trust is that you can’t see what you’re trusting.

But there are ways in which we trust without noticing. I trust that the roof above us has been built and maintained well enough that it isn’t going to collapse on our heads – if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here! When I was a kid and the nurse stabbed me with a needle, I trusted that injection would stop me from getting whatever nasty bug I was being vaccinated against. I trust my employer to pay my salary on time, so when my bank balance is looking low at the end of the month I’m not worried because I know my pay check is about to land in my account.

We trust because we’ve had past experience that what we’re trusting will do what we’re trusting it to do.

In verses 18 and 19 Paul tells the Philippians that “…I am well supplied… And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” God has provided for Paul’s needs through the Philippians, so he knows that God will provide for the Philippians too.

But we have far greater reason to trust God than Paul’s experience.

There is one massive way in which God has already provided for us. For our greatest need.

Our greatest need is to have our sin dealt with so that we can be made right with God. Because the things we do and think and say that are wrong have broken our relationship with God, which bears the punishment of separation from Him and all that is good in hell. But when Jesus died on the cross He took the punishment for our sin instead of us, so that we could be given the ‘not guilty’ verdict that He deserved.

God gave His own Son to die in our place.

In Romans 8:32 it says, “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

If God gave Jesus, His beloved Son, to die for our sins, anything else is small fry!

If He would give us that much, why wouldn’t He give us everything else that we need?

The cross is proof that God provides. Because we know Jesus died on that cross, because we know He was raised to life again, and because we know that He went to heaven and now speaks to the Father on our behalf (Rom 8:34), we can be confident that God will give us “all things”. All He has promised in heaven, and all that we need now.

The bread and wine that we share together in the Lord’s Supper are a gift because they remind us that Jesus really did die for our sins. And this reminds us that, just as on Good Friday God fulfilled His promise to save us from our sins, God will fulfil every other promise He has ever made!

Including the one to provide for our every need.

Including the one to strengthen us to face everything.

So if you’re a Christian and you’re in the position of needing something and you’ve prayed and prayed for it, and it looks like God isn’t providing for you, remember the cross. Remember that God the Father gave the person most precious to Him for your sake – and He has done that already. Remember that He has the power to provide for you, and He has promised to provide for you what you need. Sometimes it looks like giving us what we ask for. Sometimes it looks like giving us the strength to be content in spite of whatever’s going on. Sometimes it’s both.

If you’re not a Christian, this is what’s on offer for you: right relationship with God, the promise of true contentment in this life, the promise of heaven after you die.

And the kind of contentment that gives means that as a church family we can joyfully give of ourselves to others, and to each other.

It means that we can stand firm as a whole church family in joy and serving together.

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