…for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am” – Philippians 4:11
We live in a time of rampant discontentment, and no wonder. Virtually everywhere we turn we are told we need something more to make us happy; that what we have is not good enough, that we need – or rather deserve and have a right to – bigger, better, more than we now have. We are even told that God’s greatest desire for us is that we be happy, so if we find ourselves in any situation that makes us unhappy it can’t be God’s will. So people go from job to job, marriage to marriage, relationship to relationship, church to church, cause to cause, from one thing to another, accumulating more stuff, seeking this elusive happiness of which they have been told they have a right and entitlement. If they can’t have their perfect life in reality, they can now invent one on social media.
This was the great sin of Israel; they were discontent with God’s dealings with them. They grumbled against God (Nm 14:27). This is the nature of a discontented heart; it will make all of God’s mercies seem like nothing when it can’t have all that it wants or thinks it deserves. It turns great mercies and blessings into nothing at all. Even worse, it will suspect God’s nature and character, and impute wicked motives to God. God told His people that He led them into the wilderness and let them be hungry in order to teach them to be content with Him only, and to trust solely in Him, His nature, and His word (Dt 8:2, 3). Rather than trust God and His word, however, they “grumbled in their tents” and interpreted God’s dealings as an expression of His hatred and not love toward them (Dt 1:27). In spite of all of His gracious and merciful dealings, they still did not trust God (Dt 1:32, 33).
Like every Christian virtue, contentment is something that must be learned, which means it is something we must be taught. This virtue is so elusive and so rare that Paul called it a “secret” (Phil 4:12). The word used by Paul is mueo. It means “to learn a secret, a mystery; to be initiated into a secret”, and is found only here in the entire Bible. If the secret to contentment were as easy as having an unexcitable and apathetic disposition it would not take much learning.
Not as Easy as it Seems
The Christian life, like most things, is easy and plain in theory, but quite another when put into practice. Things appear very different when felt experimentally than when only read in a book. It is easy to talk about trusting God, until you must trust God. It is easy to speak of the power of Christ, until you must rely solely on His power. It is one thing to have a theoretical, academic knowledge of theology and another to experimentally know God. So, to deny self, to crucify the flesh, to live upon Jesus, to walk with God, to overcome the world, to act on His word, to have no other basis for hope than His word of promise, to trust the Lord when we cannot see Him, to be content in any circumstance, we find by repeated experience that saying and doing are two different things.
How else are we to learn unless we are taught, not once or twice, but time after time that we can do nothing without Jesus? In order to know it we must feel it, we must experience the bitter reality of it. How else are we to learn contentment unless we also learn that all other props and supports on which we trust are hollow reeds that painfully impale our hand? How else are we to learn the all sufficiency of His power (Eph 1:19), the reliability of His promises, to see the superiority of His wisdom and the folly of our own? How else are the idols of our heart to be exposed, the littleness of our faith felt, the extent of our unbelief realized, the false and inflated views of self unmasked, the corruption and deceitfulness of our hearts uncovered, and the extent of His patience, grace, and kindness known. Only when we come to find our full sufficiency in Christ, to submit our will to His in every circumstance, to be willing to be anything or nothing as His wise providence sees fit, to accept every trial, hardship, disappointment, and frustration of our will and desires as His training so as to yield the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hb 12:7-12), then and only then will we have begun to take the first step toward learning the secret of being content, no matter what the circumstance.
Always an Unbalanced Transaction
God always gives more than He takes away. Paul counted all things to be loss and considered them of no more value than rubbish in comparison to the surpassing value of an experimental faith, of knowing, not just about Jesus, but of really knowing Christ Jesus his Lord (Phil 3:8). Most kinds of knowledge puffs up and makes arrogant (1 Cor 8:1), but the more God is seen the more humble the heart becomes. Such was the case with Job (Jb 42:5, 6) and Isaiah (Is 6:5). When we see “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6), we see in a new way what sin deserves and what we are. We lay ourselves down in the dust and lift a pleading eye to Jesus and wonder at the mercy and patience of God. No mystical, ecstatic feelings are felt; no flowery, syrupy, sentimental thoughts of God are produced, no extenuations for sin are offered. Rather all is a silent wonder and disinterested humility; not a passion but a solid reality of feeling and knowing. Instead of making comparisons in his/her own favor, the Christian now sees themselves as bare naked before God, and wonders that such a One as He should set His love on them. He sees that all God’s dealings with Him are out of love, and if out of love then of what is there to complain or be discontented.
How can we tell others of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus as our Lord, of being at His sovereign disposal, of resting in quiet contentment of His dealings with us, if we are still anxious about what we shall eat or drink, or what we shall wear, and if we have not learned to live off of every word that proceeds from the mouth of God? How can we say, “Come and hear, all who fear God, and I will tell you of what He has done for my soul” (Ps 66:16) if we have nothing to tell? Paul had learned the secret of contentment. He learned it in the school of Christ. He had learned what Christ was able to do in and for him so he could say that he could do all things, suffer all things (2 Tim 1:12), endure all things (2 Tim 2:10), through Christ who strengthens him. And he could say this because he knew, not just knew about, Jesus Christ his Lord. This comes only from an experiential faith, a faith that acts and waits on God’s word because it is God’s word.
Hudson Taylor learned contentment in the school of Christ, a lesson he shared when he wrote in 1874 during a time when feeling abandoned by the Christian world:
“If God has called you to be really like Jesus in your spirit, He will draw you into a life of crucifixion and humility, and put on you such demands of obedience that He will not allow you to follow other Christians; and in many ways He will seem to let other good people do things that He will not let you do. Other Christians and ministers, who seem very religious and useful may push themselves, pull wires and work schemes to carry out their schemes, but you cannot do it; and if you attempt it, you will meet with such failure and rebuke from the Lord as to make you sorely penitent. Others may brag on themselves, on their work, on their success, on their writings, but the Holy Spirit will not allow you to do any such thing, and if you begin it, He will lead you into some deep mortification that will make you despise yourself and all your good works.
Others may be allowed to succeed in making money, but it is likely that God will keep you poor, because He wants you to have something far better than gold, and that is a helpless dependence upon Him, that He may have the privilege (the right) of supplying your needs day by day out of an unseen treasury. The Lord will let others be honoured and put forward, and keep you hidden away in obscurity, because He wants some choice fragrant fruit for His coming glory which can only be produced in the shade. He will let others do a work for Him and get credit for it, but He will let you work and toil on without knowing how much you are doing; and then to make your work still more precious, He will let others get the credit for the work you have done, and this will make your reward ten times greater when Jesus comes.
You Are Protected
The Holy Spirit will put a watch over you, with a jealous love, and will rebuke you for little words and feelings or for wasting your time, over which other Christians never seem distressed. So make up your mind that God is an infinite Sovereign, and has the right to do as He pleases with His own, and He may not explain to you a thousand things which may puzzle your reason in His dealings with you. He will take you at your word if you absolutely sell yourself to be His slave, He will wrap you up in a jealous love and let other people say and do many things which He will not let you say or do.
Settle it forever that you are to deal directly with the Holy Spirit, and that He is to have the privilege of tying your tongue, or chaining your hand, or closing your eyes, in ways He does not deal with others. Now when you are so possessed with the Living God, that you are in your secret heart pleased and delighted over the peculiar, personal, private, jealous guardianship of the Holy Spirit over your life, you will have found the vestibule of heaven.”
(Jim Cromarty, It Is not Death to Die: A new Biography of Hudson Taylor, Christian Focus; Ross-shire, Great Britain, 2001, (7, 8).
How often do we say, He is my strength, but then lean upon reeds; that He is my friend, but then show such unfaithfulness and ingratitude no earthly friend could bear; that He is my all then grumble when we don’t get what we want or think we deserve. The only discontentment to which we have a right is to be discontent with our paltry knowledge of God, our faith that is less than a mustard seed, our cold and indifferent love to Him, and our half-hearted, self-serving attempts at obedience. May God be gracious enough to place us in Christ’s school where we also may learn the secret of contentment. Sadly most have no desire to enroll. There is no other place where you can learn contentment, and no other people in the world can live such comfortable and contented lives as true Christians. It may take years, even a lifetime to learn, and when we think we have learned it we will be shown we do not yet know a tenth of the lesson. This keeps us ever dependent on Christ, because it is only through and by His strength that we can be content in any circumstance with only Him.