Contentment and Prosperity

This is the 22nd sermon in the series on the Christian and Prosperity. And I want to look at the paradox of contentment and prosperity. And Lord willing, we're going to wrap this up next week, even though we have only scratched the surface so far. Hard to believe, huh? But we've just scratched the surface. But before we ended, I thought it was imperative that we tackle the subject of Christian contentment. It is clear from Deuteronomy that when we lack contentment, God is not pleased to bless us. In fact, some of the strongest curses and judgments in the Old Testament came when Israel grumbled, complained and lacked contentment with what God had provided. But that's not the whole story. At the same time, God called the Israelites not to be satisfied with anything less than His will for their lives. In a sense, He is calling them to have a holy discontentment. He didn't want them to go back to the land of just enough (Egypt). He called them to take the land of plenty (Canaan). He didn't want them to be satisfied with the status quo in their lives. He called them to continual growth in Him. And so the subject of contentment seems to be in tension with the call of the Christian to pursue holiness, seek the kingdom, to hunger and thirst after righteousness, to pursue after God, to take dominion, etc. All of those calls are calls to have a holy discontentment with the way things are. And I believe that it is impossible to have true contentment with God's will unless we have a parallel discontentment with all that is opposed to God's will. One author (it was Sir James Mackintosh) sought to give the Biblical balance by saying, "It is right to be contented with what we have, but never with what we are." But even that does not fully capture the Biblical dynamic. God calls us to long for more of Himself, and to not be content with what we experienced of Him yesterday. We need to re-find contentment in Him today. And I'm not sure that I will succeed in communicating this paradox today, but I'm going to try awful hard. What does it mean to be contented?

In trying to get a handle on this concept, I do not in any way want to explain away or minimize the radical nature of this contentment that Paul had learned.

The Radical Nature Of Paul’s Contentment

And it was radical. Think about Paul’s circumstances. Paul is a prisoner in Rome, no doubt with lousy food, unable to travel or move about freely, waiting a trial before Nero. When Paul says, I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content he was not speaking from fantasy or frilly theory. Paul had lived out the grace of contentment in the worst of circumstances. Six years earlier he told the Corinthians “We who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake.” He lived on the edge of death all the time. In fact, I think when we look at the circumstances Paul had, we get a hint of the supernatural character of this contentment. In 2 Corinthians 6 he chronicles his life in this way: “In much endurance, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings.. In chapter 11 he said, in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: deep concern for all the churches. Paul in many ways had lived out a nightmare. And yet he speaks of his contentment in all these circumstances. How is that possible? I tell you - if we could have his contentment, think of what we could face in life!

Let me assure you that it didn’t happen by itself. It was something that he gradually learned, and we can learn as well. Look at verse 12: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. That verb “I have learned” is a fascinating verb and is translated more literally in the NIV as “I have learned the secret.” Why does the NIV add the word "secret"? Well, I think it is justified. The Greek word is mueo which is the root word of musterion or mystery. The dictionary defines mueo as to initiate into mysteries. And it was a technical word used by the mystery religions for being initiated into their secrets. A mystery is a secret. So Paul borrows that common word to indicate that he had been initiated into the secrets of contentment. And I want you to enter into those same secrets, because without Biblical contentment, all the words I have shared over the past 21 sermons are wasted breath. All of the prosperity that Solomon had did not give him contentment. Contentment is a prerequisite to enjoying prosperity, and with contentment, you can enjoy life even when you have nothing in terms of tangible assets.

We must have contentment. And without God we would never be able to have contentment. Complaining and discontentment according to Romans is part of the depraved human nature and grace alone can remove it. Jude says, These are murmurers, complainers, walking according to their own lusts. In fact, this is such a normal part of human life that Noah Webster counted on it. You know how you can be greeted by a person, but can't bring his name to your mind right away? Here's how Webster solved the problem. HE would give the impression of remembering the person by asking, "Well, how is the old complain?" And nine times out of ten it worked. The person would begin to unfold some grievance that he had discussed previously. And that would give Webster enough time to jog his memory. Discontent is natural, not contentment. We are going to contrast Biblical contentment a little later on with some counterfeits from the world, because there are some people who think they are contented, but they are not. They are just indifferent. You see, the person who has Biblical contentment can at the same time have the Biblical longings of David and the Biblical longings of Paul. So let's try to get a little bit of a feel for what this contentment is.

The Graces That Accompany Contentment

Joy in all Circumstances (v. 4)

One of the ways that we can tell if we have contentment is if we have the accompanying graces. And I have listed four graces that always accompany contentment. He speaks of his joy in verse 10. Well, good so far, but verse 4 says that we must Rejoice in the Lord always. Every one of us can say that we rejoice, but only the person who has learned contentment can rejoice in the Lord always. The truly contented person is not ruffled by circumstances. He is not ruffled by needs. If you have been robbed of your joy this week, then you need to be initiated into the secret of contentment. You need to learn it as Paul learned it. And let me tell, you just as joy in all circumstances is a mystery to the unbeliever, contentment in all circumstances is a secret to unbelievers. They can have the countefeit, but not the real thing.

Gentleness (v. 5)

Verse 5 speaks of another grace: it speaks of gentleness. Let your gentleness be known to all men. Paul has a way of being difficult. If he had just said, “Let your gentleness be known” we could all say that we pass the test. There is at least some time when we are gentle. But Paul says, Let your gentleness be known to all men. That includes the kids when you are tempted to whale into them. That includes the spouse when he or she has pushed your button for the nth time. Harshness flows from a spirit that is frustrated and lacks contentment. So if you don’t have gentleness, the likelihood is that you need to be initiated into the secrets of Paul’s contentment.

Lack of Anxiety (v. 6) and peace (v. 7)

Verse 6 speaks of the lack of anxiety. Verse 7 speaks of peace. Anxiety and stress are not consistent with contentment. One of the ironies of life is that the more that we accumulate the more we seem to need and the less contentment there is. You would think that the poorest person would be the most anxiety ridden, and the riches person would be the most at ease, and yet it is often the reverse. Contentment has nothing to do with how much you have and it has everything to do with who has your heart. Think of Adam and Eve. They had everything the heart could wish, and they had it all to themselves - except for one thing. Well, except for one thing - the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And without contentment, that one thing seemed like everything to them. Maybe you think that you would be less anxious if you had the authority to call the shots. Think of King Ahab. He had more authority than any other person in Israel. But it wasn't enough. He wanted Naboth's vineyard. And he was distressed beyond measure that he couldn't have it. Solomon said in Ecclesiastes that his soul was restless and discontented because he had not found contentment in God. He had everything. Think of Lucifer. Before he rebelled against God he had more authority than anyone else. He was the archangel. Only God had more authority and glory. And Lucifer coveted. He was not content.

In total contrast think of Paul who was abased and empty, and yet had learned to be contented. We tend to find our security, peace and comfort in things, but without contentment we cannot have peace. If you are filled with anxiety and you lack peace, then you need to be initiated into the secrets of Paul’s contentment. These graces go together.

Gratitude (vv. 10ff)

There are other graces involved, but let's just go to one more - gratitude. Verses 10-20 show the grace of gratitude. Gratitude for the little things. Have you ever shown gratitude to God for clean water, clean air and a bed to sleep in, or do you take those things for granted?. This completely rules out the Greek Stoic definition of contentment. One ancient writer, Epictetus tried to promote his version of contentment. And I want you to listen to how lame of a counterfeit this is. Here's his recipe for contentment. “Begin with a cup or a household utensil, if it breaks say, ‘I don’t care.’ Go on to a horse or a pet dog, if anything happens to it say, ‘I don’t care.’ Go on to yourself and if you’re hurt or injured in any way say, ‘I don’t care.’ And if you go on long enough and if you try hard enough you will come to a state when you can watch your nearest and dearest suffer and die and say, ‘I don’t care.” That is not contentment. That is indifference. That abolishes feeling and emotion. Biblical contentment is compatible with weeping and joy, with sorrow and happiness. Paul was not talking about a passionless existence. He was very passionate about life. But he had contentment.

The Secret to Having Contentment

Faith - Confidence in God’s Providence & Timing (v. 10)

So let’s quickly look at seven things that can initiate us into the secrets of contentment. First of all, faith, and specifically a confidence in God’s providence and timing. A lot of discontent is a lack of faith in God's providence and timing. Verse 10 says, But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity. Ten years had passed since the Philippians had sent a gift to Paul out of their abject poverty. But he went on to indicate that he had contentment before that gift and after that gift. His sense of contentment was not in having plenty of money coming in. He needed it, and rejoiced in it. But he was not anxious that the Philippians had not sent a gift to him in ten years. He understood perfectly that it wasn’t that they didn’t care. They did care for him, yet they lacked opportunity to send anything. We aren’t told why, whether it was their poverty, or that they weren’t aware that he had a need. But Paul in that simple statement expresses a confidence in God’s timing and providence.

Do we have faith in God's timing in bringing converts; faith in God's timing in bringing finances. Faith in God's timing in giving us a child. It takes faith to believe that God will add all these things to us as we seek Him first and His kingdom. It takes faith to not seek after the things that the Gentiles seek after. It takes faith to trust God in the year 2002 when you don’t have the resources now, or to trust Him to provide when you do have the resources now but wonder what will become of them then. Contentment rests on God, not on what we have. Faith is the first issue that must be exercised. And verse 4 hints at faith in God's goodness. Verse 5 hints at faith in God's control of opposition to evil. Verse 6 shows faith in God's generosity. And this chapter shows that Paul's faith in the perfections of God's wisdom, power, kindness, love and other attributes was a contributing step to his having learned contentment everywhere because His good God who supplies all of our needs in Christ Jesus was everywhere.

Servanthood - Life does not Revolve Around Me or My Needs (v. 11)

The second essential step is taking on servanthood. Paul begins every epistle with the statement that he is a bondslave, and this epistle is full of his preoccupation with serving the needs of others. In verse 3 he sees himself in this favorite role - not as lording it over Euodia and Syntyche, but as being fellow laborers with them. In verse 11 Paul makes clear that life did not revolve around needs. It revolved around others. He was very humble in his description of what he needed. He was conscious of the needs. He mentions in 2 Corinthians 6 that he ministered, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses… He had needs. But in verse 11 Paul says, Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content. It was not Paul’s need that drove him. That's the key. It was not Paul's need that drove him.

Now this may take a little more explanation, but I think you will recognize quickly why this is important. In one of his books, John MacArthur pointed out that our culture has become a needs driven culture. Advertising creates needs in us that we never knew we had. There are millions of women who don’t want to be liberated, but they are continually being told that they need to be liberated. There were millions of young people who want to stay pure but who are told that they needed to be liberated sexually or they would have repressed egos. We are told that our children need their own bedrooms. We need privacy and a host of other things that would have mystified our forefathers. Freud, Maslow and other psychologists and psychiatrists have based their respective theories on various needs that men, women and children have. Almost every psychology is need driven. And its not just ministries that are driven by the hierarchy of needs but also American industry and advertising. When you start with the humanistic principle that man is ultimate and that man should be fulfilled, then the whole of life is seen as meeting the needs of man. It will be impossible to find contentment in that environment. You see, if all that we are and all that we have is not wrapped up in God and His kingdom, then the alternative is that it is going to be wrapped up in us.

I expect that if I were to ask you what you needed to be content, some of you would have quite a list. But Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:8: And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. Can Phil Kayser be content without a hundred more books in this coming year? Can Bob Fugate? Now God is not saying that we can't buy the books. I'm planning to buy more books this year. But my contentment must not be in such acquisitions, or I will never have contentment. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. He’s talking about being homeless with only your daily food and clothing provided, and yet you can be content. If you can be content there, you can be content with the riches of Abraham.

And so instead of Paul being driven by needs, Paul is wrapped up in something that is far larger than himself. It is Who you are following that determines where you are going. Because Paul had an absolute trust in God (point A) and because his heart was given to serving God (point B), that he could handle the curves life sent him with contentment. As he wrote this epistle Paul was in prison saying that he had everything that he needed to glorify God and to enjoy him, “I have a little food and a little drink and a place to lay down with a blanket. In fact, I’ve got a personal guard who protects me from marauders. Come to think of it, I’ve got a free room. And God has given me a captive audience of soldiers who have to listen to my witnessing. And this has led in chapter 1 of Philippians to many in Caesar’s household having become Christians. Yes. I am content because needs don’t drive me. I’ve got a servant's heart that looks to responsibility rather than need.

Submission - No Longer Fighting God’s Purposes (vv. 11-12)

Thirdly, submission to God’s purposes in our lives. There is trust, there is a servant's heart, and there is submission. Paul did not get bitter over life or fight God’s purposes. Let’s read verses 11-12: Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content. I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. Now being abased is a hard thing to take after you have been exalted. But Paul could say in both circumstances, "If it is God's will for me to be abased, I am willing. If God will be better glorified through abundance, I will not turn it down." Did this stop Paul from asking for money? No. But it was not the end of the world when God made it providentially impossible to obtain what was needed.

I think one of the most powerful examples and perhaps for me the most heart rending example of sweet submission to God's will without giving up the drive to advance the cause of Christ was William Carey.

William Carey was not only a missionary but also an extremely skilled linguist. He had worked for years on translation work in India. He had various Indian translations which were ready to print. He had the Kanarese New Testament, two large Old Testament books in Sanskrit. He had made a Bengali dictionary, a Telugu Grammar, a Punjabi grammar, and the magnum opus of his linguistic life - a well advanced Dictionary of Sanskrit. And he had brought together all of these manuscripts to have them type cast. And on March 12, 1812 all of that was burned up in a fire along with the newly developed Tamil and Chinese type. They didn’t have copy machines in those days, so even the originals were lost. Carey said, “Nothing was saved but the presses. This is a heavy blow, as it will stop our printing the Scriptures for a long time.” Now, does that make sense? Why would God allow years of work by a skilled linguist to be burned up? Doesn’t God care about missions? Doesn’t God care about the wasted years of effort? Well, Carey was convinced that when God takes things away, it is for the best, and He submitted.

On the day of the fire Carey wrote. “God will no doubt bring good out of this evil and make it promote our interests.” It was a devastating blow, yet he had faith in God’s Providence. On the same day Carey’s colleage, Marshman, wrote [this is] “another leaf in the ways of Providence, calling for the exercise of faith in Him whose Word, firm as the pillars of heaven, has decreed that all things shall work together for good to them that love God. Be strong therefore in the Lord. He will never forsake the work of His hands.” And Carey’s labors in the Lord were not in vain. This fire so stirred the hearts of scholars and others in England that the whole of Britain focused on their missionary efforts in the newspapers and magazines, and money and workers began to pour into India. And the translation work mulitiplied far faster than it would have without the fire. Carey was in total submission to God's will. God didn't need his labors anyway. But this contented man who had faith, a servant's heart with a passion for God and total submission to God's will, was mightily prospered. The contented man is most qualified to enjoy and handle increased prosperity of whatever kind God chooses to bring. And submission is the doorway into this secret of contentment.

Dependence - Sustained by Divine Power (v. 13)

The fourth principle is dependence upon and the experience of divine power. In fact I would say that it is impossible to have contentment if we have merely a form of godliness but deny the power thereof. Verse 13 says, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. It is when the wind of God's grace fills our sails that we can speed to do that for which we have been created. And we have been created to enjoy God and to be contented only in Him. But we cannot enjoy God unless we have Him. And so the experiential religion of Christianity is never completely fulfilled until it is filled with God's power. Paul said "For our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit and in much assurance" (1 Thes. 1:5). The person empowered by the living Christ can be contented. Look at Philippians 3:7-11. Paul says, But what things were gain to me, these I have counted loss for Christ. Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knolwedge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that whichi s through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith; that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings… Because Paul is so dependent upon the reality of Jesus in His life; because HE is convinced that without Christ He can do nothing, HE has learned dependence upon Jesus. He has tasted of Christ's power. And with that reality, came contentment in any circumstance. It's not what you have, but who you have that counts in life.

Gratitude - Thankfulness/Appreciation for Favors (vv. 14-18)

The fifth principle was already alluded to. It's gratitude. Paul has already expressed his gratitude to them in chapter 2, but he does so again in this passage. And you can especially see this in verses 14-18. He praises them by saying in verse 14, “you have done well.” In verse 15 he is amazed at their generosity, being poor, compared to that of others. In verse 16 he remembers past actions, not just the present one. In verse 18 he calls the gift a sweet smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God. Paul was genuinely grateful.

This is a passage that has taught me how to graciously receive a gift. That used to be the hardest thing for me to do. But contentment is not just our attitude with the status quo, it is also a whole hearted gratitude for improvements that may come. If we lack contentment, it doesn’t matter how much we are given, we will always expect more. Lord Congleton tells how he overheard his cook explaining in the kitchen out of his sight, “Oh, if I only had five pounds, wouldn’t I be content.” Thinking the matter over, and wanting to see her satisfied, he walked into the room and handed her a five pound note, which was a lot in those days. She thanked him profusely. Then when he left, he paused outside the door to hear if she would express any satisfactions since she tended to talk out loud. As soon as the door was closed she said, “Why didn’t I say ten?” Gratitude is an essential element in contentedness, and we will never be content without it.

Unselfishness - Concern for the Well-Being of Others (v. 17)

The sixth element is unselfishness or concern for others. He says in verse 17: Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that abounds to your account. It gave him great delight to know that these Philippians were sharing in his reward as they sacrificially gave. His focus could have been on how he benefited. But he couldn’t help but think instead at how they had benefited. And he goes on to say in verse 19: And my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus. It might have been tempting for Paul to be embarrassed that these poverty stricken people had given so generously and to say, “Oh, no. I can’t take that. You have greater needs than I do. I insist. You keep the money.” That would have been to insult and reject their love. And so Paul thinks of them when he receives the gift graciously, but he also thinks of them when he blesses them in verse 19 and is concerned about their needs. Why does Paul think of others needs when he has so many of his own. Because wherever you find contentment, you will find this focus on seeking the welfare of others before your own. As he says in Philippians 2:4: Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. If you do that, you will have one of the elements of contentment present.

Vision - Being Driven By An Eternal Perspective (vv. 19-20)

The final element of contentment is vision. Verses 19-20 say, And my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus. Now to our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen When you seek God’s glory and His kingdom; when you are driven by kingdom values, you are going to have the strange paradox of having a holy discontentment with whatever fights against God, His glory, His holiness and His kingdom and at the same time find yourself contented with knowing Him and the power of His resurrection. The key to contentment is to not allow anything in creation to drive us. We can't even be driven by our performance for God, since we are always going to come short in our performance. I think more people have fallen on the rocks of discouragement over a performance orientation. Rather than feeling good about what we do, we need to feel good about who we are in Christ and who we will become in Christ. He doesn't need our performance. He lets us serve to give us opportunities to taste of His grace, experience His mercy, draw closer to Him and grow. We don't need to impress God, and it is impossible to impress others forever. Performance looks to the approval of others. Our vision can be there because we work from the basis of already being approved of in Christ.

We don't need to be driven by needs, since verse 19 says that all our needs are already met in Christ. You won't be driven by the expectations of family and friends because you will relate to them as a steward and with the knowledge that they are just one more occasion to learn to know God and the power of His resurrection. Prosperity will make you focus on the Lord in whom alone contentment can be found. Poverty will make you look to the Lord in whom alone contentment can be found. Contentment ultimately has to do with where your heart is. Where your heart is where your treasure is. As we conclude this series keep in mind that your ultimate reward is in whom you know and being conformed to His image, it is not in accumulating things. Godliness with contentment is great gain. And God knows that people who have contentment can be trusted with anything. May that become ever more true of each of us. Amen.

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