Being a Christian means finding contentment in all situations, even in suffering and affliction. Philippians 1:12-18 speaks about how we achieve this contentment.

2009. 7 pages. Transcribed by Diana Bouwman. Transcription started at 3:08 and stopped at 36:47.

Finding Contentment in Affliction The Mystery of Contentment Series: Part 6

Read Philippians 1:12-18

Affliction is the greatest test of our contentment. When those trials come in life, when the sickness comes, when a loved one is sick, when we lose a loved one, or lose a job, or are uncertain about where that next paycheque is going to come from, this is typically our greatest test of contentment. In times of affliction, our peaceful frame, that can sometimes rule us and be with us in other situations in life, can become unsettled. And it is in these times of affliction that we are tested in our contentment. But it is also in these times when we learn the true depth of our contentment. Because as we saw in our very first sermon in this series, true Christian contentment means we learn to be content in any and every circumstance that we face. We have not learned true Christian contentment if we are content in some circumstances but not in others. And so in times of affliction, in particular, we learn the depth of our contentment. 

As I have pointed out in previous weeks, Paul is writing this letter to the Philippians from prison, and yet the theme of joy dominates this letter. 16 times the verb or the noun—to have joy or to rejoice—is used here. And Paul says, “In all of my circumstances I have learned to be content. I am content in prison.” This passage has much to teach us, because in fact it refers specifically to that imprisonment and what is going on with Paul in his imprisonment. So we are going to look at this and we are going to unpack this passage.

But first of all, one of the ways we learn to have contentment in our affliction is simply to recognize the inevitability of affliction and of trouble in our lives. In many ways, the secular world recognizes this. Remember the old song, “I beg your pardon, I never promised you a rose garden”? We recognize that life isn't always good. Life isn't always happy. There are troubles that come. We all—Christian and non-Christian—experience the pain and struggle of losing a loved one, losing a job, the breaking up of friendships and relationships. Every human being knows that struggle. But Christians in particular even more know that struggle.

In fact, Paul himself knew that struggle. In Acts 9, when Saul of Tarsus (also known as Paul, the writer of Philippians) was on the road to Damascus, Jesus Christ appeared to him. Then Christ also appeared to a Christian man named Ananias in Damascus, and Christ said to him, “Go and see Saul.” And Ananias said, “I know about this guy. He has killed your people! He has persecuted those who follow you! I do not want to go.” Christ says to Ananias these words:

Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.Acts 9:15-16, ESV

Paul's conversion was a call to be the apostle to the Gentiles and to Jews and to kings, to preach Christ. But it was also a call to suffer. How many of us would willingly embrace such a call? “I want to go and suffer.” That was part of Paul's call. But it is also the call of all believers: Being persecuted for the faith. Paul said to the churches that he had visited on his first missionary journey in Acts 14 “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (verse 11). Through many tribulations. Jesus himself said to his followers in his final discourse in the Gospel of John, “If they persecuted me” (and they did), “they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Trouble, affliction, and persecution is part of what it means to be a follower of Christ. And that is why Christ can say, “Take up your cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24).

It is not an easy gospel, [as] we often hear proclaimed today. No, it is a call to take up our cross, to be a disciple, to be a follower of Christ. “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21). There are some, Jesus says in the parable of the sower, who are going to seem like they are believers. They are going to sprout up. But Jesus goes on to say that when persecution and trials come, they fall away. They might show some evidence of being believers, but they are not true believers. Trial is going to come, and we need to learn to endure through it. So first, we need to recognize the inevitability of affliction and trials and trouble in our life.

Let's now turn our attention more specifically to Paul's words in Philippians 1:12-18. I want us to see four things.

Contentment Comes By Turning Our Afflictions into Mercies🔗

The first is this: contentment comes by turning our afflictions into mercies. My trial and my affliction is a mercy from God. We need to learn to see God at work in the midst of our hardship. We need to learn to see our hardships not as setbacks, not as inconveniences, certainly not as causes for groaning, but we need to see our trials as mercies from the hand of God. That is exactly what Paul does here in Philippians 1:12ff. What does he say? “I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me” (my trials, my hardships, my imprisonment) “has really served to advance the gospel.” My trials have served to advance the gospel. This hardship of Paul is a mercy in which God is working to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ.

He gives some examples here. Verse 13: “So that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard.” What is the imperial guard? The imperial guard were an elite group of soldiers. They received double pay from the regular soldiers. They were top notch fighting men. And they had various special duties. One of their special duties was to guard prisoners waiting trial before Caesar, which is probably why Paul refers to them here in Philippians, as he is in prison in Rome. Paul says it has become known to them. And he goes on to say, “and to all the rest.” Through these elite soldiers, the imperial guard, it is known to the other soldiers as well. What [is known]? “That my imprisonment is for Christ” (verse 13). That I am here for Christ. Christ is known among these soldiers!

What a wonderful opportunity! This is a strategic opportunity for the gospel. These soldiers—who would go out into the rest of the Roman world on various tasks and various assignments, who were often known throughout the ancient world to be present at the worship of various gods and goddesses, depending on what city or town they were traveling through—many of them now are hearing the gospel of Christ! And strategically, they can go and travel and worship Christ and make Christ known themselves. Christ is known. And the gospel is advancing!

He also goes on to point out in verse 14 that there are brothers who have become confident in the Lord by his imprisonment, and are “bold to speak the word without fear.” Far from being intimidated, other brothers through Paul's imprisonment are proclaiming Christ. The gospel is advancing! Isn't that strange? In Paul's hardship and in his time of imprisonment, Paul says the gospel is going forth. We do not understand, but this is the way God is working.

Of course, this is the way it has worked throughout the history of the church. Oftentimes it is during affliction that the gospel goes forth most powerfully. Remember the story almost thirty years back of the Wycliffe missionary, Chet Bitterman, who was taken captive as a prisoner by Colombian guerrillas. He was kept for seven weeks and then finally shot to death. You would think that such an incident would hinder people from wanting to go overseas to be missionaries, but Wycliffe reported that in the year following his death applications for foreign missions doubled! Tertullian has famously said, “The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.” In times of affliction, the gospel goes forward. God is working here in Paul's imprisonment to advance the gospel.

The point here is not simply that we see that God is working in our affliction. I think every one of us, if I were to ask you if in times of hardship, “Do you think God is working in this?” you would say, “Yes, I know that God is working. I may not see how, but I know that God is working.” It is different to say, “I know God is working,” than to say, “This affliction is a mercy of God, in which God is carrying out his plans and his purposes.” Of course, a wonderful biblical example of this is in Hebrews 12, where the writer to the Hebrews tells us that we are to endure hardship as discipline. The hardship that comes at the hands of evil, sinful men is also the work of God as a loving Father, disciplining us so that we might grow in grace. See your hardship and see your affliction as God's mercy. God is at work.

Now, this is a mystery. This is strange. This is foreign to the world that says, “If you want contentment, get out of your affliction. If you are in a bad situation, get out of it and seek relief from your affliction.” The point here is not that we shouldn’t seek relief. Christianity is no friend of masochism. It is not that we shouldn’t, if we are in a difficult job, begin to look for another one. It is not that we shouldn't seek help when we have physical problems, etc. It is not that we shouldn't seek help or seek relief. But the point is we need to see our current struggles as mercies from God. Do you have that perspective? Is that the way you see your trials and your struggles? The mercies of God?

I love the story that Charles Spurgeon tells of a painter up on a platform at St Paul's Cathedral. He is painting there, and he backed up away from the platform to be able to get a little bit of a bigger view of his work. His assistant was up there with him, and he noticed that as the painter backed away he got right near the edge of the platform, and if he took another step he was going to plunge several hundred feet to his death. The assistant did not want to call out, because he was afraid he might look back and so fall over and fall to his death. So thinking quickly, he grabbed a paintbrush, stuck it in paint, and flung it on the artist's work. In rage, the painter came forward, only to recognize that the ruin of his work had meant the saving of his life. Trouble and affliction, which is God's mercy!

Later in Philippians 1:29 Paul says to these Philippians, “It has been granted to you” (it has been gifted to you) “that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him” (faith itself is a gift from God; God must give us faith—that is the first part of this verse) “but also suffer for his sake.” Have you ever seen suffering as a gift? That is how the Bible describes it. It is a gift of God for the glory of God. So we need, first of all, to see our afflictions as mercies. And we won't know contentment until we see our afflictions in that way. 

Contentment Comes By Performing the Work of Our Circumstances🔗

Secondly, contentment comes by performing the work of our circumstances. Paul has said (verse 14) that Christ has become known throughout the imperial guard and to all the rest. We can ask: How has Christ become known? Well, Paul has preached Christ. That is how it has become known. Paul has made it known. Paul has performed the work of his circumstances, making Christ known to others. I do not think any of us could have blamed Paul for simply sitting back and waiting and keeping silent and saying, “Well, I am going to wait till this trial is over, and then I will get back to the real work that God has called me to do.” We probably would not blame Paul if that were his attitude. But he continues to do the work that God has called him to do.

I think of some in our own midst who have gone through hardship and trial, and in the midst of that God has worked in mighty ways through them, making Christ known. Charles Wilson has struggled with health. He is called to be a minister of the gospel, a minister in churches, but God took him out of ministry health-wise. And yet God has given him a wonderful ministry, ministering to others who have sought to help him medically. In the midst of his own hardship he has made Christ known. God has perhaps given him a greater ministry there than otherwise. Certainly that was God's call on his life.

We need to perform the work of our circumstances. The contented Christian says, “What are the duties of my present circumstances?” You may not be where you want to be, and it is okay to pray for change. It is okay to do that! It is not sinful to want to be in a different circumstance, if you feel God is laying that on your heart. But the point here is to serve where you are. Perform the work of your circumstances. The sinful heart says, “I want to get into a situation where I can be content”; the sanctified Christian says, “I am going to be content here and perform the work that God has called me to do, specifically to be a witness for Jesus Christ.”

I once heard Sandy Willson, the pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, say that today when people come for counselling, they go to counsellors and 90% of them go seeking relief from their trials and seeking relief from their suffering. But he said that a hundred years ago, 90% of Christians would go to their pastor asking, “How can I serve God in the midst of my suffering?” Not relief—although it is okay to pray for that—but “How can I serve in the midst of my trial and my suffering?” The contented Christian performs the work of his circumstances.

Contentment Comes by Focusing on Christ’s Will🔗

Third, contentment comes by melting our will and desires into Christ's will and desires. Hardship can leave us preoccupied; hardship can leave us self-absorbed. We know that and we recognize that. When we focus on our trouble and when we focus on our struggles, discontent is inevitable. We need to give our desires over to be ruled by Christ’s will and Christ's desires.

Look at what Paul goes on to say in our passage. He refers here to those who are preaching Christ. He said that many of the brothers have been emboldened to go and preach Christ, and then he goes on to say that they have mixed motives. He says in verse 15, “Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will.” The latter do it out of love, he says, but the others do it out of rivalry, “not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment.” They want to further afflict Paul. They want to bring further suffering and trial on Paul.

We do not know what is lying behind this; we do not know the history here. Are these rivals of Paul who wanted to usurp his apostolic authority? Were these those who had become embarrassed by Paul's imprisonment? What is the dynamic here? We do not understand it. But Paul says their motives are evil and they are seeking to afflict him further. And yet, what does he do?

What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretence or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.Philippians 1:18, ESV

Again, we could understand Paul and we could forgive Paul if Paul said, “Those evil, wicked people! May God bring a curse on them!” We could understand that. “Those who hate me; those are trying to get at me.” But he says, “Christ is proclaimed, and I rejoice.” What does he do? He melts his will and he melts his desires into Christ's will and desires. He has a greater good and a greater goal in mind, and that is the glory of Christ and the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. “However it is done, even if it means hardship and affliction for me, I want Christ proclaimed.” We need a God-centred, Christ-centred vision to be able to have this perspective.

While there are many good newer hymns being written in the church, and we are singing some of them, the vast majority are me-centred, focusing on my emotions and my desires. I was once riding with one of my children in the car and we were listening to a CD of the year's top Christian hits. I listened and I heard things like (I assume these are directed to God or Christ), “I want to feel you wrap your arms around me,” one even asking Christ to “kiss me.” That is a long way from the God-centred, Christ-centred perspective of God's word.

We need to be focusing our thoughts and attentions there. It is not as though we are never to speak in the first person or never to reflect on our own experience or our emotions. The Psalms often do this. But they always come back to pointing away from themselves to God. A God-centred perspective! The psalmist in Psalm 73 declares his own struggle. He says, “My feet had almost slipped as I saw the prosperity of the wicked,” and he envied them. It seemed like they had no troubles. They were going through life free and easy, and he was taken up with his own inner struggle. Until what? “Until I went into the sanctuary. Until there I encountered the living God, and then I understood.”

We need to focus and teach ourselves to focus on God. The sinful heart says, “Me, me, me.” The world says, “Take care of number one! Take care of yourself.” The world says, “You are first! I am going to give you various ways to act and various things to do, and a lot of these things are going to look like good things in service to others, but what is important is to take care of you! How does it make you feel?” But the Bible says we need to develop this God-centred perspective. It is okay to take time to register a complaint before God. It is okay to express our pain and sorrow both to God and to others. We should do that, as the psalmists do. But we do need to look away from self to God's sovereign control in our lives. 

Contentment Comes By Seeking the Good of Others🔗

Fourth and finally, contentment comes by seeking the good of others in the midst of our affliction. This really could have been part of number two, but I kept separate. It is part of doing the work of our circumstances, which is always to do God's will in serving others. But contentment comes by seeking the good of others in the midst of our affliction. If we stop and reflect on what Paul is saying here and why Paul is writing it, I think we come to this conclusion. Why does Paul tell the Philippians this? Because he cares for them!

We know from later in the letter that the Philippians were concerned when they heard about his struggles, and so what is Paul doing? He is writing to comfort and to encourage them. He is telling them, “Don't worry about me. God is in control” He is seeking their good. And in fact, if you read on in the passage that immediately follows (verse 24-25), Paul is going to go on to struggle with his own emotional struggle whether to stay or to depart and be with Christ. He says, “My desire is to go and to be with Christ—that is far better than remaining in this world.” But he finally says, “But it is more necessary for your sake that I remain here,” and he believes that God is going to keep him here (and in fact, historically it seems as though God did for probably only about six or seven more years).

Paul sought the good of others. His consuming passion was for the glory of Christ and the salvation of souls and a passion for those in his care. My sister and brother-in-law have a cross-stitch in their home that you read when you enter their home. It says, “Happy is the heart that beats for others.” And that was Paul's heart. It was a heart that beat for others, and it was a happy heart.

And implicit in all this is the goodness of God. God is good to his people. God cares for his children. In Romans 8 Paul says:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. Romans 8:28, ESV

All things! Does that mean even suffering? Look at the context of this verse and you will see that that is precisely what it means:

…we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. Romans 8:16b-17, ESV

It is that suffering that is the lead into the passage that follows. Paul goes on to say:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Romans 8:18, ESV

And then in verse 23 Paul is talking about the groaning of creation, and he says:

And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. Romans 8:23, ESV

There is a sense in which inwardly we groan and we struggle with life in this world as we wait for the glorious revelation to come. And then skip ahead to verse 35:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. Romans 8:35-37, ESV

The context before and after is that of suffering, and in the midst of this Paul says God works all things for good of those who love him and who are called according to his purpose (verse 28). You who are suffering and under trial and duress today, do you truly believe that your suffering is for your good? There is a wonderful hymn with the words, “Behind a frowning providence he hides a smiling face.” In the midst of your struggle, in the midst of your trial, God is smiling. God desires to bring you good. Be peaceful; be joyful; be content in him.

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