Philippians 4:12 - The Secret of Contentment
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in wantPhilippians 4:12
Paul had learned a secret. And what a blessed secret it was — contentment! Secrets are usually things that are hidden from the general public, or are beyond our comprehension. Generally we learn to know them when somebody tells us about them, often in confidence. But Paul had learned his secret. We can be sure that he didn't learn this secret overnight. Likely it was learned over a period of time, through godly living guided by God's Word and prayer.
The apostle wrote this about himself when he was in prison, likely in Rome. It is commonly thought that the epistles of Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon were written during this imprisonment. They are sometimes called the Prison Epistles.
He speaks of having been in want, to the point of being hungry for some periods of time. Probably this refers primarily to the time of this imprisonment. He thanks the Philippians for having remembered him while in this great need, by sending gifts of food and perhaps other physical necessities. It was in this context that he speaks of having learned to know what it means to be in want. This may also refer to other experiences in his life. 2 Corinthians 11:23-27 sheds light on several experiences of need.
Five times I received from the Jews forty lashes minus one. Three times I have been beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea; I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea, and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food: I have been cold and naked.
Paul knew what it meant to be "in want." But, the apostle continues, he also knew what it meant to have plenty. He doesn't elaborate on this. "Enough" for Paul likely meant clothing, the necessary foods, perhaps less than three meals per day, a simple shelter, sometimes a tent — no automobiles, electricity, running water or inside bathrooms.
It is almost impossible for us to imagine how those people lived, and what their daily "needs" were. When Paul says that at times he had plenty it can only mean that he had more, perhaps much more of these things than were considered necessary. Normal living standards in those days were far below ours. Having plenty of those primitive necessities surely would not make us feel that we were "rich."
In this season we celebrate Thanksgiving Days in both the U.S. and Canada. We should be grateful that, even though our countries are not what they should be in many ways, their governments still set aside such days. In the United States this was begun by the Pilgrim Fathers. Abraham Lincoln was the first President to make Thanksgiving Day a national holiday.
The Day is set aside to thank the Lord for material gifts, originally for the crops received in the past season. Paul speaks first of all of being in want. While many of our people don't know what that means, others, such as those who lived in Europe during the last World War, do. Many of our ancestors knew what it meant to be in want even when there was no war. Many farmers today are in desperate financial need. Perhaps there has never been as big a contrast as there is today between many needy people living in farming communities and others living in prosperous industrial areas. Thanksgiving Day is on the calendar for all of us. How can the needy be thankful for things they have not received? In view of the big contrast between those in need and those who have much, this text of Paul is very appropriate. He speaks exactly of these two opposites.
In considering such opposites, we must, however, be careful. We must not have what has been called "the two pile concept." According to this way of thinking, there is a pile of bad things in life and one of good things. The pile of bad things consists of all the things that were or are against us, a poor crop for the farmer, low prices, high interest rates, no work, sickness, unusual expenses and other adversities. The pile of good things consists of the "more than we need" things, good crops, good prices, plenty of work, good business returns and ever so many more that are in the category of prosperity. Christians often assume that if the pile of good things is bigger than the one of bad things we really have reasons to be thankful. But what must those Christian people who have a small pile of good things think? Hasn't the Lord blessed them? Or has He blessed them less than those who have received much? Remember there have been and still are many Christians in that class of the "less fortunate." Job was there, David knew what it meant to be there, as did millions of other people of God in history. Doesn't the Lord often try and chastise His people, also with a lack of material things?
The Heidelberg Catechism addresses both classes or conditions of people, those in adversity and in prosperity. We must practice patience in adversity and be thankful in prosperity. Paul also speaks of both conditions in this passage, "being in want" and "having plenty." He had learned to be contented even in dire need.
It is very important that when we are in need and difficulties, we see that these conditions are from the Lord. He controls all things and very commonly tries His people with adverse experiences. Christians often fail to see "behind all their problems" the hand of their heavenly Father. And that's where we must begin if we are going to deal with our problems by the grace of God. Today the hard-pressed farmer must learn to do this. Believing that our Father is in control of the adversities, we realize that they really are for our good. Being patient or contented means that we submit ourselves to His all-wise and loving providence and wait for His time for improvement. This demands that we persist in faith and godly living. We must cling to the promise of Romans 8:28 that all must work together for good to those that love God. This Paul remembered. Thus he could say from the heart that in all circumstances he had learned the Christian art of contentment.
Paul also knew what it meant for a Christian to have plenty. This, too, took faith. In some of the older Bible versions we read that he knew "how to abound." For this, also, one must live close to God!
What does it mean to be contented when we have plenty and are prosperous? First of all, it means that our primary goal in life is not to have an abundance of these earthly goods. Naturally we must work and assume our normal responsibilities. But money and riches are not our primary goals. The temptation of many rich is to make materialism their god. To many of them the old adage applies, "the more they have the more they want." Well-to-do people are often not contented people. Money does not bring happiness!
To be contented like the apostle means that we do not complain about conditions that we do not like or that are adverse. We try to be satisfied and guard ourselves against being complainers. A farmer commonly complained that his crops were not big enough. One year when he had a "bumper" crop he was reminded that now he should be thankful. His reply was, "Ja, but this big crop surely is hard on the land."
Being contented also means that we thank the Lord for His bountiful gifts. We need to thank Him with our lips, with our hearts and with our gifts of money. This must be something we practice throughout our lives — not just on Thanksgiving Day with a sizeable gift. David knew how necessary this is for a believer when in Psalm 103 he spoke to his own soul, "Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all His benefits."
Practicing contentment means that we use our monies properly and do not misuse them, or use them only for ourselves. The Bible speaks of the rich fool, who said to himself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years, take life easy, eat, drink and be merry." That's how he used his money; that was his goal. In words of today it would likely read: "Soul, be happy and contented, you have enough money to retire, spend the whole winter in Florida and in the summer, take a trip or enjoy your summer cottage." That was the goal of his life.
It is important for us as God's people to practice Christian stewardship. There are many good Christian causes "crying" for more financial support. And there are multitudes of poor in the world. Most or nearly all of our homes are "flooded" with requests for money. Don't we get tired of seeing them in the mail? I recall a conversation in a consistory room before the church service. One of the members complained about all of those envelopes. A wise, godly elder (who practiced what he said) replied, "Why don't you use them. Then there won't be so many lying around."
The Lord wants us to make these words of Paul our own. Try to repeat with him these words, "I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well-fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want." And pray for much grace to say them from the heart. Remember, "Godliness with contentment is great gain."
Paul learned this as a secret, a spiritual secret. The world does not have it and cannot learn it. It's acquired in the school of life through the faithful use of God's Word and prayer, applied by the Holy Spirit. Such secrets are not learned overnight. It takes time to practice self-discipline and self-denial needed to enjoy this kind of contentment.
Among the basic truths we have to learn is that we are in ourselves great sinners. God doesn't even owe us a living. Also that by grace alone in Christ we may be His children. And we must realize that our Father, in His wisdom and love, knows what is good for us and will make all things work together for good to those who love Him.
It takes a very steady hand to carry a cup filled to the brim.