I don’t make a big deal out of it, but I have three earned degrees. I like to say I am officially educated beyond my intelligence. My bachelors at UCF in Liberal Studies didn’t really demand that much of me. The M. Div. at seminary put me through a great deal more pain, especially on certain subjects. The D. Min. at RTS focused on such a practical curriculum that I can’t really say that I found its challenges all that great. The one exception to that came in the form of writing my dissertation. I thought I would never finish that monster.
By far, the toughest school in which I ever enrolled, and in which I continue to matriculate quite honestly, is the school of contentment. I call it a school because of the way Paul writes about this virtue in Philippians 4:10-13.
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.
Paul wrote from prison. They did things differently back then. Jailers didn’t feed their inmates. Prisoners depended upon outside help for provision. The Philippian church so loved Paul that they sent a gift to him. He responded with this letter, including something of a thank you note at the end.
Quite obviously they pleased him. Their gift caused him to rejoice greatly in God. He commended them for their gospel grace of generosity. But not so fast. Lest they get the wrong impression, he made haste to point out a surprising absence of need in what to most readers most certainly would have seemed quite the opposite. He categorically denied anything of the like.
And with that he spun off into a testimony of his own enrollment with Christ in the school of contentment. Again, I call it a school because of the repetitive terminology Paul uses. “I have learned.” “I know.” The language suggests a process of instruction over time in the school of God’s providence that brought Paul to an enviable state of contentment he enjoyed regardless of his circumstances, including a dungeon!
In subsequent posts I hope to share insights from the text, as well as other Scriptures about the nature of this most rigorous school of contentment. But let me close with this analogy and insight from Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs (1599-1646) from his classic The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment:
When the yoke is first put upon a heifer and it wriggles up and down and will not be quiet, if after many months or years it will not draw quietly, the husbandman would rather fatten it and prepare it for the butcher than be troubled any longer with it. “Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (Heb 12:11). It is true: our afflictions are not joyous, but grievous. Though it is very grievous when our affliction first comes, afterwards it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness. When you have been a long time in the school of afflictions, you are a very dullard if you have not learned this contentment. “I have learned,”said Paul, “in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” (Phi 4:11). Paul had learned this lesson quickly, [but] you have been learning many years! A new cart may creak and make a noise; but after it has been used a while, it will not do so. So when you are first a Christian, perhaps you make a noise and cannot bear affliction; but are you an old Christian and yet will you be a murmuring Christian? Oh, it is a shame for any who have been a long time in the school of Jesus Christ to have murmuring spirits.