In Philippians 4:11, the Apostle Paul makes an amazing statement: I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. He doesn’t say, I am learning or I hope to learn. He speaks as if to suggest some degree of mastery of the contentment curriculum. He is adamant. He adds in v. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound.
Honestly, I can’t yet speak so confidently. But this gives me hope. Such a lofty goal is attainable. Contentment, though often it seems the opposite, does not lie outside our spiritual reach in this world.
No doubt, as I explained in my previous post in this series, Christ’s school of contentment is a compulsory school. As followers of Jesus, shaped by the gospel, we must strive for the same gracious frame of spirit to which Paul attained. However, we should indeed think positively about our prospects for growth in light of the excellency of the Instructor.
I say this first, because of the nature of God Himself who teaches in this school. My Puritan friend explains:
‘Content’, signifies a self-sufficiency, as I told you in opening the words. A contented man is a self-sufficient man, and what is the great glory of God, but to be happy and self-sufficient in himself? Indeed, he is said to be all-sufficient, but that is only a further addition of the word ‘all’, rather than of any matter, for to be sufficient is all-sufficient. Now this is the glory of God, to be sufficient, to have sufficiency in himself. El-Shaddai means to be God having sufficiency in himself. And you come near to this. As you partake of the Divine nature by grace in general, so you do it in a more peculiar manner by this grace of Christian contentment, for what is the excellence and glory of God but this? Suppose there were no creatures in the world, and that all the creatures in the world were annihilated: God would remain the same blessed God that he is now, he would not be in a worse condition if all creatures were gone; neither would a contented heart, if God should take away all creatures from him. A contented heart has enough in the lack of all creatures, and would not be more miserable than he is now. Suppose that God should keep you here, and all the creatures that are in the world were taken away, yet you still, having God to be your portion, would be as happy as you are now.
So our first encouragement about the prospect of growth in contentment comes from the excellencies of His nature as the all-sufficient God, unshakably happy in Himself. In Him through Christ that character takes hold and transforms us over time from murmuring malcontents to rejoicing sons and daughters.
But there is one more word of encouragement about the seemingly impossible mission of attaining contentment related to the excellence of the Teacher. That has to do with the content from which He teaches. For example, consider again Hebrews 13:5-6.
Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?”
From where does the writer draw in backing the exhortation to avoid covetousness in favor of being content with what one possesses? God’s word from the Old Testament in Psalm 118:6.
Another wise saint from the past, J. C. Ryle wrote about the significance of this:
The main point I want to impress on men’s minds is this: we ought to make the texts and promises of the Bible our refuge in time of trouble and the fountain of our soul’s comfort. When St. Paul wanted to enforce a grace and recommend a duty, he quoted a text. When you and I would give a reason for our hope, or when we feel that we need strength and consolation, we must go to our Bibles and try to find out suitable texts. The lawyer uses old cases and decisions when he pleads his cause. “Such a judge has said such a thing; and therefore,” he argues, “it is a settled point.” The soldier on the battlefield takes up certain positions and does certain things; if you ask him why, he will say, “I have such and such orders from my general, and I obey them.” The true Christian must always use his Bible in like manner. The Bible must be his book of reference and precedents. The Bible must be to him his captain’s orders. If anyone asks him why he thinks as he does, lives as he does, feels as he does, all he has need to reply is, “God has spoken to such an effect: I have my orders, and that is enough.”
Does the Christian virtue of contentment seem far beyond your reach in the flesh. Take heart. Though enrolled in the toughest of schools we have the best of instructors teaching the most superior content.
O happy day when we will say with Paul, I have learned and I know.