10 But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. 11 Not that I speak from want; for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. 12 I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. 13 I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. [NASB ‘77]
Paul now gets around to what could be seen as the main purpose of the letter – thanking the Philippians for the gift they sent to him. In thanking them, however, he continues to teach by making it clear that he doesn’t need anything from them. It’s not that he’s ungrateful; it’s that he’s learned contentedness as a disciple of Christ. He has all he needs in the Lord and through His strength he can handle any situation. His satisfaction doesn’t come from his surroundings, possessions, or circumstances; it comes from living in Christ.
Paul thanks the Philippians for the gift they sent with Epaphroditus (4:18, 2:25). He first complements them for sending the gift because it shows their concern for him. They apparently wanted to send something before but lacked opportunity (perhaps because he wasn’t in a place where he could receive it). Paul tells us something about the Philippians in this verse – they’re very ready to give. Giving isn’t an issue for them – it’s simply having the opportunity to give. Theirs is a great example of the cheerful giver that God loves (II Cor 9:7). It shows enormous trust in God in the midst of suffering and persecution (generosity always grows out of trust – stinginess always grows out of fear).
And that’s why Paul rejoices in the Lord (just as he commanded them to do in 4:4). He rejoices because of what their gift means in regard to their faith. They’re suffering and yet remain concerned about Paul. They’re likely losing their own possessions and yet still reaching out to make sure he has what he needs. Everything about the gift reflects love and faith. It’s a testament to what God’s doing in their lives and so it causes Paul to rejoice. His ministry to them isn’t in vain and they’re storing up rewards for themselves on the great day (4:17).
Paul now qualifies his thank-you and gives his readers a lesson on contentment. This might at first strike us as less than courteous. He essentially says, “Thanks for the gift, but don’t think for a minute that I really needed it.” Not exactly a prime example of a well-written thank-you note. However, his intent is to point them to Christ and to teach by example that contentedness comes only through Him. He doesn’t want for anything as long as he’s in Christ. He has learned to be content in whatever circumstances he’s in.
He goes on to give three different comparisons to make the point that circumstances don’t determine his contentment. He’s learned the secret of being satisfied in the midst of humble means and prosperity, being filled and going hungry, and having abundance and suffering need. It doesn’t matter now what circumstances he faces; none of them can make him dissatisfied or disgruntled or distraught.
Think about the freedom that’s inherent in Paul’s words. Circumstances can’t touch him. It doesn’t mean he can’t suffer or feel pain or that he’s oblivious. But it does mean they don’t determine his joy or his effectiveness for the kingdom or his overall satisfaction with life. He’s not dependent. And if he’s not dependent, he’s free. He doesn’t need an easy life. He doesn’t need wealth or comfort. He doesn’t even need health (assuming the thorn in the flesh – II Cor 12:7 – is some kind of physical malady). He doesn’t need anything other than what Christ provides (or said another way, what he needs is satisfied in Christ rather than in circumstances or people).
Notice that he doesn’t claim to have reached this point overnight. He says two times that he’s learned this contentment. That implies that God’s brought him to this point through experiences. Remember that he’s in prison as he writes this. We also know he’s been through all kinds of trials and tribulations throughout his ministry and travels. All those things together have taught him Christ-centered, circumstances-free contentment. This is a learned state, and the learning appears to be intense. We don’t get to where Paul is without a few battle-scars. This is a picture of a mature believer who has walked with God through tough times. We don’t just wake up one day and decide to be independently content.
It’s interesting that he uses both prosperity and want in his claims of contentment. He doesn’t just say that he’s figured out how to get along during hard times. He also says he’s learned how to be content during times of plenty. We perhaps don’t generally think this way, but even prosperous people struggle with contentment. The eyes of man are never satisfied (Prov 27:20), and even those with great riches long for more (see Ahab in I Kings 21:1-4). But Paul makes it clear that when he had abundance he was content. His prosperity didn’t make him want even more (he didn’t want more of what he knows doesn’t satisfy). So poverty didn’t make him reject God, and wealth didn’t make him complacent toward Him. Neither took his eyes off Christ. The good times didn’t affect him any more than the bad times in terms of his satisfaction in the Lord.
And it’s that satisfaction that’s worth discussing. What does it mean that he’s content in all circumstances? Does contentedness mean as believers we just humbly accept our station in life and never try to better it? Should we turn down raises then they’re offered because we’re totally content and don’t need any more? Should we say ‘no’ to the offer of rental car or airline ticket upgrades? Should we check our ambition at the narrow gate?
The answer to all these questions is ‘no’. We aren’t called to acquiescence. There’s certainly nothing wrong with working to improve our station or financial situation, or striving to be the best at whatever we pursue. What contentedness means is freedom from circumstantial joy. Our circumstances don’t define us. So even if we work for something more, we do it with higher goals (stewardship of our abilities, glory for our Creator, money for giving, etc.) than simply doing better or because we think it will make us happier or establish our identity. We don’t value our lives by achievement and prosperity, and we don’t disparage our lives if both are in short supply. We joyfully serve and walk with our Savior regardless of what’s happening around us or where we are.
There’s another angle to this that we shouldn’t miss. He already said in 3:20 that our citizenship is in heaven from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior. Then he said that we should let our forbearing spirit be known to all men because the Lord is near (4:5). In both cases he urges us to have a mind set on eternity. With that kind of focus, the rewards of this world are much less desirable and the privations of this world are much more endurable. Both are only temporary. We look to something more than what we see or experience in this world. Thus we live with our eyes somewhere other than on the conditions around us (which differentiates us from the enemies of the cross – 3:18-19 – and also leads to less anxiety – 4:6-7).
Did you notice in verse 12 that he says he’s learned the secret of being content in various circumstances? He doesn’t really say what the secret is, does he? That’s why verse 13 is here. The secret is living in Christ and depending on His strength. The key to contentment is life in Christ.
What does that mean? Paul’s made references to this throughout the book. He admonished us to have the same attitude as Christ in our relations to each other (2:5-7). He said one of the characteristics of a believer is to glory in Christ Jesus (3:3). He described the goal of sanctification as knowing and becoming like Christ (3:10-11). He said as believers we eagerly wait for the day Christ returns (3:20). Then he said to rejoice in the Lord (4:4). All these statements have to do with centering everything on Christ and abiding in Him. And as we abide in Him we increasingly become full of Him and nothing else.
And that’s the key. As we walk with Him and increasingly know Him He begins to fill our minds and crowd out the temporary rewards of the world around us. We begin to think of Him and think like Him (4:8), and what’s important in this world starts to fade. As our affections rest on Him, they leave behind the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and boastful pride of life and the concerns that accompany them. And as our desire for Him grows, we find more and more that we’re only truly satisfied in Him, and since He never changes and never leaves or forsakes us, we stay content regardless of our earthly circumstances.
Ultimately it comes down to what we pursue. If we pursue the rewards of this world, then our joy is dependent on gaining and maintaining them. If we pursue Christ – we work to know Him and become like Him – then our joy is dependent on Him. [And in that vein, godliness is the one area where it’s okay to be discontent. We should have a healthy dissatisfaction with our sanctification and should always want more of Him and more evidence of being like Him in our lives.]
Another aspect of this is that as we walk with Christ our own weakness becomes clearer and clearer in light of His strength. So we stop depending on our own strength and instead depend on His as we grow closer to Him. We actually become stronger the more we appreciate how weak we are. Paul makes this very point to the Corinthians – for when I am weak, then I am strong (II Cor 12:10). Thus in verse 13 he says that it’s only through Christ’s strength that we can be content in all circumstances. We walk with Him and know Him and become like Him and ultimately rely on Him more and more. And through that become content in all things.
It’s noteworthy that Paul makes this statement right after telling us to obey the word if we want God’s presence in our lives (4:9). That would seem to mean that we can’t claim the promise of verse 13 apart from obedience. To have Christ’s strength to enable contentment we must have the presence of the God of peace, and that comes from practicing what we’ve learned and received and heard and seen in Paul. Without obedience there’s no promise of contentment.
A final observation about this verse. It’s interesting to consider its context in light of how often it’s quoted by Christians. There’s probably no verse quoted by believers more than this one (if we assume that John 3:16 is typically quoted evangelistically and Matt 7:1 (judge not that you be not judged) and Jn 8:7 (he who is without sin cast the first stone) are the most quoted by non-believers), and it’s quoted in response to just about any difficult circumstance. That being the case and considering how Paul uses it here, does that mean it’s also the most misquoted verse in the Christian community? That’s probably too harsh. Yes, it’s specifically stated in regard to contentment – “we can be content in all things in Christ who strengthens us” – but does that mean it doesn’t apply to anything else? Probably not; the truth seems applicable to other situations. However, it pays to consider that it refers not to overcoming obstacles as much as being free from them. We’re free from a dependency on circumstances through Christ’s strength and being satisfied only in Him. In that light we might say that it’s not so much that He gives us strength to do anything and everything, it’s more that He gives us strength to be content to the point that whether we overcome obstacles or not, we’re OK because He’s with us. [It’s notable that the NIV translates this verse as “I can do all this – meaning stay content – through Him who gives me strength.”]
Contentment is a mark of a mature believer. It is the product of a life wholly consumed in Christ. It’s a learned skill developed through witnessing God’s faithfulness, mercy, and love in the midst of the trials of life and developing a taste for the sweetness of depending on Him. As God brings us through life experiences we become increasingly obsessed with Him and less beholden to our circumstances (and less tempted by the passing pleasures of sin). More of Christ, less of us and less of the world.
Conversely, a lack of contentment is a mark of a believer too enamored with the world and too invested in himself. Walking in our own strength with our eyes full of what’s around us means we can’t rise above our circumstances, and our joy and satisfaction remain dependent on them. So – when we look at the circumstances and people around us and decide that we deserve better, when we’re bitter because we aren’t where we think we should be, when we resent what others have and accomplish; those are signs of an immature belief lacking the fullness of Christ. Less of Christ, more of us and more of the world.
Perhaps the best way to summarize what Paul says here is to quote what Paul tells Timothy in regard to the same subject: But godliness actually is a means of great gain, when accompanied by contentment. For we have brought nothing into the world, so we cannot take anything out of it either. And if we have food and covering, with these we shall be content. But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith, and pierced themselves with many a pang. But flee from these things, you man of God; and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, perseverance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate, that you keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which He will bring about at the proper time – He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords; who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light; whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen. (I Tim 6:6-16)