By Michael E. Brooks
“Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content” (Philippians 4:11 NKJV).
You have probably seen the headlines. “CYCLONE DEVASTATES DENSELY POPULATED BANGLADESH: THOUSANDS DEAD.” In addition to the dead, there was hundreds of million dollars worth of property damage. Victims lost their homes, their crops and all personal property. The suffering is already incredible and will only worsen in the immediate future. Longer-term effects of the storm will no doubt include major food shortages since the major rice crop of the year was severely damaged.
Reading about such destruction and suffering puts Paul’s confident declaration in a different perspective. Does he really mean it? “In any circumstance?” If he were a poor villager in rural Bangladesh would Paul really be satisfied and happy? How could that be? Surely anyone would be devastated under those conditions. Injured, with relatives, neighbors and friends dead from the storm, the Bengali people face the future without home, food, clothing or shelter. Relief efforts are already ongoing, but they will only do a little to improve the terrible conditions. Nothing can replace the losses, or remove the suffering.
Even a Paul must become discouraged in the reality of such a disaster.
Don’t be so certain. Paul was not spoiled with luxury and easy living. He had faced multiple shipwrecks, imprisonments, beatings and other persecutions. He was used to going without food, clothing and shelter. He had often faced those who sought to kill him (2 Corinthians 11:22-33). He labored with his hands to provide support for his ministry, working night and day to preach the Gospel (1 Thessalonians 2:9). Among the perils he faced are many that may be described as natural disasters, including “perils of the wilderness,” “perils of waters,” “perils of the sea,” and “cold and nakedness” (2 Corinthians 11:26-27). Any or all of these might imply storms or other natural hazards.
When Paul stated that he has learned how to be content in any condition, he had a vast experience of putting that knowledge to the test. In the list of his sufferings as well as in the story of his life and work as recorded in the book of Acts, it is difficult to find a condition of suffering and hardship that he had not lived through. And yet he was not discouraged or faint-hearted. He continued to preach, travel and suffer to the very end of his life. And he died rejoicing in his confidence of reward (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
How did he do it? What taught him contentment?
There are many elements of true contentment, but Paul emphasizes these.
First, one must have true trust in God and in Christ. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
This is the source of his contentment. Whatever he absolutely has to have, God will provide. He does not have to worry about material things. They will come as needed.
Secondly, Paul knew what was truly important. “I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound” (Philippians 4:12).
Material possessions were not important to him. He could live with a little or a lot. It really did not matter.
We become all wrapped up in pursuit of wealth, security, and the latest gadgets. We can never be satisfied because however recently we bought that cell phone or laptop computer, there are newer and better models already available. The pursuit of the perfect material circumstance is doomed to failure. It does not exist. When we learn to base our happiness on things that really matter – spiritual things – we will begin to experience true contentment.
Finally, Paul found real pleasure in relationships with others. “Indeed I have all and abound. I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things sent from you, a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18).
It was not the gift that brought Paul joy, but the love of those who sent it. People will often disappoint us, but they also have a capacity to bring us joy and happiness that can be found in no material possession.
Paul lived for others, not for himself. But that life rewarded him as no selfish pursuit could ever have done.
Yes, he was content, regardless of his circumstance. Such contentment is available to all who serve Jesus Christ, and who follow his teaching and example.
By Michael E. Brooks