The Secret of Contentment
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The Secret of Contentment

Philippians 4:10–13  (ID: 2032)

In our highly competitive culture, we can easily become disgruntled if we constantly compare ourselves to others. Paul, by contrast, learned to be content in all circumstances by trusting in the sufficiency of the Lord Jesus Christ. In this message on Christian contentment, Alistair Begg notes that when we bow our hearts and minds to God’s will, irrespective of our circumstances, then we will be neither overwhelmed by poverty nor intoxicated by prosperity.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Philippians, Volume 2

Take Dead Aim Philippians 3:1–4:23 Series ID: 15002

Sermon Transcript: Print

Our Scripture reading this morning is from the Philippian letter—Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and chapter 4, and I’m going to read from the tenth verse:

“I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 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 want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

“Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need. Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account. I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.

“To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

Perhaps you will agree with me that we have a quite staggering and uncomfortable statement which comes, configured in largely the same way, twice in verses 11 and then again in verse 12. I’m referring to Paul’s statement, “I have learned to be content,” he says in verse 11, “whatever the circumstances.” And then in verse 12 he says again, “I have learned the secret of being content,” and then he says, “in any and every situation.”

Now, the reason one finds it to be so staggering and so uncomfortable, I must confess, is because we’re living in a society that is permeated by a spirit of discontentment. And yet, even in saying that, it’s far too easy and not closely uncomfortable enough. Because the real challenge is not so much that I live in a society that is discontented, but if I am honest, I face discontentedness in my own heart and mind on an almost daily basis; that there is that which clamors for my attention—things which others do, honors which others enjoy, possessions which others have—and they would seek to rob me of any sense of that mysterious dimension to which Paul refers here in this matter of Christian contentment.

An envious or a covetous heart fails to see that it is God’s providence that dispenses gifts and honors and abilities.

Envy and contentment never go hand in hand. Covetousness, which is a sin, and contentment, which is a grace, never coexist in our lives. And envy, of course, is a dreadful thing, it is a horrible thing, and it will destroy our enjoyment of life on many levels. An envious spirit will begrudge the honor and the advantages that other people enjoy, just instinctively so. An envious or a covetous heart fails to see that it is God’s providence that dispenses gifts and honors and abilities—that these individuals that we look around on don’t have this as a result of themselves; it is God, in the mystery of his purposes, who gives these gifts, who disposes of these honors, and who grants to individuals these abilities.

Failure to understand that means that the covetous heart is almost always sad at the happiness of others. A covetous heart becomes hostile towards people that have never ever injured us. It’s the dreadful thing about covetousness or about envy: we can hate people we don’t even know—people that we have never had a conversation with, that we have only seen from the other side of the car park, that we have only encountered on an elevator somewhere, and somehow or another, why is it that I find this individual so distasteful? And when I trace it to its ugly root, I discover it is because of covetousness. And I realize that what fuels my covetous heart is a lack of contentment with what I am, who I am, what I have, and the honor or whatever that has been bestowed upon me.

Now, I have found these verses distinctly uncomfortable, and I’m of the opinion that if I spend the week being uncomfortable, there is no reason why you should get out of it on the Sunday morning. So for those of you who think that somehow or another I spend the week in tranquil bliss, just waiting for the opportunity to make your lives as wretched as I possibly can and then to run for the cover of darkness, don’t misunderstand what’s taking place here. These sermons must first be passed through my own heart and mind and experience if they are to come with any sense of pungency to you, who in turn have the privilege and responsibility of listening to them. This is distinctly uncomfortable and peculiarly challenging.

“I have learned the secret,” says Paul, “of being content.” Every so often people say to me, “You know, if you could put that in a bottle, you could sell it.” And here is one of these occasions. “If you could somehow or another grab this and market it,” people’ll say, “everybody would want this!” And the spirit of discontent which pervades our culture is such that that’s exactly true: people long for contentment, and they think that they will find it down these various avenues, and, of course, it leaves them high and dry.

Now, the twentieth century is not unique in this respect. The Puritan writers had a great deal to say about the absence of contentment in their day. Writing in the seventeenth century, Jeremiah Burroughs penned a wonderful treatment of this—beginning with an exposition of Philippians 4:11 and following—when he wrote a book entitled The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment. And in the course of that, he makes this remark: “The mystery of Christian contentment is the duty, glory and excellence of a Christian.”[1] That’s interesting, isn’t it? Because I think that I’m not far wrong in assuming that if we were to try and choose a word or a characteristic that would be representative of mature Christianity—that would be marked by excellence and by honor and by duty—I’m not sure that the first word that would come to mind would be the word contentment. “And yet,” says Burroughs in his day, “if you want to see a Christian that has progressed in godliness, let me tell you what to look for: look into their jewelry box, as it were, and see if you find there the rare jewel of Christian contentment.”

Contentment is seldom valued and considered in this way. Contentment is an undervalued grace. And perhaps it is because contentment cannot be discovered and cannot be displayed as a result of “five easy steps.” You’re almost guaranteed to sell your book if you can call it Seven Steps to or Six Easy Steps to or Five Keys to or Twelve Keys for or whatever else it is, because everybody is so concerned that they will get the perfect body that if they can get it in seven easy steps, they’re prepared to invest. If they can become instantaneously financially secure, they’re prepared to try the Five Easy programs, or whatever it is.

And so the same is true in Christian living. And we have all these Christians scurrying around asking their pastors and asking their leaders, “Just tell me the five steps I need to do. Tell me the five things I need to do, and I’ll start them now, and hopefully by tomorrow morning I will have managed it once and for all.” Well, the good news and the bad news is this: there are no five easy steps. And I think that’s one of the reasons we’re tempted to ignore this essential Christian grace in favor of more accessible characteristics.

Now, in order to deal with this without unearthing it from the text, which would be unhelpful, we need to understand the setting and the secret and the significance. And those are the three coat hangers on which I’m going to—or the point hangers, if you like—that I’ll use to trace a line through this material.

The Setting

First of all, let me just say a word or two about the setting, because we are studying a real letter written by a real man at a real moment in time to a real church in the then-known world. Philippi was about the same distance away from Rome as Chicago is from New York, about eight hundred miles or so. Paul, who had established the church in Philippi down by the riverside on the day that he met with a group of women—Lydia being the key individual, who was a worshipper of God and yet whose heart was opened to receive the truth that Paul conveyed, and she was baptized and became a founding member of the church in Philippi[2]—he was now distanced from this by all these miles, and he was in the jail in Rome. The church in Philippi loved him as much as he loved them, and so they determined that it would be profitable to send somebody to Rome on behalf of the church to convey their love for Paul, and also to carry with him gifts that they had put together in order to be a source of encouragement to him. And so, this man by the name of Epaphroditus had by various means of conveyance made his way to Rome. And this is referred to in verse 18, where we read, “I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent.”

Contentment is an undervalued grace.

So that’s the context: a man from the church in Philippi had shown up in Rome, had brought these gifts, and while he was there, he had become dangerously, gravely ill. God had brought him back to health and strength, which was a relief to Paul, and he was now sending Epaphroditus back to Philippi with this letter, which in part was his thank-you note. And he was glad to be able to do so, because he figured that the return of Epaphroditus would make them glad; that the good news of Paul, even though the strangeness of his circumstances, would also make them glad; and also that he would be able to give them guidance concerning the peculiarities that were confronting them as a church and about which he had learned from Epaphroditus, and doubtless others too; and that he would be able to convey his gratitude to them for all of their kindness.

Now, you get all of that in Philippians 2:26 and following. You can read it at your leisure, but verse 28 says, “Therefore”—regarding Epaphroditus—“[I’m] all the more eager to send him, so that when you see him again you may be glad and I may have less anxiety.” You ever notice that little phrase there, “I may have less anxiety”? This is the apostle Paul! This is the one who in Philippians 4 says, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, with prayer and supplication, let your request be made known to God.”[3] Does that ring any bells for you, in light of how I introduced our subject?

You see, it’s not that Paul is coming out of some rarified zone with words of exhortation to these Christians who live in a different zone; but rather, it is he who understands the inroads of anxiety to his own life, understands the problem with preoccupations—his concern for the church in Philippi, his concern for Epaphroditus (“I hope he gets better again”), his concern to see him safely on his way, his genuine interest in the gladness of the church in Philippi, and so on—he says, “I’ve gotta get Epaphras out of here and back to you, and that’ll make you glad, and frankly, it’ll relieve me of a measure of anxiety.”

Now, when he tackles this issue of their kindness to him, beginning in verse 10, he does so with great tact. Well, you say, “Well, what about the little phrase there, ‘at last’?” “I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me.” Now, I’m putting emphasis on it there by my tone of voice. Is this what he’s saying? Is this like your auntie or your grandmother, who writes to you—sends you a postcard from her vacation—and says, “I’m glad that you finally got round to sending me a thank-you note for your birthday.” And it’s kind of like …. You said, “Okay, fine.” And the parents are going, “Try and write the thank-you note before you have another birthday, please, so we don’t have your grandmother writing one of those notes again.”

Is it that? I don’t think so. I don’t think so at all. I think that the whole inference here is, “I rejoice greatly in the Lord that after all this time you’ve renewed your concern for me, when the time has long passed when I might have thought you’d forgotten me—when I might have seriously considered the possibility of you disbursing gifts in another direction. After all this time, you still send me stuff in Rome. Man, thank you so much! That was so kind of you. I love you in the Lord, you’re my joy and you’re my crown.”[4] Or it may even be that they had said, in sending this stuff to him, “We’re glad at last that the opportunity has coincided with the desire,” and that that was their phraseology. And so, when writes back he simply quotes them, and he says, “I’m glad, like you’re glad, that at last this has taken place.”

But if you read the verses with care, as I’m sure you’re doing, you will notice that there is a sensitivity here which needs to be here in relationship to the disbursing of funds or the giving of gifts to those who are, in a unique way, in the service of Christ. Because there is a constant danger that the servant of God—in this case, Paul—may create the impression that he’s in it for the money. Haven’t you heard people say that about folks who are involved in Christian service? “Oh, I think they’re just in it for the money.” Or, “I think they’re just in it for what they can get out of it.” Or, “I think it’s just so that they can get these big gifts that come their way.” And so he stresses—verse 11—that he wasn’t in need. He says, “I’m thankful that you’ve shown your concern. I know that you would have done it sooner, but desire has not combined with opportunity.” And then he says to himself, or maybe to his secretary, after he’s penned that verse, he says, “You know, I don’t want to give anybody the impression here that I’ve been sitting around in this dungeon just waiting for this stuff to show up. Let’s write another sentence. Write this: ‘I’m not saying this because I’m in need.’” In other words, “I don’t need this stuff. And the reason I don’t need it,” he’s going to go on and tell them. He didn’t need anything, really, because he had learned the ability to be contented with or without the provisions.

You say, “Well, is this some kind of otherworldly existence?” No, it’s not! Paul, when he writes his swan song in 2 Timothy—again in the dungeon in Rome—says, “Could you please come, my dear friend? I long to see you. Try and get here before winter. I’m lonely and I need friendship. Could you bring my cloak? ’Cause I’m cold, and I need to snuggle up. And could you bring my parchments? ’Cause I’m bored and I want to read.”[5] That’s the same guy who’s saying, “I don’t need this stuff!”

You say, “Well, wait a minute! He says he needs the friendship, he needs the cloak, he needs the parchments!” He wants them, but he’ll be fine if they don’t come. Because he has learned the secret of being content whether his needs are met or whether they’re not met, whether they’re met in abundance or whether they’re met frugally. He has entered into a dimension of living which is a real man in a real environment. It’s not funny stuff.

Now, let’s just turn this and view it from the other side for a moment. Because here we have the servant of God, and he is concerned that nobody thinks he’s in it for the money. That’s essentially his predicament: “I don’t want you thinking that I’m sitting here”—verse 17—“waiting for a gift. I’m really looking for credit to go to your account as a result of giving the gift,” he says.

Now, there is a perverse but not unusual way in which the people of God may respond to this expressed concern of God’s servant. And it goes something like this—and you may have heard it in committee meetings for a missionary society, or for the City Mission, or for whatever else it is. And some bright spark will say, “Well, we’ll make sure that Brother So-and-So or Sister So-and-So never has to face that challenge. We’ll make sure he never has to be concerned about that, never has to express that sensitivity. And the way we’ll make sure is we’ll give him nothing! And we’ll send him no gift. And we will allow him to remain focused. Because after all, we wouldn’t want the servant of God to lose focus, would we?”

Despite the fact that some of these fatheads who are in the committee have long since lost focus! They’ve got money sticking out of every orifice of their jackets, but they’ve determined that since God’s servant mustn’t be focused on the wrong thing, they will prevent him from being focused on the wrong thing, ’cause they won’t give him anything! So, “Don’t… no, no, no, don’t give him a car. Give him a bicycle. Because if he gets a car, he might like a car.”

“You mean he might like it like you like it?

“Well, I’m not mentioning me at the moment.”

“No, I know you’re ‘not mentioning me,’ but I’m mentioning you at the moment, cloth ears. Where do you get this double standard?”

You see?

So the sensitivity of the servant of God is to move to the position where, if he has given up potential financial remuneration in the service of Christ, has given up the opportunity for advancement in the service of Christ, it is the responsibility of the servant to ensure that he is no longer ingratiating himself with people in order to receive gifts or to receive resources that will then float his boat. The flip side, of course, is that the people of God—we who have resources to disburse to those who are in peculiar need, who have gone to the other side of the universe for the case of the gospel, who have put themselves in penurious situations for the things of Christ—that we who have resources do not respond in this perverse way, but rather that we recognize that, as Sinclair Ferguson says, “even if we cause embarrassment to those to whom we are generous … we must respect their sensitivity; … we must also be given the opportunity to discover that it is more blessed to give than to receive.”[6]

The abundance that we enjoy is not so that we might become smug and hard-hearted, but it is in order that we might be able to share with those who don’t enjoy the same abundance.

And what becomes fairly obvious, not only from here but from the whole of the Bible, is that the Lord uses generous Christians to help needy Christians—that one Christian has enough because another Christian has been generous. That’s the body of Christ at work. That’s exhorting, encouraging, and caring for one another—that the abundance that one enjoys is not so that we might become smug and hard-hearted, but it is in order that we might be able to share with those who don’t enjoy the same abundance.

The Secret

Now that, then, is the setting. Let’s go to the secret. What is this secret? What is this mystery? What is this mysterious principle?

Well, verse 12 gives it to us: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I’ve learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether I’m well fed or whether I’m hungry, whether I’m living in plenty or living in want.” In other words, his life experiences were such that he had known what it was to be warm and fed, and he knew what it was to be cold and naked. Not everybody’s able to say that. Not everyone has lived on both sides of the street. Not everyone knows, if you like, how the other half lives. But Paul did.

Paul had known what it was to go down by the riverside in Philippi and in the course of his ministry discover that a wealthy woman who had a nice house and her own business and lived by the river was converted to Jesus Christ. Her immediate response was, “Hey guys, you gotta come to my house.” He goes to her house, and presumably it’s a nice house. I mean, it has matching towels, it has different kinds of soap, everything is in position; they don’t have to move newspapers from underneath anything, they don’t have to rearrange the place. He simply goes in, and there he is with a view of the river: “Paul, I’m so glad you’re here. I want to share everything I have with you. Here’s my house, and it’s your house, Paul.”

Now, that was one day. Then another day, he’s got no house, he’s got no towels, he has no soap. He has a tree, a riverbank, and an old sleeping bag. Now he’s lying underneath the tree with an old sleeping bag. And he’s thinking, “Man… Lydia’s house is so nice! I hate it here, I wish I was there.” Then he must have taken himself in check and said, “You know what? That’s not the issue. Indeed, if I think like that, then my life is going to be a roller coaster ride constantly. I’m either going to be intoxicated by wonderful things or I am going to be overwhelmed by the absence of wonderful things. And either way, I’m going to be neutralized. I’ll never be able to serve Christ. Because on the one hand, I’ll be so enamored with all this stuff that I won’t be able to live without it, or when I’m down here under the tree, I’ll be so ticked off that I don’t have it that I won’t be able to get up and preach sermons anymore. Oh,” he must have said to himself, “I’ve gotta find the middle ground here somewhere. I need to learn a secret! There must be a secret to this! To be able to do this and to do this, and yet to have your contentment calibrated by something other than those two experiences.”

That’s the challenge! Isn’t it? When you’re flying, and you get bumped up? You go, “Man, this is nice here!” And then, on the return journey, you go where you were going to go, and you’re going, “Hey, I should be up there! That’s where I belong, that’s the way I went out!” You walk past the people who are up there, you instinctively dislike them. Twelve of them! You’re going, “Look at this guy, sitting there smug with a tomato juice. Who’s he think he is?” He’s just a business guy going to his appointment. What’s your problem?

See? This is uncomfortable. This is challenging. And we’ve baptized a lot of worldly mentalities into Christian orthodoxy, and frankly, we’re as messed up on this as the world is. We can’t talk to the world about contentment, most of us, because we are so jolly discontented!

Now, the word that Paul uses for contentment is a word that was used by pagan philosophers as well. The Stoics used this word; they regarded it as being synonymous with self-sufficiency. They bred in themselves a spirit of independence. They had nothing to do with their circumstances; they were above it and beyond it. They were, if you like, summarized in Paul Simon’s words in the early ’70s: “I am a rock, I am an island, and a rock can feel no pain, and an island never cries.”[7] That was the Stoic’s approach to contentment: “I divest myself of all of the stuff; it doesn’t touch me.” So it was a kind of “mind over matter” approach.

But that’s not what Paul is saying here. Paul’s declaration is not the stiff upper lip of the Stoic in his self-sufficiency. Rather, Paul’s statement here is grounded in the sufficiency of the Lord Jesus Christ. That’s verse 13: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” In other words, the spirit of contentment, the secret of contentment, wasn’t and isn’t found in a spirit of detached apathy or cultivated indifference. Contentment is a result of bowing my heart and mind to the will of God, no matter the conditions that I face. Contentment is bowing my heart and mind to the will of God, no matter the conditions that I face. That’s why, when you see contented people, they are so striking—whether these people live in poverty or whether they live in the far reaches of prosperity. And all of us have known and know such individuals. And the thing that is so striking in meeting them is that this secret is at least in place and is being developed in their lives. They’re neither overwhelmed by poverty nor are they intoxicated by prosperity.

It’s in this context, of course, that verse 13 makes sense. Paul is not saying in verse 13 that he can do anything to which he puts his mind. But that’s the way verse 13 is largely used, you know: “I am horrible at mathematics; there’s no way in the world that I could get through certain pieces of the SAT. But Philippians 4:13 says, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me’; therefore, here we go!” Well, there’s always a chance that there may be a divine intervention in some dramatic way, but by and large, Philippians 4:13 is going to do nothing for you except give you the strength to deal with the sense of abject failure that you experience when your SAT mathematical section results come back. That’s where it fits in. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” In other words, I can flunk and still get on with my life—rather than, “Oh, I can do this, I can that, I can do the next thing, I can do everything.”

I believe Jackson has “Philippians 4:13” on the underside of the bill of his Indians hat, right? It’s good! I’m glad he has that there. There’s a lot worse things that he could have there. But it’s not because he has “Philippians 4:13” underneath the bill of his hat that he’s able to close down so many of those people; it’s because God has given him an innate ability to throw that ball.

No, Philippians 4:13 is not saying, “I can do anything I put my mind to.” Philippians 4:13 is saying, “By Christ’s strength, I can be calm in adversity and I can be humble in prosperity.” ’Cause that’s what’s needed: prosperous people need to learn how to be humble, and those of us who live in adverse circumstances need to learn how to be calm!

Now, notice that contentment is learned—learned: “I have learned to be content.” What is it, Smith Barney, “We make money the old-fashioned way: we earn it”? This is Paul: “We discover contentment the old-fashioned way: we learn it.” See, people want to go somewhere and have it hit them: “Oop! I’m contented. Thank you! I went to a meeting, and a guy did this, and I was contented.” Or, “I went somewhere else, and he gave me this, and I’m contented. I keep it in my pocket, and hey! I’m contented.” Baloney!

The Significance

Let me come now, finally, to the significance, then, of the secret. The setting is Philippi and Rome; the secret is that, detached from these external factors of want or plenty, Paul is discovering something. What is the significance for us? Is there any way that we can summarize it? Well, let me just give you just one or two things that I haven’t completely thought through. These are my homework things. And if I’m doing homework, guess what? You’re doing homework as well. That’s the way it goes. And I’m hoping you do it well so you can come and tell me some of the answers to my questions. We’re in this together.

Christian contentment is clearly independent of my circumstances.

What is the significance, then, of this secret? Number one: Christian contentment is clearly independent of my circumstances. Christian contentment is clearly independent on my circumstances. We all know the adage that “happiness depends on what happens.” But joy is something that is independent of the chances and changes of our world. And until we understand that, then we will be riding high on the coaster, and then we will be down in the depths, and our life will continue to go that way. It will not be in banishing this or in discovering that that we discover contentment, but it will be in realizing that whether I banish this or retain it, discover this or never discover it, that contentment is found somewhere else.

Indeed—and this is the second notion—Christian contentment is grounded in our union with Jesus. It is a relationship with Jesus which establishes the basis for Christian contentment. In other words, Philippians 3:10 precedes Philippians 4:13. Paul says in 3:10, “I want to know Christ,” and in 4:13 he says, “I can do everything through Christ.” But first I want to know Christ, and in knowing him, then I will be able to do everything through him.

We live in such a pragmatic environment, as well, that when you talk about things in Christian doctrine or give to people instruction and information, it’s not unusual for them to come back at you and say, “Well, we’ve been talking for a long time, but you haven’t told me one thing I’m supposed to do. Just tell what I’m supposed to do.” As if the doing of it made it! No, it is the knowing of him that makes the doing of this possible, and unless we know him, we can’t do this. So what we need to do is know him, inside out and outside in: “I want to know Christ. I can do everything through Christ.”

People want to truncate it; they want to go ahead immediately to, “Yeah, fine, okay… and let me do everything through Christ.” No. Do you know Christ? You say, “Well, of course I know Christ. I’m committed to Jesus Christ, he’s my personal Savior, October 4, 1947.” Now, I know that you met Christ; I’m asking you if you know Christ. I’ve met a lot of people that I don’t know.

We trot this out as evangelical Christians: “Well, do you actually know Christ, or do you just know about Christ?” To which the pagan may turn around and say, “Well, let me ask you the selfsame question: Do you actually know Christ, or do you just know about Christ? Is what you’re doing on a Sunday simply a form of behavior modification—exchanging one set of external circumstances for another, with a kind of religious twist? ’Cause I don’t think that would be the same as knowing Christ. Is what you’re doing simply going along, because you believe that the external faithfulness to the demands of the routine of a church family—in this case, namely, Parkside—may be equated with knowing Christ?” And the pagan says, “That doesn’t sound to me like knowing Christ. That sounds to me like doing what you’re told!” So in other words, we can fulfill duties, we can get our attendance card ticked, we can stand up and testify to an encounter in our past. But it may not be synonymous with knowing Christ.

Why am I so discontented? Not because I haven’t found the five principles. Because I don’t know Christ! If I knew Christ and how wonderful he is; if I really believed that he is my all in all; if he is more precious than silver, more costly than gold, more beautiful than diamonds, and nothing that I have compares to him[8]—you see, if I really, really, really believe that, then it would radically transform the way in which I view my circumstances. Therefore, I have to sadly conclude that I really, really, really don’t know him in that way. And, of course, I may be different from you.

We would just add to it by saying Christian contentment is the fruit of an ever-deepening relationship with Jesus. It’s the fruit of an ever-deepening relationship with Jesus. The more I know of Christ, the more content that I become, the more the things of earth lose their value, the more the significance of all this stuff—whether my name’s on the office door, or whether it’s a two-foot name or a one-foot name or no name, whether I’m in the floor seven, floor nine, floor two, whatever it is, all those things that float my boat and ring my bell and make me, me—when I know Christ, then I don’t have to go and bury myself in disappointment because I’m not on the “right floor” or because I don’t have the “right key” or because I haven’t attained the “right status.” And when Christians—when we grovel after all that stuff, what we’re saying is, we don’t know Christ in an ever-deepening dimension, because if we did, we would learn contentment along with that.

Amongst the golden oldies in the hymn catalog you have that hymn that says, “I would love to tell you what I think of Jesus, since I found in him a friend so strong and true.”[9] We used to sing that in Scotland years ago. I never knew really very much about it, and I certainly didn’t know who wrote it. I only discovered that it was written by an evangelist here in America—found this out two and a half weeks ago. The evangelist had been out preaching; he came back, and his wife had left him—taken everything that she regarded as her own and vamoosed! Left a note on the kitchen table which simply said, “See you around. In fact, see you never. Goodbye.” And she never came back. And he was broken-hearted. And he tossed and turned. And finally, he sat down, and he did what he’d never done; and he wrote a poem, or he wrote a song. And that was the song he wrote:

I would love to tell you what I think of Jesus,
Since I found in him a friend so strong and true.
I would tell you how he changed my life completely;
He did something that no other friend could do.

No one ever cared for me like Jesus;
There’s no other friend so kind [and true].
No one else could take the sin and [sad]ness from me;
O how much he care[s] for [you]![10]


And then he goes on and he writes,

[And] ev’ry day he comes to me with new assurance;
[And] more and more I understand his words of love.

As the tears presumably fell on his page, as he recognized the regrets, as he recognized the failure, as he looked at all of that, where is he going to go? To Christ!

Christian contentment is learned in the school of God’s providence.

Christian contentment, then, is learned. And it’s learned in the school of God’s providence. And if you don’t go to the school of God’s providence, if we don’t go there, we’ll never learn to be content. When you go to the school of God’s providence, you read Psalm 139:13, and you realize the you were intricately wrought in your mother’s womb. In other words, your DNA is as per divine decree. The color of your eyes, even if you’ve got two different colors of eyes, are there by God’s design. When you stand in front of the mirror and you look at yourself, and you go, “Whoa, oh man! That is not nice!” and when you’re tempted to go around commiserating with yourself about what a wretch you are and how pathetic you look, stand up and say, “Hey! Nice work, Father. Nice work, Father! I know you didn’t do this—I added this—but thank you just the same. Thank you.”

And if I were a butterfly,
I’d thank you for my wings.
And if I were a robin in the tree,
I’d thank you that I can sing.
And if I were a fuzzy wuzzy bear,
I’d thank you for my fuzzy wuzzy hair.
But I just thank you, Father, for making me, me.[11]
Some of you haven’t got there yet.

I talk to university students, they want to talk about their identity. I had a kid come to talk to me two weeks ago down there in Ohio, further south in Ohio; he says… And he got in the room, and it’s always a little awkward; you don’t know what the guy’s going to say. He could ask you anything at all. Eventually he goes, “Um… I’m here to talk to you about my identity.” So I didn’t have a clue what that meant, so I said, “Well, tell me a little more about how you’re feeling.” And the further the guy went, I still didn’t have a clue what he meant. I had not a clue what this kid was on about, ’cause I had never once thought about what he was on about. It never once occurred to me.

But I think that’s—maybe I’m weird, but I got people who are out there, and they’re so discontented with their identity: “I don’t like who I am. And I don’t like where I was born. And I don’t like my dad, and I hate when he shows up at the restaurant when I’m there, because he doesn’t eat properly. He doesn’t eat the way I’ve learned to eat since I became smart and since I became au fait and since I became prosperous.” Cut it out! Your dad’s your dad by divine appointment. Your mum’s your mum by divine appointment. The color of your hair is by divine appointment. Every aspect of your life is by divine appointment. Don’t be discontented with this stuff!

You say, “Well, then it’s an invitation to be devoid of ambition.” No, it is absolutely not! But it is to embrace one significant, life-transforming ambition. And it is this: Christian contentment is the direct fruit of having no higher ambition than to belong to the Lord and to be entirely at his disposal. Christian contentment is the fruit of having no higher ambition than to belong to the Lord and to be entirely at his disposal. You think that out.

Murray M’Cheyne died at the age of twenty-nine. He was a pastor, a Presbyterian minister in Dundee, Scotland. And addressing a gathering of his friends on one occasion, he said this to them: “It has always been my ambition to have no plans as regards myself.” Doesn’t that just grate on our twentieth-century, Day-Timer, plan-oriented, five-year-orientation-scheme, development-process, information-system mentality of where we’re going to be and what we’re going to be and when we’ll call it quits and when we have enough and what we’re going to do then and where we’ll live then and what we’ll be able to do? I put it to you that the reason we are in that is the reason that we know so little of Christian contentment. And as alien as M’Cheyne’s words may sound, it is when I am prepared to embrace them that I will begin to learn the secret of Christian contentment.

Father, take out of all of these words that which is true and of yourself and bring it to our recollection; drive it home to our hearts and minds. Help us to forget that which is extraneous and to reject anything that isn’t true. Forgive us for a spirit of discontentedness with who we are and where we are and what we have. Train us afresh, step by step, day by day, in the school of your providence.

We want to learn this secret. We feel like saying with Paul, “Not that I have already attained all this, or have already been made perfect,”[12] we certainly know that. But we want to say,

Only to be what he wants me to be,
Every moment of every day,
Yielded completely to Jesus alone
Every step of the pilgrim way.

Just to be clay in the Potter’s hands,
Ready to do what his will commands;
Only to be what he wants me to be,
Every moment of every day.[13]

And may grace, mercy, and peace from the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit rest upon us and move us towards that wonderful discovery, today and forevermore. Amen.

[1] Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (1648; repr., Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2018), 19.

[2] See Acts 16:14–15.

[3] Philippians 4:6 (paraphrased).

[4] Philippians 4:1 (paraphrased).

[5] 2 Timothy 4:9, 13, 21 (paraphrased).

[6] Sinclair Ferguson, Let’s Study Philippians (1997; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2018), 107.

[7] Paul Simon, “I Am a Rock” (1965). Paraphrased.

[8] Lynn DeShazo, “More Precious Than Silver” (1982). Paraphrased.

[9] Charles F. Weigle, “No One Ever Cared for Me Like Jesus” (1969).

[10] Weigle, “No One Ever Cared.”

[11] Brian Howard, “The Butterfly Song” (1974). Paraphrased.

[12] Philippians 3:12 (paraphrased).

[13] Normal J. Clayton, “Every Moment of Every Day” (1938). Lyrics lightly altered.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.