Learn to be Content
There are people who spend four years at college. And after it’s over they come out more independent, more self-motivated, with better social skills, ready to enter the work world. There are other people who spend four years at that same college, and they come out exactly as they were as a high school senior…except now they’re able to drink beer in some creative new ways. Same experience; totally different outcome.
There are people who spend four years in the military. And after it’s over they come out more disciplined, tougher, and better leaders. There are other people who spend four years in that same branch of the military, and they come out exactly as they were as a new recruit…except now they’re cynical and jaded and angry. Same experience; totally different outcome.
There are people who will go through this pandemic lockdown for three months or five months or however long it’s going to be. And after it’s over they’re going to come out wiser and stronger and more compassionate and more deeply connected to their faith. There are other people who will go through the same lockdown, and they will come out exactly like they were in February 2020—just a few months older, maybe a few pounds heavier, and highly resentful that the whole thing happened. Same experience; totally different outcome.
Guys, this thing that we’re going through has incredible potential to change us…if we allow it to. So my hope and my prayer is that we will emerge from the lockdown as clearly better versions of ourselves, because we have our eyes wide open to the lessons God is trying to teach us. Wouldn’t that be amazing? That’s what this series is all about.
So today’s Lockdown Lesson is “Learn to be Content.”
I have a great group of men that I meet with early on Tuesday mornings. And they help to give me ideas for my sermons, which is really valuable to me. So this past Tuesday morning we were all together (on Zoom, of course), and I asked them this question: how do you know when you’re discontent? What does that look like in your life? And are some of the things they said: “I know I’m discontent when…I’m impatient with people. I get irritated really easily. I can physically feel the anxiety—I can feel my blood pressure rising. I become obsessed with when we’re going to re-open things, instead of being in the moment. My mind goes to the worst-case scenario—‘I’m going to be bankrupt, living on the street.’ I become too focused on politics. I overindulge—in food or alcohol or Netflix, to try to find comfort. Those are the signs of discontentment in our lives.”
Do you recognize yourself in any of those? Discontentment is like a feeling of emptiness that causes us to act in destructive ways. What would it take to fill that emptiness?
Our passage today is from Philippians, and let me just give you little context. When Paul this letter, he was under lockdown: he was sitting in a prison cell in Rome. And back then, prisoners weren’t always provided with what they needed to survive, so they were dependent on friends and family sending them food and blankets and things like that. So at the time Paul wrote this, he had just received a care package from his friends in the city of Philippi. And so at the very end of the letter, he acknowledges their gift, and he takes the opportunity to share some wisdom about contentment. So look with me at Philippians chapter four, starting in verse 10. Hear the Word of the Lord…
10 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it.11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 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. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength. Skip down to verse 18…
18 I have received full payment and have more than enough. 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. 19 And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus.
20 To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
21 Greet all God’s people in Christ Jesus. The brothers and sisters who are with me send greetings. 22 All God’s people here send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household.
23 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen. This is the Word of God.
So based on the Holy Spirt-inspired wisdom of Paul under lockdown, let’s talk about three things: What Contentment Looks Like, How Contentment Changes Us, and How to Get Contentment. What it looks like, how it changes us, and how to get it.
So, first: What Contentment Looks Like. What does your life look like if you are a content person? Look at verse 18: I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. Think of who was writing this! Paul was sitting in jail, chained to a guard, possibly facing execution. In other words, there was so much he did not have. He didn’t have freedom; he didn’t have rights; he didn’t have much scenery; he didn’t have privacy. And yet, he says, “Man, I’ve got more than enough.” Here’s what this tells me: part of the secret of contentment is Gratitude. Learning to be grateful for what we do have, instead of focusing on what we don’t have.
Part of the problem is that we get easily bored with the familiar. Don’t we? Remember when the people of Israel first experienced manna in the desert? It was amazing! Literally, bread dropping out of the sky—and they were overflowing with gratitude. After a few years, how did they feel about the miracle of manna? Really, God? Again? Could we maybe get a little sourdough, or multi-grain? We get bored with the familiar! It happens with your car; it happens with your phone; it happens with exercise equipment. About 8 years ago we bought a good treadmill for our house. We spent about $1,000, and it was solid and you could incline in. And we loved it—I mean, we were running, in the house, watching movies on TV. How could life get any better than that? A couple of years later we were on a trip, and we went into the hotel fitness center. They had a treadmill there. I ran on it, and it was like running on a cloud. It didn’t make any sound. It had its own TV screen, and a built-in fan. It massaged your shoulders while you ran! (I just made up that part). But it was incredible! And then I went home and saw mine. And it suddenly looked very inadequate. Can you relate to that? There’s always something better. There’s always the next model.
Psychologists actually have a name for this. And it’s ironic because of the example I just used. They call it “The Hedonic Treadmill.” “Hedonic,” as in “hedonism”—the pursuit of pleasure. So the hedonic treadmill says that we get something new, or experience something new—TV, car, girlfriend—and we get this spike of pleasure, but pretty soon it levels out. So what do we need to do in order to feel that pleasure again? Get another new thing! Have another new experience! Get on the treadmill and keep pursuing more stuff. And the marketing industry plays into that. And the cycle never ends. So I was actually on the hedonic treadmill with my treadmill.
So part of Paul’s secret was that he somehow figured out how to focus his attention and truly be grateful for what he had, rather than what he didn’t have. And that is so hard, and it’s so countercultural, that we need supernatural power to actually pull it off.
Okay: the second mark of contentment is Acceptance. It’s interesting, because Paul does thank them for the gift. But look how he qualifies it in verse 11: I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. In other words, “I really appreciate your gift, but I want you to know that I would have been okay even if you didn’t send it.” And maybe you’re thinking, “That’s a weird way to say ‘Thank you,’ but he’s making an important point. And this is really the essence of what contentment means. Whatever situation I’m in, I might prefer that it’s different; I might pray for certain things to change—anyone hoping for certain things to change in your life right now?—but at the end of the day, I would be okay if things stay just like this. That’s acceptance.
I recently heard the story of a guy named Michael Morton. Back in 1986, his wife was murdered, and he was convicted for the crime. He went to prison. They had a little son who was three years old when his mom died, and at first he visited his dad in prison, but when he turned 18 he decided to stop visiting, and he legally changed his last name to the name of the family who had raised him. Michael said that was rock bottom for him. So he served for almost 25 years, and then investigators found some DNA at the scene that matched the DNA of a known criminal—not the DNA of Michael. And in October 2011, Michael Morton was declared innocent and set free. He’s now reunited with his son.
When you listen to this man talk; when you watch his demeanor; you don’t see anger; you don’t see resentment. The guy emanates peace. But he says it wasn’t always like that for him. But there was this moment in prison where he says God flooded him with a sense of joy. He had become a Christian earlier in life, but he says he was like a prodigal son who had strayed away—and now he knew God was calling him back. Listen to what he said: “I felt so content. I like to say that I did not enjoy prison, but I was used to it. Getting out wasn’t such a priority anymore.”
That’s what I mean when I say “acceptance.” He was in prison. Paul was in prison. A lot of us feel like we’re in a prison. And I’m not saying we don’t work and pray to change the situation. Paul wanted to get out of prison! Michael Morton wanted to get out of prison! We want to get out of lockdown! But here’s the question: even if things don’t ever change, can you accept the situation and thrive where you are? And I’m going to say what I said before: that is such a big ask, that we’re going to need some outside help.
So contentment is demonstrated through gratitude and acceptance. Which are hard things. But it’s worth it, because contentment does some powerful things in us. So let’s talk about How Contentment Changes Us. Three big ways.
First, it makes us Less Self-Absorbed. When you read the letter to the Philippians, Paul does spend some time talking about himself—as you would expect, when someone is telling his friends how he’s holding up in prison. But when you look carefully, you notice how much interest Paul takes in others. It would have been so easy to have a little pity party. To talk about how hard it is, and how lonely it is, and how cold it is, and mean the guards are. But you don’t see any of that. Let me give you a 30-second overview of the letter.
In chapter one, he talks about how the Roman guards know that Paul was in prison because of his faith in Christ, and he’s excited about the effect that was having on them. On the guards! Then he says, “Also, other Christians are hearing about my chains, and it’s making them more bold in their faith.” In chapter two he talks about how much he appreciates Timothy. He gives them an update on the health of Epaphroditus—the guy who had delivered the care package to Paul. In chapter four, he mentions two women in the Philippian church who haven’t been getting along—Euodia and Syntyche—and he says, “Tell them how important it is to reconcile with each other.” This is while Paul is in a prison cell—he’s concerned about these two women who aren’t getting along! And then in our passage today, he says, “You guys are amazing! You’re so thoughtful; you’ve supplied all of my needs. You guys have always been generous with me. And my God is going to meet all of your needs.”
Here’s the point: because Paul was content—because he wasn’t distracted by coveting or complaining—listen: it freed him up to focus on other people. Isn’t that beautiful? See, we only have so much bandwidth. We only have so much energy. And when we stop obsessing on all the things we don’t have, and all the things we want, and researching our next upgrade, we find ourselves with all kinds of energy to pour into other people. Think about that: the more content you are, the better you will be able to love the people around you. Because you’ll have the emotional energy and the time to listen to them; to care about them; to serve them. Contentment makes us less self-absorbed.
Secondly, contentment makes us more Attractive. Not in the way you might think. Look at verse 22: All God’s people here send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household. Think about what this means. Paul was in prison in Rome. The Emperor of Rome was Caesar. So Caesar’s household would include all of his staff and his family members. So apparently, there were members of Caesar’s household who were now part of “God’s people.” Literally, the Greek says “All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household.” In other words, some of Caesar’s staff or Caesar’s family had become believers in Christ.
These were people who were supposed to be loyal to Caesar above all else…but they had now encountered a king greater than Caesar. Isn’t that awesome? And we don’t know how many there were; we don’t know who they were. But the gospel was making inroads into the very heart of the empire. So here’s the question: how was it that a prisoner could gain enough respect and gain enough of a hearing in Caesar’s household that they would take him seriously? Because Paul wasn’t like the prisoners they normally saw. He was responding to a really bad circumstance in a really surprising way. And people noticed. And people were attracted to that.
Contentment is a very attractive thing. It got the attention of Caesar’s household! It gets the attention of people who are disillusioned by the selfishness around them. If you think about it, discontentment repels people, but contentment draws people. It makes our lives attractive, for all the right reasons.
Here’s the third benefit of contentment: Joy. If you had to pick a main theme for the book of Philippians, it would be joy. Paul was just a happy guy. And this is so challenging for us, because here’s the formula we normally used: “I will be joyful as soon as…(you fill in the blank). I will be joyful as soon as I find a better job. I will be joyful as soon as my husband changes. I will be joyful as soon as my chemo treatments are over. I will be joyful as soon as the country re-opens. Right? Joy is always just around the corner, which actually means what? It never comes. There’s always something that’s not quite right in your life, so you always view happiness as this future thing.
And here’s what Paul is showing us: joy is for now. It doesn’t mean you settle in life. It doesn’t mean you stop working on things—maybe you do need a better job; maybe your husband does need to change, but even if they don’t…it’s actually possible to be joyful and happy right now. Right in the midst of the mess! Because of contentment. Man, that’s an awesome gift.
So contentment frees us from the prison of self-absorption; it makes us attractive people; and it gives us joy no matter what’s happening around us. And we’ve been kind of hinting at this, but now let’s ask the most important question: how do you actually become content?
Last point: How to Get Contentment. It’s a two-part answer. So let’s talk first about The Process. Verses 11 and 12: 11a I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. There were times in Paul’s life when he was comfortable. His needs were met. But other times he was in need—including at that moment—being locked up. And his point is: those are the times when you learn to be content. You realize that contentment doesn’t have to depend on circumstances. And you would never know that, if you never experienced it. Mother Teresa famously said, “You’ll never know Jesus is all you need…until Jesus is all you’ve got.”
In other words, contentment is not something we just inherently know. It has to be learned. And that learning usually happens in times of need or loss. Your boyfriend says, “I think I need to move on from this relationship.” And your first response is, “I can’t live without him!” And God says, “Yes you can—you just haven’t learned it. It’s time to learn it.” Your boss calls you into his office and says, “I’m really sorry, but your job’s been eliminated.” And you think, “I can’t survive without this job.” And God says, “Actually you can. You just haven’t learned it yet. It’s time to learn it.” And you say, “Lord, couldn’t I just read a book about it?” No—you won’t really learn it that way. “Can’t I just listen to Pastor Dave preach about it?” Nope—you need more than that. You need to walk through it, and feel the pain of it, and actually experience God’s faithfulness in the midst of it.
Paul says, “I have learned to be content. This was a process.” And I’m pretty sure all of us are in the midst of a learning process right now, aren’t we? So instead of panicking, let’s try to embrace the learning. Let’s into it. Let’s allow God to train us through it.
So contentment comes through a process. But ultimately, contentment comes through Person. And that brings us to the famous Philippians 4:13: I can do all things through him who gives me strength. I’ve heard that quoted by athletes a lot: How did you have that amazing fourth-quarter comeback to win the game? “Because I can do all things through him who gives me strength.” Okay. I mean, I’m glad they’re talking about Jesus. But in the context, what’s the “all things” that Paul is talking about? Winning great victories? Not really. It’s about learning to find contentment and joy in hard places. Like prison. Like a pandemic lockdown. And Paul says, “The only way to do that is through Christ.”
I can do all this through him who gives me strength. So the strength he’s talking about is a derived strength. It doesn’t originate with me. Christ has the strength, and he gives it to me.
A few years ago I was renovating my house. And I had asked my friend to come and help me, because he has every conceivable tool you could want. We all have friends like that, right? Those tool guys, who have the best stuff, and they actually know how to use it. So we were doing something where we needed to drill through concrete. And I handed him the cordless drill that I normally saw him using. And he said, “No, no. To get through this, we need power.” So he went to his truck, and he got this drill that looked like a piece of torture equipment—it was rugged and dirty and the paint was chipped; it had an extra handle to hold with your other hand while you’re drilling. But the main difference was, it had a power cord. So he plugged it in, and he started drilling, and you could just see the power in that tool. But here’s the thing: none of the power in that drill originated in the drill. All the power came from an outside source: the electrical current coming out of that outlet. So the drill was incredibly effective…as long as it was plugged in. You see what I mean? I can do all this, but only through him, who gives me strength.
This is exactly the same concept Jesus talks about in John 15:5. Listen to this. Jesus said: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me (plugged in!) and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me (if you pull the cord out) you can do nothing.”
Listen: if you want to be free from self-absorption, so you can truly be present for others; if you want your life to be attractive to people in all the right ways—in ways that will draw them to what they really need; if you want to actually experience joy in the middle of chaos…in other words, if you want to be content, stay plugged in to the power source. Choose to remain in Christ. Here’s how…
Spend the first 15 minutes of your day listening for his voice in Scripture. Meditate on what you hear—talk it through with God. Otherwise you’ll forget it. And then take what you hear from him that morning with throughout your day.
When you feel the discontentment coming on, and you’re tempted to fill the emptiness with a sleeve of Oreos or a couple of shots of bourbon, or both, take a deep breath and say, “Lord, fill me with your presence.” Allow him to fill you and energize you. You say, “Well, that’s not really the same as Oreos and bourbon.” No, it’s not. It’s actually better. He’s actually better.
When you’re tempted to skip your small group, because you’re tired of meeting on Zoom, and you’d rather just watch TV, choose to open up your laptop and show up to your group. Because those are the people who are going to remind you and call you back to where the power is. Those are the people who are going to help you take your plug, and plug it back into Christ.
See, it’s like my friend, the tool guy, said to me that day: “To get through this, we need power.” Guys, listen: to get through this, we need power. And the power is found in Christ. He is the secret of contentment. Paul learned that secret sitting in a Roman cell. Michael Morton learned that secret sitting in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. And you and I have the opportunity to learn that secret now—this week—as we live through this crisis. What an awesome opportunity.
Someday in the future—maybe after a few weeks; maybe after a few months—this lockdown is going to end. And when it does, some people will go on with life no different than before. But not you. You’re going to be wiser and more loving and more powerful…because you’ve learned to be content.
The death and suffering caused by COVID-19 are tragic, but failing to learn from it would be tragic as well. Rather than just tolerating the lockdown, what if we walked through it expectantly? What if we could hear things from God that we wouldn’t hear at any other time? And what if we emerged from this crisis not just thankful that it’s over, but permanently changed for the better?