Is it possible to get to the point in our spiritual lives where things on the outside do not control what goes on inside? The Bible says it is possible. This is what Paul was hoping the Philippians would learn.
Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.
I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. – Philippians 4:11-12 (ESV)
Note the comprehensiveness of the extremes. He could be brought low and he could abound. He could face plenty and abundance or hunger and need. The situation did not matter to Paul. He was content under any circumstance and in any situation.
He had learned this secret to life. The LORD had put him through the rigors of His educational system and Paul came out on the other side with the precious jewel of contentment.
There is a simplicity on the other side of complexity, which Paul found only after going through many life adjusting events. This path to contentment is contrary to how our culture teaches us to find happiness.
The goal of the marketing gurus is to create discontentment, with the hope of motivating us to buy their products, which they say is the final right answer for the discontented soul.
All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. Ecclesiastes 1:8 (ESV)
Their method is a cycle that leads to ever-increasing desperation. These purveyors for our souls have duped us into participating in their endless loop of mind control, while growing our appetites for one more thing. It goes like this:
- We are not happy.
- What we need is what they have to offer.
- Then we will be happy.
- We buy what they are selling and get a pocket full of paste pearls.
- Like an addict in search of another bump, we go back for more.
- Our hearts stay restless and desperate.
- We are not happy.
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. – Psalm 23:1 (ESV)
In order to have contentment we must understand contentment. If we do not understand it, we may swerve off course looking for it in the wrong places, only to come back empty. Paul described contentment as having two component parts.
- To be full or complete.
- To have self-satisfaction.
To be full or complete is analogous to finishing a fabulous meal and being full. You are not stuffed, but full. You lean back in your chair and moan the moan that signals to everyone that you have all you need and there is no desire for anything else.
Self-satisfaction does not mean you are satisfied “with” yourself, but that you are satisfied “by” yourself. To be satisfied this way is to be independent, separated, and not controlled by your circumstances. This is a satisfaction of the mind that is not manipulated by other people or any situation.
A person who is full and satisfied is free from the pressures and manipulations of the world. They are not separated from the world as though the world does not matter, but they are not controlled by the world.
- To be contented does not mean you are indifferent to your circumstances.
- To be contented does not mean you will not struggle with hardships.
- To be contented does not mean you will stop buying things.
- To be contented does not mean you will cease from striving to change things.
- To be contented does not mean you will resign yourself to what will be, will be.
Contentment does not release you from caring about the cares of life, but it does free you from being controlled by the cares of life. Jesus always cared, always pursued, and always fought for change, but He was not under the spell of worldly temptations (James 1:14-15).
Jesus had an internal gyroscope that kept Him stable, even when there were storms (Mark 4:35-41). He submitted Himself to His Father, which kept Him from submitting to lesser insignificant powers.
This kind of contentment cannot be found in a drive-through culture, where dreams are realized instantaneously. The most contented people are those who put themselves under the LORD’s tutorship for years.
Contentment is something that is learned from acquired knowledge that comes through skill and experience. It is a process that you submit to—a process where the LORD burns contentment deep into your soul. Paul said it this way:
- I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.
- I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.
Paul was initiated into a secret that did not come to him all at once. He did not learn contentment until he was placed in situations that the LORD used to transform him.
The only way Paul could learn this secret of contentment when facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need was by walking with the LORD through those dangers, toils, and snares (2 Corinthians 11:23-29). This secret to contentment is similar to the process of most things we learn.
Anybody can say they have learned the secret of marriage, but if they have not been married or have not suffered the hardships of marriage, then it is not true. You cannot learn the secret of high-level life lessons if you have never experienced them.
Paul went through what appeared to be never-ending challenges. This is why he could say he had learned contentment. The proof was in the pudding or in his case, it was in his heart.
His two requirements for contentment are (1) difficult and challenging circumstances and (2) the constant practice of humbly responding to the LORD through those circumstances. If you possess these things, then you can say with Paul,
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.
All of life is a process of learning contentment. Everything that happens to you is for the purpose of teaching you how to be content. Your life story, the one the LORD is writing for you, is a process for practicing contentment.
The ups and the downs are mixed throughout your day as opportunities for you to learn and apply this secret about contentment that most people do not understand and have not learned.
The secret Paul learned was previously a mystery to him. As he labored through his circumstances with the LORD, the secret of contentment was slowly being revealed to him.
And what was that secret? It was this: God is always working in us for His glory and our good (Romans 8:28). The LORD allows all things into our lives to initiate a whole new way of thinking and living for Him and others.
God is always at work in you, using everything that happens to you, as His initiation process into a life of contentment – Charlie Boyd
The contentment the LORD provides will not be found in a book. There are areas in the Christian life that are more mysterious than methodological. There are areas in the Christian life that have to be learned over and over and over, again and again and again.
Most of us want a book that gives us five to seven steps that will show us the way to a happier life. God’s Word and God’s ways cannot be reduced to principles and steps.
While there may be some benefit to plans and processes, those things will not bring transformation to your soul. Methods are external, superficial ways that do not penetrate to the secret mysteries of the heart.
Only the Spirit of God, working in tandem with the Word of God (with your humble cooperation) can place this kind of jewel inside of you (Romans 8:26; 1 Corinthians 2:10; Hebrews 4:12-13)
Contentment is an inside to outside experience, not an outside to inside experience. Our culture teaches us to pamper ourselves on the outside so we will find contentment on the inside. We know their approach does not work.
The eye is never full of seeing and the ear is never full of hearing (Ecclesiastes 1:8). There is no amount of external, behavioral pleasure you can bring to yourself that will satisfyingly fill you on the inside.
The search for contentment is up to you. What choice will you make? Will you take the hard road by living your life from the inside to the outside? Or, will you pursue the insatiable route of working from the outside to the inside?
The outside to inside life is external and the only way you can manage it is by controlling all of your circumstances. If you can bring all of your daily and life events under the power of your sovereign care, then you will be able to enjoy contentment.
This will require you to keep all the bad things from you, while permitting only good outcomes to enter into your control center. This means you will need to control all present situations, while predicting future events so you can position yourself to bend those future events to your good favor.
The inside to outside life is internal first of all. It is counter-intuitive to our world, which means it falls in line with the Gospel (Galatians 2:14). This kind of life acknowledges and embraces weakness over strength (2 Corinthians 1:8-9, 4:7).
For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Corinthians 12:10 (ESV)
The contented person is quicker to say, “Not my will, but your will be done.” (See Luke 22:42). It is not that he has no personal power, but that he does not use it. He submits his strength for the greater strength of the LORD.
In this way, the contented person is stronger than the self-reliant person because he is relying on someone who is stronger. To rely on yourself is an admission of weakness, not strength.
My friend, Charlie Boyd, who preached this message on contentment, described the outside to inside people like thermometers and the inside to outside people like thermostats.
- Outside people, who seek to bring contentment to themselves through external means, are like thermometers—an instrument that is controlled by what is happening on the outside.
- Inside out people, who seek contentment through the internal work of God in their hearts, are like thermostats. They set the temperature in the room. They regulate what the temperature will be. If it is hot outside, they move the thermostat down to cool the room. If it is cold outside, they turn the thermostat up to elevate the heat in the room.
Thermometers are controlled and manipulated by the environment, while thermostats decide how things will be in the room. The former is reactive and the latter is proactive.
Call to action
What situation in your life today is trying to move you from contentment to discontentment? In that situation, are you more like a thermometer or a thermostat?
Do not miss Paul’s point about how you arrive at contentment. It is a learned condition of the heart, that comes from discerning and applying the LORD’s work in your life through years of constant practice.
But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. – Hebrews 5:14 (ESV)
The first step in acquiring contentment is a simple acknowledgement: “I know the LORD is working in my life through this circumstance.” Name the circumstance the LORD has brought into your life.
- Do you believe He allows the highs and lows, plenty and hunger for your good?
- Do you believe God has brought this situation to you?
- Is your first reaction to your difficulty to seek the LORD, hoping to learn from Him?
- Or, do you immediately seek to take control of the situation, trying to turn it to your desired and predetermined outcome?
How you answer questions three and four will tell you if you are on the path to contentment or on the path of ever-increasing relational dysfunction. The contented person is like a thermostat. When the heat rises, he/she brings the regulating power of the Spirit of God in the room and everyone’s soul is placed at ease.