Have you ever noticed how discontentment with the circumstances of our lives spawns all kinds of problems? Some time ago I missed the freeway exit while driving with my family. Of course, the next opportunity to exit was several miles further down and, due to some road construction, taking this exit led me on a seemingly never-ending detour in order to get back to the freeway. With our toddler crying in the car seat, I was anything but content with how things were going. As the discontentment grew I became more and more anxious about getting where we needed to go, frustrated with myself, impatient with the detour, and angry about our situation. All of this eventually spilled over in a pitiful attempt to blame my wife for my having missed the exit in the first place!
Whether it’s driving woes, health problems, job tensions, relational troubles, financial issues, our personal appearance, or numerous other circumstances, it is quite easy to become discontented/dissatisfied with the way things are. And discontentment tends to breed a whole host of additional vices: worry, frustration, envy, jealousy, condemnation, control, etc. How different our lives would be if we were able to remain more content/at ease/peaceful in the midst of life’s detours.
It is the disturbing nature of discontentment that makes Paul’s teaching in Philippians 4:11–13 so incredibly striking. Paul claims that “whether living in plenty or in want” he has “learned the secret of being content in any and every situation.” That is absolutely amazing. Paul is no longer wrapped up in the turmoil of a discontented heart. Notice that it is not that he always gets what he wants (he is writing while chained to a Roman guard) nor that he is apathetic about his condition (he does genuinely appreciate the Philippians’ help), but he takes pains to make clear that even if the help had not come, he would have been able to remain content. And with contentment pervading his heart, the anxiety, frustration, envy, and anger fail to arise. Paul has learned an important dimension of the good life. But what is his secret?
Here we must be careful, for Paul’s secret has become cliché. His secret is: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (vs. 13). I remember seeing a Christian poster once with a climber atop a high mountain peak, hands outstretched towards the sky, with the caption beneath: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” This image seems to suggest that with Christ on our side, we can always succeed. But that is not what Paul is teaching here. Rather, he’s teaching us about experiencing contentment even when we miserably fail to reach the peak.
The strengthening of Christ does not change Paul’s circumstances for the better, but it changes Paul’s response to his circumstances. It seems that Paul is referring to the literal strengthening presence of Christ in his inner being (cf. Eph. 3:16; Col. 1:11). Paul has learned—to borrow another Pauline phrase—to be “filled with the Spirit” (Eph. 5:18). When Paul is filled with the love, grace, and truth of Christ he is strengthened internally and the circumstances of his life do not cause him the angst they otherwise would. He is tethered to the inexhaustible reality of the divine life from above that puts “living in plenty or in want” in perspective.
What is crucial for us, then, is not to try to drum up contentment in all circumstances. We have no direct control over that. What we can do is learn over time, as Paul did, to cultivate the strengthening presence of Christ in our lives so that we too might gradually find discontentment (and its attendant perils) a thing of the past. This will, of course, take time. And the way forward in this relational transformation is easier said than done. But we can take solace that we are not alone in the process. As Hebrews 13:5 puts it: “be content with what you have, for [God] has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’”