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Learning Contentment

A homily by Jamie Floyd on Philippians 4:10-20 from Sunday, August 19.

This passage is almost the very end of Paul’s letter to the Philippians and he’s starting to wrap things up. We see that the church there has sent him some gifts and one of the things Paul is expressing in these verses is sincere gratitude for that support. I don’t know what the gifts were -- maybe money or supplies, and Paul is saying thank you. In the midst of doing so, Paul also describes a deep, personal journey that he has experienced regarding the sufficiency of Christ in his life, and manages to tie it into the thanksgiving and teach a powerful lesson.

I’d like to explore this journey Paul describes, but, before we do, I want to share a brief confession. Paul often comes across to me as very confident, and sometimes when I read his writings, I end up thinking to myself “What right does he have to be saying this stuff?” Here’s an example from today’s passage:

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. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Phil. 4:11-3)

You may not have the same reaction, but Paul’s words here strike me at first as a little haughty. Don’t get me wrong, I like the message. But I’d be much more inclined to rephrase: “Yeah, I’ve had some rough times, and I do my best to remember that God will supply everything I need, but sometimes I definitely don’t get all the way there.”

But why am I uncomfortable with the original version? I know in my head that Jesus is always enough for me, but this makes me wonder if my heart fully believes it. If I’m honest, I know that I’m at least a little discontent in almost all circumstances. In so many situations, I’ve been given all I could ask for and still I end up feeling “lacking." How can I possibly talk about being content in all circumstances when I can’t even handle the easy parts?

In some ways, it’s a personal insecurity that makes me react in opposition to Paul’s words. I am fairly young and often feel like I have less life experience than everyone around me -- which is probably true. But I have a strong tendency to magnify this difference, making me feel especially unqualified to make a statement like this, and in turn hindering my ability to appreciate Paul’s message.

Recently, I think what’s helping me reframe my judgement of Paul is learning to recognize God’s faithfulness in my life. It’s looking back at times when I’ve wrestled with vocational direction, struggled with personal inadequacy, or the hurt and loss in our first attempt to start a family -- and intentionally searching for God’s provision in those situations -- that has provided glimpses into this elusive contentendedness. Not that I necessarily saw all the ways God was loving and supporting me in those times, but now, because I’ve looked back at them and caught some of it, I feel a little better equipped to look for God’s provision in my next time of need.

This is teaching me to let go of the illusion that my youth precludes me from experiencing the sufficiency of Christ. As I cultivate this belief, Paul’s words begin to sound less hollow, more real, and more glorious. Maybe the phrase “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” is more about “him who strengthens me” than it is about “I can do all things." Maybe contentedness is worth boasting about because it gives glory to God, not to Paul, and not to me. It feels better for me to share in Paul’s joy than to envy his accomplishment.

So how does Paul’s journey toward accepting the sufficiency of Christ connect to the gifts sent to him by the Philippians? There are two verses that stick out to me. One is verse 11, which I mentioned before: “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” The other is verse 17: “Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit." The lesson Paul seems to be shimming into his thanksgiving is that it wasn’t the gifts themselves that brought him contentment. He had to work that out personally with God. With that said, he’s fully acknowledging the role that the Philippians gifts have played in supporting his ministry. He’s just so concerned with furthering God’s kingdom, and everything gets reframed in that light. I think this is a beautiful picture for us to consider as we plant a church in South Arlington. Can we be content with the resources available to us? If some of those were taken away? How can we be so convinced that Christ is enough?

We’re about to sing a song together called “It Is Well With My Soul.” It’s likely familiar to many of you, and it comes with a powerful backstory. The writer had just experienced a terrible loss: his wife and their four daughters were aboard a ship crossing the Atlantic when the ship crashed. His wife was saved from the wreckage, but his daughters were not. Amazingly, shortly after the writer heard this news, he wrote “It Is Well." As we sing it, I hope you’ll see another incredible example of contentedness and strength that isn’t dependent on circumstances, but instead on Jesus.

So let’s take a few quiet moments to think about our own contentedness. Do you, like me, always find something to be discontent about, even in times of abundance? Or are you enduring a time of need or sorrow? What would it look like to let go of these feelings and relax into God’s sufficiency and power? Take some time to consider, then we’ll sing.


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