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The Joy of Contentment - The Secret Sauce to Life (Philippians 4:10-20)

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Philippians 4:10-20

Paul ends his letter with a thank you to the Philippians that balances his gratitude for their gift with his desire to make sure they know their friendship is more than material support. He also wants them to know that following Jesus is more than receiving gifts but learning how to be content even when they have nothing. A great lesson for us all.

I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I find myself. 4:11

Getting Started: Things to Think About

If You Could Have . . .

I know I've suggested some version of this in the past, but apparently it's been years ago, so I'll bring it back out. There are two versions of this discussion that work really well for our passage.

If You Could Have One Superpower

Now that superhero movies are ubiquitous, just about every group should be able to have this discussion with aplomb. It's real simple: if you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?

I've always loved the idea of being able to move things with my brain (telekinesis). I'm sure that would ultimately get me into way more trouble than it would solve, but hey, it's a thought exercise, right?

This discussion takes a simple turn when you're done sharing ideas: why do we like to imagine having a superpower? It's because we're not satisfied with what we're actually capable of. "If only we had such-and-such superpower, our life would be so much easier." If we ever seriously have that thought, Paul has something to say to us this week.

If You Could Have One "Thing"

Let's say your group doesn't care for make-believe discussions. Another version of that is to get very material. Have you ever really, really wished you could have "x"? I'm not talking about miraculous -- all of us have wanted a "miracle cure" or a "miracle drug" for ourselves or someone we love. I'm thinking way more mundane. A plain ol' thing that you could actually purchase if you had enough money or the right contact.

For me, it's often a certain tool that I see people use on tv that I know would make my project go so much better. (Of course, the tool isn't so helpful if you don't know how to use it right!) But judging from the advertisements that pop up on my computer, I must really want the world's greatest bed. And yes, a million-dollar mattress that makes you feel like you're sleeping on a cloud wrapped in arms of feathery goodness and also makes you younger and healthier sounds like a really great thing to have.

[Side note: I'm sure you have also observed that your internet search suggestions and ads tie into something you just talked about. I used to pass that off as a coincidence. Now, I know that "they're always listening". So, maybe this question should be, "what does the internet think you really want right now?" 😇 ]

Like the other, this discussion takes a simple turn. Why do you want that "thing"? (And warning, if this turns into a discussion of needs vs. wants, you'll want (need?) to bring it to a close and move into the lesson. You'll cover that topic at the end!)

Version 2 of this discussion: what is that thing that you can't live without? If people in your group say that they have everything they could want, then flip it to "what's the one thing that you wouldn't give up?" This is usually played for a joke in the movies, and I doubt that any of us would actually say that we couldn't live without our Amazon Fire Stick or Apple EarPods or Ninja Food Processor, so this is more about those things that you shudder to think might break or get lost or be broken. I readily admit that I have had nightmares about losing my phone (and I'll also admit that I'm not convinced that my phone has made my life better). Why is that? What's so important about that "thing"?

Paul is going to help us put our "things" in perspective this week.


This Week's Big Idea: American Discontent

[Note: it is very difficult to keep this topic from becoming political, as the title of the very interesting book American Discontent: The Rise of Donald Trump and the Decline of the Golden Age proves. That author's argument is that Donald Trump, who had no political experience, rode a wave of "discontent" into office. I'm not talking about the political fallout -- I'm talking about the discontent behind it.]

There's no sense in trying to say that Americans are content right now. Discontent is pretty severe. But why is that?

As you can tell from the title of the book I just mentioned, that author believes that our discontent is tied to the end of our "Golden Age". I think he has a point. Our parents and grandparents believed that the world was going to be better for their children and grandchildren. That was our golden age. And that's gone. In 2016, 65% of Americans believed that the world had gotten worse in the previous year. Think back over the past twenty years -- what are the big things that come to mind? Well, if those are . . .

  • 9/11

  • 2008 housing bubble

  • Pandemic

  • Hate crimes

  • School shootings

  • Climate damage

and things like that, then why wouldn't you think that the world is getting worse? And as we all know, those are the things that the news media focuses on. So, we seem to be creating a society that believes things are getting worse.

But is it really? I read an article that argued that things are not getting worse:

and other things like that (some of which I may argue his definition of better vs. worse). Essentially, his point is that things are not getting worse as much as we are being convinced that they are.

Personally, I believe this is tied to our failure to be content. And if you think about it, our entire economy (society?) is built on discontentment -- you don't have the job you want, the income you want, the house you want, the things you want, the friends you want, the body you want. (And as the news is quick to point out, social media has only exacerbated this -- where we are constantly confronted with the filtered lives of the people around us.)

So let's get to the big transition question for our lesson: what do you think it means to be content? I found this question to be a whole lot harder to answer than I expected.

The definitions I could find online were some form of "being content means being satisfied" or "feeling satisfaction with one's possessions, status, or situation".

I'm not satisfied 😏 with that definition, and here's why.

To me, "satisfied" means that you don't feel the need to change anything; I don't believe that's biblical. In our passage this week, Paul is going to tell us that he is able to be content in all circumstances, like being full or being hungry. Get this: when Paul says he is content when he is hungry, he is not saying that he wants to be hungry or that he isn't looking to change his circumstance. He is simply saying that he is content in that circumstance. To me, that is different than saying Paul is "satisfied" when he is hungry, so that's why I don't like that word as a definition.

Contentment is something deeper, something personal. Here's my clunky definition of what it means to be content:

Being content means that regardless of my circumstances, my possessions, or my status, I know that I am a child of God who loves me and will meet my needs now and forever.

That will enable me to endure any circumstance, not measure my worth by my possessions or physical condition, and not live my life based on what someone else tells me I should have or be.

(The more I think about this, the more I realize that "contentment" probably means something very different to a non-Christian than to a Christian. Maybe that's why I don't like the dictionary definitions out there.)

Let's see what Paul has to say . . .


Where We Are in Philippians

Almost the end!

IV. Paul shares his heart with the Philippians (4:2-20)

a. Be reconciled with one another (4:2-3)

b. Don’t be anxious about anything (4:4-7)

c. Keep your thoughts on Jesus (4:8-9)

d. Be content in your circumstances (4:10-13)

e. Stay generous (4:14-20)

V. Closing (4:21-23)

Paul is wrapping up his words to the church in Philippi, and he offers these final encouraging words, including another "thank you" for their financial support.

Actually, this is a controversy in some Bible circles -- why did Paul wait until the very end of the letter to give this thank you? Seems rude -- a "thankless thanks". Indeed, here are some of the complaints made against Paul:

  • Paul isn't worried about money, so he didn't really care about their gift

  • Paul had actually asked for their help, so it wasn't really a "gift"

  • Paul's policy is not to accept handouts, so he didn't really want their gift

  • Paul and the church aren't getting along, so his thank you is begrudging

Wow. Harsh. And totally speculative.

Here's how my favorite commentary (Fee) explains the final part of the letter. First, and most important, it's in modern Western convention that we feel the need to start a "thank you letter" with an effusive thank you. But that's not what's going on in this letter.

  • First, this isn't a "thank you letter" but a "family letter" occasioned by their financial gift and Epaphroditus returning to them.

  • Second, Paul has repeatedly talked about how grateful he is to the church and their partnership with him and how thankful he is to God for them.

  • Finally, this letter was oral. Today, we study the letter and pick it apart. Then, the final words the church would have hear, the words that would have been "ringing in their ears", were this thank you and Paul's prayer that God would meet their needs.

In other words, it is completely appropriate that Paul saved his big thank you to the end.


Part 1: In All Situations (Philippians 4:10-14)

10 I rejoiced in the Lord greatly because once again you renewed your care for me. You were, in fact, concerned about me but lacked the opportunity to show it. 11 I don’t say this out of need, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I find myself. 12 I know how to make do with little, and I know how to make do with a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content—whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. 13 I am able to do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 Still, you did well by partnering with me in my hardship.

At quick glance, Paul might come across as a bit ungrateful (which is why I brought this up above). Here are two big reasons why Paul is taking this approach.

(1) The Greek Understanding of Friendship

In Greek thought (i.e. Aristotle and Cicero), there were three kinds of friendships:

  1. "Good" friendships -- this goes along with the idea "there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother" (that's a "good" friend)

  2. "Pleasant" friendships -- this is the friend that you enjoy spending time with, perhaps due to common interests or personalities

  3. "Useful" friendships -- this is the person you are willing to consider a friend based on how useful they are to you

As you can imagine, "useful" friendship is the lowest kind of friendship, something even the most selfish heathen can have. Paul wants to make sure that the church doesn't consider themselves "useful" friends -- Paul thinks of them much more highly than that.

(2) The Awkwardness of Pressure on a Volunteer

I could totally be reading myself into Paul, so take this with a grain of salt. Here is one of my biggest challenges as a church leader, a leader of groups of volunteers. Let me use the choir and the Sunday morning musician team as my example. Pretty much every week someone will come to me and say "I'm not going to be here on Sunday". And, of course -- people take vacations, people visit family churches, people have to work, people get sick. You're a volunteer with a life of your own, it would be unreasonable for me or anyone to think that everyone is going to be at church every Sunday morning.

(Indeed, one thing I try to combat among church member volunteers is the idea that they are obligated to be "serving at their post" every time the doors are open. That kind of pressure leads to burn-out and feelings of unappreciation.)

So, how do you balance those? How do you balance telling someone "I understand that you can't be here, and we will be okay without you" with "You're an invaluable part of the team and we're better when you're here" (both of which are true)? Again, I could be projecting myself onto Paul, but I see a little of that in how Paul has worded this: "Your gift meant a lot to me, but I would have been okay if you hadn't sent it; after all, I know how hard things are for you right now."

In my mind, that fully explains why Paul has chosen the words he has.

Paul is utterly thankful for their gift. For reasons he doesn't explain (again, this is Paul being circumspect about his audience), there was a time that they couldn't send him any gifts. Perhaps their poverty was too extreme. Perhaps the problems in the church meant that no one could leave for as long as it would take. He doesn't say. But note that he uses the imperfect tense in verse 10, which means that he knows that the church was continually concerned about him. This is his way of helping them feel okay about this length of time that they couldn't help him.

But let's get into the big topic for this passage: "content" in verse 11. The word for "content" is autarkes; it's very rare in the Bible. In fact, it's the word that the Stoics use for their highest ideal -- the goal of being "self-sufficient". In Stoic philosophy (which the Christians in Philippi would have been familiar with), the goal for humans was to "live above need" (as I think about it, that sounds a lot like the secular definition of "contentment" as "satisfaction" -- living above one's circumstances). Paul doubles-down on this image in verse 12: "the secret of being content" is a word based on the technical term that "mystery religions" in that day would use for being "initiated into the mysteries".

But Paul is not at all talking about what the Greek/Roman world believes about being content. Paul is not "self-sufficient" at all. Indeed, he has talked repeatedly about what he lacks and why the Philippians' gift has been so important. Instead, Paul takes that term ("content" = "sufficient") and turns it on its head:

Paul is not self-sufficient at all; he is "Christ-sufficient". Paul is not "self-satisfied"; he is "Christ-satisfied". Paul is not "independent"; he is "Christ-dependent".

That is as far away from the world's understanding of self-sufficiency as you can get. Paul did not choose his current circumstance (unlike Stoic philosophers who would do self-deprivation as part of their path to inner enlightenment); he would prefer not to be in prison. But when he is in prison, he is content, because to him, "to live is Christ".

A Stoic would only talk about being in need. Having nothing. But Paul talks about being content when he is in need and when he has plenty. When he is hungry and when he is full. And that's how Paul's words are surprisingly powerful to us today. Be honest with yourself -- in the world we live in, it can be just as difficult to be content when you have everything as when you have nothing. After all, someone else always has something you don't, right?

Now, remember that Paul has just told the Philippians that they can look to him as a model for Christlike living. Well, this is one of the most difficult trials of being a Christian -- being content as a Christ-follower when it has led you into difficult circumstances. We've talked about this repeatedly over the years -- people who think that Jesus will solve all of their problems when they become a Christian. Well, just read 2 Corinthians 11 to see what following Jesus has led Paul into! And yet, he is content. (I think the phrase "satisfied in Jesus" gets to it while avoiding my problems with that word.)

But let's get to the phrase that has been grossly misused over the years: "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me". When I was a new Christian, a friend of mine mentioned how her dad was struggling with being overworked and very tired. I quoted this verse and basically said that her dad just needed to have more faith.

Yeah, that was helpful.

First, let's read this verse in context. Paul's context is the idea of being content (in Jesus) in all circumstances. Is that hard? Yes. But Jesus can give you the strength you need to find that contentment in Him in your every circumstance.

But second, let's not limit this verse to being content in every circumstance. Paul indeed says "all things" here. But note immediately that this "all things" is in Christ or through Christ. Paul is not saying that Jesus gives Him the strength to "do anything". He isn't going to become a pop superstar. Investment banker extraordinaire. All-world athlete. That's not what Paul is saying at all. Rather, Paul is saying that Jesus gives Paul the strength (and ability) to follow Jesus wherever and however Jesus leads. That's the full context of these chapters, right? That's really what's on Paul's mind, right? Is it hard to follow Jesus? Yes. But Jesus will help you follow Him, no matter how tough it gets.

To me, that understanding of verse 13 is not only more accurate, it's more encouraging. Why would I expect Jesus to make me a pop star? But shouldn't I expect Jesus to help me follow Him?

The end goal of this Bible study is to understand and apply this passage to your life. What are those areas/circumstances in which you are not content right now? How can what Paul has said help you? (Again, also remember that being "content" in your circumstance doesn't mean that you like it and don't want to change it.)

The Lifeway leader guide gave some role play scenarios which put some meat on these bones -- a mother raising a special needs child, a man who lost his job, a woman receiving a cancer diagnosis. Those are real and practical. Can you see how you would find contentment in those circumstances?


Aside: Being a House Prisoner in Rome

I mentioned this briefly a few weeks ago, and I think it's worth bringing back up. People on house arrest in Rome (like Paul) had to provide for their own needs.

2:25 But I considered it necessary to send you Epaphroditus—my brother, coworker, and fellow soldier, as well as your messenger and minister to my need—

Paul couldn't leave the house, and the Roman soldiers certainly weren't going to bring him food or clothing. (No, don't get sidetracked on a discussion about modern prison administration!) Paul was dependent on people like Epaphroditus and Timothy to take care of him. This, I believe, is why Paul focused on the Stoic idea of "contentment" and flipped it on its head. Paul was helpless -- totally insufficient. And yet he was content, not because he was self-content, but because he was Christ-content.


Part 2: Through Other Believers (Philippians 4:15-18)

15 And you Philippians know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving except you alone. 16 For even in Thessalonica you sent gifts for my need several times. 17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the profit that is increasing to your account. 18 But I have received everything in full, and I have an abundance. I am fully supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you provided—a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.

I'm going to skim through this to save space. The background is simple. Ever since Paul planted the church in Philippi, they have materially supported him in his further church planting ministry -- more than any other church.

2 Cor 11:8 I robbed other churches by taking pay from them to minister to you. 9 When I was present with you and in need, I did not burden anyone, since the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied my needs. I have kept myself, and will keep myself, from burdening you in any way.

This is not to say that no one else supported him (note the plural in 2 Cor 11 vs. the singular in Phil 4) but rather that the church in Philippi was his "champion" supporter.

But again, Paul doesn't want to reduce their friendship to one of "usefulness". They are worth more to Paul than their financial gift. That's why the idea of "partnership" appears throughout this letter -- in this case, "giving and receiving". They are in this together. Paul gave to them (the gospel), and they have given back to Paul (support and friendship and resources). And Paul has received it and is satisfied. He has everything he could need.

Have you ever said that to somebody? It's obviously an exaggeration, but you still mean it? That's what Paul is doing here. He's thanking them in the most complete terms possible. Not only has Paul received the gift, but God has received it (metaphorically/spiritually) through Paul. Think of it in terms of what Jesus said:

Matt 25:37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and take you in, or without clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick, or in prison, and visit you?’ 40 “And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

In other words, when we are helping people in the name of Jesus, it is as if we are serving Jesus Himself. Paul knows that he is absolutely "the least of these" (he calls himself that more than once), so he can confidently say that God is pleased with the help that the Philippians have given Paul.

We need to clarify something very important, but let's add the final part first:


Part 3: For His Glory (Philippians 4:19-20)

19 And my God will supply all your needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. 20 Now to our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.

As you might have guessed, these verses have been hijacked by the Prosperity Gospel. These are the tv preachers who say things like "if you just give money to me, God will make you rich" and take exorbitant salaries to "prove" that God wants you to be rich.

That's not at all what Paul is saying (or what God prioritizes).

This actually goes back to the "giving and receiving" of the previous part. Paul gave, they gave, Paul gave, they gave. And in the end, God will do the ultimate giving. Paul's in prison. He has nothing left to give them. But he doesn't need to, because he knows that God will take care of them. And it's that a much better promise than Paul's meager resources?

The Prosperity Gospel preachers focus on the words "abundance" and "riches" ("everything in full" is translated" full payment" in the NIV because Paul is using a commercial metaphor). And this has led to a lot of cynicism directed toward Paul -- using "flattery as a cloak for greed".

While that's certainly what Prosperity Gospel preachers are doing, that's not at all what Paul is doing.

Instead, we need to focus on the word "needs" and the descriptor "riches in glory in Christ Jesus". You can probably already imagine how those words cut off the folly that God wants His children to desire "material riches beyond their needs" and that He will supply such desires. Now would be the time to have that discussion of wants vs. needs.

But how boring is the desire for material riches! You can't take them with you, right? They're all going to turn to dust, right? But the riches in glory in Christ Jesus? Now those are true riches.

Matt 6:19 “Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal. 20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal."

What are "treasures in heaven"? And how do we store those up? I'm not going to answer that question for you -- I want you to work that out. But I can say that it's related to "riches in glory in Christ Jesus". It's the sort of riches/treasures that we should actually have our hearts set on.

That's not to say that God minimizes our earthly needs! Jesus went on from the passage above to say

25 “Therefore I tell you: Don’t worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing? 26 Consider the birds of the sky: They don’t sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you worth more than they? 27 Can any of you add one moment to his life span by worrying? 28 And why do you worry about clothes? Observe how the wildflowers of the field grow: They don’t labor or spin thread. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was adorned like one of these. 30 If that’s how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and thrown into the furnace tomorrow, won’t he do much more for you—you of little faith? 31 So don’t worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you. 34 Therefore don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own."

When Paul tells that Philippians that God will take care of their needs, he really means that. And he means that for us too! But Paul's understanding of "need" might be rather different from ours in modern America.

Verse 20 is another of Paul's beautiful conclusions. When he thinks about God and God's blessings, he can't help but break out into praise. Our term for this is "Doxology". "For everything God gives, may He receive glory forever." Paul has received material support from Philippi while he was in prison, and he thanks God for it. Why? Because every good and perfect gift comes from God.

This is Paul's final example to the Philippians, to see all of life in light of Jesus.

What have been your favorite lessons in Philippians? How will Paul's words (in any of these lessons) help you follow Jesus this week?


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