By Mike Willis
In recent issues, I have been studying Philippians 4 to learn principles of spiritual health which enable us to enjoy life’s best moments and to endure its adversities. We have previously emphasized that good spiritual health requires the following: (a) Rejoicing in the Lord; (b) Letting your moderation be known to all men; (c) Living with the awareness that the Lord is at hand; (d) Being anxious for nothing; (e) Thinking on things which are pure. Good spiritual health also requires that we learn to be content in whatever condition we find ourselves. Paul wrote:
Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need (Phil. 4:11-12).
There is happiness to be found in contentment. Elsewhere Paul wrote, “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Tim. 6:6).
When Paul penned this epistle his circumstances were such that few of us would have been content with them. He was in a Roman prison for preaching the gospel – suffering evil for having done good. Not only was that so, some of his own brethren were preaching from impure motives with the express purpose of doing him harm (Phil. 1:16). Nevertheless, Paul had learned to be content.
“I Know How to Be Abased”
Paul recognized that there were lessons which a person learns from his infirmities and afflictions. He had personally experienced such afflictions. He had been “in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in watchings, in fastings” (2 Cor. 6:5). He had been “in labors more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft. Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; in journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches” (2 Cor. 11:23-28).
On top of this he was given a “messenger of Satan,” a “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7). Three times he asked the Lord to remove it. Finally, the Lord replied, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Paul accepted the Lord’s “no.” He learned how, not only to be content, but to benefit from the Lord’s decision. Therefore, he said, “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
The wise man taught us to give thought to afflictions. “In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: God also hath set the one over against the other, to the end that man should find nothing after him” (Eccl. 7:14). The same God who allows good times also allows evil times to come. Like Paul, we need to learn how to be contented in evil days.
The psalmist saw that God’s afflictions drove him back to God. Consequently, he wrote,
Before I was afflicted I went astray: but now have I kept thy word (Psa. 119:67).
It is good for me that I have been afflicted; that I might learn thy statutes (Psa. 119:71).
I know, O Lord, that thy judgments are right, and that thou in faithfulness hast afflicted me (Psa. 119:75).
Have we learned to be content in these kinds of circumtances? One of the lessons which we must learn in order o have good spiritual health is to be content in the midst f adverse circumstances. Where this does not happen, men lecome bitter, sour, and resentful in their dispositions oward God. Paul could say, “I have learned how to be tbased.” Most of us who have been raised during the pros)erity which has been in America during my lifetime have aperienced very little abasement to learn the spiritual lessons vhich accompany it.
“I Know How to Abound”
Paul also stated that men had to learn how to abound. He was not teaching “seven laws of prosperity” or “how o become rich” when he emphasized man’s need to learn “how to abound.” There are certain temptations which come with wealth which must be overcome. A Christian must learn the stewardship of his prosperity and overcome the temptations associated with wealth. Unfortunately, these lessons have not been learned by most Americans who have abounded.
Here are some sins which accompany wealth: (a) Atributing one’s prosperity to his own abilities (cf. Lk. 2:15-21); (b) Laying up treasure on earth (Matt. 6:19-21); (c) Using one’s wealth to satisfy his own lusts without regard to the claims which the poor and needy have on him (Lk. 6:1-31); (d) Becoming arrogant (1 Tim. 6:17); (e) Trusting in riches (1 Tim. 6:17); (f) Thinking oneself to be self-sufficient (Rev. 3:17); (g) Allowing the cares of this world to choke out the gospel (Lk. 8:14). The list could be extended.
I have witnessed prosperity destroy the souls of men. The love of money has caused some Christians to take jobs which revent their worshiping with the saints. Abundance has enabled other Christians to become so involved in recreational activities (bowling leagues, softball leagues, etc.) and with entertainment facilities (a boat on the lake) that God is virtually eliminated from their lives. Such people may be abounding, but they have not learned to abound in the sense that Paul did.
Paul learned that one’s prosperity should be used to the glory and service of God. He had seen the good which men like Barnabas were able to do with their wealth (Acts 4:36,37) and, therefore, he willingly used his wealth to further the Lord’s kingdom. He labored to provide not only for his own needs, but also for the needs of others (Acts 20:34). He did not allow his prosperity to distract him from is service to God, as Demas did (2 Tim. 4:10).
Paul wrote, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” (4:11). The word “contentment” (from autarkeia) means “a mind contented with its lot.” Contentment is learned behavior. Writing in the Pulpit Commentary, R.M. Edgar said, “We cannot acquire it at a bound. We must serve our apprenticeship to it as to any other art. It is not a science to be theoretically mastered, but an art to be practically obtained. We must go to the ‘school of art,’ we must set ourselves earnestly as scholars to learn the lesson, and we must ‘keep our hands in’ by constant practice” (173).
Contentment accepts one’s state in life as the allotment of the providence of God. To learn to accept the allotments of the providence of God is a lesson which we slowly learn. Some pass through life never content with their circumstances in life; their discontentment leads them into sin.
There are sins associated with discontentment, such as murmuring, complaining, bitterness, envy, jealousy, etc. (see concordance for illustrations). He who has not learned to be content with his circumstances in life has not reached spiritual maturity. (This should not be understood to mean that one should cease trying to improve himself or cease trying to do more in the Lord’s work.)
Good spiritual health requires that one learn to accept those things which he cannot change with contentment. This contentment is not related to outward circumstance (whether one is abased or abounds). This contentment is grounded in God.
Guardian of Truth XXXV: 18, pp. 546, 566-567
September 19, 1991