Have you ever had a big event where you expected a lot of people to show up? You planned for a Bible study and had 25 people tell you that they would come. Then, only 5 showed up. You planned an anniversary party for 100, and only 50 showed up. Disappointment.
Getting involved with people can be disappointing. The Apostle Paul was involved with a lot of people. He was dependent on people to give him money to fund his work.
We might expect that when people didn’t give what they had promised, he might be frustrated. But he wasn’t. He had learned the secret to contentment: “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil. 4:11-12).
Most of us walk around thinking that we would be happy if other people would change. If my kids would act differently, if my spouse would show me respect, if my employer was more understanding, if I had more money, if I had a better car, if I lived somewhere else, I’d be happy.
The trouble with this approach is that things outside of us will rarely match up to our expectations inside us. So, we’ll always be unhappy.
There’s another option. We can adjust to our circumstances. That’s the secret to contentment that the Apostle Paul had learned.
Notice that he had learned it. He does not say that he knew how to be content the moment he became a Christian. It’s something he learned.
So, we can learn it, too.
Here’s the sum of what he learned: leave the past in the past, leave the future in the future, and embrace the present good and opportunities.
Leave the past in the past. We often can’t let go of the failures, hurts, and losses of the past, and so we can’t be happy in the present. The Apostle Paul had learned to let those things go. “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14).
Leave the future in the future. Worry about the future robs us of contentment in the present. Here’s what Paul had learned: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Phil. 4:6). We can be sure that our heavenly Father will take care of us in the future and that our future is bright. We just need to lay these worries on Him and let Him carry them.
Embrace the present good. As I pointed out here, our brain is like velcro for the bad and teflon for the good. We need to start taking in the good. Since we normally don’t take in the good around us, it’s not surprising that we’er unhappy.
Here’s what the Apostle Paul said: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8). Don’t ignore the bad. Just take in the good. That’s the secret to contentment.
The most important present good is the love of Christ. We can rejoice in the Lord. In Him, we are the forgiven, justified, adopted children of God who are being made like Christ and transformed into eternal glory. If we would take this one thing in, we would be much less concerned about our circumstances.
Finally, we need to embrace the present opportunities. We are often stuck in the opportunities of the past or looking for those of the future, but there are opportunities for us to do significant things today. The Apostle Paul prayed that they would find this, “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more” (Phil. 1:9). Not tomorrow but today.
For example, people often lament that their family relationships aren’t what they had hoped for, and they lose sight of the opportunity that they have the opportunity to work on those relationships today.
Embracing the opportunities we do have and letting go of the opportunities we’d like to have but don’t will bring us contentment in the present.
God has so much more for us than we tend to think or often notice. He has love and peace for us that transcends our understandings. He has blessings in abundance. He wants to use us to do significant things that bless ourselves and others and glorify God. So, let’s leave the past in the past, leave the future in the future, and embrace the present good and opportunities.
This may seem like a tough task. Another part of Paul’s secret is that we can’t do it on our own. It’s Christ in us: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me the strength.” It’s ultimately Christ who gives us the very peace that produces contentment.
In the church, we often talk about receiving Christ as our Savior. If you haven’t done that, I would encourage you to do so. But that’s just the beginning. Christ is not only the one who saves us. He’s the one who continues to empower us and shower us with His love. We need to continue to embrace that by the same faith by which we first believed.
Unlike some cynics, I don’t think Tim Tebow is wrong to apply Phil. 4:13 to football. God is pleased with our work and play in creation as well as activities that relate to salvation.
However, let’s note the immediate context. This is about contentment. God wants us to experience joy and peace. He’s not only calling us to experience it. He’s empowering us to do it. Let’s believe and claim this promise.