Last time we looked at the exile and how God can work through suffering. We saw that God promises to be with His people in suffering, and how he works through it to teach them to rely fully on him.
This week we’re going to look a bit more about how to find God in the middle of suffering and to rely on him. This week I’m going to teach you a secret. In Philippians 4, Paul wrote “I have learnt the secret of being content in any and every situation”. It’s a good secret, and it’s one we really need to know if we are to rely fully on God.
Can you keep a secret? I hope not. You see, in the Bible secrets are not something hidden. They are something that God has revealed! Paul talks a lot about secrets when he means things that God has shown him, and then he goes on to show them to us.
Why is Paul about to tell us this secret? Well, he’s just been given a nice big gift from the church at Caesarea Phillipi. They sent out a messenger, a man called Epaphroditus, to Rome to find Paul and give him some money. Paul has probably been in Rome for a while, and to be honest he probably thinks that the Phillipian church has been a bit slow to help him out. He says in verse 10 “I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me”. So he’s saying “thank you for the gift, but to be honest I didn’t need it; God is enough for me.” And he takes the opportunity to teach them this secret: how to be content in any and every situation.
What an amazing thing to say. It’s easy to say something like that if you’re in a good situation yourself, but let’s look at where Paul is. He’s been arrested in Ephesus and moved from prison to prison before being sent to Rome. He’s on his final appeal, and if he loses this one, then he’s going to be killed. Paul has gone from being a rabbi in Tarsus, a pretty upmarket city, studying in one of the most exclusive theology schools, to a prisoner in chains on Death Row. And he’s talking about being content? Yes, he is. This is a man who is totally reliant upon God, and he says that God meets all his needs. In fact, he writes to the Phillipians in verse 19 that God will also meet all their needs. His contentment is something that everyone can experience. How? What’s the secret?
He starts off by telling people not to worry. Jesus says the same thing: “Do not let your hearts be troubled; believe in God, believe also in me”; (John 14:1) “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Matthew 6:34) But Paul gives a bit more advice as well: when you are worried, talk to God about it. The first key to spiritual contentment is Prayer.
Paul’s remedy for worry is prayer, petition and thanksgiving. Prayer is simply telling God what we feel. We have a tendency to make our prayers very “religious”, all nice and tidy and making sure we say the right things. But that is not going to stop us from worrying; that will only hide the problem. Paul encourages to be honest with God. If you look at David’s Psalms, you will find that many of them are not nice and tidy and religious. When he is surrounded by his enemies, David wants God to kill them. When David feels that life isn’t fair, he tells God that he’s had enough. God knows what we think anyway, so there is no point hiding it from Him.
But that’s not all. Prayer is more than just complaint! Paul also encourages us to petition God, to ask Him for what we need. God is interested in the smallest details of our lives, and asks us to take them to Him in prayer. But prayer is also more than just sounding off at God; it is also giving Him thanks for what He has done. It’s when we’re feeling worried and discontented that we are least able to see what God has done for us, but it’s then that we most need to remember it.
Prayer will give us peace; in the next verse, Paul tells us that God’s peace will guard our hearts and minds and stop us from worry. The message here is that once we take our situation to God, and once we remember that He has been faithful and trustworthy to us, then we will receive His peace.
And Paul’s other key to spiritual contentment, the secret he wants to share, is about knowing that God is with him - he says “I can do all things through the one who strengthens me.” Paul is not talking about just getting by. He’s talking about experiencing the kind of fullness of life that Jesus promised him - a fullness that does not depend on his circumstances but on being in the will of God and knowing the love of God.
You see, there are three dangers when we think about having fullness of life. The first is that we want it all now. Or rather, we think that we should get what we want right now. We expect God to change our situation, to give us physical and material blessings right now, and then we’ll be content. But material blessings can’t give us this kind of fullness of life. John D Rockefeller, the world’s first billionaire, was asked how much money is enough - he replied “Just a little bit more.” Money and material possessions weren’t designed to fulfil us, and they don’t do a good job of it. Even if we did get want we want, we still would not be living in that quality of life that Jesus is talking about.
If the first danger is that we want it all now, the second danger is that we think it’s all going to happen in the future. Books like “The Purpose Driven Life” have been very popular recently and they help us to think about what God’s plan for our life is. But working out God’s plan for our life can seem a bit distant and far in the future, when actually we need to be in God’s will right now. When I realised that God wanted me to come here to Japan, I don’t really feel like I knew God’s “plan for my life”. First I knew that He wanted me to go and visit Japan for a month to see what it was like; then I knew that He wanted me to go to Bible college; then I knew that He wanted me to come out to Japan. I don’t know what He wants me to do next. I have some ideas, but I don’t want to hold onto them too hard. All I need to know is God’s plan for my life today. Like Jesus said, tomorrow has enough worries of its own.
The third danger is that we think that this is as good as it gets. It may not feel pretty good, but we think that we ought to just settle down and make the best of what we have. This way of thinking is a particular danger because it’s quite close to what Paul is saying. And we can so easily slip into it. The people in Caesarea Phillipi would recognise it; there was a popular Greek philosophy going around called Stoicism which said that this was as good as it got, and that you could find happiness just by accepting your situation.
In fact, you can probably recognise it here in Japan as well. “Shikata ga nai”. It can’t be helped. We just deal with what we have. But Paul is not saying that we should be happy with the little that we have. Nor is he talking about getting what we want. He’s talking about wanting what we get.
Actually, Paul is saying that we have all we need. It’s not our situation that God needs to change, but our expectation. In 2 Corinthians 9, Paul says that “you have enough of everything in every way at all times”. Remember that this is a man in prison, on Death Row, who has given up everything he had for the sake of the Gospel. And he claims to have “enough of everything in every way at all times”. That is contentment.
How is this different from the Stoic, shikata-ga-nai attitude? It’s all about trusting that God is good. I know that sounds very simple and obvious, but that’s what it is. It’s trusting that when we are in the will of God, He gives us the best. It is asking Him to adjust our expectations. We were never meant to set our own goals for our lives. We were meant to live in the plans and the purposes that God has for us. This is the only way we will find contentment: to know that God is with us, and that He supplies all of our needs, and that we trust Him to do what is best with our lives.
And when we are content in ourselves, then we can give out to others: 2 Corinithians continues like this: “having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” Once we know that we have enough of everything in every way, then we can trust God with our own needs and gein to minister to the needs of others. And isn’t that what being in the will of God means? Through prayer, through the peace of God in our hearts, and through persevering in the will of God, we can learn the secret of being content in every situation.