The following blog post was originally published on August 22, 2016. —ed.
Contentment is elusive in this fallen world. People move through life full of regret of the past, anxiety about the future, and dissatisfaction with the present.
Frankly, that’s understandable. Life rarely plays out in alignment with our desires. Or as one “philosopher” from the sixties put it: “You can’t always get what you want.” Yet being unsatisfied with our past or present circumstances is only part of what causes the common lack in contentment.
Pessimism about the future also plays a needed role in our restless discontentment. Seemingly endless wars, spiraling debt, circusy elections, and moral anarchy all conspire together to stamp out any hope for the future. Closer to home the outlook isn’t better: family dysfunction, sickness, aging, and financial concerns constantly threaten to undermine any remaining contentedness in our households.
On top of all that, an unbelieving world searches for contentment in places where it can never be found. Wealth, power, prestige, and temporal pleasure all hold a strong allure, but they only cultivate our thirst for more. They end up becoming the source of more dissatisfaction rather than the solution to it.
The only true contentment comes from living life in reconciled harmony with the sovereign, unchanging God of the universe. It’s why the apostle Paul instructed the church at Philippi to,
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6–7)
In that same chapter, Paul goes on to say that “I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am” (Philippians 4:11). That’s not to say that Paul had found a state of being that was free from suffering, disasters, or opposition. Rather, he was able to embrace all hardships as essential components of God’s sovereign plan. The contentment (autarkēs in the Greek) he describes transcends all of those things. His union with Christ brought with it a profound sense of satisfaction and independence from worldly distractions. And that was because Paul’s dependence and sufficiency were found in Christ: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
John MacArthur elaborates further:
Paul was saying, “I have learned to be sufficient in myself—yet not in myself as myself, but as indwelt by Christ.” He elsewhere expressed that subtle distinction: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered Himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20). Christ and contentment go together.  John MacArthur, Anxious for Nothing (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2006) 129.
But Paul’s view was at loggerheads with the Greek philosophers of his day—the Stoics. John MacArthur explains:
The Stoics held that all reality is material, and they stressed putting aside passion and extravagance to perform one’s duty and gain true freedom. . . . They believed autarkēs or contentment was achieved only when one came to the point of total indifference. Anxious for Nothing, 129.
But the contentment Paul described was never detached from his passions; rather, it was found in His ultimate passion—Christ. It wasn’t being disconnected from all things that made Paul content. It was His connectedness to Christ that was all-satisfying and the cause of Christ was all-consuming. His letters to the churches he planted are overflowing with love for Christ and love for His people. As John MacArthur points out: “Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he took the idea of contentment much further than it was taken even in the Greek culture, where the word first found its meaning.” Anxious for Nothing, 130. What Paul left us with was a divinely inspired thank-you note.
But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me. Nevertheless, you have done well to share with me in my affliction.
You yourselves also know, Philippians, that at the first preaching of the gospel, after I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving but you alone; for even in Thessalonica you sent a gift more than once for my needs. Not that I seek the gift itself, but I seek for the profit which increases to your account. But I have received everything in full and have an abundance; I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God. And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:10–19)
Paul’s concluding words to the church at Philippi were an expression of his heartfelt gratitude for them. And behind that gratitude was a contentment found in the midst of extreme hardship in a Roman prison. He expressed that contentment—designed and provided by God—because he wanted the Philippians to know how to experience it as well.
In verses 10–19, as he thanked the Philippians for their gift, he indirectly offered himself as an example of contentment. Paul knew how to rejoice in every circumstance and be free from anxiety and worry, because his heart was guarded by the peace of God and the God of peace. His example is especially relevant to our utterly discontented culture.  John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Philippians (Chicago: Moody Press, 2001) 297.
In the days ahead we’ll take a closer look at Philippians 4:10–19—a passage that contains five indispensable principles for finding true contentment.
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