Many people watch the Olympics but very few ever participate. To compete on the world stage at that level requires huge sacrifices—a micromanaged diet, rigorous exercise, and avoiding activities that bring any risk of injury.
I’ve wondered what my chances would be if I gave up the burgers and soda, submitted to the tutelage of personal trainers and fitness gurus, and spent my life quarantined from health hazards. Truth is, even if I made all those sacrifices, Olympic athletes would still leave me in the dust. I might be able to replicate their daily regimen, but I can’t possibly replicate their raw athletic ability.
But Paul didn’t simply manufacture his contentment by making those choices. He didn’t decide one day to stop being dissatisfied and wish his own contentment into existence. Nor was it merely a product of self-discipline and self-determination. The contentment he learned didn’t start with his ability to survive on very little, or the simplicity of his material desires.
Paul’s contented outlook started with, and was empowered by, the ultimate sustenance and satisfaction he found in Christ. The desires and trappings of this world meant nothing in comparison: “I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). As John MacArthur explains, that was the fundamental secret to Paul’s abiding contentment:
Paul could face any earthly circumstance with this confident assurance: “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). He had learned that no matter how difficult things get in this material world, every Christian has a spiritual undergirding.
In saying he could do all things through Christ, Paul was referring to endurance, not miraculous provision. He didn’t mean he could go on forever without eating or drinking. He couldn’t be battered 5,000 times and still survive. There’s a limit to the physical hardships any human being can endure. Instead Paul was saying, “When I have come to the end of my own resources, then I experience the power of Christ to sustain me until a provision is made.” He believed in the promise of Isaiah 40:31: “Those who wait for the Lord will gain new strength; they will mount up with wings like eagles, they will run and not get tired, they will walk and not become weary.”  John MacArthur, Anxious for Nothing (Colorado Springs, CO: David C. Cook, 2006) 135–36.
Like Paul, we need the provision of divine power to do what is not humanly possible: to be content in trials and hardships; to wean us from dissatisfaction. and break off from the pattern of this world’s runaway materialism and chronic dissatisfaction. Apart from God’s transforming work and the indwelling presence of the Spirit, there’s no lasting cure for our natural selfishness and quest for comfort. God’s abundant power and provision are why Paul was able to live in an ongoing state of contentment, even in the face of poverty, imprisonment, and constant spiritual opposition. In fact, it was those trying circumstances that proved to be the fertile soil for divine sustenance to take root.
Contentment is a by-product of distress. It comes when you experience the sustaining power of Christ when you simply have run out of steam: “To him who lacks might He increases power” (Isaiah 40:29). We do well to experience enough difficulty in our lives to see Christ’s power on display in us.
I know I’ve grown through the years in my capacity to experience contentment. One main reason is I’ve seen God do things in my life that only He could do. Otherwise I would have been prone to experience anxiety, a lack of peace, and fear of my ability to handle a difficult situation. Rather I’ve learned to cast myself on His strength and say, “Lord, this is a situation I cannot resolve on my own. No human resources are sufficient. I’m depending on You to see me through” (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:13). Anxious for Nothing, 136.
How does God dispense that strength?
Do you know how a pacemaker works? It kicks in when the heart it’s attached to doesn’t work right. It’s a sustaining power. We as believers have a reservoir of spiritual power that moves into action when we have come to the end of our resources. Therefore we can “do exceeding abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us” (Ephesians 3:20).
You’ll learn contentment when you’ve stood in the valley of the shadow of death, when you’ve been at the brink, when you can’t resolve your problems, when you can’t eliminate the conflict, when you can’t fix your marriage, when you can’t do anything about the kids, when you can’t change your work environment, when you’re unable to fight the disease that’s wracking your body. That’s when you’ll turn to God and find the strength to get through the situation. Anxious for Nothing, 136–37.
That’s a tremendously encouraging perspective on the trials and adversity that a fallen world regularly throws our way. But John also warns that God’s strength doesn’t excuse us from hardship that resulting from sin in our lives:
To add an important qualifier, however, if you’ve been living a life of sin and you’re now at the bottom of the pit where sin has led you, don’t expect the Lord to step in, put on a dazzling display of His power, and make you feel content. What He’s more apt to do is add chastening to the pain that your circumstances have naturally produced. There’s no quick fix for a sinful pattern of living. Just like health is the result of right living in the physical dimension, so is power from God the result of being obedient in the spiritual dimension. Anxious for Nothing, 137.
We must not fall into the trap of treating divine sustenance as a replacement for our own responsibility to war against sin. Rather, Christ’s strengthening power assures us that we will have all the resources we need when entering the battlefield.
Moreover, we must not delude ourselves into thinking we can follow Paul’s blueprint for contentment in our own strength. It requires an alien empowerment—divine strengthening from Christ. As the Lord has said, “apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
When we forsake independence in order to be dependent on Christ, He will sustain us. And that means we can enjoy constant contentment regardless of what this fallen world throws our way. Being divinely sustained means that we, like Paul, can find and practice contentment in any and every situation—doing “all things through Him who strengthens me.”