Joy Experienced in Contentment
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The book of Philippians is often noted for its expressions of joy. What is the relationship between contentment and joy?
Thank you, worship team, thank you, John. I just underline what John said about praying for the pastoral search team. If you're not aware of this, they are doing their first interview, a video interview of one of the candidates that they're taking a very close look at. They're doing that today at 3:00 p.m. and I know they'd covet your prayers. You pray for them, for wisdom, for discernment, just to hear the Spirit's leading even as they go through this season of very intense interviewing. Now, three o'clock today, if you want to mark that for prayer, if you have your Bible and I hope that you do either in print or on your phone, I invite you to open to Philippians chapter four, the Apostle Paul's letter to the Philippians. We are this month.
looking at the Christian virtue of joy, that aspect of the fruit of the spirit that is to be growing in the life of a genuine believer. This is something the Holy Spirit blossoms as we come to Christ and begins to grow and mature and ripen. Philippians out of really any book in the Bible, particularly the New Testament, is the book that stands out as the book known for Joy. 16 times in the Book of Philippians either the word the noun form joy or the verb form rejoice is used by Paul sprinkled all through the four chapters of this letter. And I think it's particularly noteworthy that that three times he gives an actual exhortation. Actually, that's probably not strong enough. He gives a command. Rejoice in the Lord. In fact, the one you see up on the screen there, verse four, is is really a double command. Rejoice in the Lord. Again, I say rejoice. That word rejoice - the Greek word that Paul uses there - it literally means to be glad. It means to be delighted.
Now, I wonder is if you think back about the last 12 months, I wonder if you feel some dissonance with us talking about Joy this month. I don't know if you realize it, but almost a year ago, I think it was March 10th or 11th. That's in 2020. That's when kind of all the restrictions of this pandemic came down around us. Think of all that you have walked through, all that we have walked through, all that people that you love have walked through and suffered and loss in the last 12 months.
Does that stir up joy in you? Does that stir up being glad and being delighted? Think about our nation has gone through our world, but in particular our nation, with its unrest and its division, the lack of unity that we've seen not only in our nation, but even in the church. Does that stir up that sense of being glad, being delighted? You know, there's a real dissonance, at least that I feel in talking about joy. This again, this would not have been a topic that I naturally in my flesh would have picked. Maybe that's particularly why we need to focus on this virtue of joy this month. The source of joy, when we think about the last 12 months, if we root the source of our joy in our external circumstances, we are going to think about what we've lost and what we've suffered and what we've sacrificed. There isn't going to be that sense of being glad or being delighted.
But here's the truth. Here's the truth of scripture.
The source of this kind of joy that Paul is talking about, that God is speaking to us about through the apostle Paul. It is not rooted in external circumstances. In fact, even as we look at the context in which Paul writes this letter, Paul, whether you realize it or not, Paul is in prison writing this letter. It's probably prison in Ephesus. We have some evidence he is chained on either side to a Roman guard. He doesn't have his liberty. Do you think we were locked down over the last 12 months? He is ultimately locked down. You think that we have been cut off from from our friends and and Christian brothers and sisters and been denied having fellowship over the last 12 months? He is in a prison cell cut off from his friends and his brothers and sisters in Christ. That's where he is when he's writing these words, that is the situation, the external circumstances of his life as he is calling us to rejoice in the Lord. So we need to hear that command, that exhortation to rejoice in the Lord in a different way than we maybe naturally think about it.
I like what A.W. Pink has to say about this command to rejoice in the Lord. A.W. Pink is a devotional writer in England in the 20th century. He writes this about that command Rejoice in the Lord. Does this mean that the Christian, as always, to be happy? No, he says it is actually the very reverse, it is because the Christian finds so much in himself and in what is going on around him to sadden him that he is directed to look above, look above and rejoice not in circumstances. Rejoice in the Lord. He concludes, We are not called to rejoice in our own experiences or our own circumstances, but in the Lord. And more on how we do that a little bit later. Let's look at our particular text this morning. I'm looking at kind of some of the closing verses in Chapter four, beginning with verse 10. In verse 10 Paul writes this - It's kind of the thank you note on the end of this letter. I'll explain that in a minute - "I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last you have renewed your care and your concern for me."
So a little background. We learn about the church in Phillipi, the people that he's writing to, we learned about it. And at 16, you may remember that Paul is in Asia Minor and he is attempting to go in different directions in his missionary journey. And he has stopped cold by the Holy Spirit.
And he one night is given a vision of a man in Macedonia saying, come over here, bring the gospel to us over here. So Paul gets on a ship and crosses the Aegean Sea and he makes his way to the first major city, which is Phillipi. He finds a place of prayer. He finds where people are gathering on the Sabbath at the the bank of a river. And there he begins to speak about Christ. And you may know the story, but a woman named Lydia, a very influential woman, God does a work in her heart and converts her. She comes to faith in Christ through Paul's preaching, but because of what God is doing in her heart. And out of that conversion, the little church in Phillipi is born. It begins to grow and more people begin to come to Christ. There is a church, a body of believers. Now, Paul is soon after forced out of Phillipi by by persecution and he moves on in his missionary journey. But that group of believers, the church in Phillipi, they continue to grow and not just in numbers, but in strength. And we get some indication, as Paul writes Second Corinthians, that the church in Phillipi, they are financially funding his missionary work, Second Corinthians eight. He refers to the churches in Macedonia. That's Phillipi, the churches in Macedonia sacrificially supporting him. They were sending him funds to enable to him to continue to go and plant churches, preach the gospel and plant churches.
And they were doing it sacrificially. They were giving money that they didn't have. So when he writes here in verse ten now at last you have renewed your concern or your care for me, that indicates that there's been a break in that. They had been giving faithfully to him in support of him and for some reason were not given details. It had been a while since he had received anything from them. Now he goes right on in the second phrase of verse ten to say you were in fact concerned about me. He's relieving any anxieties, relieving any guilt that they may have about this break and their support. In other words, he's saying, I know you care. I know you have not stopped caring for me, but you lack the opportunity to show it. Again we don't have really a lot of detail. We don't have the facts of why there was this break in their support. This lack of opportunity to show it may have been because of their deep poverty. That's what Second Corinthians eight indicates, that these were people who had little to nothing to begin with. They were already giving sacrificially. And they just may have gotten to a point where they didn't have anything to give or it may have been because they couldn't find him. You know, they didn't have the communication, obviously, that we have today.
Paul went on his journeys. Paul got sucked up in the Roman justice system and found himself in prison in Ephesus. It may have taken them a while to track down what had happened to him and where he is. But he goes on to say it's not on the screen, but in verse eighteen. If you look in your Bible, he says, I am now received from Epaphroditus, the gifts that you sent. And so they send this member of their body Epaphroditus with a financial gift that is ample, as the text indicates. And it is now finally reached Paul as he writes this. So, you know, he's writing this a bit as a thank you, but that's not his main point in writing. This is not just a belated thank you note. He now uses this as an opportunity to encourage them about finding joy and contentment. And this comes back to our theme of joy, where do we find joy? Well we're going to see we find joy in Christ, but one particular way that we find joy in Christ is in contentment, in the contentment that Christ gives. He introduces that in verse 11 when he says, I don't say this out of need, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. That word content is the Greek word autarkēs. Strongs gives it some definitions here: to be satisfied, to be strong enough to need no aid or support, to be independent of external circumstances.
Now, I don't know what you think about when you think of the word content, but the particular word that Paul uses here as they hear it and their culture with their background, it hits them in a way that I didn't really realize it until I studied this passage again in preparation for this sermon. Sinclair Ferguson probably says it best. Paul's use of this term, and this letter to these people must have been startling to them, shocking to them. Why? Because this is a stoic term. This is a term that is a main significant term in the philosophy, the world view at that time known as stoicism. Now, I don't know what you think about when you think about stoic or stoicism. Somebody told me after the first service today, I think about Bud Grant. You know, you Minnesotans who've been here a few years, do you remember the Vikings back when Bud Grant was the head coach? What was his facial expression when he won? What was his facial expression when they lost, you know, even emotions totally under control, not over reacting. Maybe you think of you know, I think of the the Scandinavians who made up my my first church in central Minnesota, the Norwegians and the Swedes, 90 percent of the church had son or quist on the end of their name, you know, and there was a stoicism because their ancestors had come over and started with nothing in the middle of winter, you know, and so they were known for their stoicism.
Well, that's maybe, you know, maybe what we think of as stoicism that we're familiar with. But stoicism, of course, was a dominant Greek philosophy. There are men like Seneca, philosophers who are famous for it. Even a Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, is known as a teacher of stoicism. But this is not just ancient history. And it's not just, you know, some some cultural significance. Stoicism is making a resurgence today. My three twenty something sons, they're they're reading Jordan Peterson. You know, Jordan Peterson is the clinical psychologist from the University of Toronto. Actually, Jordan Peterson, I think, is being drawn to Christ. But in his writings up to this point, whether he claims it or not, he advocates stoicism in response to all that's going on in our nation. He is a teacher of stoicism. I think about even in the midst of this pandemic, there have been YouTube sites, YouTube sites, YouTube channels that I have seen spring up that are about stoicism. And they're not for academics. They are for me and you, the average person making a case for how do you face the things that we're struggling with in the middle of this pandemic? The philosophy, the mindset of stoicism.
So what is stoicism again?
You know, this is not a sermon on stoicism. But let me give you just kind of what I think are a few main bullets of stoicism. Why? Because I really want to contrast how they may have first heard him use the word content with what he's really teaching here. So here's stoicism in a nutshell. Stoicism says, first of all, recognize what you can and cannot control in life. Stoics say there is so much suffering because we are trying to hang on to and control the things that are out of our control and basically they say about anything that is transient, you can't control your health is transient. I mean, you can do some things about your health, but you don't have ultimate control over it. Your relationships are transient. You don't have ultimate control over your relationships, particularly when people die. Your possessions are transient. You may think you can hang on to them, but, you know, circumstances happen and you lose them. So if you are invested in trying to hang on to the things and control the things that are transient in your life, the Stoics say, you are going to experience needless suffering. So recognize what you can control and let go of what you can't control. Secondly, the Stoics would say you determine your reaction to a crisis. The one thing you do have control over when circumstances roll over you that are painful, that are difficult, that bring suffering and loss, you can control how you respond to them. That's where that kind of moderated emotionalism comes into play. And that folds right into the third one.
Don't let your negative emotions dominate you, the Stoics say. Master yourself and learn to move on. That's stoicism in a very, very condensed down nutshell. So let me ask you is, since Paul is using a term, the main term of stoicism, is Paul here teaching a Christianize version of stoicism? I've seen that out there in some of these YouTube channels that, yeah, this is Christian, Paul taught stoicism. Is that what he's teaching here? Is he is he advocating the Greek philosophy, the world view of stoicism? No. Let's go on. And I think we'll see this verse twelve. He expands on what he's just said about contentment. "I know how to have a little and I know how to have a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content." Now, Paul, preconversion Saul of Tarsus, you would have not describe him as a man who is content, Paul even says looking back to his pre conversion life, he says about himself in Galatians Chapter one, I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my peers. I'm pushing. I'm pushing. I'm never satisfied. I want to continue to get ahead, he says. I was extremely zealous for the traditions of my teachers. I am at work. I am intense about this. I intensely persecuted the Church of God and tried to destroy it. So this is not a man who naturally knew contentment. Maybe you can relate to him. I know I can. Contentment does not come naturally. Contentment, the kind of Christian contentment that he's talking about here has to be learned.
It has to be learned. And Paul, Saul of Tarsus, through his conversion and then all that he has been through, God was teaching him. He was in the school, God's school of learning contentment so that he can say, now I have learned the secret of being content. And let me tell you that secret is not stoicism. Now, you hear stoicism, somebody said after the first service to me, you know, I realize how much I'm kind of I kind of embrace that stoicism I can relate to. Stoicism is naturally a draw. You go through enough pain and enough hard things and life, and you tend to just naturally move in the direction of stoicism. But here, let me point out the subtle errors of stoicism. Stoicism says that contentment is found in self sufficiency. It's looking within. It's calling on my own resources and calling on my own strength. But it doesn't take long, does it not, to get to an end of our strength? It doesn't take long to find out that we don't have what is sufficient. So Christian contentment, the kind of contentment that brings joy, is just the opposite. It doesn't turn us inward. It turns us upward. Another error, subtle error of stoicism is it advocates seeking to be free from all wants or needs. Deny your needs, deny your wants. Well, that is a subtle form of Platonism, which often leaks into Christianity. Platonism is basically that mindset that says your body is evil, your spirit is good.
Christianity is about your spirit, not your body. Repress your body, deny your needs. That's error. That is error. The Bible clearly teaches that Jesus saves both our soul and our body, that ultimate glorification when we meet Christ face to face is a glorified spirit and a glorified body. Stoicism also has the subtle error of advocating seeking emotional detachment and indifference, deny, repress your emotions. But the Bible teaches that God is a God of emotion, and God has created us in his image as emotional creatures. And you read through books like the Psalms and you see that God actually encourages the reverent expression of all of our emotions. There's no denying our emotions in following Christ. So I just simply sum it all up and say this, especially if you're drawn to stoicism, like I'm naturally drawn to stoicism. What stoicism seeks contentment, peace, the gospel of Christ alone provides. And if you're drawn to that peace and you're drawn to that sense of contentment that you hear in stoicism, that you hear in writers like Jordan Peterson, it's actually the gospel that's drawing you. That's where true contentment true peace, true joy is found. We see the gospel in Paul's secret of contentment, and he says it here in verse 13. He's been building to this. I am able to do all things through him who strengthens me. That's how he gets through situations where he's in need, where he's deprived of even the basics of life.
That's how he he subsists even when he has more than he needs. It is right here. Now, let me do a quick aside here, because this is one of the most misused and misinterpreted verses in scripture. This is, I read this week, and this is so accurate, this is a verse that you see trinketized. You know what I mean? You know, you see it on coffee mugs and you see it on bumper stickers and Bible covers, but it is so often misused. And I'll give you a classic example. I am a Tim Tebow fan. Tim Tebow is from Jacksonville, Florida. So I know his family kind of through acquaintances, wonderful Christian family, missionary family. Tim Tebow led the Florida Gators where two of my sons graduated to the SEC championship when he was the quarterback. And so I'm a fan of Tim Tebow. I just need to say that. He's a strong Christian man in our culture. But here is you see up on the screen, you see the cover of the Sports Illustrated in 2009. And this is at the height of his his college fame. And I think you can see it in this picture. But just in case you can't, the blacking that he puts under his eyes, then written in white on it is this verse Philippians 4:13. Well, you can imagine what so many people did with this verse - oh, he's advocating this is the secret to his football success.
That if you just believe that God is able to give you all the strength you need, you can become, you know, a champion in whatever you do.
And that is unfortunately, that is a common misinterpretation of this verse. This is, I'll read you the words of a well-known prosperity preacher who this is his message. He would preach from this verse or he has preached from this verse, don't focus on your limitations. All things are possible if you have enough faith, if you just believe enough, you can overcome any obstacle. You can climb to new heights. You can achieve your destiny. Well, that is a misuse. That is a misinterpretation of this verse. That's unfortunately what probably many of Tim Tebow's fans thought of when they saw him doing this. But in defense of Tim Tebow, he has publicly explained what he meant. And I've got it on the screen and I want to read it. Tebow says this.
He said this publicly. After that, there was the controversy about this Sports Illustrated cover.
"The verse (Philippians 4:13) is actually about contentedness in all circumstances. It's not about being able to throw a better pass or make a better play on the football field.
It's about being content with the victory secured through Christ."
How important that is, you see how we can misuse this verse so easily, can you imagine two football players on opposing teams and they're each riding in their cars to the game that they're going to play against each other? And both of them are are Christians and both of them are praying Philippians 4:13. God, give me the strength to accomplish the victory in this game. And I believe that you will. Well, what happens at the end of that game? Somebody has won and somebody has lost. So what's happening in the car rides home?
Somebody says, God, you came through to me for me. And the answer to that verse, what's what's happening in the other car?
Well, God, you let me down. God, you weren't true to your promise.
You see how we can so easily misinterpret and misuse the verse.
So when Paul says I can do all things through him, through Christ, who strengthens me, he is not teaching that God gives you the strength to do whatever you desire to do, whatever you set your mind to do. This is Paul who says, I have learned the secret of contentment both in need and in abundance. This is Paul who has learned it through persecution, who through being beaten, through going through times where he was starving. Paul is teaching this. It is in the context of serving Christ, doing Christ's will, that this verse is true. This is the assurance that Christ strengthens us to carry out his will, not our own will. That's not necessarily on the football field, but wherever Christ calls you to do your will, you are a young mom and you've got little kids and you are struggling to be a mom in the way that Christ calls you to be a mom and a wife. The way Christ calls you to be a wife, he gives you the strength to be able to do that. You are somebody who works out in the business world or the medical field, and you desire to walk with integrity that glorifies Christ in the middle of situations where it's often hard to be a man or woman of integrity. This is a promise. He strengthens you to do that because that is his will.
So let me finish up with a couple closing comparisons of stoicism's form of contentment and the kind of contentment that Paul is teaching about that leads to joy. Just four simple comparisons, Stoicism says, again, recognize what you can control and what you cannot control. Christian contentment says, recognize that everything, everything, all of your circumstances, all that you have is under God's control.
I love Sinclair Furguson, favorite preacher of mine.
He says this, The contented believer is the one who believes that God's provision is always sufficient and God's appointments are always appropriate.
God's provision is always sufficient for you whether you feel you have enough or whether you are lacking.
He is provided for you out of his love and his wisdom exactly what you need to do, his will in the middle of the situation that you're in and God's appointments for you, where he puts you are always appropriate.
The circumstances that you find yourself in even right today. If they are difficult, if you are going through trials, if you are suffering, he has again in his love and wisdom, put you right in the middle of them.
And he is working in ways that you cannot see. And it is appropriate for how you live out his will that you are in the circumstances that you are in. That's Christian contentment.
Stoicism again teaches seek emotional detachment, seek emotional indifference, deny those emotions, particularly sadness and grief. Christian contentment teaches. Bring all of your emotions. Bring them before the Lord in prayer. I pray every day. I pray through a Psalm. I work my way through the Psalter, get through it a couple of times in the year. I make the Psalm I'm reading into my prayer and the vast majority of Psalms there such great emotion. David starts at this low place in so many psalms or he is confused, he is frustrated, where he is angry, where he is sad he is grieving and he pours that out before the Lord.
And as you go through the psalm, you see how God moves him in prayer to a place of contentment, to a place of peace. That's a model for us, bringing our emotions before the Lord in prayer.
Stoicism says seek to be free from all your wants and all your needs. Christian contentment says no. Rejoice in the Lord, in your wants in your needs and even in your abundance.
Don't forget rejoicing in the Lord when you have abundance. Don't think God has abandoned you when you are in want or you are struggling with needs. A.W. Pink says this "In every circumstance that the Lord has put us in, he's given us abundant cause to rejoice in him, to draw our joy from Christ. He has given us his favor. He has given us his love. He gives us his faithfulness. He gives us his forbearance, his patience with us. He grants us access to the throne of grace. He's given us the privilege of communion with him.
He's given us the promise of eternity in his presence," the place of ultimate joy, the ultimate bliss.
Finally, stoicism teaches, contentment is found in self-sufficiency, Christian contentment teaches contentment, and even joy is found in trusting in Christ's sufficiency. I am not sufficient in myself. No one here, no matter what resources you have, how strong you are, how smart you are, how connected you are, have sufficient resources in and of yourself. It is only through Christ. It is only in Christ, in vital personal union with him that we have, that comes from abiding in him, that we find true contentment and ultimately the deepest joy.
We find deep joy, joy that carries us through whatever it is that the Lord has allowed into our life, no matter how much of a hurricane your circumstances feel like right now, he gives us that deep joy that comes from this form of contentment. It is in the words of the old the old hymn writer like this, Jesus, thou joy of loving hearts, thou fount of life, thou light of men from the best.
Blessed that earth imparts we turn to you unfilled again. Let's pray.
And Lord Jesus, we make that hymn, we make that our prayer. You are the joy of the hearts that love you, not what's going on in our life, not what we have, not what we think we have attained, which is all fleeting - there the Stoics have it right. But you are the joy. You are the source of the joy in our hearts. You are the fountain of life. It's where we find what it really means to live. You are the light of men. You are the one that guides us through the darkness, through the fog and confusion of this world from the best bliss that earth imparts. Lord, we just acknowledge there is no promise of bliss, of happiness, of joy that is offered on this Earth that is anything more than a vapor. And it's from now those false promises that we turn to you again. We ask you to fill us, fill us with contentment, fill us with joy, draw us to abide in you.
Lord Jesus, we pray. Amen.