There is a third strand in the fabric of contentment, and this is what I will call “independence from circumstances.” Look again at what Paul writes:
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. (Philippians 4:11-12)
Here, Paul is saying, “In any and every circumstance, I’m the same.” This is the part of contentment that is utterly indifferent to and independent of all circumstances.
The one thing that steals our contentment most frequently is bad circumstances, right? When something bad happens, we crumble, and we lose our sense of sufficiency, satisfaction and peace, because we are victimized by circumstances.
But Paul says, “I’ve got the secret.” The secret of what? “I know how to get along with being poor, and I also know how to live in prosperity. I know how to be well-fed and how to go hungry.”
The point is that Paul was never a victim of his circumstances. He had faith in what God has promised. He remembered what Jesus said in Luke 6:21:
Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
Paul’s eye was in the right direction. He was looking for the future glory. He never let the circumstances of this life devastate him. He had suffered greatly; he is the worst imaginable illustration of the prosperity gospel. I mean, if you were trying to sell Christianity on the experience of Paul, you wouldn’t get many takers. Recall everything he experienced:
But Jews came from Antioch and Iconium, and having won over the crowds, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead. (Acts 14:19)
But when her masters saw that their hope of profit was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market place before the authorities … The crowd rose up together against them, and the chief magistrates tore their robes off them and proceeded to order them to be beaten with rods. When they had struck them with many blows, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to guard them securely. (Acts 16:19,22-23)
And so it went for Paul. It was one thing after another — imprisonments and beatings and plots against him. The man had a very difficult life:
For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:11)
But in everything commending ourselves as servants of God, in much endurance, in afflictions, in hardships, in distresses, in beatings, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in hunger … by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; regarded as deceivers and yet true; as unknown yet well-known, as dying yet behold, we live; as punished yet not put to death, as sorrowful yet always rejoicing, as poor yet making many rich, as having nothing yet possessing all things. (2 Corinthians 6:4-5,8-10)
Are they servants of Christ?—I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death.
Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep.
I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. (2 Corinthians 11:23-27)
This guy lived out a nightmare. He knew what it was to be in difficult circumstances, but he lived above them. And that is essential to contentment.
How can you live above circumstances? By setting your affections on things above and not on things on the earth because you count it all joy for the privilege of suffering for the sake of Christ. In other words, you do it by having a heavenly vision, an eternal perspective. You do it by looking to your eternal reward. Paul summed it up when he said this:
For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)
We live in light of the glory to come, not in light of the pain here.
Contentment is not related to what you have or don’t have. Contentment is related to living above that level and understanding the providence of God, being satisfied with little in this life, and anticipating much in the life to come.
Paul moved through the gamut of life’s experiences, and always he was content. It was OK when things went well. It was OK when they didn’t. It was wonderful when he was kissed, hugged, and extolled, and it was wonderful when he was beaten, bruised, and battered. Those things did not deal fatal blows to his inner man. He could rejoice in anything. He could have peace in anything. He could be free from anxiety in anything. He could maintain a gentle, gracious spirit in anything, because he lived beyond the circumstances.
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 1989, titled “The Secret of Contentment, Part 2.”
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