Let me give you a second strand in the fabric of contentment. Paul was content, number one, because of confidence in the providence of God. And he was also content because he was satisfied with little:
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)
Paul’s need was deep and great, but he didn’t acknowledge any discontent. He was so at peace with the providence of a sovereign God that he was content. And he was so satisfied with very little that being a prisoner didn’t take away his contentment.
It didn’t matter that he was chained to a Roman soldier, that he ate with bare subsistence, or that he stayed in a place that was greatly lacking in comfort. That didn’t really touch his contentment; he was satisfied with little.
Now, this really hits modern culture hard. We live in a culture that is never content, whether with little or with much. The attitude of people today is that their needs can never be met. People are consumed with the pursuit of meeting their needs.
We have developed need, I think, as perhaps the number one value in the American system. We are developing a worldview that says, “The whole of life is a process of man meeting his needs.” Since, in the modern framework, there is no God and man is ultimate, all of existence is not for pleasing God, but for satisfying man.
When you start with a humanistic premise that man is ultimate, and that man should be fulfilled, and that the whole of life is to meet the needs of man, you have set man on an impossible course. Now he’s going to spend all of his life trying to meet his needs. And that would be fine, with the exception of one issue: Where does he find out what his needs are? Who defines his needs? Culture has become what defines our needs as humans.
This is so different from how Paul lived. Paul was satisfied with a little food and clothing and a place to sleep. That’s the standard Scripture sets for our needs:
If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content. (1 Timothy 6:8)
We are to be content with the bare necessities of life. When Paul says, “Not that I speak from want,” what he means is, “I really don’t have any needs that aren’t met.”
Paul is not denying difficulty. He’s not denying hard circumstances. He is simply content in God’s providential care and he is satisfied with very, very little.
How different that is from those today who focus incessantly on their needs. In fact, you see the discontent of our culture today whenever you turn on the TV.
The goal of television is to make you buy things. The primary aim of television is the commercials, and the programs are only to get you there so you can see the commercials. The whole idea is to appeal to your discontent, create a need you didn’t know you had, and drive you by that need to buy something. The program is incidental. The commercial is the capstone.
Now, what makes this so insidious is this: You will never see a commercial on television that tells you to go to the store and buy food because you need it. You know that already. You will never see a commercial on television that implores you to drink water, to sleep, or to get something warm when it’s cold. You already know to do that. Men will always find their basic necessities. They have done so in every generation prior to this one. But in this generation, we have a whole new approach to needs.
Television doesn’t appeal to us on the basis of, “Wouldn’t you like to have this?” It appeals to us on the basis of, “You need this.” So now, I’m finding that I need things I don’t even want. Have you noticed that? I didn’t want them in the past, I don’t want them now, but I need them. That’s a whole new ballgame.
Once you have a humanistic base and you say the goal of man’s life is to meet his needs, you give the devil opportunity to redefine what all your needs are. Society starts defining everything — including sinful desires — as needs. And what does the church do? It blindly, ignorantly blunders into the same thing and says, “Oh, since we all need to be rich, successful, and liberated, that must be what the gospel is, so we’ll chase that.”
And what do we get out of it? We get an utterly discontent culture and an utterly discontent church. It’s really tragic.
But Paul knew that the chief end of man is not to meet his needs, but to worship and enjoy God. And so, he was content with very little of this earthly stuff.
It’s not easy to pull ourselves out of the thinking of modern culture. How do we, as Christians in the middle of all of this, get ourselves to say, “I don’t really care if I have little or much, I’m perfectly happy, because all I need is God”?
It begins with a total confidence in the providence of God, who is ordering every circumstance of life for His glory. It also requires a perspective where we can be satisfied with little, because we no longer depend on the world to define what we do and don’t need. And as we will see next time, it requires a steadfastness that allows our contentment to stay unchanged regardless of circumstances.
This post is based on a sermon Dr. MacArthur preached in 1989, titled “The Secret of Contentment, Part 1.”
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