Sermon for 05-02-10: “Learning to Be Content”

May 7, 2010

Sermon Text: Philippians 4:10-13

[Click the play button below to listen to the sermon or click here to download an .mp3 podcast.]

Do any of you do card tricks? Any other magic tricks? If so, you want me in your audience. I guess I’m not terribly observant for one thing, so I’ll often miss the sleight of hand that goes into the trick—or I’ll fall victim to the misdirection, which is the magician’s stock-in-trade. Plus, I’m able to suspend my disbelief. I know that there’s no such thing as magic, but—man—when a magician does a trick I will be enchanted!

I like the magician duo Penn & Teller. Unlike many other magicians, they happily violate the magician’s code and explain how they do their tricks. I saw a special on TV once in which they performed one of their tricks, which involved—I think—making ping pong balls disappear and reappear. It was an impressive trick! Then they showed the trick in slow motion as Penn—the one who does all the talking—narrated what was happening. It was still impressive. There wasn’t simply one a-ha moment—one important action that faked everyone out and was the secret to the trick. Rather, the two magicians were engaged in a sequence of intricate and highly coordinated actions that were happening very quickly. It must have taken weeks or months of practice to get it right.

The point is, even if you know the secret, it still seems especially difficult to carry out—to make it work.

I feel that way about this secret that Paul talks about in today’s text—the secret of being content. Paul writes these words in prison, probably in Ephesus. It’s clear from some of Paul’s other letters that this prison stay was tough; he thought he might die there. He was eventually set free, but when he wrote the words that we read today, he was in the valley of the shadow of death.

The amazing thing is that this letter to the Philippians is probably his most joyful in tone. It’s a letter of rejoicingof celebration. Even in the midst of Paul’s intense suffering, he is somehow happy, at peace, and, yes, content. Paul writes, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who gives me strength.”

Don’t we want that? Don’t we want this kind of contentment that Paul has? Wouldn’t we love to be satisfied with whatever life throws our way? Wouldn’t we love to not let outward circumstances change or dictate who we are inside. If there is a “secret,” Paul, please tell us what it is! How do we do it? How do we get there?

If we’re going to get there, it’s going to mean redefining success in ways that the world doesn’t recognize, understand, or appreciate. Paul talks about this earlier in his letter. Paul describes his life before Christ in Chapter 3, verse 4 and following: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh”—by which he means the confidence that comes from worldly values, worldly ambition, and worldly success—“I have more,” Paul writes. “[C]ircumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” Compared to what Paul gained in Christ, however, all the stuff he used to value—using those standards by which the world judges success—he now considers garbage. Success means nothing less than finding and loving and serving our Lord Jesus.

An outdoor thermometer reading -40 degrees.

My friend Michele understands this. I met at Georgia Tech many years ago. She was an electrical engineer and a scholarship athlete. For the past 13 years, however, she and her husband, Joey, have been missionaries to Russia—Siberia to be exact. We had a relatively severe winter this year, but it was nothing compared to what they face. She has a picture on her blog of a thermometer showing a temperature of -40 below! That’s a routine winter. Last week she wrote with excitement that the snow had finally turned to rain for the first time in five or six months. Spring is on its way.

Not that she complains much. Her testimony is one of God’s constantly giving her exactly what she and her family need, when they need it: never more than they need, but never less. They live a life of never knowing exactly how the ends will meet, but they always do—and they have for 13 years now. One of Michele’s biggest struggles with living in Siberia has been not so much the weather as the  size of her family’s very small apartment. It’s four small rooms—not four bedrooms, but four rooms! They divide one of the rooms in two so that their two children can have a space of their own. Between her Russian friends and parishioners coming and going or other people staying with them in a crisis, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for privacy or getting time alone. She said she used to “spiritualize” the problem of her small apartment, praying, “God, we could serve you so much better if we had a bigger place”—even though a four-room apartment is a palace to many people with whom she ministers. Her Russian friends love their little place—even though it’s crowded.

Outside Michele's apartment in Siberia

She said the only time she felt embarrassed or ashamed of her apartment was when Americans would visit. And she used to feel a longing for a bigger place when they came home to visit the States. But she doesn’t feel that way anymore. She writes, “The bottom line of what I wanted to say about [being content] is that while in the beginning when coming to America I would struggle some with the size of my apartment, I don’t struggle with that anymore.

“There are a lot of things that I have wanted along the way in life, that I don’t want anymore. Not that it wouldn’t be nice to have them, but I’m happy without them—I mean, I realize that I don’t need them. That is probably the best thing that God has ‘provided’ for me. I’m sure there are plenty of other things that I ‘want’ (or think I want) that God is still working with me on. But what a joy it has been to realize—‘hmm… I don’t really WANT that anymore. Or I haven’t thought about or struggled with (x or y) in a long time.”

“I’m happy without them…” “What a joy it’s been to realize I don’t need them anymore…” Do you think Michele has learned something of what Paul is talking about here? When I told one parishioner in Vinebranch what I was preaching on, she told me that she’s learning to identify what she calls “contentment robbers” in her life. Cable TV was one; so she and her family got rid of it. That’s a little threatening to me, can I be honest? “Oh, Lord, please don’t ask me to get rid of my satellite TV! I need it… for sermon illustrations!” She also said that she canceled her subscription to Southern Living magazine. It made her feel inadequate as a housekeeper, so she got rid of it. And guess what? She doesn’t worry about how her house looks anymore!

Classic ad for Charles Atlas course. What "contentment robbers" in your life make you feel inadequate or dissatisfied?

Years ago, there was this commercial for a home gym that featured this muscle-bound man who boasted, “I’m 43 years old, and I’m in the best shape of my life!” I would yell at the TV and want to throw things: “Shut up!” That commercial made me feel inadequate. But then you sort of analyze it… Not so fast… You don’t get a body like that without spending hours a day at the gym. And this guy was probably paid by this company to work out as a full-time job. Most of us have regular jobs. More importantly, say you get a body like his… Will that make you happy? Is he happy? You’re in the best physical shape of your life, sure… How is it with your soul? Are you joyful, at peace… Are you content?

Am I taking this TV commercial too seriously? I don’t think so. It’s a contentment-robber… One of dozens or hundreds of potential contentment-robbers that we face every day! [What are some things that make you feel discontented—unsatisfied, unhappy with yourself or your situation?] My kids are currently in the middle of an escalating arms race with their friends and classmates to see who can acquire the most Silly Bandz. They wouldn’t know that they needed the tie-dye Silly Bandz or the guitar-shaped Silly Bands or the heart-shaped Silly Bandz if they didn’t see that their friends had them! This is a trivial example, of course, but the point is that comparing our success with the success of others, instead of focusing on what Jesus wants for us—that’s a contentment-robber!

The problem with living in our consumer-driven culture is that it constantly reminds us that we don’t have enough; that we’re not good enough; or beautiful enough; or smart enough; or thin enough; or secure enough. Our culture constantly manufactures new needs that we didn’t have before; and it does so in part because in the background—just out of sight—somebody somewhere is making money by convincing us that we need it. We’re being lied to and manipulated whenever we turn on the TV or browse the web or pass billboards on the interstate or look at the pages of magazines.

It’s not because the things are necessarily bad in and of themselves, or that bad people are advertising or selling to us. Not at all. The sad truth is that Satan doesn’t need bad people or bad things to wreak havoc in this world. Evil is far more subtle and insidious than that. And it has you and me in its sights, and it wants to take us down. It wants us to abandon our Christian faith and go to hell. Did you know that? And if Satan can do this without our even knowing it—well… even better.

We live in a culture that promotes a soft and seductive kind of idolatry that says, “You will not be a whole and complete and happy and successful person until you possess this thing—or possess this person—or go to this college—or look like this—or achieve this goal—or earn this recognition.” And God is saying, through today’s scripture, “No! Trust in me for everything that you need. Trust in me for your happiness. I am the source of everything you need. You’re not going to find it out there. That other stuff looks tempting, but it’s a lie.”

Well, easier said than done, you might be thinking. Like the Penn & Teller trick, even knowing the secret—a complete dependence on God for everything—is difficult to put into practice. It’s a daily, hourly, minute-by-minute surrendering to our Lord Jesus. It’s a recognition that God is in control, and there is no problem too big for God to solve. It’s the confidence that comes from believing that God can bring good out of the worst circumstances that we face.

Notice what Paul says: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have.” He didn’t arrive at this knowledge all at once—any more than my friend Michele did, any more than you or I will. God used years of sometimes painful experience to teach Paul this.

So may God graciously teach us. Amen.

[A verse of “It is Well With My Soul.”]

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