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The Secret of Paul’s Contentment

Jennie Pollock | November 5th 2020

Do you want to know a secret?

For me, the answer to that question is always ‘Of course!’ I love to be trusted enough to be allowed into a secret. One of my favourite Bible verses is Psalm 25:14: “The Lord confides in those who fear him; he makes his covenant known to them.” What a great promise, that our heavenly Father loves us as friends, and desires the kind of closeness with us where he can ‘confide’ hidden truths about himself to us.

The apostle Paul knew one of these secrets, “the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12). But this secret hadn’t been whispered to him in the night. Rather, if you read the full verse, you’ll see he says he had learned the secret.

There he was, imprisoned in Rome, bound in chains, far from most of his family and friends – how had he managed to learn such a secret in those circumstances? And more importantly, how can we learn it in ours?

Eternal vision

Paul doesn’t tell us directly – that would be too easy – but reading through the rest of Philippians, we find some clues that can help us in our quest for contentment in life.

First, let’s hop back to chapter 1. “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters,” Paul writes, “that what has happened to me [being imprisoned in Rome] has actually served to advance the gospel” (v 12). From this we see that Paul’s greatest goal wasn’t his own freedom, but what he would use that freedom for – to advance the gospel. So if gospel advance was happening as a result of him being in prison, that was fine with him. This year most of us have experienced what it is like to effectively be imprisoned in our own homes. We submitted to it because we understood it had a purpose – to protect the vulnerable and stop the spread of a disease. When we believe in the goal, any hardship becomes much easier to bear.

Second, look at Paul’s attitude to how the gospel was being spread: 

It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, … out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. (v 15, 17-18)

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Finding contentment when life lets you down.

Now, I don’t know how you can ‘preach Christ out of envy, rivalry and selfish ambition’ – at least, not in a time when it was likely to get you locked up or worse. Paul wasn’t some prosperity preacher, raking in millions from his teaching! But the point is, Paul wasn’t outraged, crushed or even a little hurt by other people stealing his patch. The most important thing was to get the gospel message out. It didn’t matter who did the preaching, as long as souls were being saved and God was being glorified. When we don’t care who gets the credit, it frees us from the pressure to succeed, to be liked or to have our contribution recognised.

Third is what I like to think of as Paul’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech. If you know Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, you’ll know that in this speech – one of the most famous of all time – the title character is struggling with despair, to the point that he is considering ending his life. Surely death would be better than this unhappy, treacherous life? But what if it isn’t? What if he escapes this torment only to find a greater one? How can he make such a choice?

Contrast that with Philippians 1:21-25:

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith…

Unlike Hamlet, who wants to die but fears death, Paul wants to live, but is also joyfully anticipating death. Life for him, despite all its hardships, imprisonments, beatings etc, was full and joyful because he got to live it all with Christ. Significantly, what helped him make his decision (not that there is any suggestion that he was considering ending his own life), was his concern for his fellow believers. When we consider the needs of others, it helps us see our own circumstances in a clear light.

The key that unlocks contentment

Those are some really practical lessons we can learn from Paul’s story, all of which can help us deal with certain difficulties, dilemmas or disappointments. But they don’t quite give us the final key to the secret to contentment. Good strategies are helpful, but in themselves they are not transformative. How was Paul able to get to a place where he didn’t mind who got the credit for the work he cared about? What did he mean when he said, “to live is Christ”?

What comes over most clearly from this book and all Paul’s writings, was that he really loved Jesus. The saviour was everything to him. In chapter 3 he tells us that before Christ he was at the top of his game. He was an excellent scholar, a law-abiding Jew, born into the ‘right’ tribe… he had it all going for him. But then he says, 

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ. (Philippians 3:7-8)

This is the real key to the secret. Christ was the most important thing in Paul’s universe. Whatever his personal achievements or failures, his triumphs or his challenges, they were like garbage to him (which is a polite English translation of the original word, which meant something more like sewage!). Paul wanted to pursue Christ. Whether he was in prison or free, beaten or treated like royalty, preaching to hundreds or chatting to a guard, the circumstances were irrelevant – Jesus was the goal, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, and everything between. 

When we get that sorted out, when Christ is on the throne of our lives with no competition from any rivals, when he is all we want from life – when he matters more than health, wealth or happiness, than family or friends, than success or failure, than life or death – then we find ourselves free to declare, ‘At last! I have learned the secret of being content in all circumstances. It’s Jesus Christ and him only.’

Life doesn’t always go the way we hope it will. Whether it’s singleness, childlessness or some other big disappointment, it’s hard to be content when life lets us down.

Author of If Only, Jennie Pollock knows what it's like to feel discontent. With warmth and honesty, she answers common doubts that arise when life doesn't go the way we had hoped and walks readers through the process of taking our eyes off the things we wish we had and instead enjoying the character of the God we do have.

Jennie Pollock

Jennie Pollock is a writer and editor who lives and works in central London. She’s involved in various ministries at her church, Grace London, where she is learning a lot about the joy and power of community. She loves books and plays, especially ones that dig deep into questions about life, faith, ethics and what it means to be human.

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