sermons & teachings

The Secret of Contentment

A Sermon Preached by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts

Irvine Presbyterian Church, January 31 and February 1, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts

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Scripture Reading

     10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it.   11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have.   12 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.   13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

Getting the Right Title

     Perhaps the hardest part of writing a book is getting the right title. Two years ago Baker Books published my book After "I Believe": Experiencing Authentic Christian Living. That was their title - a great one, I might add, much better than what I had suggested. In fact only one word from my proposed title survived Baker's process: the word "Christian." Oh well! At least I got that right!

     My next book, Jesus Revealed, went through several rounds of title changes. It began with my suggestion of Surprised by Jesus. Then it became Nobody Called Him "Jesus" (the publisher's suggestion). But then they decided that wasn't edgy enough, so they opted for a new title: Putting Jesus in His Place. This title was the reigning champion during the writing of the manuscript. But then WaterBrook changed senior leadership and the new folks were worried that Putting Jesus in His Place sounded too much like a "debunking Jesus" book. I had worried about this all along, to tell you the truth. So at the last minute they swapped titles, settling on Jesus Revealed. Throughout this process, I wrote four, yes, count 'em, four completely different introductions, one for each of the titles.

     I'm bringing up the subject of titles today because you may have noticed that this sermon is called, "The Secret of Contentment." When I was preparing this sermon series several months ago, that seemed to be an apt title, based upon Paul's statement: "I have learned to be content with whatever I have" (Phil 4:11). Sounds good, right? Well, wrong! As I studied the Greek text of Philippians 4:11 this week, I discovered that "content" is a mistranslation of the original language, even though both the NRSV and the NIV agree on it. But the Greek word autarkes, which they gloss as "content," really doesn't refer to one's emotional state of satisfaction. Rather, the word autarkes means "self-sufficient" or "self-reliant." This sermon should have been called, "The Secret to Self-Sufficiency." I apologize for potentially misleading you. If you thought you were going to learn about the secret of contentment today, and now you're disappointed, I guess you get up and go home now. (Not really!)

Self-Reliance in Paul? Really?

     Of course now you may be feeling some discontent of your own right now. How could it be, you may wonder, that the Apostle Paul advocates self-sufficiency? Isn't this contrary to everything he's taught in Philippians about the centrality of Christ for real living? What does self have to do with the Christian life? Is Paul selling out to a secular gospel here? What's the deal?

     As the Philippian Christians first heard this letter read in their assembly, they may well have been shocked by Paul's claim to be autarkes. They were all-too-familiar with the whole concept of "self-sufficiency," because it was prized by the popular philosophers of their day, the gurus who preached in the marketplace. Many of these counselors were advocates of Stoicism, the most popular philosophical system in the Greco-Roman world during the first century A.D. At the core of Stoic ethics was the view that human happiness can be attained through self-sufficiency, through relying only upon oneself in all things. If we can stop depending on the opinions and help of others, the Stoics argued, then we can be truly happy and nothing will take away our contentment. (Yes, contentment does show up after all in this sermon, but only as a result of self-sufficiency.)

     So, at first blush Paul appears to adopt the Stoic way of life when he says "I have learned to be self-sufficient with whatever I have." Even when he's in jail, even when he's harassed and persecuted and run out of town on a rail, Paul is still okay because his well-being doesn't depend on circumstances. How very Stoic of Paul! Or so it seems.

Learned the Secret? Really?

     Paul's flirtation with the world around him increases in verse 12: "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." The verb translated here as "I have learned the secret" had a technical meaning in the time of Paul. It was used for initiation into mystery religions, esoteric religious organizations that promised salvation through secret knowledge and ritual. People who were initiated into the mysteries of Isis or Eleusis were described as "learning the secrets" of their particular god and its cult. Paul's use of this verb is no accident. He's clearly drawing upon the language of pagan religion to describe his own Christian experience.

     So now Paul's foray into worldliness seems doubly offensive. Not only does he espouse the Stoic virtue of self-reliance, but he also describes his Christian experience in the language of pagan mystery religions. What gives?

The Secret That Is No Secret

     Verse 13 explains everything. It reads, simply, "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." This is the mystery into which Paul has been initiated. But, unlike inductees of pagan mysteries, Paul freely and eagerly gives away the secret. It's right there in verse 13: "I can do all things through him who strengthens me."

     Although Paul uses the language of the mystery cults, he rejects its fundamental essence: secrecy. Thus, far from buying into the ethos of the mysteries, Paul uses their language with a radically different and ironic sense. His job is to pass on the secret to all who will listen: "I can do all things through him who strengthens me." What he has learned is really no mystery at all. It's something Paul announces to the world.

     Who is the one who strengthens Paul so that he can do all things? Though the text doesn't tell us, the overall context in Philippians leaves no room for doubt. Paul is speaking here of Jesus Christ. Other passages in the Pauline epistles confirm this judgment. Christ, through the presence of his Spirit, makes Paul strong. Christ and Christ alone gives Paul the strength to do all things.

Self-Sufficient? Or Sufficient in Christ?

     With this thought in mind, we must return to Paul's apparent endorsement of the Stoic notion of self-sufficiency. Without verse 13, verse 11 sounds very Stoic. Paul seems to say that he has learned to rely upon himself in every situation. But with verse 13 in mind, verse 11 reads in an utterly non-Stoic way. In fact Paul is not self-reliant at all, but wholly reliant upon Christ. What enables Paul to endure all measure of hardship is not his detachment, but his dependence, his utter dependence upon Christ.

     Once again, the apostle uses the language of the world around him, but fundamentally redefining its meaning. Paul's self-sufficiency is really not self-sufficiency at all, but Christ-sufficiency. His strength is not his own, but is given by Christ. In Christ alone Paul is able to endure hard times and to experience blessings without becoming overly attached to them.

So What About Us?

     At this point I'd like to ask you a personal question: Are you self-sufficient? Or Christ-sufficient? From what or whom do you draw your strength, your security, even your contentment?

     Most of us, I imagine, would have to admit that our sufficiency lies both in Christ and ourselves. Most of us have been trained by culture and family and school and work to be self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency lies at the core of the American ethos, as illustrated so aptly in Ralph Waldo Emerson's classic treatise, Self Reliance. Here the popular American philosopher writes: "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string." Trust yourself, Emerson urges. Don't rely on anything else other than your own soul. I admit that certain cultural tendencies in our day seek to erase self-reliance, replacing it with dependence upon government or other "helping institutions." Still, most of us here today have a strong streak of self-sufficiency in our hearts.

     I know this to be true because I've been your pastor for twelve and a half years. I've watched you strive to be self-made people, or self-made families. I seen some of you go into the hospital for major surgery and not tell anyone. I've observed parents who never share with their friends when their high school kids go through tough times. I've grieved you're your marriages have fallen apart and we've never had a chance to help because you never told us anything was wrong. Most of us could echo the classic confession of the daughter to the mother in the old Exedrin commercial: "Please, Mother, I'd rather do it myself!"

     I hope you know that I'm not pointing a finger in your direction alone. I am self-reliant to the core. I hate asking for directions. I rarely seek advice in a hardware store, even when I have no idea what I'm looking for. And I am constitutionally wired to do things by myself.

     I remember a time during my college years when I was working on a construction site. My boss told me that he wanted me to move a huge box of rubble from the middle of the site to the street. This box must have been an eight-foot cube, and it was filled with building materials. My guess is that it weighed at least a thousand pounds, probably more. When I finally got around to the task of moving the box, I found that I couldn't budge it with brute strength. So what did I do? Did I ask the other guys on the job to help me out? Of course not. Rather, I created an elaborate system of pulleys and levers, by which I slowly moved that box some fifty feet to the curb. When I finally finished the task, I felt proud because I had done it myself with no help. When my boss returned, he noted with approval that I had completed my assigned task and said, "Good work. That must have been a challenge for you guys to move such a heavy box." "You guys?" I answered smugly. "I did it by myself!" I then proceeded to explain to my boss how I'd done it. He was flabbergasted, but not particularly impressed. In fact, I think he thought I was a fool. "I expected you to ask the other guys for help with this," he complained, "not to do it yourself!" Ah, but he clearly underestimated the power of my drive to for self-sufficiency.

     Today, more than twenty-five years later, I'm a little better at relying upon others, but not much! Thus, as you can imagine, I also struggle to put my full reliance upon Jesus Christ. All too often he is my backup plan, the one I rely on only when my own ingenuity fails.

     Many of you know exactly what I mean. Perhaps the greatest impediment to our reliance upon Christ is, ironically enough, the marvelous blessings he has showered upon us. God has given us able minds and fine educations, so we rely upon our own reason to solve our problems and direct our lives. God has given us exceptional financial resources, so we put our trust in our bank accounts and investments and retirement funds rather than in Christ.

     Did you notice how Philippians 4:12-13 speaks so incisively to us? Paul relies upon Christ, not only in hard times, when he has little or when he is hungry, but also in good times, when he has plenty and when he's well-fed. He realizes that earthly blessings are to be enjoyed, but not to be counted upon. The only truly trustworthy thing in all creation is God, whom we know through Jesus Christ. Only God is worth our full reliance. Only God will never let us down.

Relying on Christ: Practical Steps

     How can we rely upon Christ each day? How can we truly echo Paul's confession of faith: "I can do all things through him who strengthens me"? Let me suggest four practical steps.

     First, we must confess our tendency towards self-sufficiency. If, like me, you find it all too easy to rely upon yourself and not upon Christ, tell him about it. Ask for forgiveness, for cleansing, and for a new ability to rely upon him alone.

     Second, develop the habit of turning over to the Lord every part of your life. From the moment you get up in the morning to the moment you fall asleep at night, continually release your burdens, challenges, and opportunities to Christ. Again and again tell him in prayer: "Lord, I entrust this to you. Help me. Guide me. Be my strength as I face this challenge or as I grasp this opportunity."

     Third, choose to obey the biblical command to share your burdens with others. If you're going through a hard time in your job or your family or your health or your marriage, don't keep it to yourself, even if you want to. Find a trusted Christian brother or sister with whom to share your struggle. Or come forward at the end of the service to let an elder or deacon pray for you. You see, relying on Christ is often experienced in this life as we rely upon his body, the church. Christ strengthens us, not only through his Spirit dwelling within us, but through his church dwelling around us.

     Fourth, step out in faith to take on that which you cannot do on your own strength. As long as you live within the safe parameters of your human ability, you won't need Christ - or at least it will seem as if you don't. But if you do something that takes you outside of your comfort zone, then you'll both rely upon the Lord and experience the wonder of his power. How should you step out in faith? For some of you it will mean teaching Sunday School or becoming a junior high leader or going on a mission trip to Mexico. For others of you it will mean attending the Easy Evangelism class and beginning to share your faith with others. For others of you it will mean giving faithfully and sacrificially to Christ's ministry. Sometimes it's a scary thought for me when I realize that if Linda and I had invested for our future the amount we've given IPC in the last thirteen years, then we'd have a couple hundred thousand dollars more for college educations and retirement. But in my moments of fear, I remember the one who holds both my future and my family. And I keep on choosing to put my trust in him.


     If we learn to rely fully on Christ, not only will we have a deeper relationship with him, not only will we be empowered to do far more than we could ever do on our own, but also we will indeed find supernatural contentment. So, I suppose, in the end, this sermon could be called "The Secret of Contentment." But "The Secret of Self-Sufficiency" is a better title. It's far more accurate, indeed, ironic.

     What is the secret of self-sufficiency? Well, for one thing, it's no secret. It's proclaimed openly in Philippians 4 and through the Bible. Moreover, it's not really self-sufficiency at all, because the self we rely on is not our own self, but Christ's self. Stoic self-sufficiency is a dead end. Christ-sufficiency is the road to full, real, joyful life - life full of both adventure and contentment.

     At this table Christ is present both in sacrament and in Spirit. The one who empowers you is here. In him and in him alone you can do all things. So come and lean upon Christ. Come and receive his life afresh. Come and let him fill you afresh with his presence and power.

     My friends, you can do all things in Christ - and in him alone!