This morning, I wanted to do something in my sermon that would honor Ida Deal. I thought about preparing a lesson on Revelation 14:13, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord.” And that certainly would be fitting.
I thought about preparing a lesson on 2 Corinthians 4:16-17, “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”
Then I thought about how Ida never seemed to think she could offer anything of value because of her physical condition, and so I thought about preaching a lesson on Psalm 92:14, “The righteous …still bear fruit in old age.”
But, in the end, I decided to go in a different direction. When Ida was in the hospital for the very last time, I had the opportunity to visit with her a couple of times. On one of those visits, we were able to have a rather lengthy conversation, just the two of us. In the course of that conversation, I asked Ida what her favorite Bible verse was.
At first, she said, “I have lots of favorites.” But then, after a moment, she quoted Philippians 4:13. She said, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
As I was leaving the hospital, I thought about how that’s a very popular and often-quoted verse that so many people have misunderstood and misapplied, but I thought to myself, “Ida gets it.”
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” This is a verse that has been printed on posters and inspirational wall art. A quick internet search will reveal that you can buy key chains, buttons, t-shirts, stickers, postcards, bracelets, handbags, and a variety of other trinkets with the words of this verse put on them. This verse even gained some notoriety among college football fans a few years ago when a championship quarterback had this verse written on the glare-reducing strips he wore under his eyes.
But, as I said, a lot of people have misunderstood and misapplied this verse. And the irony is that, by taking this verse out of context, people have actually made it mean the opposite of what it actually means. They’ve turned it into a slogan of personal empowerment — a declaration of self-achievement, ambition, and accomplishment. For many, this verse has been trivialized into some sort of motivating motto for material prosperity, career advancement, or athletic success.
You see, when people quote Philippians 4:13, what they often mean is that Christ will give them the strength to do whatever it is that they want to do. If they want to win a marathon, they can, because “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” If they start a business, they expect it to succeed because “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” And if people are sick and in the hospital, they expect to go home and get better, because “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
And so, this verse has come to mean, “I can accomplish whatever I want to accomplish because Christ will give me the strength. And I am confident that good things will always happen to me.” But, this verse means nothing of the sort.
Now, if you read this verse all by itself, out of context, and that’s what people tend to do, then “all things” seems like it could refer to whatever someone might want to accomplish — from winning a football game to losing weight to getting a new job to gaining material wealth. Out of context, it is often treated like a boost of self-confidence that can be applied to any ambition or aspiration in life.
But, in context, this verse has a very specific, defined meaning—one that most Americans don’t want to hear about, but one that is very important for us to remember as Christians.
Out of context, Philippians 4:13 is used as a blank-check promise for whatever is desired. But in context, this is a verse that’s about contentment. It’s not about your dreams coming true or your goals being met. Rather, it’s about being joyful, satisfied, and steadfast even when life is hard and your circumstances seem impossible.
You see, this verse is not about winning a football game; it’s about how you respond when you lose the football game, or you get injured for the season, or you fail to make the team altogether. It’s not about getting that new job, that new house, or that new outfit; it’s about finding your satisfaction in the job you already have, in the house you already own, and in the wardrobe already hanging in your closet.
This is not a verse about being empowered to change your circumstances; rather, it is a verse about relying on God’s power in order to be content in the midst of circumstances you can’t change.
So, let’s take a look at the context of this verse in Philippians 4. Beginning with verse 10, Paul said “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:10-13)
Paul isn’t saying here, “God will give me strength to accomplish whatever I want to accomplish.” Rather, he says, “Sometimes I’ve had everything I needed in life, and sometimes I didn’t have anything. Sometimes I had three big meals a day, and sometimes I went hungry. But, it doesn’t really matter. I’m fine either way, because God has given me the strength to face any situation I’m in.” “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
This is not a verse about God giving us power. It’s a verse about learning to be content, no matter what. And, frankly, I don’t think that’s a message that most people want to hear. If I tell you, “God will give you the strength to do whatever you want to do”, that’s exciting and you’re ready to slap a bumper sticker on your car that says, “Philippians 4:13”.
But if I tell you, God wants you to learn to be content no matter what situation you’re in – whether you just got a raise at work or you just got fired, whether you’re the most popular kid in school or the most bullied, whether the doctor gives you a clean bill of health or he tells you that you have cancer and you have three months left to live – no matter what situation you’re in, you can learn to be content because you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you. When I put it that way, nobody gets too excited about this verse.
But I think Ida understood. I think Ida learned to be content in whatever situation she was in, and over the past few years, it was often not a good situation, but she learned to be content because knew that she could do all things through Christ who strengthened her. So, let’s talk a bit about Philippians 4:13, so that we can learn to be content as well.
Historian Arthur Schlesinger has made the observation that our society is marked by “inextinguishable discontent.” Our constant quest is a search for what is better and what is next. We want a better job with better pay and a better boss. We want better relationships and a better car and a better backhand in tennis or a longer drive in golf. And we have a propensity to live endlessly for the next thing – the next weekend, the next vacation, the next purchase, and the next experience. We are never satisfied, never content, and envious of those who have what we have not attained or accumulated.
But again, in Philippians 4:11, Paul said, “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” How could Paul make such a bold statement? Because he knew that contentment lies not in what he has, but in whose he is.
When I come into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, I understand whose I am and what I have. A lack of contentment, though, will cause me to look horizontally – at what others have, and when I do that, I will never be satisfied. Contentment causes me to look vertically – at God. And, when I look in his direction, regardless of my possessions or my lack of possessions, I know that God is enough.
I heard about a man who went to a minister for counseling. He was in the midst of a financial collapse. He said, “I’ve lost everything.”
The preacher said, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve lost your faith.’
He said, “No, I haven’t lost my faith.”
“Well, then, I’m sad to hear that you’ve lost your character.”
He said, “I didn’t say that. I still have my character.”
“Well, then, I’m sorry to hear that you’ve lost your salvation.”
Again, the man said, “That’s not what I said. I haven’t lost my salvation.”
The preacher said, “You have your faith, your character, your salvation. Seems to me that you haven’t lost any of the things that really matter.” And we haven’t either. For the Christian, contentment means knowing that if we have Jesus, we have enough.
John Stott once wrote, “Contentment is the secret of inward peace. It remembers the stark truth that we brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it. Life, in fact, is a pilgrimage from one moment of nakedness to another. So we should travel light and live simply. Our enemy is not possessions, but excess. Our battle cry is not ‘Nothing!’ but ‘Enough!’ We’ve got enough. Simplicity says, if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.”
So, how can I be content? Contentment comes when we can honestly say with the apostle Paul, “I know both how to have a little, and I know how to have a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret [of being content] – whether well-fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need.” (Philippians 4:12, HCSB). I want you to notice that contentment is learned.
I heard a story recently about a missionary who made a trip a trip to the island of Tobago, where he came in contact with some lepers on that island. On the last day of his mission trip, he was leading worship in a leper colony. He asked if anyone had a favorite song. When he did, a woman turned around, and he saw the most disfigured face he had ever seen. She had no ears and no nose. Her lips were gone. But she raised a hand with no fingers, and she asked, “Could we sing ‘Count Your Many Blessings’?”
The missionary started the song but he wasn’t able to finish. Someone later commented, “I suppose you’ll never be able to sing that song again.” And he said, “No, I’ll sing it again. Just never the same way.”
That kind of contentment has to be learned. It isn’t natural. We aren’t born with it. It’s not a gift.
Our tendency is to look for things that will make us content – those things that are better or those events that are next, rather than putting forth the effort it takes to learn how to be content. I can remember the first time I ever went skiing. I didn’t want to go through the difficult process of “learning” to ski. I just wanted to ski down the mountain like all those other people on the slope I saw. But skiing doesn’t work like that, and neither does becoming content. It takes a willingness and an effort to learn anything. Contentment is no different. It has to be learned.
So let me ask you a question — How would you fill in this blank: “I will be happy when ____________?” When I am healed. When I am promoted. When I am married. When I am single. When I am rich. How would you finish it?
And once you have an answer firmly in mind, answer this. If your ship never comes in, if your dream never comes true, if your situation never changes, could you be happy? And if your answer is no, then you are living in discontentment.
Contentment is something that comes from the heart.
Contentment isn’t denying your feelings about wanting and desiring something you can’t have, but instead it means having a freedom from being controlled by those feelings. Contentment isn’t pretending that things are right when they are not, but instead it has a peace that comes from knowing that God is bigger than any problem we face, and that he will work them all out for our good. Contentment isn’t a feeling of well-being that is contingent on keeping all of our circumstances under control, but instead it has a joy in spite of circumstances. Contentment comes from the heart.
The majority of people in our society are like thermometers. Their mood goes up or down depending on the circumstances around them. And even if they are happy, it is a pseudo-happiness, a counterfeit high that quickly disappears. They always hope the next superficial satisfaction will last, but someone has said that external happiness is like cotton candy. It’s sweet for the moment and dissolves an instant later. For example, a person who is happy because she is vacationing in the Bahamas is a person who only has a few days to be happy. But a person who has learned to cultivate deep-down contentment will be a consistently joyful person wherever they are.
Most people would love to have what the apostle Paul had – an enduring contentment, a deep-down, soul-satisfying contentment. But that kind of contentment can only come from within. It has everything to do with what is going on inside you, not what is going on outside. And it has only one source. That source is found in a soul-satisfying relationship with our Heavenly Father who cares for us and who has promised to be with us wherever we are.
So, what is the secret of contentment? Paul mentions four things in the Philippian letter.
1. Remember the cross
“For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Philippians 1:21).
The cornerstone of contentment is the cross. Remember what Jesus has done for us on the cross. Because of the cross we are freed from the chains of sin. Because of the cross, our salvation is secure. Because of the cross, our friendship with God is possible. Because of the cross, our future in heaven is guaranteed. And, when you get right down to it, isn’t that enough? What else really matters? The really big things are taken care of!
2. Let go of the past
“Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.” (Philippians 3:13).
We cannot hope to ever gain contentment while holding on to past failures and mistakes – either those of our own or those of others. There’s a difference between ignoring past wrongs and forgetting them. Forgetting means that we work through the process of forgiving others and allowing God’s forgiveness to cover us. We need to let go of such statements that begin with “I should have,” “If only,” and “If they hadn’t.” True forgiveness requires that we see the wrongs clearly, articulate them, release them to God, and then walk away from them. This process may take some time and some assistance, but without it we will never have a contented heart.
3. Live one day at a time
“And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19).
Knowing this, we wait on God. We need to surrender our timetable and future to him. Discontentment is due to a wrong focus. If we focus on things and others we will be discontent. But, if we focus on God, living each day in the light of his glory, the things of this earth will pale in comparison.
4. Find sufficiency in Jesus Christ
We come back now to Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” The word “contentment” sometimes suggests “self-sufficiency.” But in the context of this verse, it means being at peace with Christ’s sufficiency. When his powerful presence is consuming us, we can do all things. That doesn’t mean that Christ has given us unlimited strength. But we can experience contentment because we are a continual recipient of his strength. Our human determination may help us to endure adversity and pain. Our emotional toughness will help us get through job loss and financial hardships. But only Christ can generate a contented spirit within us in the midst of all that is happening around us.
Tim Brown is a professor at Hope College. He tells a story about one of his former students, Tim Vanderveen. One afternoon, Tim called his professor who said, “Hey, Tim, how you doing?”
In a weak, trembling voice, Tim said, “I’m not doing so good.”
Professor Brown said, “What’s up?”
Tim said, “I’m in the hospital in Grand Rapids. I got the flu or something. My folks are out of the country.”
Professor Brown asked, “Can I stop by and see you? Would that be okay?”
Tim said, “I’d like that a lot.”
By the time Professor Brown got there to see Tim, the doctors had already been there. And it wasn’t the flu. It was leukemia. And that began a difficult three-year battle that Tim would eventually lose.
Three years later, Professor Brown walked into Tim’s room. His mother was sitting in the corner crying. Tim was lying on his side. There wasn’t enough energy for him to even sit up and look at the professor, so Professor Brown got down on one knee so he could look at him face to face. He said, “Hi, Tim.”
Tim said, “Hi.”
There was a long, awkward pause. Professor Brown had been a minister for twenty years and still didn’t know what to say.
It was Tim who broke the silence. He said, “I’ve learned something.”
The Professor knew this much at least: You don’t trifle with the words of a person who is about to die; you just listen carefully. So he said, “Tell me, Tim, what have you learned?”
Tim said, “I’ve learned that life is not like a VCR.”
The professor didn’t understand what he meant by that. He said, “I don’t get it. What do you mean?”
Tim said, “Life is not like a VCR; you can’t fast forward through the bad parts.”
There was a long pause. And then Tim spoke up again. He said, “But I have learned that Jesus Christ is in every frame, and right now, that’s enough.”
It was enough when Ida’s parents rocked that little baby girl that Jesus Christ should be in the frame. It was enough when Ida went off to college that Jesus Christ should be in the frame. It was enough when she met Tom and married him, committing her life and her love to him that Jesus Christ should be in that frame. It was enough when Ida gave birth to two children and watched them grow up and have children of their own that Jesus Christ should be in the frame.
And it was enough when she breathed her last breath here and her first on the other side that Jesus Christ should be in the frame.
Steven Curtis Chapman is a Christian songwriter. One of his songs, “His Strength is Perfect” goes like this:
I can do all things
Through Christ, who gives me strength.
But sometimes I wonder what He
Can do through me.
No great success to show,
No glory on my own;
Yet in my weakness He is there
To let me know…
His strength is perfect
When our strength is gone;
He’ll carry us
When we can’t carry on.
Raised in His power,
The weak become strong.
His strength is perfect,
His strength is perfect.
Let me bring this lesson to a close by asking again — How would you fill in the blank?
“I can be content in life if only ____________.” If only what?
“I can experience genuine and lasting fulfillment during my time on earth when I have ______________.” When you have what?
“Life will prove to be worth living if and only if ____________.” If and only if what?
“Life right now would be joyful and satisfying and I could truly enjoy all that God is for me in Jesus if it weren’t the case that ___________.” If it weren’t the case that what?
My prayer and our aim ought to be to fill in the blank by saying: “I can be content and experience genuine fulfillment and believe that life is worth living and that God is good and trustworthy, if I have Christ. Period.”
“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”