First Mennonite Church
November 20, 2022
Contentment and Thanksgiving
Text: Philippians 4:10-20
Besides other themes that can be found in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, one that stands out holds a tension between joy and suffering. Paul was suffering in a Roman prison at the time he wrote the letter. The Philippians were suffering for the sake of Christ. But above everything, Jesus is presented as the ultimate sufferer, who emptied himself, took human form, and died on the cross. However, in the light of Jesus reasons for suffering and his sublime exaltation after it, Paul invited the Philippians to accept suffering for Christ with joy, as he was doing.
In Jesus’ time, as well as in Paul’s, suffering was seen as a sure indication that the ultimate fate of life is approaching—death. In Paul’s context, death was seen as the end of everyone’s road, therefore, life even at is brightest moment is uncertain and filled with anxiety. In that pagan context, even death was not the end of suffering. Pagans believed that once someone dies, he or she enters the realm where the gods punish the mistakes and wrongdoings of men. Once the dead enter the dark underworld, they continue being the scapegoats of the gods. In Romans 7:24b, Paul echoes the cultural lament regarding death: “Who will rescue me from this body of death!”
People during Paul’s time lived in constant fear. Thus, in that atmosphere shrouded by anxiety and gloom, joy was a futile and an evading dream. Joy, at best, was only reserved for those who had the time and means to ponder about it philosophically. Joy was only an illusion impossible to be held in life, especially for the common man. In that world where wars, plagues, famines and widespread social discontentment were prevalent, the idea of joyful living was impossible.
However, to the surprise of the Philippians congregation, when Paul first announced to them that he was in prison, their natural expectations from someone in jail were turned upside down. Prisoners in those days, not only had their liberty taken away, but they were confronted with further physical punishment. And besides that, diseases, starvation, over-population, and torture were the inevitable companions of prisoners. Aware of that reality, Paul writes:I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain (1:20, 21).
Yet, having said that, Paul expressed joy that his imprisonment had only contributed to advancement of the gospel. From the emperor and all the way to the prison guard, everyone knew that Paul’s imprisonment was for the sake of his proclamation of Jesus Christ, as Lord and Savior.
Today, as we anticipate celebrating Thanksgiving this week, let us take a look at how Paul responds after he has received something. Let us read Philippians 4:10-20.
While Paul was in prison, he received a gift from the Philippian church. Therefore, Paul expressed his joy and gratitude, but not necessarily because his needs had been met. Paul rejoiced because through their gift the Philippians were able to show their generosity and concern for Paul. The gift made no difference in Paul’s attitude toward his situation. As he said, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”
Contentment is the spirit that moves the heart to give thanks. Contentment is like a fountain from which thanksgiving overflow. However, contentment is not a common experience in many in our days. And even if it is, it’s only momentarily. For instance, people might feel content after eating a delicious meal, or after finishing a tedious task, or on those moments when holding the hand of a loved one. But Paul says he is content in any and every situation. He was not only content when he had abundance or when he was free to carry out his ministry without obstacles. Paul was content all the time and in every situation.
But there is something Paul also admitted. This is how he put it: “I have learned the secret of being content.” That means that the secret of contentment is something that can be learned. But how can we?
I do not have to tell you that we live in a society that is perpetually discontented. Most everything in our society thrives on the discontentment of the people. From economics to politics, all these are fueled by people’s discontentment, even when these are the very factors that cause discontentment in the first place. In our society, there is cycle of discontentment. Unfortunately, contentment is not a virtue required for good citizenship.
The Stoics of Paul’s day used to say, “If you want to make a man happy, do not add to his possessions, but take away from his desires.” They said that the wealthiest man was the one who was content with the least. At the core of the Stoic philosophy is pursuit of numbing the emotions, particularly regarding pain and desire. However, Paul’s secret was found in the power of Christ, who did not avoid pain or his crucifixion, but overcame it in resurrection. Therefore, Paul could say with great confidence, “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”
Paul was always grateful when he had abundance and patiently endured when he was in need. Paul rejoiced when he was free to go about preaching Christ, but he also rejoiced when for Christ’s sake he suffered imprisonment. Paul rejoiced when he was well received, but also endured the pain of rejection, knowing that Christ also suffered rejection. Paul gave thanks when he could move around doing his ministry, but he also trusted the Lord amidst shipwrecks, beatings, and all kinds of mistreatment. One might be tempted to say that Paul was a blind optimist, that he could see a silver lining in everything including his imprisonment. But the truth is that he viewed his suffering as an imitation of Christ. Therefore, his reason to urge the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord even when the faced trials.
As for the gift, Paul was thankful. He described it was a fragrant offering, a pleasing sacrifice to God. Paul also prayed that God would meet all the needs of the Philippians, according to the riches in Christ Jesus.
To everyone who gave to the Lord, to those who brought in something for the Christmas project, Helen is doing, may the Lord bless you and always meet your needs according to his riches in glory. Thank you!
Also, as Thanksgiving Day approaches, I invite you to take time to count your blessings as the songs says. Give thanks to God, not only for every material and physical blessing he gave you, but also thank the Lord for helping you to keep trusting in him in those moment of need or unrealized dreams. Give thanks to the Lord for providing in your times of need, but also for teaching you the secret of contentment in times of want. Give thanks to the Lord for the confidence you have in him that either in life or in death you are his.
Have a blessed and joyful Thanksgiving Day. Amen!