The Meaning of Contentment

Philippians (16)


We come now to the conclusion of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The theme of this passage is the importance of contentment, in the context of Paul’s gratitude for the financial support that the Philippians had contributed. Because the kingdom of God does not run on air, the Scriptures do talk about finances and financing kingdom work. But there is a striking difference between how Scripture addresses it and how worldly professionals do.  

The Text

“But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at the last your care of me hath flourished again; wherein ye were also careful, but ye lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content. I know both how to be abased, and I know how to abound: every where and in all things I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. Notwithstanding ye have well done, that ye did communicate with my affliction. Now ye Philippians know also, that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church communicated with me as concerning giving and receiving, but ye only. For even in Thessalonica ye sent once and again unto my necessity. Not because I desire a gift: but I desire fruit that may abound to your account. But I have all, and abound: I am full, having received of Epaphroditus the things which were sent from you, an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, wellpleasing to God. But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus. Now unto God and our Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen. Salute every saint in Christ Jesus. The brethren which are with me greet you. All the saints salute you, chiefly they that are of Caesar’s household. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen” (Philippians 4:10–23).

Summary of the Text

The Philippians had supported Paul earlier, had then been denied opportunity to help, and had now resumed their support. This was an occasion of joy for Paul (v. 10). Paul brought up money here in the letter, but he hastens to assure them that it was not because he was hinting at getting more (v. 11). He notes that he had learned contentment in whatever condition he found himself (v. 11). But take note of that word learned. He knew how to be abased, and how to abound, how to be full and hungry both, and how to abound and how to lack (v. 12). In what kind of situation? Well, he says “everywhere, and in all things” (v. 12). I can do all things through Christ who provides strength, meaning that he had learned how to be contented in all circumstances (v. 13).

Nevertheless, their support for him was well done, relieving his affliction as they had done (v. 14). When he had left Macedonia (where Philippi was located), they well knew that they had been Paul’s only support at that time (v. 15). They had done this when Paul was in Thessalonica (v. 16). Paul then repeats that he is not talking about this as a sneaky way of getting more out of them (v. 17). He actually wants them to have the blessing of becoming givers. He has everything he needs from them via Epaphroditus—which he calls a sweet-smelling sacrifice to God (v. 18), and well-pleasing to Him. God will make a return to them, supplying all the needs of these givers (v. 19). This is according to His wealth in the glory of Christ. Praise and glory are then offered up to the Father (v. 20). Salute all the saints there, and the brethren with Paul send greetings (v. 21). All the saints salute the Philippians, particularly those who are in Caesar’s household (v. 22). The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all, and amen (v. 23). 

Contentment, Not Stoicism

That famous phrase—“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”—is not primarily about doing well at Christian school track meets. The “all things” Paul is referring to is the ability to remain contented under the providences of God, even when those providences are hard, challenging, or difficult.

Now Christian contentment is not stoicism. Stoicism teaches that whether you are experiencing pain or pleasure ought to be a matter of utter indifference to you. But Christian contentment is not a matter of “not caring.” It is not the absence of caring, but rather the presence of something—faith in the God who apportions all things for His glory and our good. Contentment is the presence of faith, trust, joy, hope, and stamina. It is not the absence of pain or difficulty.

But the Christian still knows which direction to pray, and which direction to go. When Paul was in need and afflicted, the Philippians knew to relieve him. It would have been odd for them to try to confiscate some of his food when he was well-fed.

A Christian can learn the secret of contentment, and still know enough to come in out of the rain. You can be hungry and go to lunch and still be content. Contentment does not make lunch a matter of indifference. If you are sick, you need to be content, but that is not inconsistent with praying to recover. And it would be cockeyed to be well and pray that you might fall sick. The secret of contentment does not alter our definitions of what is preferable . . . everything else being equal.

But everything is frequently not equal, and because a negative thing in one area (considered in itself) can be a means to bring in another thing, positive in itself, it is crucial to learn contentment. “It is good for me that I have been afflicted; That I might learn thy statutes” (Psalm 119:71).

There is a world of difference between those who think that we should just accept the negative things in themselves, on the one hand, and those who believe that such afflictions are teleological—directed toward some larger purpose. Contentment is dependent upon this understanding.

Not Angling for the Gift

Paul is grateful for their support, and he makes sure to thank them for it. But it is important to note that the apostle feels awkward about it. He twice brings up the fact that he is not trying to manipulate them for more (vv. 11, 17). If we want to follow the example of Paul, it is important for ministers to feel awkward about asking for money, or even looking like they might be asking for money. Apostolic awkwardness is the pattern. If a minister is slick when it comes to passing the plate, then watch out.   

At the same time, when talking about their financial support for the work, it is equally important to note how important giving is. This is not because everything would fold if we were to stop giving. Rather, it is because we would wither up if we stopped giving. Paul describes their financial generosity in the terms of the Old Testament sacrifices, which provided a sweet-smelling aroma to God. This is a big deal. It is an essential part of our worship of God.

And incidentally, both sides of this are why our offering box is hard to find, and also why the presentation of it has an important place in our liturgy. The gift to God is crucial. The collection of the gift is more susceptible to abuse, and so we take care to be careful with that.

Glorious Supply

God sees your generosity, and He sees it as He describes it. It is seed that goes into the ground, and when we farm according to biblical principles, God is the one who sees to the harvest—“my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus.”

We see this principle in Galatians as well.

“Let him that is taught in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things. Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.”

Galatians 6:6-10


The famous passage about reaping what you sow has to do with your apportionment of your giving. The one who is taught should share with the ministry that teaches because God is not mocked—a man reaps what he sows. If we are not to grow weary in well-doing, that well-doing will need to be funded. Don’t despair—harvest is coming. And if we would have opportunity to do good unto all men, especially Christians, then we should give in such a way as to create those opportunities.

Our task as Christians is to glorify the name of Jesus Christ, and this is one of the blessed means assigned to us.

“And I say to you, make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home.”

Luke 16:9 (NKJV)

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