In the book of Philippians, Paul makes quite a bold assertion when he writes, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation I face.” He goes on to say that it does not matter whether he is well-fed or hungry, living with plenty or in great need. (Philippians 4:12) Paul wrote these words from prison.
The question we are all probably wondering is, “What had Paul learned? What was his secret?”
First, I believe that Paul was able to draw upon all that he had learned as a Pharisee before he became a Christian. As a Pharisee with a great knowledge of the Old Testament, he would have been very familiar with Jeremiah 29:11, which speaks of the wonderful plan that God has for each of our lives:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans for your welfare, not for calamity, to give you a future and a hope” (author paraphrase).
Paul trusted God’s plan for his well-being; he knew he had a future and a hope. Paul also knew that the reason most people never find that plan is because they are seeking to execute their own plans for their lives:
“Woe to the obstinate children,” declares the Lord, “to those who carry out plans that are not mine. . .” (Isaiah 30:1, author paraphrase).
Therefore, Paul’s contentment can be attributed to the fact that he lived his life with a sense of mission and calling. He understood and believed in God’s good and sovereign hand on his life and circumstances. Paul understood that God had a purpose for him being in prison, and he was thus content to live in harmony with God’s plan for his life.
Second, I think that Paul was content because he realized he had found life’s great treasure. He speaks of this in a verse in Philippians:
I consider everything worthless in comparison to the unsurpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord for whom I suffered the loss of all things, and I consider it rubbish that I might gain this relationship with Christ (Philippians 3:8, author paraphrase).
If you will recall, Paul had at one time been a wealthy, prominent Pharisee, but upon becoming a Christian, he had to give up everything. However, he reveals that all that he had to give up was rubbish when compared to the surpassing value of having a relationship with Christ.
I think most people actually believe material wealth is the source of contentment. Modern culture aggressively promotes this prevailing attitude. “When I have this much wealth” or “When I earn this level of income,” then I will be content. Then, and only then, will life be good. I have had men sit across from me who have voiced their great contempt for God because they believe that He has dealt them a bad financial hand. When they look at their friends and see how well they are doing, they are convinced that God has discriminated against them financially.
In a letter to the church in Corinth (2 Corinthians 6:10), Paul makes it clear that as far as material possessions, he owned nothing; yet in reality, he considered himself to be a wealthy man. He was wealthy in the possessions that really matter in life. The great treasure in Paul’s life had been found in his relationship with Christ. It was the one possession his heart had been looking for, and therefore, he was content.
Finally, as I examine Paul’s life, I am amazed at how peaceful and content he was, even though he was often facing grave danger. The specter of death hung over him everywhere he traveled because so many people wanted to see him dead. It is truly remarkable to read in Philippians 1: 21-23 where Paul boldly declares that eternal life in the presence of God is, in fact, far better than anything we can expect to experience in this earthly life, which is full of pain and difficulty. In fact, Paul looked forward to his death with great anticipation. He overcame the fear of death through the tangible hope of eternal life, which, in my opinion, is the primary reason that he lived with such peace and contentment.
Have you ever wondered how different your life could possibly be if you were completely delivered from the fear of death? Take this a few steps further and ask, What if I was delivered not only from the fear, but also was able to look forward to the day of my death with great anticipation? How would that change the life I am living right now?
Of course most of us want to know if this was a true reality in Paul’s life, and if so, how did he pull it off? I believe quite simply that Paul knew God intimately. He knew Him not just as God but also as his heavenly Father. Therefore, Paul saw death as more than simply going home; he saw it as going to be with his Father. As he explains, “To be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8, author paraphrase).
This was Paul’s perspective and ultimately was the foundation of the peace and contentment that he experienced. And we should remember, this is what God offers to each of us as well.