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Christians are called to contentment not merely because this is a good thing, but because it is a central component of joining God’s mission, of establishing His Kingdom here in this world, and learning to fight like Christians.
Paul is writing in a context of intense struggle in Philippi. There are enemies outside and there are challenges inside the Church, and Paul urges the Philippians to rejoice in all of it (Phil. 4:4). A Christian should be known for being calm and stable because they know that the Lord is present and near to them (Phil. 4:5). And therefore, we fight all anxiety through prayer: casting our cares on Christ, with thanksgiving (Phil. 4:6). When we pray like that, God’s promise is that His peace which passes all understanding will guard our hearts and minds through Christ (Phil. 4:7). This joyful resting in Christ is marked by a disciplined thought life: keeping a common place book of all the good things, true things, just things, lovely things, etc. (Phil. 4:8). This attentiveness should include imitating mature Christians like Paul – this is the path of God’s peace (Phil. 4:9). Finally, Paul models this joyful contentment by expressing his delight in the gift he recently received from the Philippians (Phil. 4:10). He was truly thankful but certainly not desperate for the gift because he had learned to be content in every situation because Christ strengthens him (Phil. 4:11-13).
Contentment in God requires that you actually know the God you are content in. Christian contentment is not contentment in whatever you imagine God to be like. You can say the word “contentment” a whole bunch, but if you are not resting in who God actually is, you are not actually learning Christian contentment. So, who is this God? He is the God who is set on taking this world from glory to glory. We see this beginning in the very first chapter of the Bible. God creates something good, and then He comes back the next day and restructures it and improves it (Gen. 1). If you had been there watching, you might have been tempted to urge God to stop. If the Light was good, why make the firmament or the sun, moon, and stars? If the dry ground and seas were good, why add animals and fish? What we see in the creation week is the beginning of God’s pattern of taking good things and making them better. This is the God we rejoice in and remain calm in. This is God is not far off. He is near.
The same pattern follows through the rest of Scripture, particularly in God’s covenantal dealings with His people. The covenant with Noah grows into the glory of the covenant with Abraham, and that glory grows into the covenant with Moses, and that glory grows into the covenant with David. The glory of the covenant with David grows into the glory of the covenant under Ezra and Nehemiah, and Christ is the culmination of all the covenants in the New Covenant. Paul says that when we see the gospel unfolding and culminating in Christ, we are being “changed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). The whole Bible is the story of Christ: “Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Lk. 24:26-27). The center of Christian contentment is the cross of Jesus, in which God broke the best thing in order to make an even better one.
How Does Covenantal Contentment Pray?
Paul says that Christian contentment is learned through prayer (Phil. 4:6). The pattern for Christian prayer is laid out in the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father” means that we approach God as the One who made us and cares for us. He is not detached or distant. “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” means that we entrust our stories to His story. He has a plan that He is carrying out in this world that is wonderful, glorious, and all together lovely. His Kingdom and Will are taking this world (and us) from glory to glory. It’s in that context that we are invited to ask God for our daily bread. It’s actually pretty audacious of us to think that we know what we need, but God is our Father and He wants us to ask for what we think we need. But we are to do so first of all “with thanksgiving” (Phil. 4:6). This recognizes that what we have today is already from God’s hand, and whatever God gives for our daily bread is good. Nevertheless, we do want to be learning to pray in the will of God, toward the will of God. We want to pray, as far as we can help it, for those things that we see that would work toward the coming of Christ’s Kingdom. And this is why it is important that all of our requests include a spirit of surrender: yet not my will by Thy will be done (Lk. 22:42, Js. 4:15).
Militant Christian Contentment
Christian contentment is not apathetic, not stoic. Christian contentment, grounded in the mission of God, is militant. “And the God of peace will crush Satan under your feet shortly. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (Rom. 16:20). It is not merely that it’s a nice thing to have God’s peace. It is the peace of God that crushes Satan under your feet. When we pray with contentment, the promise is that the peace of God, which passes all understanding will guard our hearts and minds (Phil. 4:7). The peace of God is our armor, our fortress. Paul says elsewhere that we need to wear the gospel of peace on our feet (Eph. 6:15). The peace of Christ is what takes us into battle. You cannot fully participate in the mission of God without the peace of God. This is because the conquest of the gospel is a mission of healing and restoration, not destruction. The gospel is very disruptive to the old world, the old man, the old systems of sin, death, and the devil. But it destroys that slavery, those strongholds in order to establish freedom, joy, and peace. And therefore, you cannot be a peacemaker if you are not already a fortress of peace and contentment. One of the greatest meditations on Christian contentment is The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by the puritan pastor Jeremiah Burroughs, who preached this series of sermons in the middle of the English Civil War.
At the center of our text, Paul says to meditate on the true, honest, just, pure, and virtuous things. In fact, the word means to reckon or impute. It can simply mean to think about, but this is how the word is frequently used: Abraham believed God, and He reckoned it to him as righteousness (Rom. 4:22). Paul goes on: “Now it was not written for his sake alone that it was imputed to him, but also for us. It shall be imputed to us who believe in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead…” (Rom. 4:23-24). God imputes the righteousness of Christ to us who believe in Him, and if you understand that, you begin to imitate that, which is gospel war.