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“I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. 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. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” -Philippians 4:11-13

Contentment is a metaphorical unicorn in today’s culture—talked about but rarely seen. Turn on the TV or quickly scroll through Instagram and you’ll find marketing images intended to make us believe that we would be happier if we traveled more, dressed better, lived in a bigger house, or possessed popular products. But contentment is not a mystical, unachievable concept in the Bible; it is what sets believers apart from the rest of the world.

Global missionaries face a myriad of challenges when they follow their call to take the gospel to the ends of the Earth. Whether it be a short-term mission trip or a lifelong calling, missionaries may experience culture shock, homesickness, language barriers, difficult living situations, and even persecution. One of the world’s earliest missionaries, the Apostle Paul, experienced all of these things and more.

In Philippians 4, Paul is writing a thank you note to the church in Philippi, thanking them for the financial support they sent while he was in prison awaiting trial and possible execution. In verse 11, Paul uses the word autarkes, which in the Greek language means “self-sufficient.” But Paul took this worldly word, often touted by Stoics, and turned it on its head. Rather than proclaiming self-sufficiency, Paul goes on to describe three important characteristics of Christian contentment:

1. Christian Contentment Exists Outside of Circumstances

Paul’s missionary journey in Europe was riddled with trials. He was whipped, stoned, imprisoned, shipwrecked, hunted, starved, and robbed—all of this more than once (2 Corinthians 11:23-27)! Paul is open about his difficulties when he writes to the churches supporting him, but not to garner pity or to boast in his own strength. Rather, Paul’s testimony of enduring the trials of ministry serves as an example to other believers of how to find contentment that is independent of circumstances. How many of us fall into the trap of believing that if our hardships improved, so would our peace and contentment? But what if, like Paul, we found that even in our deepest aches and hardest hurts, Jesus is there? Not to bring pain relief or a righting of wrongs—though we know He can and longs to do so—but rather to comfort us with His presence and bring to our souls the lasting peace of knowing He is enough. As Elisabeth Elliot, another missionary well-acquainted with suffering, once said, “The secret is Christ in me, not me in a different set of circumstances.”

2. Christian Contentment is Learned

In Philippians 4, Paul uses the word “learned” twice. This implies that he did not always feel content in any and every situation. Instead, we can imagine that Paul most likely went through periods of discontent, times when the suffering he experienced grated against his innate human desire for comfort.

But somewhere along his journey with the Lord, Paul learned a secret: discontentment is bred through looking down at one’s circumstances, but contentment flourishes when looking upward to the glory and joy of Heaven. And who was Paul’s example in this? Jesus Christ.

“And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” -Hebrews 12:1b-3, emphasis added

Just as Christ patiently submitted to the unavoidable hardships of this Earth because He knew the ending of the story, so also can we learn to tear our gaze away from things outside of our control and focus on the eternal and spiritual endgame of our lives.

3. Christian Contentment is Christ-Sufficient, Not Self-Sufficient

The secret of contentment Paul learned was that he indeed had everything he needed to find tranquility amidst insurmountable trials. But this strength did not come from his own internal reserves of power, it came from Christ within him. As the Apostle Peter writes in 2 Peter 1:3, “His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and goodness (emphasis added).” When we realize the Holy Spirit has equipped us to find rest and peace in any circumstance, discontent is banished from our hearts.

This all-encompassing peace, this lack of striving, this inner Christ-sufficiency—what a powerful platform for the gospel. Missionaries who praise the Lord amidst hardship—much like Paul and Silas as they sang hymns to the Lord while in prison for sharing the gospel—ignite evangelism that spreads like wildfire among unbelievers. No wonder the jailer and his entire family were saved and baptized that very night (Acts 16:30-33)! Christian contentment produces a soul at rest, not weighed down by envy, bitterness, or despair. This is our witness: Christ above all comforts this life can afford. May our contented hearts be a beacon of hope in a dark and discontented world.