The shopping mall is a dangerous place. You know that, right? And I’m not just talking about the potential thief in the parking lot or the danger of having someone steal your credit card information. I’m talking about something much worse. I’m talking about danger for our souls.
Has it happened to you at the mall, when you didn’t realize you needed another pair of shoes until you saw those in the store? And they are on sale. Or, your TV was working fine, but that one on display is so much bigger — and look at that picture.
And really, you don’t even have to go to the store for it to happen. It can be the TV shopping channels or just watching your neighbors. You see what you don’t have, and suddenly what you have feels like junk. It’s unappreciated. It’s yesterday’s news.
And the advertisers tell you that you’ll feel so much better if you just buy it — whether you can afford it or not. And the advertisers are serious about it. A couple of years ago, they spent $412 BILLION to make sure you wouldn’t be content. This is to destroy your contentment and put you in the position of doing exactly what God condemns.
So God’s Word comes to you today with a secret, a secret that’s proclaimed in broad daylight, but it’s still a secret because $412 billion and our sinful flesh and our ancient enemy, Satan, are all trying to shield it from our eyes and hearts. Today, Paul shows us the secret to being content — the secret to honoring God by being content.
Our text is Philippians 4:10-13. I’ll skip ahead to where Paul shares the secret, verse 12: "I know what it is to be in need and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned (it didn’t come naturally — he had to learn it) 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 everything through him who gives me strength."
Did you catch that? His happiness was not about the stuff, whether at an all-you-can eat buffet or eating a rice ball with his fingers. Whether he was dozing on a pillow top or crashing in a damp prison cell, Paul’s contentment was completely independent of what he had, where he was, and how he lived. He had learned the secret.
Have you? Have you learned to keep your joy when she has more shoes and he has a better car, and they have a better house and their kids have more video games? Have you learned that secret so well that you can walk through the mall emotionally unscathed?
You heard the secret, right? Later in this same chapter, we read Paul saying in verse 19: "My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus." The secret of contentment is believing God is our provider. God will give exactly what we need. God will provide plenty when we need it. God will let us be in need when we need it. God will give us the ability to work hard to provide, and the Christian brothers and sisters to help when we can’t. God will always provide exactly what we need at exactly the right time as he carries out his perfect plan for our lives. Paul believed that. That made him content during his richest and his poorest times. Arriving at that attitude was not easy. But, Paul confessed, "I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
God is our provider. That’s the secret. Contentment isn’t self-sufficiency, but God dependency. It’s like when the Nigerian director of the seminary came to welcome us on the first Sunday afternoon that my partner and I were there. He told us, "Don’t be afraid for your security. You are safe."
And Pastor Vogt said, "We sure do appreciate these guards that are here, and we heard the night guards last night. It sure makes us feel safe."
That’s when Director Udoh waved off those guards and said, "No, they are not your safety. God makes you safe. God is here. You are safe."
What a lesson! For the guys who were there to teach them — we had to learn a lesson first. How often don’t we need that reminder? That is, that God is the provider and he is the only one who knows the true definition of that word we overuse way too much — "need." He gives us what we need so we can be content, no matter what.
So let’s be dependent on God for everything, especially for covering our all-too-frequent failures when we forget that he is the provider, and for our habitual feelings of discontentment with what God has given us. God has provided for that, too. He sent his Son to leave the perfection of heaven. Jesus went without and put himself in some of the most uncomfortable and painful situations imaginable. Ultimately, the price of his own life was required. Because we have this kind of God who will sacrifice everything for us, we are able to learn contentment.
Isn’t it often true that a person’s desire for more or better possessions is really just a longing to fill an empty place in his or her life? If you always want more, look first to God to fill the empty spots in your heart, and then trust God to give you the earthly stuff you need for living life and serving him. That’s the secret to contentment. Enjoy it!
In Christ, amen.
The Rev. Jonathan Scharf is pastor of Abiding Grace Lutheran Church in Covington.