— The Preaching and Teaching Ministry of Kevin A. Pierpont

Living Above Circumstances – Philippians 4:12

As the story goes, a monk joined a monastery and took a vow of silence. After the first 10 years his superior called him in and asked, “Do you have anything to say?”

The monk replied, “Food bad.”

After another 10 years the monk again had opportunity to voice his thoughts.

He said, “Bed hard.”

Another 10 years went by and again he was called in before his superior. When asked if he had anything to say, he responded, “I quit.”

“It doesn’t surprise me a bit. You’ve done nothing but complain ever since you got here.” (Source unknown)

Complaining comes naturally doesn’t it? Do you need any help complaining? I mean, if you think you might need any help complaining I could give you a few lessons. Do you need any help complaining—I didn’t think so.

Do you need any help being discontent? I could give you a lesson or two in discontentment too. I know all about discontentment. Anybody else here know anything about discontentment?  I mean—we don’t need lessons in discontentment do we.

We don’t need any lessons in covetousness do we? At my stage in life, with my family, it goes like this, “Wow the neighbor has a new mini-van—boy I wish I had one of those!” Do you believe that? No—it’s the new 2005 Mustang—minivan—you’ve got to be kidding—it’s the new Mustang. Maybe for you it’s the neighbors new boat or camper or the latest clothing or hairstyle.

Usually discontentment shows itself in complaining. And if I’m not happy it’s your fault. We like to think it’s usually someone else’s fault we’re not happy right? And we don’t need lessons in complaining do we? It’s so easy for us to complain about the people around us and how they treat us, how they look at us, how they talk to us or about us, the color of their clothing or their hair or the scent of their cologne. Complaining is easy—it comes naturally.

It’s much less natural for us to be happy for others. It’s unnatural to be excited for others and happy for others when they’re experiencing good things. It’s harder to give others the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the way they treat us—it’s much more difficult to overlook a minor offense. And I believe that a majority of the things that give us reason for discontent and get us crossways with people are minor things—they’re the little things—things that could be and should be overlooked. There ought to be a lot of room in the life of a believer for rejoicing with others in the good things that they have and there ought to be a lot of room in the life of a believer for overlooking the minor offenses of others. If that were true of us I think we’d find much less complaining in our lives.

We’re kind of like the little guy whose parents had become very concerned for him since he was four years old and hadn’t spoken a word yet. They took him to specialists, but the doctors found nothing wrong with him.  Then one morning at breakfast the boy suddenly blurted, “Mom, the toast is burned.”

“You talked!  You talked!” shouted the mother.  “I’m so happy! but why has it taken this long?”

“Well, up till now,” said the boy, “things have been okay.” (Farmers Digest)

Isn’t that the way it is? Unfortunately, many times the only things we have to say have to do with our displeasure with circumstances, our dissatisfaction and discontentment with circumstances.

What is it that causes our discontentment? What is it that makes it difficult for us to live for Christ without complaining, without covetousness, without discontentment?

God’s Word tells us.

James 4:1 makes it clear that it is our own desires for pleasure that wage war within us that cause many quarrels and conflicts among us.

And I think the passions that are at war within us create that thing called discontentment. It’s covetousness and complaining that puts us at odds with others because we can’t find it in ourselves to rejoice with them over their good or find it in us to overlook their faults. And we don’t find that kind of an attitude in ourselves because it’s really not in us. That kind of attitude that rejoices with others and overlooks the faults of others only comes from Christ.

Do we need any help getting crossways with others? Do we need any schooling in discontentment? Do we need any lessons in covetousness? No we don’t. But I do believe we need lessons in contentment. We need lessons on controlling the desires in our life to guard against discontentment.

We’re going to find that to experience contentment in the Christian life we’ll need to work at it. It’s like those of you who like to garden or grow beautiful flowers. It takes work to grow good and wholesome things. You must toil and labor in the heat of the day and water, and weed and groom the plant to attain it’s full productive potential.

Weeds don’t take any effort at all.

It’s natural to be discontent. What’s unnatural is contentment. I think that one of the most important lessons in life to learn is the one of contentment in all circumstances. We noted in our earlier studies that the big idea of Paul’s closing remarks to the Philippian believers in verses 10-19 here in Philippians 4 is what we find in verse 11. We looked at it last week. It’s the phrase in verse 11 where Paul says, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”

I want you to understand that this is not about passively sitting by and just letting life happen. I’m not talking about having a “ho-hum-who-cares” attitude. You’ve seen it before. “Oh I don’t care—it doesn’t matter—life happens. Life is rough and then you die.”

That’s not the kind of contentment I’m speaking of at all. That’s not contentment, that’s complacency, that’s smugness.

What we’re talking about is the kind of contentment that’s learned. Paul was thoroughly indoctrinated in the school of contentment. He is saying, “I have learned to be content.”

If he learned, then there must have been a time when he didn’t know contentment. There must have been a time when Paul knew discontentment.

And if you think that Paul’s contentment had been learned without any discipline—without experiencing any difficulty that helped him learn the lesson—if you think that you’d be mistaken. Paul knew trials—Paul knew difficulties—and those difficulties helped him learn contentment.

Let’s look at it. Paul says in verse 12,

I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need.

He says, I know how to be abased. The ESV says; I know how to be brought low. He says I know how to handle being brought low. I see here that this could mean that Paul knew how to handle being made little of. He knew how to handle being put beneath others who were more honored than he. The NASB uses the phrase; I know how to get along with humble means.

Paul also says I’ve learned how to be hungry and to suffer need. “I know all about hunger and need. I’ve been through it all.”

We certainly see evidence that Paul was made little of and that he suffered great need at times.

Acts 14:19 – Then Jews from Antioch and Iconium came there; and having persuaded the multitudes, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing him to be dead.

Acts 16:22 – Then the multitude rose up together against them; and the magistrates tore off their clothes and commanded them to be beaten with rods. 23 And when they had laid many stripes on them, they threw them into prison, commanding the jailer to keep them securely. 24 Having received such a charge, he put them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks. 25 But at midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them.

Acts 18:12 When Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews with one accord rose up against Paul and brought him to the judgment seat.

In Acts 20:3 we see the Jews plotting against Paul.

And Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:4,5…

2 Corinthians 6:4,5 – But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, 5 in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings;

Paul had experienced being “brought low.” Paul knew all about being made little of. He often had to get by with very little. He had been persecuted, had endured mental and physical suffering, he had gone hungry and thirsty, and had been in need of clothing. He knew all about being in need. He knew all about being abased—being brought low—living without, in humble situations.

I could see Paul wearing the shirt that says, “I’ve gone hungry and thirsty, I’ve been tortured and beaten and imprisoned—and all I got was this T-shirt.”  The only thing is, he went through all that and didn’t get the t-shirt either. Paul knew how to suffer—he had learned what need was.

But that’s not all. He had also learned how to live with plenty.

Paul says, I know how to abound—I’ve learned how to live filled, I’ve learned how to live with plenty.

Before Paul came to know Christ he was a well-known Pharisee. Ahead of him lie a very promising and prosperous future. He was certainly well off based on human standards. But yet he was very poor because he did not have Christ.

After coming to Christ Paul’s perspective changes—there were times that Paul knew what is was to have plenty. But his enjoyment was no longer based on a human standard. His enjoyment of provision was based on his relationship with Christ. How else could he have risen above his circumstances to rejoice in the Lord’s provision.

Think of Paul and Silas, imprisoned, back in Acts 16, feet in stocks praying and singing hymns to God (Acts 16:25). And then there’s the earthquake and the prison doors fly open and the chains fall off and the jailer is going to take his own life because he knows it will be required of him since the doors are open, the chains are off and the prisoners are free—that’s dereliction of duty. But what we find is that the jailer instead believes in Jesus and those in his household. And Acts 16:33,34 says;

Acts 16:33 And he took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes. And immediately he and all his family were baptized. 34 Now when he had brought them into his house, he set food before them; and he rejoiced, having believed in God with all his household.

Paul and Silas are eating a meal at the jailer’s table. We’d be saying, “run Paul, run Silas, your free, escape, don’t look back.” But no, they’re eating a meal with the jail keeper. That’s complete confidence in God’s power and that’s complete satisfaction with God’s provision.

And what we find in the verses that follow is that God provided and they were set free the next day. They didn’t have to run. But I believe God used the incident of the earthquake shaken doors and chains in the prison not to set Paul and Silas free but to liberate the jailer and his family from the chains of sin.

How about when Paul is shipwrecked on the island of Malta? Acts 28:2 says;

Acts 28:2 And the natives showed us unusual kindness; for they kindled a fire and made us all welcome, because of the rain that was falling and because of the cold.

Would any of us have had such a sunny outlook on this shipwrecked situation as Paul? We’d have been complaining about how we’d just been through this life-threatening ordeal. No?

And we see Paul’s gratitude for the Lord’s provision here in Philippians 4 also.

Philippians 4:15,16 – Now you Philippians know also that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church shared with me concerning giving and receiving but you only. 16 For even in Thessalonica you sent aid once and again for my necessities.

Philippians 4:18 – Indeed I have all and abound. I am full, having received from Epaphroditus the things sent from you, a sweet-smelling aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well pleasing to God.

All of this—both suffering without and enjoyment of plenty—and Paul had learned to be content? How? How does he do this?

Here’s how. Paul had learned to live above his circumstances. He had learned how to live above more than enough and too little.

And I think he’s able to live above his circumstance because he’s not dependant on himself.

It’s not all about Paul. I said it earlier and we noted it in previous studies. We saw it in verse 10. Paul has complete confidence in God’s power. And we saw it in verse 11. Paul was completely satisfied with God’s provision. So we find here in verse 12 that Paul has learned to live above his circumstance.

Now we might think that if we had plenty we could learn to live above our circumstance as well.

“Well that’s not so big a deal,” you say—“having plenty”—“I could learn to get by pretty well with plenty.”

But that’s not as easy as we’d like to make it out to be. Often when we have plenty we’re likely to take our eyes off Christ and get them on ourselves.

Spurgeon has said that, “The Christian far oftener disgraces his profession in prosperity than when he is abased.”

The danger is that when we have plenty we’re prone to think we’re fairly self-sufficient. We don’t need anything—including Jesus. That’s a dangerous place to live. Listen to what Jesus teaches in Mark 10:23-25.

Mark 10:23-25 – Then Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were astonished at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, “Children, how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

There is reason for concern when it comes to dealing with having much. The one who says, “if I just had a bit more, I’d be better off—I’d be just fine”, isn’t aware that he may find himself worse off with much than with little.

We tend to be self-sufficient and careless with our relationship with Christ when we have plenty as apposed to when we were so low in life we could look nowhere but up to Christ and cry out for his help.

Often having little makes it easier to serve the Lord. Because being in times of distress and difficulty makes us more likely to realize our deep need for Christ and we’re most likely to be lead to dependence on the Lord.

But when we have much it can actually be more difficult to serve Christ because we tend to forget that we desperately need Christ and begin to think we’re just fine living in our own strength.

And too often, more is not enough. We’re just as likely to complain and be discontent with much, as with little.

The difference isn’t whether we have little or much. The difference is our perspective. Do we realize we need Christ no matter what our circumstances? Do we understand that to live apart from, or above our circumstances, we must be completely confident in God’s power and completely satisfied with God’s provision?

We need to be careful that though we may lack very little of this world’s goods that we don’t lack the very thing we need the most and that is Jesus Christ. And though we may experience great times of need we must be careful that that we don’t overlook the greatest fulfillment in life—a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.

It is only with the power of Christ living in us that it’s possible for us to live above our circumstances. There’s really no good thing in you or me that makes us capable of true contentment. There’s really no human will power or strength in us or any level of self-control that makes us capable of bearing up under great need or living with much in complete contentment.

The only way we’ll be able to say with Paul that I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances is to have complete faith in Christ—to rely completely on Christ for contentment from day to day.

Are you living above your circumstances? Maybe you have plenty—or maybe you feel you have great needs—but you find that life isn’t what you’d hoped. Maybe you’re trying your hardest to find contentment by your own shear will power—you’re doing your best to resist the desire for more. But maybe just now you’re realizing that you’re trying to do this without Christ. You’re pursuing contentment without complete confidence in God power and you’re not satisfied with God’s provision.

A young man who was trying to establish himself as a peach grower had worked hard and invested all his money in a peach orchard. It blossomed wonderfully but then came a killing frost. He didn’t go to church the next Sunday, nor the next, nor the next. His minister went to see him to discover the reason. The young fellow exclaimed, “I’m not coming any more. Do you think I can worship a God who cares for me so little that He would let a frost kill all my peaches?” The old minister looked at him a few moments in silence, then said kindly, “God loves you better than He does your peaches. He knows that while peaches do better without frosts, it is impossible to grow the best men without frosts. His object is to grow men, not peaches.” We are sometimes so concerned about our material possessions that we fail to realize that setting our hearts upon them can stunt our spiritual development. God often has to open our eyes to life’s real values by taking from us its lesser ones. (Source Unkown)

Maybe just now you’re realizing that you need to confess to God your need of him. You may be a believer and yet you have not fully trusted him to show you contentment.

You need the power of the Christ in your life. And you will not experience the power of Christ living in you giving you the power to live above your circumstances without his Word in you. The importance of the Word of God in the life of a believer cannot be overstated. If you are a follower of Christ you are desperately in need of the Word of God in your life. Not only does it reveal truth to you but it shows you how to practice that truth. I firmly believe that a discontent believer is one who is not reading God’s Word and practicing God’s Word.

You also need the practice of prayer in your life all throughout your day. When you find yourself tempted to complain, tempted with a desire for more, when you find yourself irritated by others and you’re sliding toward selfishness, you need to go to God in prayer and ask for his power to live above your circumstances.

Maybe you’ve never confessed your sin and believed in Jesus. Maybe you’re realizing today that you’ll never know contentment without Christ. You can begin your new life with Christ if you will turn to him today. I’m here to help you do that—just speak to me after the service.

Living above your circumstances is not all about you—it’s all about CHRIST living IN you.