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Paul didn’t have a lot of reasons to give thanks. He wrote his letter to his brothers and sisters in Christ in Philippi while he was sitting in prison. Yet the theme of his letter to them is, Rejoice!
We aren’t sitting in a prison cell this Thanksgiving. In fact, very few of us know what it is to be in want, to go hungry for a day or more, to not have enough. We may not have all we would like for Thanksgiving. The rising prices may have caused us to say, “I’m not going to buy that this year.” But we will have plenty of food on our tables anyway. And there are plenty of churches and missions that make sure anyone who wants can have plenty of food for Thanksgiving for free.
Paul was in prison, content and rejoicing. We have our freedom. We have all we need and more, yet we tend to be discontent and complaining. What was the secret that Paul learned that enabled him to be content in any and every circumstance in life?
A few verses earlier Paul had instructed the Philippians not to worry about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. As we sing in the hymn, “take it to the Lord in prayer.” Let him know what’s bothering you. Let him know what you need. Ask the one who is almighty for his help. Trust that he has promised to hear and answer your every prayer in the way that is best for your eternal welfare.
Paul tells us that he learned by experience that when you do let your requests be made known to God the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Nothing can make you more peaceful and content than giving all your worries to God and trusting that he will take care of them in the best way possible. Part of the secret of being content is talking to God in prayer.
One of the biggest reasons we experience discontent is because we focus on the wrong things. We focus on the lives of the rich and famous. We focus on what we don’t have instead of what we do have. We focus on all the bad things in the news instead of all the good things that are happening all around us. We forget that people tend only to put the good things they experience on Social Media, but they all have the same trials and troubles we do. That’s why Paul encourages us, if you are seeking contentment, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if anything is excellent, and if anything is praiseworthy, think about these things. If you are struggling with discontent you might want to turn off the news and delete your social media accounts. Part of the secret of being content is evaluating your focus, making sure it’s on the things that are excellent and praiseworthy.
Paul had learned to be content while being full or hungry, while having plenty or not enough, because his focus was not on earthly things that can never fully satisfy. Earthly things are here today and gone tomorrow. They have no eternal value. Paul’s focus was on the things that last. Heaven and earth will pass away but the Word of the Lord stands forever. When you eat earthly food, you get hungry again, when you drink earthly water, you get thirsty again, but Jesus gives the bread of life and the water of life that satisfies our hunger and thirst for all eternity. Part of the secret of being content is focusing on the excellent things, the praiseworthy things, the things that last for all eternity.
Was it easy for Paul to be content even when he was living in humble circumstances, when he didn’t have enough, when he was sitting in a prison cell? Don’t get the wrong idea. He was a human being just like us. He had a sinful nature that was prone to discontent just like us. The good that he wanted to do he didn’t always end up doing. The contentment he knew he should feel he didn’t always feel. Just like us he needed help in order to be content in any circumstance, in any and every situation he faced in life. So, what was the main part of his secret of being content? You know the verse by heart, maybe it was your confirmation verse. I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.
It’s important that we realize that we can’t make ourselves content and thankful. We don’t have that power by ourselves because of our sinful nature. If we try to do it by our own power, we will only make ourselves more miserable because we will fail over and over again.
Isn’t it interesting that, during Thanksgiving week, the whole goal of the advertising media is to make you discontent, to make you think you should buy things you don’t need with money you don’t have just because it’s such a deal? The ads are powerful and effective, especially when we all have an old Adam that is naturally prone to discontent and greed.
We need help in order to be able to be content in any and every situation of life. Thankfully we have hep in Jesus who strengthens us.
Jesus overcame every temptation to be discontent and unthankful. He even refused to use his power to turn stones into bread when he was hungry because he trusted the promise of the Father and was determined to live by the word of God. He didn’t live paycheck to paycheck, he lived day to day depending on God to provide. Every time we hear about Jesus sitting down to a meal, with his disciples or with 5000 plus, the first thing he does is give thanks to God. He went to the cross as our perfect substitute even when it comes to contentment and thankfulness.
Having paid for our sins of discontent and greed he continues to strengthen us. I wonder how many people who quote the passage I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me, actually think about how he strengthens us. I wonder if they think that he does it kind of like waving a magic wand, or even some kind of direct infusion of power in response to prayer? You see, that’s not the way Jesus strengthens us, at least not the way he has promised to strengthen us. The only way he has promised to strengthen us is through the means of grace, through the hearing of his word and the receiving of the sacrament, through the assurance that only in him do we have forgiveness and eternal life.
If you are looking for strength to have an attitude of contentment and thankfulness but you don’t pick up your Bible and you don’t confess your sins and come to the sacrament to receive his body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins, you will remain weak. You aren’t connected to the vine through which Jesus provides the strength you are seeking.
A big part of the secret of being content is being connected to the means through which Jesus promises to strengthen you – being connected to him daily through his word, and as often as possible through the sacrament.
The final piece of Paul’s secret of being content and thankful is the fellowship of other believers. Paul was receiving strength from Christ through the word of God that enabled him to be content even in prison. But he rejoiced greatly when he received news and a gift from the congregation in Philippi. Their concern for him warmed his heart. He appreciated that they were willing to be partners with him in his suffering. Even though he was in prison because he was preaching about Jesus, they were not ashamed to show their support for him and put themselves under suspicion. They were willing to stand up for the gospel of Jesus with him even if it meant they too might suffer because of it.
I think we can understand what Paul is saying after we experienced what it’s like not to be able to meet with each other around the word for a while. Even though we could be strengthened by God through his word in our homes, through our own study. Even though we could still worship together virtually through online services. It wasn’t the same. God designed us to need each other and he gifts us in ways that enable us to help and support each other. Like Paul, even though we know that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us, we rejoice greatly in the Lord when we have fellow Christians who show their concern for us, who are willing to stand with us and partner with us in whatever affliction we might face. It’s no wonder the writer to the Hebrews encourages us, especially in the last days when we might be tempted to keep to ourselves—he encourages us not to neglect meeting together, as some have the habit of doing. Rather, let us encourage each other, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
What’s the secret of being content and thankful?
Take everything to the Lord in prayer trusting him to do what’s best.
Make sure you are focusing on what is excellent and praiseworthy
Stay connected to the means of grace through which Christ strengthens you
Rejoice greatly in the fellowship of believers who stand with you in faith