Now that it is summer, I spend my Saturdays at the Des Moines Downtown Farmers’ Market, selling baked goods for my brother-in-law with Mast Family Farm. The best part of market is interacting with customers. I hope we bless them, though I am not always sure we do.
This past Saturday a frequent customer walked up to me at the pie stand. As he approached, I noticed that his shirt was bulging out over his belt. He patted this bulge rather tenderly as he neared the stand, and immediately Paul’s words flashed through my mind: “Whose god is their belly” (Phil. 3:19 NKJV).
I know, my mind isn’t always kind. But that’s the way it sometimes works. And the way the customer patted his stomach did indeed look like he was expressing devotion to his god. More importantly, the way he bought two pies and deliberated about a third suggested that his god has grown because he as been feeding it. (If you struggle with weight gain despite valiant self-control, as many do, please know you have my sympathy, not my condemnation.)
I don’t enjoy selling pies at such moments. As I said, I hope we bless most of our customers.
“Whose god is their belly.” I thought of these words again this morning in Sunday School class, when we were talking about Paul’s example of contentment. Paul said, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Phil. 4:11).
The Sunday School quarterly suggested that the kind of contentment that Paul was writing about was the kind where we “limit our desires or actions.” I think I understand what the quarterly writer meant, but I’m not sure that definition of contentment captures the full picture of Paul’s testimony.
What enabled Paul to be content in all circumstances? How did he “learn” contentment? Did he simply learn to limit his desires? Was Paul a closet Hindu, believing that the key to escaping suffering is to escape desire? I don’t think so.
I think the real secret of Paul’s contentment is found in the fact that he was devoted to the right God. In the first chapter of Philippians Paul recounts how he is in prison, and how some envious rivals are taking advantage of his imprisonment by doing some preaching of their own, hoping in their selfish ambition to add to Paul’s misery. But Paul doesn’t mind, as long as they are preaching Christ. “What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” (Phil 1:18, emphasis added).
Christ was Paul’s God, and as long as Christ was being exalted, Paul was content. As long as Christ was being exalted, Paul rejoiced. “Yes, and I will rejoice,” Paul continued, “for… it is my eager expectation and hope that… now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” (Phil. 1:18-21, emphasis added).
“Rejoice in the Lord,” Paul told the Philippians. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” And again: “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length you have revived your concern for me. You were indeed concerned for me, but you had no opportunity. Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. (Phil. 3:1; 4:4, 10-11, emphasis added).
How did Paul learn contentment? I think one way he learned contentment was through suffering. Each time Paul suffered—and he suffered a great deal indeed—each time he suffered, he grew even closer to his Lord, the one who had born the cross for him. Suffering for his Lord drew him closer to his Lord, causing him to rejoice ever more deeply and exclusively in his Lord.
Paul was not content to remain in his current state of spiritual maturity. He was pressing on to share more fully in the cross of his Lord, in order that he might also share in the resurrection of his Lord (Phil. 3:7-16). But Paul was content with his God—content with and eagerly anticipating the appearing of his Lord Jesus Christ:
“Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (Phil. 3:17-21, emphasis added).
When your mind is on autopilot, do you think of earthly things or heavenly things? When your hands reach out for something to pat, what god do they serve?
If you want real contentment, don’t focus on renouncing your desires. Get a real God. Rejoice in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Some of you have learned contentment in ways I still have not. How have you learned to rejoice single-heartedly in Christ? Share your insights in the comments below.
PS: For similar thoughts on how good desires are the key to overcoming evil desires, you might enjoy reading an old essay by Thomas Chalmers entitled “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection.” See here.