The Discontented Christian Life
From Gospel Translations
This morning's message is the second of a two-part series dealing with the issue of contentment and its role in the Christian life. Last Sunday morning I spoke from Philippians 4:10–20 about "The Contented Christian Life" and argued that we as Christians should be very content with any and every gift that God chooses to give us in his loving wisdom. That holds true whether the gifts in question involve material possessions, the state of our physical health, our marital status, children, ministries, or whatever. No matter what state or what condition we find ourselves in, relative to these gifts, we are called by God through Scripture to be content. This weeks message is "The Discontented Christian Life" and I will seek to argue from Philippians 3 that we as Christians should be very discontent with our knowledge and experience of God as the giver of those gifts. And, as a result of that discontentment, we should pursue—zealously and eagerly pursue—more and more and more of Christ and his fullness in our lives.
Be Content and Discontent
The overarching theme of these two messages is this: One of the very best indicators of the reality and depth and vitality of your relationship with Christ and mine is the issue of what we are content with and what we are discontent with in our lives. My answer to that tremendously important question over these past two weeks has been this: Be content with the gifts God has given you. Be discontent with the current state of your spiritual life. Be content, be happily, peacefully, and gratefully satisfied with any and every gift that our sovereign God has chosen to give you in his wisdom and love. Be discontent, zealously discontent, with your knowledge and experience of God—with the intensity with which you worship his majesty, with the depth and breadth with which you understand his truth revealed in Scripture, with the purity and holiness with which you seek his righteousness in your life, with the zeal and determination and drive with which you pursue his kingdom and its advance.
Both sides of the answer to these questions have come to us from Paul's letter to the Philippians. And in both areas, both the area of contentment and the area of discontentment, our model has been the apostle Paul himself. Last week Paul was our apostolic example of the contented Christian, who had learned, in whatever state he was in, to be content (Philippians 4:11). This week Paul, as we will see him in Philippians 3:4–14 will be our apostolic example of the discontented Christian.
Brothers and sisters, my prayer last week was that the Spirit of God, working through the Word of God, would move each of us to take several giant steps in the process of learning to be content in all situations. My prayer this week is that the same Spirit would again work in power through his Word to rouse us from our sin-induced slumber, that he would awaken us from our apathetic spiritual complacency, and kindle within all of us a holy discontentment with our relationship with God, and that he would thereby move us, to use Pastor John's phrase, to go hard after the holy God.
Is Holy Discontentment an Oxymoron?
Now some of you perceptive listeners may be a bit perplexed with a phrase that I just used that seems to be out of sync with the thrust of last week's message. The phrase is "holy discontentment." Some of you might be saying, "Steve, last week, when you were trying to define the term 'contentment,' you looked at its opposite, and you said that discontentment expresses itself in grumbling and coveting. And you said that both grumbling and coveting are sins. So how can you have 'holy discontentment,' if discontentment invariably leads you to unholy, sinful attitudes and behaviors? 'Holy discontentment' just doesn't make sense. It's self-contradictory."
I learned a new word last Sunday that refers to these kinds of self-contradictory statements. I learned it from David Laurion. And you remember in the third grade how, when you learned a new word, your teacher told you, you had to learn how to use it in a sentence. Well when you're a preacher and you learn a new word, you have to try to learn how to use it in a sermon. So here it is. The word is "oxymoron." An oxymoron is a self-contradictory phrase or statement, one where the words which make up that phrase don't agree with each other and conflict in meaning. Examples of oxymorons would be the phrases "cruel kindness," or "icy hot." David was sharing with the King's Friends last Sunday that by the time he was completing his term of military service, he was beginning to wonder whether the division he was in, military intelligence, was itself an oxymoron. Or the subject of that last Sunday School class session that David was leading—business ethics—some might think of that as an oxymoron. And some of you may be thinking that my phrase "holy discontentment" is in the same way an oxymoron, for to you the concept of discontentment and the concept of holiness seem to be self-contradictory and antithetical to each other.
Grumbling and Coveting Are Sins
In response to this, let me first of all reaffirm what I said last week. Grumbling and coveting are indeed sins. They are violations of the commandments of God, dishonoring to him, and dangerous to ourselves. They are dangerous to ourselves because one act of grumbling or coveting can so easily lead to one more and then one more until we soon find ourselves in a deadly, downward spiral that, if allowed to proceed unchecked, will rob us of spiritual vitality and joy and life for all eternity. And of course the ultimate reason why grumbling and coveting are so damaging to us is that they are so dishonoring to God, scorning his glory by our lack of faith in the sovereign wisdom and love of our heavenly Father.
And, let's be sure about this, grumbling and coveting are just as sinful, just as dishonoring to God, just as damaging to ourselves, when they occur in the area of our relationship to Christ as in any other area. So if your discontentment with the present state of your relationship with Christ leads you to grumble against God and complain and accuse God, blaming him for the low state of your spiritual life rather than humbly accepting responsibility for your own failure, and if your discontentment leads you to covet the spiritual experiences of others and lust after their spiritual gifts and ministries rather than humbly waiting on God to give you every good gift in due time, then be assured that you are in sin. If that is what your discontentment produces, it is most definitely not holy. But even with all that, I would still submit to you that there is such a thing a holy discontentment.
A Better Term: Holy Dissatisfaction
Perhaps a better term would be "holy dissatisfaction," for what I am talking about is a restless dissatisfaction with the current state of our walk with God that does not lead us into grumbling or coveting. It does not lead us into fretfulness or anxiety or hopelessness or fear. Rather this holy discontent, this holy dissatisfaction will lead us to a true humility and brokenness before the majestic and holy God whom we know so little due to our sin, and to an unquenchable thirst and a zealous desire to know and experience more of this God to the end that, in Paul's words, we might be "filled with all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:19). That's what I long for in my own life and that's what I pray God will pour out on you all as well in great abundance.
Now this holy discontentment should be experienced in regard to the depth and vitality and richness of other relationships in our lives as well—with our marriages; with our relationships with our parents and our children; with the depth of fellowship and community among Christian brothers and sisters, in a cell group, for example; with the sincerity and fervency and practicality with which we love our neighbor, both friend and foe, as ourselves. But for us as Christians, the primary relationship in any of our lives must be with the Lord, and it is in terms of this relationship that our holy discontentment must be expressed most profoundly. That's where we see Paul's discontent in Philippians 3, and that's the area I want us to focus on this morning.
Paul as an Example of the Discontented Christian Life
The way I want us to do this is to spend the rest of our time this morning looking at our text in Philippians 3:4–14 to see Paul as our apostolic example of the discontented Christian life. In doing so, I will seek to answer two questions about Paul's holy discontent.
Where did it come from, or how did he get it?
- How is Paul's holy discontentment expressed, or what did it lead him to do?
- And in answering those questions concerning Paul, we will answer them for ourselves, getting practical guidance in the areas of how to cultivate holy discontentment in our own lives and how to express it properly once we've got it.
So first let's look at the apostle Paul. The picture we get of him from our text is anything but that of a spiritually apathetic, complacent, and stagnant Christian. Look at Philippians 4:12–14.
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; by one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
1. Where Did Paul Get His Holy Discontentment?
Where did Paul get his holy discontent? Where did it come from?
The first thing that we must take from our text in answer to that question is that Paul's dissatisfaction came from his ability to look at himself accurately and honestly. Paul was humble enough to recognize the imperfections and sins that existed within his own being.
And remember, this is not Joe ordinary church man speaking. This is the apostle Paul, an incredibly godly man. The intensity of his love for Christ, the depth of his prayer life, his biblically saturated wisdom and knowledge, the reality and fervency of his compassion for both lost sinners and fellow saints, would put the best of us to shame. And yet when this Paul looked at himself soberly, honestly, he said "Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect . . . Brethren I do not consider that I have made it my own" His words stand as a harsh rebuke to the theological doctrine of perfectionism. That doctrine which is taught in some branches of the Christian church states that it is possible or even probable for Christians to reach a state of sinless perfection in this life. I'm convinced that is not a biblical doctrine, and Paul's own experience is biblical confirmation. If a saint of Paul's caliber has not yet arrived, who has? Paul would say a hearty "Amen" to the words of John in 1 John 1, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us . . . If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar and his word is not in us" (1 John 1:8, 10).
May God pour out a spirit of humility on each of us so we too could heartily admit our own sin and weakness and imperfection. Take a long look at yourselves, brothers and sisters, in the mirror of the Word. Seasons of biblically saturated introspection are good for all of us. Now this introspection, if it is accurate and perceptive and done in integrity, will be humbling for our souls, but it will be very good for us in the long run. It will be good because a humble and accurate view of ourselves in all of our sin and imperfection is the first step in developing a holy discontentment.
Looking to Christ for a Goal and a Prize
But it was only a first step for Paul and it must only be a first step for us as well. Introspection can be overdone in our lives. It can cease to be helpful and actually become harmful for us if we ourselves become the exclusive focus of our gaze. Far more important for Paul than the way he looked at himself was the way he looked at Christ. Looking at Christ gave Paul a goal to pursue in his life. He speaks of it in v. 14 where he presses on "toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus." This upward call of God in Christ Jesus is for Paul a goal to orient the direction of his entire life and it was a prize to be valued and cherished above all else.
What exactly is this upward call of God which is Paul's goal and prize? To what did God call him in Christ? Paul spells out the details in vv. 7–11. Paul's goal and prize was to know Christ Jesus as his Lord and be found in him clothed in the righteousness of Christ that is his through faith. Paul's goal and prize was to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings. Paul's goal and prize was to know Christ as he increasingly became like him in his death in order that he might attain to the resurrection of the dead on the last day. In short, Paul's goal, the goal that obsessed him, was to know Christ and experience all his fullness. And, along with his accurate assessment of his own shortcomings, it was having this goal that created Paul's holy discontentment.
Christ the Supreme Value
It did for him and it will for us because knowing Christ ever more deeply and ever more fully is such a valuable and such a glorious and such a joy-producing goal. Paul speaks in v. 8 of "the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord." Paul had become convinced that knowing Christ was so great, so glorious, so valuable, that everything else, including all the things that people normally boast about, paled in comparison. The value of knowing Christ was so surpassingly great for Paul that, according to v. 8, he willingly, joyfully considered everything else refuse, renouncing and forsaking anything that would hinder his knowing Christ, that he might gain him. Now that word "gain" in v. 8 calls to mind vv. 4–7 and all the things that Paul had formerly thought were to his gain or his profit.
Paul's Former Values and the Discovery of Supreme Gain
You see, Paul had not always cherished the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ. He was not always motivated by holy discontentment to pursue more and more of Christ. Before his conversion, Saul of Tarsus was anything but discontent about his relationship to God. He was supremely confident in his flesh, boasting about his godly heritage and personal accomplishments, those things he lists in vv. 5–6. But then a radical change occurred in Paul's life. The Spirit of God invaded Paul's heart in irresistible grace and humbled his pride. The Holy Spirit opened Paul's eyes to see that all these natural and personal advantages that he put so much confidence in were in reality not assets at all but liabilities because they kept him from knowing Christ. Paul came to see that only by counting that other "gain" as loss, as refuse, could he ever get what is really the greatest gain. The Spirit of God enabled Paul to see Christ as he really is—the pearl of great price, the treasure buried in the field that is so valuable that it is a joyful thing to sell everything you have to obtain it (Matthew 13:44–45). And mark it down, brothers and sisters, that is what you have to do. If you cling to the "gain" of the flesh or of possessions or of pride, you will never have the true gain, the only gain in all the world that is ultimately worth having, the only gain that will satisfy you for all eternity—the gain of knowing Christ Jesus as your Lord. Jesus said, "If any man would come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it" (Mark 8:34–35). We must do just that; we must love our lives; we must deny ourselves if we ever hope to gain Christ. But if we have been gripped by the Spirit of God, that won't be a burden; it will be a joy. Why? Because of "the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord."
So we can sum up the answer to our first question. Where did Paul's holy discontent come from? It came from the way he looked at himself and the way he looked at Christ. It came from the God-given humility which enabled Paul to see himself accurately and not try to cover up his sins, weaknesses, and imperfections. And it came from the God-given spiritual insight which enabled Paul to see and cherish the surpassing greatness and value and worth of knowing Christ. Where will your holy discontentment come from? From God as well. Brothers and sisters, seek God, go hard after him, persevere in prayer until God pours out on you a spirit of Pauline discontentment.
2. How Did Paul's Holy Discontentment Express Itself?
This leads us now to our second and final question. How did Paul's holy discontentment express itself? What did it lead him to do? We can answer that very clearly from our text. Paul's spiritual dissatisfaction led him to pursue more and more of the fullness of Christ. In a word, it led him to press on (v. 12): "I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own." Verse 14: "I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus."
There Is Always More of Christ to Know and Experience
To be sure, Paul had found Christ, or to be more accurate theologically, Christ had found him. But finding Christ did not mean for Paul that there was no more need to seek him. It was not true for Paul, and I pray it will not be true for any of us, that regeneration and conversion and that first experience of Christ in repentance and faith means that there is no more of Christ to be known by us.
My friends, there is always more of Christ to be known and experienced. He is infinite! His wonders and his glory are inexhaustible for all eternity! Charles H. Spurgeon, in a sermon on the subject of knowing God (delivered, incidentally, in 1855, when he was only 20 years old) said:
It is a subject so vast that all of our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep that all of our pride is drowned in its infinity. (Quoted in J.I. Packer, Knowing God, p. 13.)
If you could take all the wisdom and knowledge of all the greatest biblical scholars of all time and combine that with all the love and devotion to Christ of all the holiest saints of all time, the combined knowledge and experience of Christ could just be the tip the the iceberg with 99.9% of his glory and wonder still below the ocean of divine infinity. Or to change the metaphor, the Christian who is filled with holy discontentment and holy zeal for more of Christ is like a mountain climber who struggles and strains to reach the top of a mountain peak only to be able to see from that vantage point new and more glorious mountain peaks yet to climb.
The Knowledge of Christ Which Surpasses Knowledge
Do you remember how Paul prayed for the Ephesians in Ephesians 3:18–19? He prayed that they "may have power to comprehend with the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God." There is, brothers and sisters, always more of the love of Christ to be experienced by us, always more of the fullness of God for us to be filled with—even by the most mature and most godly among us, especially by the most mature and most godly among us. The love of Christ surpasses all of our knowledge. That doesn't mean that it is unknowable in part by us as believers. No, Paul prays that we might know it, and God graciously answers that prayer for his children in his great mercy. But that text does say that we will never be able to fully know and completely comprehend the love of Christ. No matter how far we get, there is always more. Hence Paul presses on.
The verb "press on" that Paul uses in vv. 12 and 14 is a tremendously active verb. It is a vigorous active pursuit of Christ that Paul is describing. This Greek verb, dioko, can also be translated persecute, and the participial form of this verb is used in v. 6 to describe Paul's pre-conversion zeal as a persecutor of the church. The parallel is instructive for us, I think. It shows us much about the intensity of Paul's pursuit of Christ, for it was the same intensity and the same obsession that drove Paul in his persecution of the church that now drives Paul in his pursuit of Christ. The zeal was the same, only the direction is different. Zeal is critical, but by itself, it is morally neutral. Its rightness or wrongness must be determined by the goal one is pursuing so zealously.
Three Aspects of Paul's Pursuit of Christ
But Paul was pursuing Christ and his pursuit is to serve as a model, an example for our pursuit. Let me point out three aspects of his pursuit of Christ to guide us in our own.
First of all, Paul's pursuit of Christ was single-minded. Look in the middle of v. 13: "But one thing I do." One thing. All of Paul's life revolved around one thing—his pursuit of his goal and prize of knowing Christ ever more deeply and experiencing ever more of his fullness. Paul's pursuit was not just one of many things in his life. It was not a factor in just one part of a tightly compartmentalized life. No, it was his life, all of it. There was only one thing he did, and that was to seek after knowing Christ. Everything else in his life was determined by whether or not it would help him meet that goal and gain that prize. How different was Paul's life from the fragmented, compartmentalized, privatized life typical of so many American evangelicals. In this respect Paul was much more like David who said in Psalm 27:4, "One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life." Like David, like Paul, let me urge all of you to be single-minded about going hard after Christ.
2. Opposed to All Hindrances
The second aspect of Paul's pursuit of Christ that I want us to notice is that it is ruthlessly opposed to all that would hinder it. Paul says, "But one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind."
I have long thought of that phrase as referring to the need to put out of our minds anything in our past or anything from our backgrounds that will hinder us in our pursuit of God. And it does mean that. Any excess baggage from our past must be gotten rid of, lest it weigh us down and prevent us from reaching our goal and claiming our prize. Now this does not mean that we should never remember the past. God commanded the Israelites to remember his mercy and faithfulness (e.g., Joshua 4:17; 1 Chronicles 16:12), the Lord Jesus instituted his supper precisely for the purpose of helping us remember his death (1 Corinthians 11:24–25), the author of Hebrews wrote his entire eleventh chapter to help us remember and learn from the past, and Paul himself, in our own passage, has remembered much of his own failings and God's mercy (Philippians 3:4-11). Memory is indeed a good gift, given to us by God, which if used properly, can be a powerful weapon for us to wield in fighting the fight of faith. But if used improperly, memory can be a terrible hindrance in our pursuit of Christ. Memories of past successes can make us smug and self-satisfied and lazy. Memories of past sins and failures can make us depressed and burdened with guilt and paralyzed in our pursuit of Christ. The point is not: never look back. The point is: never look back and remember in such a way that it hinders your ongoing seeking after Christ. Give humble thanks for successes; make humble confessions for failure; then turn to the future and go hard after God.
But not only are we to forget what is behind us in a temporal sense, but also in a spatial sense. The image I get from these verses is that of a race. Paul is a runner, pressing on with all his might toward the finish line. In all of his great intensity to finish the race, Paul cannot be concerned with what's behind him—be it the runner who is in second place, the crowd, or whatever. If he were to turn to look at them, his attention would be diverted away from his goal. So what must he do? He must forget what is behind him. And so must we, not only forgetting about our past but also forgetting, putting out of our mind, renouncing all those things in the present which would distract us and divert our attention away from pursuing Christ. That could be for you a job, a car or any other possession, a vacation, a relationship, a hobby, the television, a fantasy, the upcoming NFL season. It could be anything. But the point is: if it distracts you away from Christ and if it hinders your pursuit of him, forget it. Put it out of your mind.
3. Straining Forward
Instead, "forgetting what lies behind, strain on toward what is ahead." Pursue Christ with the maximum exertion of every fiber of your being. Go hard after him. Strain forward. Look at Paul's own statement of what straining forward meant for him.
Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:25–27)
The way to strain forward like Paul is with all the discipline and self-denial of an Olympic athlete. That means planning and setting goals for yourself in the areas of worship, study, prayer, witness; that means vigilant self-discipline of all of your life to achieve those goals; that means maximum faith, maximum prayer, maximum effort, maximum perseverance. It won't be easy. Nothing worthwhile ever is. That's even more true in our spiritual lives than in athletics or academics. But while it won't be easy, it will be worth it, because the goal for all of us to achieve by God's grace is "the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord."
Reasons to Cultivate Holy Discontent
So the answer to our second question, how did Paul's holy discontentment express itself, is this: it expressed itself in a zealous and single-minded pursuit of the goal and prize of knowing Christ. Paul's pursuit was characterized by a ruthless opposition to all that would hinder him and maximum effort and self-disciplined exertion, straining ahead to reach his goal and claim his prize. All that remains is for us to see that the reasons why we should too cultivate a similar holy discontent and holy zeal are exactly the same reasons I gave last week for why you should pursue contentment. Last Sunday I urged you all to pursue the contented Christian life for the sake of your own joy and for the honor and glory of God. Now I want to urge you to imitate Paul's discontented Christian life for exactly the same reasons.
If Christ is in fact our pearl of great price, if knowing him really is of surpassingly great value, we will naturally want to experience as much of him as we possibly can. Our own inner drive to experience maximum joy will compel us to go hard after Christ. If, on the other hand, we find ourselves not pursuing more of him, it must be evidence that we really don't value him at all. Not to want to know Christ ever more deeply and fully is an insult to his value and is a sign of spiritual deadness within us. Such spiritual complacency will ultimately lead only to the horrifying reality promised to lukewarm professing Christians in Revelation 3:16, being spewed out of the very mouth of Christ. But when you really go hard after Christ, when you zealously and single-mindedly pursue Christ to know him, the reward is your deep joy and his great honor. And so, brothers and sisters, I urge you, I plead with you, for the sake of your own joy and for the honor and glory of God, be like Paul. Pursue the discontented Christian life. Cultivate holy discontentment. Cultivate holy zeal for more of Christ.