“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned 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.” Philippians 4:11-13
My wife teaches at a Christian school and several years ago each teacher was asked to pick a verse from the Bible that was to be their guiding verse for the year. When this was published along with their profile, I noticed then nearly 30% of the teachers chose “I can do everything through Him who gives me strength” as their verse for the year. My first thought was that I didn’t know teaching elementary students was so tough. But it also got me thinking more about that verse. Many people, not just elementary school teachers go to those words for strength in time of hardship and struggle. They are great words of hope.
But when we look carefully at the passage it is astounding to realize that we are usually only focused on half of the story. Sure Paul says that in times of hunger or struggle or suffering, he has learned to be content with God and to find strength in Christ to endure. But at the same time Paul says that he has also learned to be content when things are going great, he is well fed, and life is just cruising along. In those times he has also learned to survive by depending on the strength that Christ gives. Now you may be thinking, well anyone can learn to be content when life is good. How hard can that be? Actually it is harder than you think. One of the effects of sin is that when we have “enough”, we very quickly become dissatisfied with that and we want more. In many ways it is the same as the diminishing return a drug user gets over time. After awhile the body becomes used to the drug and the impact is felt less from the same amount. So in order to achieve a high, the user needs more and stronger doses. The same thing happens with the good times in our lives. For the moment we are content. But after awhile the effect wears thin. We find that we need the next cool thing, the next new product, the next amazing experience. We get bored and easily discontent.
Paul understood that in order to be truly content in both abundance and want, the only answer was to depend on Christ for His strength. In essence that means being content with Christ no matter what our physical and emotional circumstances are. For Paul it was ultimately all about Jesus. He said earlier in the letter that whether he lived or died really didn’t matter, as long as Jesus was glorified. Paul discovered that everything else paled in comparison to the joy of knowing Jesus. For Paul, God really was enough to make his life full and complete. If he had abundance then the goal was, how can my abundance bring Glory to Jesus and me closer to Him. If he had little then the goal was, how can my poverty bring Glory to Jesus and me closer to Him. No matter his life situation, for Paul it always came back to the Glory of God and being in closer fellowship with Him.
In that regard, God was enough for Paul. Jesus and the strength He offered, was really all Paul needed or wanted. Nothing else mattered because nothing else gave him purpose, or joy, or security, or status. Are you that content? If God suddenly made you poor, would you be just as happy as if you were rich? How often have things given you contentment that was temporary, only to discover that after awhile you wanted more. That nice house that seemed so big and wonderful. When did it become unsatisfying? Was it when your friend or sibling bought a newer, bigger house? The same can be asked of your car, new dress, cell phone or vacation experience.
In some ways it is the times of blessing that are hardest to deal with because we don’t think we need the strength of Jesus. Yet those are the most dangerous times. we get sucked into a delusion of being just fine spiritually because we are just fine physically. We need to cling to Jesus all the more in our abundance and blessing. Paul knew that for himself. We need to know that for ourselves.