“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. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:10-13)
Have you ever seen a movie or read a book where the entire plot is centered around a person or persons trying to find a secret treasure, but in the end they never wind up finding it? Instead, the lesson is “the real treasure is the friendships we made along the way.” Okay, sure. I can’t make a car payment with friendship. Obviously the point of these morality tales was lost on me as a child, but I always felt kind of like it was a bait and switch. I was told there was going to be secret treasure…and now we’re just all friends. Friends that are still poor.
I wonder if we read this passage in Philippians and get the same feeling. Paul writes “I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.” Wouldn’t we like to know that secret? Is it a supplement? A prescription? Maybe some kind of essential oil? If there was some secret (safe and legal) substance we could take and be content no matter our circumstance, wouldn’t that be great? But this “secret” solution turns out to be the same as the other solutions presented in Scripture: a reliance on Jesus Christ. Maybe our knee jerk reaction is to say, “well yeah, duh. Jesus is always the answer.” But through him, Paul says, I am able to do all things – specifically – be content in any situation.
This flies in the face of the cultural understanding that we have of Philippians 4:13 – “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” We see this tattooed on athlete’s bodies, and quoted ad nauseam when someone is celebrating or hoping for some achievement. Of course, when read in context we see that Philippians 4:13 has absolutely nothing to do with athletics, but instead is Paul saying – I am able to find contentment in any situation because of the strength I find in Christ. It can be tempting for Christians to excuse this mangling of Scripture, particularly because we are at times desperate for a cultural validation of our faith that Scripture says will never come (John 15:18-25, 17:14-19). We must stand on an accurate view of Scripture regardless of how our culture attempts to twist it to meet its own agenda.
When we read Paul discussing the secret of contentment in Christ, we automatically think of contentment in negative circumstances. We recognize that when things are not going well for us that we need contentment. But look at what Paul says – “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.” In hunger and need, but also in plenty and abundance. Paul hits on an important principle for a follower of Christ – our contentment exists completely outside of our circumstance. We may say, it’s easy to be content when things are good! But according to Paul that temporal satiation of fleshly desires is not contentment. Think about it. When things are going well, what conscious need for the Lord’s strength do we have? Do we even consider that it is only through a reliance on his strength that we are able to be content, and that whatever positive emotion we are feeling may not actually be a deep, spiritual contentment, but simply a psychological response to our lives going well at the moment?
How are we content in abundance and need, hunger and plenty? Through a reliance on Jesus Christ. How do we know whether we are relying on him? Determine whether your “contentment” is consistent in any circumstance, good or bad. How can we rely on his strength? Ask for his help, and look to his example. Jesus endured a life of humble obedience, even to the point of death. We read earlier on in Philippians 2: “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Jesus had the strength to be able to look past his circumstances to what his calling was as the Son of God (“who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame,” – Hebrews 12). He could be strengthened by the surrender of his will to the will of the Father (Luke 22:42), and so can we! When we surrender our hopes, dreams, and desires to the Lord in essence we “clear room” for him to be able to come in and strengthen us. It is hard for us to be content when we are holding on to so many things that we feel we have a right to. Humbly surrendering each and every day to the will of the Father is a step in the direction of learning to be content in any situation, in abundance or in need, hunger or plenty. That is what we can do through Christ who strengthens us.