Reflection | In the previous verse, Paul encouraged the Philippians: “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me or seen in me – put into practice.” Now, as he continues to wrap up his letter, Paul offers a tangible example of what it looks like to follow Jesus, particularly when one is in a position of need. In these verses, we witness the practical application of Paul’s earlier exhortations to “rejoicing in the Lord always” (v. 4) and instead of being anxious, to be guarded by “the peace of God” (vs. 6 – 7).
Paul rejoices greatly in the Philippians “renewed concern” for him (v. 10). What exactly he is referring to becomes clear several verses later in this chapter (v. 18) – their sending of Epaphroditus with a financial gift to assist and care for Paul while he is in prison. Notice, however, while Paul is undoubtedly thankful for the Philippians’ gift, he places his joy “in the Lord.” Paul recognizes both the desire and the ability for the Philippians to support him came from the prompting and leading of the Holy Spirit. To put this another way, Paul is delighting in the witness of God’s work in and through the Philippians as reflected through their care and generosity toward him.
What Paul writes next is, at first, off putting to some: “I am not saying this because I am in need…” (v. 11). It sounds as if the warmth of Paul’s joy is being cooled by an assertion of self-sufficiency. But of course, as we read on, Paul is not being ungrateful as much as he is, continuing to use a real-life situation as a teachable moment. What follows is an often quoted but not as frequently embodied lesson about learning “to be content whatever the circumstances.”
Penning this correspondence from the confinement of a Roman prison cell, Paul reflects on the journey of his life thus far. Most of us know something of what it is like to be content when we are prosperous – when our lives are full and going well. But few of us would profess to being contented when our lives have felt empty, when we are struggling to make ends meet. Paul, having experienced both “what it is to be in need” and “what it is to have plenty,” declares that he has “learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (v. 12).
In the original language of this passage, what is translated as “content” comes from the Greek word, autarkēs, which means “to be sufficient or enough for one’s self.” Paul, however, is not asserting his own inner strength, “stiff upper lip,” or self-sufficiency. He is not claiming to have “picked himself up by his bootstraps.” Paul’s secret to being content wasn’t found in himself. It was discovered “through him who gives me strength” (v. 13). The secret is Jesus.
Paul writes of having not just discovered this secret but rather having “learned” it. The first time he writes of this learning (v. 11), he employs a word in Greek that refers to knowledge acquired as it becomes a custom or a habit. But in verse 12, Paul exercises a different word to express the insight he has gained. It is a particular Greek word that involves knowledge that cannot be learned on one’s own but must be revealed and taught by another.
Putting this all together, Paul, through his relationship with Christ – seeking after and following both the person and the way of Jesus – was led to the realization his security and confidence came from the Lord alone. True, prevailing contentment was not primarily an act of his will – his control over his external circumstances or his material provisions. Rather, Paul’s confidence and security – of both having enough and being enough – rested in God’s sovereignty and gracious provision.
But this awareness – this inward sense of the sufficiency of Jesus – did not immediately translate into complete peace and stillness for Paul. Contentment in Christ is not the product of some magic formula or once and for all spiritual epiphany. It is not something that comes naturally to us. Such contentment was an “acquired” trait for Paul. Looking to and abiding in Jesus became a matter of habit for him. We speak of living by the grace of God, but Paul learned to be actively and regularly dependent upon the provision and power of Christ at work in his life through the Holy Spirit.
The contentment level of most people tends to fluctuate based on either gaining something they don’t yet have or not losing what they already possess. For those of us who fixate on what we are lacking, gain proves to be a blessing rather than a curse. When we constantly live out of needing more, we don’t know how to enjoy what we actually have. Others of us remain comfortable and hopeful only so long as nothing changes in our life. To lose anything, let alone everything, of what we believe makes us whole and happy is devastating for us. Any such deficit isn’t viewed just as a shortfall in terms of what we have but a significant loss in terms of our sense of self.
Paul, in contrast, shares with us an entirely different basis for true serenity. Having discovered lasting contentment in both the “ups” and “downs” of the journey of his own life, Paul shares the secret with us. It is learning to rely on Christ by daily practicing turning to Jesus with all our plans and our needs, with all our concerns and worries. It is drawing our strength and resilience from recognizing and rejoicing in the Lord’s provision of all our needs. It is saturating ourselves in the sufficiency of the Spirit’s presence and power at work in and through us.
Consider & Discuss | How is your overall sense of contentment? Does it fluctuate based upon your circumstances? In what or in whom do you seek your satisfaction? If not all, how much of your identity and security are rooted in the person of Jesus Christ? What would it look like to find your joy and strength to face each day in your relationship with Jesus? What do you specifically need to let go of in order to be more influenced and directed by the Holy Spirit than your changing circumstances?
Prayer Focus | You are our faithful provider, Lord. Forgive us when we rejoice in ourselves or in others without any acknowledgment that all blessings come from Your hand. In those moments when we forget You and Your provision, remind us yet again, that apart from You, we can do nothing. At those times when life overwhelms us and we struggle to yield anything good in our lives, whisper yet again that we are but branches that cannot bear fruit unless we abide in You. Draw us close to You and speak anew Your promise that we can do all things through Your Son, Jesus Christ, who gives us strength. Fill us with the courage and boldness, the faith, hope, and love that borne of Your Spirit. Teach us again and again to be content no matter our circumstances, to rejoice in what You provide, to find our peace in You. Amen.