10 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. 11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 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. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
When someone sends us a giant check, we typically begin our thank-you letter with thanks, but Paul begins with 3 chapters of exhortation and correction, but this is normal.
The Philippians had been in dire straits (2 Corinthians 8) but at last, have completed the support they had long desired to give. (v. 10) Having abandoned the privileges of his Pharisaism, Paul has weathered storms, beatings, imprisonment, and even been stoned to death. He’s gone through every single grade of the school of contentment. (v. 11) He’s learned how to abound and how to be abased. He’s learned how to be hungry and full. He’s learned the secret everyone is trying to find out: how to be content; to be buoyant in life’s up and down seas. (v. 12)
A great definition: a steady, quiet, and submissive heart that delights in God’s fatherly disposal of every circumstance. (Jeremiah Burroughs)
Of course, as you all expect, the key ingredient is Christ who strengthens us. This is not a “you can do it” verse. (v. 13)
THE SEARCH FOR THE SECRET
Consider how much research people do to find contentment and balance. In the 50’s it was dianetics and engrams. Today it’s self-care and enneagram. I’m not here to weigh in on the latest mental and emotional health fads. I’m just pointing to the fact of them.
V. 12 – “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret”’
What is a secret? It’s something everyone wants to know, and Paul is saying, “Everyone is looking for contentment.”
How many of us have had a meal or sunset or a book that we didn’t want to end? Why? Because as we were eating the meal, or watching the sunset, or enjoying Christmas morning our hearts were at rest, we were fully present, in the moment. We weren’t worrying about yesterday or tomorrow. We all desire that kind of contentment, but it eludes us. It’s a secret.
But in contentment I still feel
The need of some imperishable bliss. (Wallace Stevens, Sunday Morning)
What’s he saying? What’s Paul saying? Reaching for contentment in a meal or a sunset, or the arms of a lover… you know that it’s like trying to catch smoke with your bare hands.
THE REVEALERS OF OUR DISCONTENT
12 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.
Here’s what’s so shocking about this verse: “I’ve learned how to be content when I have plenty.” Why would you need to learn contentment when you abound? Because abundance reveals our misplaced content just as much as need.
We tend to think that contentment must be learned if you have needs, but it’s not a virtue for the rich or those with functional families, and we couldn’t be more wrong. Paul is saying you have to learn contentment in times of abundance just as much or more than in times of need.
Discontent comes primarily to two kinds of people: those whose dreams as smashed, and those whose dreams come true. Why would your dreams coming true make you discontented?
Listen to this from Cynthia Heimel, a NYC writer in 1990:
I pity celebrities, no I really do – Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Barbara Streisand, were once perfectly pleasant human beings. But now their wrath is awful. I think when God wants to play a really rotten practical joke on you he grants you your deepest wish and then laughs merrily when you realize you want to kill yourself. You see Sly, Bruce, and Barbara wanted fame. They worked, they pushed and the morning after each of them became famous they wanted to take an overdose. Because that giant thing they were striving for, that fame thing that was going to make everything OK, that was going to make their lives bearable, that was going to provide them with personal fulfillment and happiness had happened and they were still them. The disillusionment turned them howling and insufferable.
Now listen to me: plenty and abundance reveal our discontentment as much as sorrow and poverty because earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy our needs, but only to arouse our desires. They arouse our desire for a greater satisfaction which they themselves cannot supply.
A good meal, a beautiful sunset, Christmas morning, are only good images of what we really desire, but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols and break our hearts.
Both plenty and poverty expose our discontent. Most of us are in the mushy middle between those two. Most of us never get to the place where our dreams are really dashed. And most of us never realize them to the full. And as a result, most of us remain in the illusion that contentment can be had by the arrangement of circumstances.
Blame the Things – If I had a better woman/man, a more expensive vacation… and you become driven, anxious, and unable to commit to anything.
Blame Yourself – There’s something wrong with me. If I could iron out a few psychological wrinkles, I could be happy. The problem goes far deeper.
Blame the Universe – I will trust nothing. I will give myself no one. Lewis, do this… and you’ll do more than keep your heart from breaking— you’ll make it unbreakable. Hard and cold as stone. And you will find out, the moment you die, that infinite happiness was possible.
Blame your relationship with God – I have the capacity for deep communion with the source of all earthly joys and instead, I’ve sought joy only in the stuff of earth.
In the end, our discontent flows from our search for contentment in pleasures that cannot possibly deliver what only God can.
THE STRENGTH FOR EVERY CIRCUMSTANCE
13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
This is not a bumper-sticker encouragement to try harder. Even the best human pleasures are cruddy little samples of the infinite joys that are in Christ. In Christ, poverty won’t make me despair. In Christ, abundance won’t make me a slave.
You’ve had a good meal? Jesus Christ is the bread of life. You’ve seen a beautiful sunset? Jesus Christ is the beatific vision that will bring out the beauty in which we were first made. You’ve had a good Christmas morning? He is the great Giver and Gift. He is the fountainhead of the stream of all joys, and we are invited to drink.
When you love Christ above all you can enjoy all the little meals down here and you can go hungry because you’re invited to a wedding supper that will not end.
You can love and enjoy the good moments of your marriage, and you can endure the painful moments because you’re engaged to the bridegroom whose love will never go cold.