For anyone who’s actually been reading this blog for any length of time, much less the last three years, you’ve probably gotten to know me pretty well, or at least I hope you have. If you have, then here’s a pop quiz: What’s the one magic word I’ve brought up again and again and again, the one word which will open the meaning of Scripture to you more than just about anything else? Context. Context, context, context! Read the surrounding verses around it, read the book it’s located in, and see what else the Bible has to say about that topic. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. Ideally you should read the entire Bible cover to cover over and over again, which is why I offer two and three-year reading plans.
But back to context, raise your hand if you’ve heard verse 13 before: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Yep, that’s a lot of hands raised right now.
This is exhibit A as to why context is so important. Lots of people have pulled verse 13 so hard out of context that their arm sockets are hurting. Let’s look at the passage.
Remember that the ostensible purpose of the book of Philippians is a thank-you letter. Hearing about Paul’s situation in Rome, the church in Philippi had gathered together a love-offering for him and had sent it all the way to Rome using Epaphroditus as their entrusted courier. Paul was sitting in a rented house under arrest awaiting trial, so although his conditions weren’t nearly as bad as they could be (in a Roman prison), he still had to provide for his own expenses. So this gift came at just the right time to provide for his needs. He wanted to send a letter back thanking them, along with encouraging and challenging them in their faith.
That brings us to today’s verses. Seeing verse 13 in context, however, means that we need to examine the verses leading up to it. Verse 10 tells us that while he was thankful that they’d sent him the gift, he wanted no misunderstanding regarding his needs. No matter what he had or didn’t have, he was content. He wasn’t disparaging their love or gift in the slightest, but the Lord had committed to providing for his servant one way or another, and they’d been given the opportunity and privilege to be used by the Master to provide for him, to be the Savior's hands and feet.
Today’s passage was undoubtedly meant to take the pressure off them. Yes, we need to give to those in ministry, but that’s for our sake as much as for the recipient, if not more.
Why was the pressure off? Because even if they were worried about Paul, he wasn’t worried. He’d learned the secret of contentment. That’s a very important word: learned. This secret of how to be contented wasn’t something he’d just been zapped with when he’d gotten saved. If this secret was included with everyone’s salvation, then every Christian would be content, which is really contra the evidence around us. I wish that every believer was exhibiting the level of contentment that Paul showed, but that’s not the case. We’re the richest nation in the history of mankind, but we’re not content with what we own, and Christians can be as guilty of it as anyone else.
But we need to be careful here. Is it sinful to be rich? If so, what’s rich? Is it sinful to possess more than what you need for survival?
Apparently not, since Paul had at times been financially prosperous, at least in comparison with other times. Note that he says that he’s learned to be content when he’s had plenty and when he’s been in need, not knowing where his next meal was coming from. So the problem is not any certain amount of wealth: It’s our attitude towards the wealth we have right now.
That’s the irony here. We in America tend to think that if we have plenty, we’ve already learned the secret of being content, that being prosperous makes it easier to be content. Um, no. To be content when you’re prosperous can be even more difficult than when you’re barely scraping by. With few exceptions, rich people tend to never think they have enough; they think if they just had a little bit more, they’d be content. And contentment--this peace in the heart--proves to be as elusive as the proverbial carrot held right in front of the donkey’s nose.
If the Lord chooses to make you more prosperous, that should be fine with you. If he chooses to feed you with Ramen Noodles for a while, that should be just as fine with you. Your reaction to any level of prosperity should be the same: “Thank you Lord for what I have. Help me to be generous with what you’ve lent to me. Not one penny of it is mine; it’s yours, to do with as you please.”
That’s the secret of being content, and that’s the context of verse 13. When Paul was saying he could do all things through him who gave him strength, he wasn’t talking about running a mile in under 5 minutes, and he wasn’t talking about lifting a 5-ton stone over his head, and he wasn’t visualizing throwing lightning bolts from his fingertips. He was talking about a supernatural ability to be content with whatever he had, to not stress about his needs, to trust in the Lord to provide for whatever he needed, and to be thankful and generous with whatever he had.
I don’t know about you, but I think that’d be more impressive than any physical act of prowess or supernatural ability. The struggle to be content with what I have is a lesson I’ve had to learn over and over and over again. I’d like to think I’ve made some progress, but whenever I think that, the Spirit gently shows me that I haven’t learned my lesson nearly as well as I’d thought.
How’s about you? Have you learned this lesson yet? Are you making progress?
Lord Jesus, really you’re all I ultimately need, but I certainly don’t show that in how I look at “my” possessions sometimes. Please help me see them the way I’m supposed to, help me to be generous and grateful. Help me to be content, no matter what my circumstances.