Paul wrote in Philippians 4:13: “I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me.” Throughout my life, these words have taken on different meanings. In high school, I had that verse in my football locker, reminding me to knock my opponent on his rear—because he may be huge, but I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
In college, that verse would come to mind when I’d enter a class and see everyone frantically pouring over their notes. Oh no. A test. But hey, good news! I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
The weird thing is that there was a good chance my football opponent was doing all things through Christ who was strengthening him (hopefully, Christ was strengthening me more than him at that moment). And more times than not, those “forgotten” tests don’t reflect the power of Christ in your life—you can bear fruit while still making a D.
How about a question for Paul: If you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you, then why is your life characterized by hardship, persecution, and suffering more than anything else?
The question makes perfect sense whether you’re talking about the test you just flunked or about the trials of Paul’s life. Here’s the spoiler: Tough circumstances don’t point to your ability to do all things through Christ who strengthens you. Instead, they point to all the things that neither you nor Paul can do. Paul couldn’t free himself from his Roman jail. He couldn’t control the outcome of his trial. He couldn’t stop his inevitable execution. But then again, Paul wasn’t interested in doing those things. He was interested in being content; that’s specifically what he could do through Christ’s strength.
The word “content” can also be translated “satisfied” or “self-sufficient.” It describes the person who has discovered personal resources that are more than adequate for any situation that might arise.
To the philosophers, “content” refers to that independent spirit and free outlook on life that characterizes the wise and self-controlled person. This is the person who doesn’t need the flat screen TV because he already has the 12-inch. It’s the person who doesn’t need to go out for dinner because he has rice in the fridge. She’s the one who doesn’t need a Saturday shopping trip because the jeans at home still fit. And even further, this is the person who, even though he’s sitting in a jail cell, doesn’t need anything to feel better, because he’s focused on what God’s up to.
That’s a far stretch for us. But it’s not an attitude Paul was born with. He said he “learned” the secret of being content. The tense for “learned” is constative, implying Paul’s whole experience up to the present was a school of experience where he learned contentment. He goes on to say that he learned the “secret” of contentment. The verb used for “learn the secret” was borrowed from some other religious practices of the time, the so-called “mystery religions.” In that belief system, knowledge was very highly regarded, and a person was metaphorically initiated through an arduous process into the greater mysteries of the belief. Paul had this initiation process in mind. He used that verb in the present tense, indicating a continuing process. Paul said he learned the secret of being content, but the process by which he learned that secret was a long series of lessons—some difficult and some easy.
The difficult news is the nature of that “learning” school. It’s a hard school. And it’s a long school. Paul said his lessons included being well-fed and hungry, being brought low and being lifted high. And though I know all of those are important lessons, the moments of hunger and being brought low are the moments when you really learn. It’s easy to be content when you’re rich and proud. It’s difficult to be content when you’re poor and seemingly unimportant.
Unfortunately, when we’re poor, hungry, and unimportant, we want relief from our circumstances. We’re too wound up to listen, appreciate, or learn the lessons of contentment. And that’s precisely why we need Christ to strengthen us—not to triumph circumstantially, but to understand that when you have Jesus, you have plenty.